McBride and Malo Romance the Ryman

Valentine’s Day couldn’t have come at a worse time this year. Would-be romantics are instead in a heightened state of alert, frazzled from stocking up on duct tape and plastic sheeting and watching their 401(k) take another plunge into the nether regions.

But the perfect antidote to all these pre-war heebie-jeebies was at the Ryman Auditorium Thursday night (Feb. 13) when Martina McBride , Raul Malo and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra joined forces for a Valentine’s Eve celebration. For a little more than two hours, love ruled, romance was in the air and, unlike those ubiquitous Grinches grabbing the headlines, every heart was two sizes too big. Heck, there was even a real-live marriage proposal midway through McBride’s set. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra is one of Nashville’s hidden jewels, though recent years have seen a push to heighten its profile by collaborating with artists from across Nashville’s music community. This was Malo’s second NCO appearance, and artists like Kim Richey and Michael W. Smith have or are scheduled to perform with the group. (It should be noted that both McBride and Malo donated their performances to the NCO Thursday night.)

While spreading the word about the NCO, it has also gone a long way toward uniting what are often disparate musical audiences. Indeed, Thursday’s sold-out crowd ran the gamut from blue-blood NCO regulars in formal wear to blue-jean clad country music fans. Once the music started, though, all differences disappeared, and the crowd was united under a common bonhomie. Had President Bush, Saddam Hussein and that North Korean dude been there, one imagines they’d have left with hands joined singing a chorus of “We Are the World.”

The evening opened with a lively Celtic-inspired chamber piece, “The Stone.” Mesmerizing and beautifully performed, the audience responded enthusiastically, and the stage was set for a sizzling set by Malo, the former frontman for the Mavericks. Malo opened with the upbeat “Every Little Thing” from his newest solo release, Today, the NCO’s lush arrangements adding an emotional depth to the song’s “I miss you” message.

Singing both in English and Spanish, Malo proved he’s a born romantic in any language. His cover of the Everly Brothers’ classic “Let It Be Me” resonated with longing and sadness. But his performance of the dreamy “Besame Mucho (Kiss Me a Lot),” backed by cello and violin, was enough to turn even the hardest of hearts all warm and fuzzy. And when he performed the heartbreaking “Let’s Not Say Goodbye Anymore,” another track from Today, it was positively chilling.

All of this Malo-induced emotion made McBride’s opening song “I Love You” feel a little thin. The fluffiest of her hits, “I Love You” was nevertheless a thematic natural for a Valentine’s Eve concert, and its upbeat tempo at least served to rev the energy level in the auditorium as people returned from intermission. McBride overcame the lightweight opening quickly, however, giving energetic performances of hits (“My Baby Loves Me”) and album cuts (“Anything and Everything” from Emotion).

McBride then gave the Ryman crowd a real treat, debuting a song she recently cut for her new album which she admits is still “far from finished.” A lovely ballad written by rising songwriter James Slater, “In My Daughter’s Eyes” is obviously about the love a mother has for her daughter, but its beautifully crafted lyric has universal appeal. Judging by the enthusiastic response of the Ryman crowd, McBride has another smash hit on her hands.

With the goodwill thick as sweet cream, McBride turned the microphone over to a young man in the first row who then popped the question to his girlfriend. When she said yes, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. McBride serenaded the newly affianced couple with “When You Are Old,” a tear-jerker at anytime but especially moving considering the special context here.

McBride capped the evening with a two-song encore, with Malo joining her onstage for the final number, “It Takes Two to Tango.” Shelby Lynne sings the sassy little duet with Malo on his newest release. Although she’d never sung the piece before, McBride tackled it with gusto, proving her powerful belt can hold its own against Malo’s crooning anytime.

Yes, war may loom, but love still blooms, even in downtown Nashville. For anyone in love or wanting to be in love, Thursday was a special night indeed.