WEA/EMI Show Recaptures Fan Fair’s Historic Intimacy

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It was almost like old times.

Saturday night’s (June 15) WEA/EMI show at Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum achieved the kind of intimacy between artists and fans that was common in the more compact Fan Fairs of yesteryear. This closeness was most obvious in the fans’ congenial attentiveness to everything going on onstage and in the performers’ spontaneous and apparently heartfelt tributes to these folks who ultimately pay their bills. Another indicator: The audience routinely sang along without being asked, even with the newer acts.

Trace Adkins , keith urban , Tracy Lawrence and Jo Dee Messina gave dynamic and rapturously received performances, but it was Neal McCoy who reduced the mammoth venue to the size of his backyard and the crowd of thousands to his personal fan club. Smarting from having been exiled to a smaller Fan Fair stage last year, McCoy demonstrated beyond argument that he’s a real stadium act.

Appearing fourth in the nine-act lineup, McCoy had the crowd up and clapping — via “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” — before he reached the front of the stage. It got better and more raucous when he segued into “Wink” and lined up with two of his guitarists to form what he called “The Neal McCoy Dancers.” After debuting “What If,” an inspirational cut from the new Inside Traxx album, the impossibly thin and long-legged maestro ran across both gigantic stages to whip up the fans with his time-tested showstopper, a rap version of “The Banana Boat Song (Day O)” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” This involved a minor costume change-doffing his white cowboy hat and donning an orange “rapper” cap with the bill cocked jauntily to the side.

Before singing his closing song, McCoy told the audience that he had played the main stage at Fan Fair for 13 years before suffering last year’s snub, a consequence of his having been between labels. He admitted he hadn’t had a radio hit in “four or five years” and said he hoped to turn that situation around. Now with Warner Bros., he promised a new album soon. Despite his recording reverses, he observed that loyal fans have enabled him to tour steadily. In tribute, he sang a song he’s just recorded called “I’m Your Biggest Fan.” Its payoff line goes, “To me the best seat in the house is right here where I stand.”

The throng also rose up spontaneously when Adkins’ name was announced. Looking as though he was having the time of his life, Adkins ignited pockets of ecstasy throughout the arena with his rumbling vocal dips, fence-straddling dance moves and anguished facial contortions. His strong suit, of course, was his string of solid hits and the depth of feeling he brought to them. Like McCoy, he was eloquent in his praise of fans-offering none of those cut-and-paste fatuities performers commonly hold out as compliments.

Messina worked the stage so hard she courted meltdown. Evangelistic in her approach, she offered one plucky, lift-yourself-up lyric after another — “I’ll Do the Dancing,” “I’m Alright,” “Dare to Dream,” “Bring On the Rain.” She gave a touching, song-footnoted history of her musical evolution, tracing it from listening with her ear to the door to her brother’s Journey records (“Don’t Stop Believin'”) to understanding and savoring Aretha Franklin’s “Think” to finding her own sound in country standards. Always an engaging performer, Messina continues to get better. She wrapped her show with her 1997 hit, “Bye Bye.”

urban invaded the stage with a guitar cannonade that lasted a full five minutes, powering and illuminating a new song called “Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Me,” from his forthcoming album. After reprising “Where the Black Top Ends” and “But for the Grace of God,” Urban capped his too-brief set with two more of his new and album-bound compositions, “Song for Dad” and “Somebody Like You.”

It was a similarly quick visit to the spotlight for Lawrence, who nonetheless squeezed in a fair sampling of his chart muscle, including “Can’t Break It to My Heart,” “Better Man, Better Off” and “Time Marches On,” the last of which he dedicated to “all the sexy grandmas” in the audience. From the shouts this remark inspired, one gathers that hundreds of aged belles answered to that description. Joe Diffie and Mark Chesnutt , who will tour with Lawrence beginning Saturday (June 22), joined him for his finale, “Gonna Rock the Roadhouse Down.”

Let us now praise Cyndi Thomson. There’s something about sprayed on jeans, a sleeveless, off-the-shoulder white blouse and pouting lips that make one’s definition of country music infinitely elastic. But Thomson, who sang four songs early in the show, is more than just another pretty everything, as her recently acquired gold album demonstrates. If Vern Gosdin is “The Voice” of country music, then she’s “The Murmur.” Her breathy, confiding style in matters of love is a welcome balance to the School of Shania ’s more sassy and strident approach.

Steve Holy and Blake Shelton, with only a few hits each under their belts, were the first two acts on the show. Holy scored well with the audience on his recent No. 1, “Good Morning Beautiful.” Shelton had them swaying dreamily to “Austin” and singing along with fraternity-house zeal on “Ol’ Red.”

Pacing the show was comedian Bill Engvall, who has returned to Warner Bros. after a sojourn at BNA. His next album, he said, is called Cheap Drunk: An Autobiography. While his bits on the travails of fatherhood and family life were often funny, he was simply vulgar in his stories about his son’s sexual and social maturation, unless, of course, one finds male bodily functions innately hilarious.

Montgomery, who closed the show, introduced two songs from his upcoming album, “Country Thing,” a rollicking catalog of rural-life identifiers, and the yearning and romantic “Til Nothing Comes Between Us.” Of all the acts, his was the only one in which the band held back to give primacy to the lyrics. Montgomery frequently warbled off-key in his pilgrimage through such hits as “Life’s a Dance,” “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” and “The Little Girl.” But to the host of faithful, it just didn’t matter.

The show ran for a little over four hours.

Set List for WEA/EMI Show

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.