Ailing crooner Rimes makes most of an abbreviated set

Country-pop starlet LeAnn Rimes hurtled through her performance Saturday night at the 1st Mariner Arena at the same breakneck pace of her opening number and current single, the boisterous and bluesy "Nothin' Better To Do."

Rather than iPod-shuffle her way through her deep catalog of hit singles (the 25-year-old has been a country music fixture since the age of 13), Rimes favored her most recent albums, 2005's This Woman and last month's release, Family.


It was a safe choice, to be sure. These albums mark Rimes' triumphant return to the down-home scene after detours -- welcomed by some but shunned by vehement countryphiles -- into bubble-gum pop territory such as "Can't Fight the Moonlight."

It also happened to be the right choice. These works are Rimes' top-to-bottom best and most personal albums; she co-wrote every track on Family, a title that conjures up the singer's much-publicized verbal and legal spat with her father, who has since been stripped of manager and producer status. Their relationship and her slightly stalling career have since been mended. That confluence of events probably wasn't a coincidence.


However, the showstopper, in more ways than one, wound up being "Commitment" off of her 1998 disc Sittin' On Top of the World, a song whose momentum builds toward a marathon sing-along finish that's as contagious as it is awe-inspiring. It was also a literal showstopper. A stumble at the song's peak caused Rimes to take a long swig of water and pack it in after only seven songs.

A few songs earlier, Rimes had warned she was still healing after a bout with tonsillitis.

"I really shouldn't even be singing, but I just didn't want to disappoint anyone," she said.

Call it sympathy or solidarity on the part of the audience -- neither were in short supply given the concert was part of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation benefit -- but this announcement of illness gave something of an adrenaline shot to a formerly stiff crowd. It also explained her limited interaction with the audience and rapid succession of the first five numbers: Rimes was playing beat the clock with her sore vocal cords.

Though she pulled up wispy a handful of times before calling it quits, Rimes' ailment was completely unnoticeable before she fessed up to it.

What's more, her emotional maturity, face and figure have come to catch up to a bigger-than-life voice that, until recent years, seemed to be aging in dog years.

Rimes' gutsy under-the-weather performance was appealing, and her on-stage candor with her fans was even more so. She exuded an inescapable humanity during her last two songs.

Rimes was endearing for the same reason sitcom outtakes are so funny -- she displayed some unrehearsed candor. For that, the audience probably felt closer to her than if she had just routinely carried out a 13-song set list.


And hey, if anyone didn't hear their favorite song or was left wanting much more, she'll be touring with Kenny Chesney next year.