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It Was Ladies Night at MCA, With Boys on the Side
OK, there were some guys singing, too, but MCA's Fan Fair show was basically a ladies' night. And quite a triumphant one. Alecia Elliott, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Chely Wright and Lee Ann Womack enlivened their audience Tuesday evening (June 13) with some of the most compelling country music being made.

To be fair, the guys -- Gary Allan, Sons of the Desert and Vince Gill -- also turned in fine performances, although they did not work as hard for the crowd's affection as the ladies did. Gill, the show's affable master of ceremonies, was not scheduled to sing. But he stepped in at the last minute when Mark Chesnutt cancelled. The seven acts performed a total of 34 songs in a stellar display of talent that lasted just under 2½ hours.

The MCA crowd was smaller and generally less demonstrative than the one attending Sony's presentation the night before, signs suggesting that musical fatigue might be setting in.

To open the show, MCA staff members formed huge slingshots on stage to propel free rolled-up T-shirts into the audience. While they were doing this, the sound system was blasting out 'N Sync's "Bye, Bye, Bye." Once the ammo was exhausted, Gill strolled out, wearing baggy tan shorts and a blue shirt emblazoned with palm trees, to introduce the opening act, 17-year-old Alecia Elliott.

Two sub-teen girls seated near the stage, who had just been lip synching to "Bye, Bye, Bye," continued to do the same to Elliott's first song, "I'm Diggin' It." (Obviously omnicultural, the girls were wearing matching Jo Dee Messina T-shirts.)

Besides exhibiting a powerful voice, Elliott seemed supremely at ease on stage, connecting naturally and often with individual faces in the crowd. After singing her latest single, the teasing "You Wanna What," she closed with soaring, showcase-quality covers of "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Sweet Dreams."

"That girl has got some serious vocal cords," Gill observed as Elliott bowed her way off stage. He then brought Rebecca Lynn Howard on, noting that "I did [only] one show this year, and I picked this girl to do it with me." It was a wise pick. Howard exuded warmth in her steady interaction with the audience without being cloying or appearing to try too hard. All four of her selections were from her recently released self-titled debut album. They included her next single, "I Don't Paint Myself Into Corners" and the heartbreakingly wistful "Believe It or Not."

"That right there's the way to sing, sports fans," said Gill.

Looking sly and savvy, Sons of the Desert won the crowd over instantly with "Change," their current single, and then steamed on to revisit their first hit, "Whatever Comes First." Between songs, they made mock pitches to the audience to buy their new album (also called Change), which had just been released that day. They rounded out their set with two more songs from the new collection -- "Everybody's Got to Grow Up Sometime," and "What I Did Right" (which lead singer Drew Womack dedicated to World War II vets). Then they closed with "Pink Houses."

The Sons have perfected a sweet, bell-pure vocal harmony, the likes of which we haven't heard since the Gatlins were in bloom. During Lee Ann Womack's closing segment of the show, the band returned to lend its ethereal sound to "I Hope You Dance," just as it had on the original record.

Dapper in his white hat and brown, pinstriped, western-cut suit, Gary Allan crooned his way masterfully through "Smoke Rings in the Dark," "Her Man" (his first hit) and "Loving You Against My Will." Powered by a smoldering, exploding guitar intro, Allan brought his set home with a crowd-rousing cover of "Runaway."

"She knows her history. She knows her heritage. She knows what's gone on in country music for the last 75 years." With that lofty endorsement, Gill welcomed Chely Wright. Radiant and exuding joy, she strode to the front of the stage and stayed there, beaming out at the audience, through "I Want to Love Somebody," "Shut Up and Drive," "She Went Out for Cigarettes," "It Was" and "Single White Female." In superb voice and every inch the polished performer, Wright shouted out at one point, "I love Fan Fair. I love Nashville. And I love country music." By the time she was through, no one had cause to doubt her.

Gill followed Wright's set with two songs of his own -- "When I Call Your Name" and "Go Rest High on That Mountain" -- accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He dedicated the latter song to a friend he'd made at his first Fan Fair 16 years ago and who had returned faithfully every year to see him. Earlier this year, Gill said, his friend had passed away.

Lee Ann Womack closed the MCA edition with a 10-song sampler from her three albums. Appearing distracted at first (she said she had been delayed returning to Nashville by a bus accident), Womack soon rallied and took charge. While each of her songs had its charms and its partisans, she was especially moving on "The Fool," "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" and "I Hope You Dance." After testing the audience for life signs with the rocking "Get Up in Jesus' Name," Womack brought down the curtain with the considerably more human appeal of "I'll Think of a Reason Later."
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