LAS VEGAS — Reba McEntire and Martina McBride led a contingent of five women Friday night (July 13) in the first of more than 25 shows that mark a significant moment in country music history.
Along with Sara Evans , Jamie O’Neal and Carolyn Dawn Johnson , they kicked off the Girls’ Night Out Tour at the Mandalay Bay Events Center with a 4-1/2 hour show that symbolized the progress of women in the genre. Once considered “girl singers” by male producers who often told them which songs to sing and even what dresses to wear, women have exerted much more control in their careers. With this tour, the result is a show that seeks to mimic the Lilith Fair concept introduced by Sarah McLachlan in the pop world, with a moment or two in which the event leaned more toward VH1’s Divas Live.
McEntire, who spent the first half of the year performing on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, crammed 16 songs into an hour that pared back on her usual heavy production values. She still had dancers and still employed several costume changes but saved them for strategic moments and added almost no other props.
Thus, she kept the audience focused more closely on the material, all of which was released in 1990 or later. Many of her songs looked closely at women’s roles in contemporary society. "What Do You Say" examined women’s familial relationships, "Is There Life Out There"
portrayed a female at a crossroads in her personal development, and "Fancy" took a rather sympathetic look at a poor girl who traded her physical assets for a step up the financial ladder.
McEntire also sang "I’m a Survivor," a new single that will serve as the theme song for her forthcoming TV series, the WB’s Reba, and will appear on a greatest hits compilation to be released this fall. The lyrics no doubt provide some clues to McEntire’s character in the sitcom, as she hails herself as a single mom with two kids, invoking God and Mama along the way.
One particular line in the song took on added meaning, given the concert’s Las Vegas location: "When the deck is stacked against me/I just play a different hand."
McBride played a hand as organizer for the event and as a serious challenger to McEntire’s concert dominance. Having played five Lilith Fair dates in 1998 and ’99, McBride repeatedly talked to her manager about creating a country version of McLachlan’s all-women lineup and hopes that resulting Girls’ Night Out concept will extend into future years, with a revolving lineup of talent, drawing on the rich depth of country’s current female talent pool.
(Trisha Yearwood , Shania Twain , Faith Hill , the Dixie Chicks , Lorrie Morgan , Patty Loveless , Pam Tillis and Wynonna represent just a handful of the artists who would make sense in such a series, not to mention such still-vital figures as Loretta Lynn , K.T. Oslin , Janie Fricke and Dolly Parton .)
McBride offered a dozen songs in a 55-minute set that showcased her flamethrower vocal cords. Songs such as "Wild Angels," "It’s My Time" and "Happy Girl" engaged her from-the-gut power, while "Whatever You Say," "A Broken Wing" and "Independence Day" underscored the evening’s focus on women, touching on such issues as domestic violence, emotional abuse and male condescension.
McBride used some large staging techniques, entering from the overhead lighting rig, draping the backdrop with color-enhancing chiffon and weaving appropriate video footage. But she relied primarily on the music to carry her portion of the show, which found her in awe of the evening’s headliner.
"I just wanna be Reba when I grow up," she gushed.
McBride also threw in a show-stopping version of "Over the Rainbow," setting it up by explaining the pride she felt while growing up in Kansas to have the classic The Wizard of Oz bring her homestate into focus every year when the movie aired on network TV.
Evans also nodded to the "Wizard" by using parts of her "Oz"-derived video in her closing "Born To Fly." The Chicks-like anthem
of positivity was one of six songs that comprised her performance, which included past hits such as "No Place That Far," her current re-make of Edwin McCain’s "I Could Not Ask for More" and the forthcoming single
"Saints and Angels," a power ballad that revolves around spiritual imagery.
O’Neal, fresh off a victory as the Academy of Country Music’s top new female, showed no signs of her recent surgery for a ruptured disc, following an injury at a show during Fan Fair in June. At times, she stacked harmonies as high as four and five voices, accentuating her own commanding presence and tuneful songs that mixed country and pop sensibilities.
With a full head of blonde semi-curls, she visually recalled ’80s country-rocker Juice Newton from a distance. Meanwhile, her rendition of "There Is No Arizona" seemed particularly apropos for the Girls’ Night Out kickoff. The Grand Canyon, mentioned prominently in the song, is less than 100 miles east of Vegas’ famed casino Strip.
Johnson had time for just a trio of songs to open the show, building a midtempo, acoustic set best compared to Kim Richey, mixing country with a cynical sort of pop melodicism.
Once they had established themselves as individual talents, the five women came together in the finale to embrace the supportive spirit that Girls’ Night Out is meant to represent. McBride joined McEntire on "Does He Love You," successfully taking Linda Davis ’ role as the upstart mistress to McEntire’s jilted wife in one of the most dramatic — and dysfunctional — songs of the last decade. Both McEntire and McBride played their parts well from opposite ends of the stage, with their physical gestures and facial expressions mirroring the kinds of emotions the song’s characters represent, although by the end, both had lost touch with their musical roles and were smiling in clear appreciation of their shared moment in the spotlight.
Taking a page from Divas Live, all five traded lines and harmonies from the Carole King-written Aretha Franklin classic "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," though none tried to outshine the others in the diva manner that’s become typical for that annual cable ritual. They also combined for a faithful re-enactment of the Eagles’ "Heartache Tonight," then bonded with a closing version of the Judds’ "Girls Night Out," coming dangerously close to becoming a pajama party by finishing up at half past midnight.
Whether or not McBride succeeds in turning the Girls’ Night Out excursion into a yearly celebration of female accomplishment, the tour certainly goes where no man has gone before. For much of country history, females were discouraged from sharing a bill. When Morgan, Tillis and Carlene Carter toured together in the late-’90s, it was believed to be the first time in history that three country females offered a triple package.
The Girls’ Night Out tour takes it a step farther and ensures that women will be taken seriously in the male-dominated country industry.