Reba McEntire is not the first country artist to want to go mainstream, but she may be the most desperate. There's no other way to explain her show last night at the Baltimore Arena.
It clearly isn't enough for Ms. McEntire to be one of the premier country artists of the past decade. Nor is it enough that she possesses one of the most evocative voices in all of American popular music. Her performance at the arena revealed her to be willing to do almost anything on stage to "entertain." That included costume changes numbering into the double digits; a bevy of dancers to cavort around her, Las Vegas-style, or to act as characters in some of her songs; an over-reliance on her music video clips to introduce or embellish a number; and an assortment of cheap rock-concert cliches, such as fireworks, fog and smoke, and flashing strobe lights.
As for the music, Ms. McEntire has been moving away from her country roots for some time: Her most recent album, "Read My Mind," is so pop-influenced that one can listen to several cuts and not hear a single lick from a fiddle or steel guitar. That was the case last night as well. Her set could be characterized as highly energized pop music, with tinges of gospel and country. Midway through the set, the saxophonist had performed more NTC solos than anybody else in her band.
One cannot fault Ms. McEntire for wanting to expand beyond country music; that's been a common aspiration of country singers for decades. They have done so with varying success (Wynonna being, perhaps, the most successful). But I can't recall anybody who has been as shameless as Ms. McEntire in trying to become not just a singer but a true-blue performer. No honky-tonking here: This show was part Vegas, part country-hokum of Branson, Mo., and part Hollywood.
For, in essence, her show last night was a TV special. There were the short medleys of old hits, the hokey dance numbers, the banter with the audience to show she was "just folks" before she moved into her next production.
Take, for instance, her song "She Thinks His Name Was John." It's about how a woman got AIDS from a chance encounter with a stranger. Ms. McEntire milked the song for all its maudlin possibilities, showing a video clip and finishing with a huge AIDS quilt dropping slowly behind her. Then she stood majestically before the crowd, her eyes brimming with tears.
The use of video clips only emphasized the insincerity of the concert. For television is the most insincere of mediums; it's shallow and makes almost any emotion seem trite. But here was Ms. McEntire using her videos like so many home movies. Sadly, she introduced one of her finest songs, "Whoever's in New England," by telling the audience, "This gave me the opportunity to do my first video."
What the videos, and the several numbers in which the dancers "acted" out the song, did was detract from the music itself. And it was a shame. Her backup band was tight, if too loud, and she had three superb back-up singers. And Ms. McEntire herself sounded wonderful. Her range still seems to reach at least three octaves, and she can hit a bluesy note with the best of them.
But why all that flash and smoke and nonsense? Most of the capacity crowd seemed to eat it up, but the question still nagged here: Why aren't the songs enough?
Ms. McEntire became a great singer not because she was Little Miss Vegas but because she sang from her heart. But she clearly wanted to become a star in the worst way, and she has.