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Live: Wynonna Judd at Club Nokia

The singer only rarely shows her true self in song.

February 21, 2009|Randy Lewis

Wynonna Judd (like any good diva, she dispenses with the surname career-wise) knows how to cover the musical bases, and there's no question that remarkable voice of hers can handle country, pop balladry, rocking blues, soul and gospel.

So how is it that as she approaches 45, a milestone she mentioned several times during her first concert of the year at Club Nokia on Thursday, she still hasn't developed into something more than just an impressive vocal stylist?

Not that it mattered much to the rabid crowd that filled about two-thirds of the 2,300-seat theater. Judging by her remarks from the stage, it doesn't matter to Wynonna either. She said she's quit reading reviews and paying attention to chart numbers, and from now on she's just out to have fun.

Well, most cover bands in dive bars around the world have fun too. But the artists whose songs they're covering are those who forged their passion into an indelible musical identity, like Elvis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and the others whose music Wynonna salutes in her latest album, "Sing -- Chapter 1," released earlier this month.

It's not that she can't put a distinctive spin on this stuff. Her gospel-drenched vocal technique is capable of magnificent things. But after Wynonna told the audience she'd be taking them on a musical journey, she proceeded to conduct one of those whirlwind "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" affairs that provided little more than a pit stop at any of her stylistic destinations.

What's missing is a defining musical vision. Alison Krauss, for instance, is another country-rooted singer who generally doesn't write her own material either. She's seven years younger than Judd but has demonstrated in any number of the projects an intensely focused expression of where she wants to take her listeners.

Drawing heavily from "Sing," Judd hopscotched from the barroom blues of Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin' " to the Presley rocker "Burning Love" to a surprisingly unbawdy reworking of the Sippie Wallace-via-Bonnie Raitt cautionary blues "Women Be Wise" to the reflective country lament of Haggard's "Are the Good Times Really Over." Few veered more than millimeters from the original arrangements, unlike Krauss' wholesale reimagining of the songs she chooses.

Through them all Wynonna exhibited the countenance of an athlete who'd just solidly planted two feet after a complicated Olympics routine. But music should be more than gymnastics. It was only when she dipped into, of all things, Foreigner's arena rock anthem "I Want to Know What Love Is" that she truly became absorbed in a song.

The yearning to connect with a feeling that by most accounts has long eluded her in life was tangible and genuinely moving.

With all her talk about the long process of discovering her own identity following her extraordinary successful collaboration with mama Naomi in the Judds, it wasn't until she sang that duo's hit "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)" that she seemed truly at home musically.

The rest of the time, she was content to revisit a period of her life when, as she told her fans, "I would go back to my room and sing these songs." Although it's fun, even beneficial at times, to lose oneself in someone else's music, for anyone with Wynonna's obvious gifts, it's better to find yourself in your own.


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