WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The popular thing in touring lately is to package two bands from the same era -- the '80s, usually -- and then target the thirtysomethings who don't mind shelling out the bucks for a night of big-haired nostalgia.
Reba McEntire's first No. 1 hit came in 1982, but only a few country acts from that era are on still on the radar. However, George Strait is bigger than the sheds, Alabama's off the road for good and Ricky Skaggs is doing bluegrass fulltime. So, who to invite?
It would be hard to imagine either Terri Clark or Brad Paisley turning down the chance to work with McEntire. These two hat acts -- and that term is meant here that in the most flattering way -- have loyally followed the musical path blazed by McEntire, retaining elements of traditional country music in a format that's constantly evolving. So, naturally, they both accepted the invitation, thus forming the Two Hats and a Redhead tour, which will travel through the U.S. this spring and early summer.
In other words, the concert is not intended as a night of nostalgia, even though McEntire's set list will likely shuttle you back into previous decades on a few occasions. During a Sunday night (April 24) show at the Sound Advice Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, she ultimately proved that no matter what she has accomplished in her astounding career so far, her string of memorable hits will remain her crowning achievement.
Wearing a sparkling white blouse and glittering black slacks, McEntire focused on the music. In fact, every member of her top-notch road band was featured in a solo and not just during the introductions at the end of the set list. She also remains an incredibly poised and distinctive singer, whether she's drawing out "You Lie" into multiple syllables -- so fun to watch on the big screen -- or zipping through "Love Revival."
She relies on her latest album, Room to Breathe, for many of the show's highlights. "He Gets That From Me" incorporates her heartbreaking music video, while sepia-toned pictures of sisters are projected onto the enormous shuttered doors during "My Sister," which is quite possibly the longest phone message ever. But "Moving Oleta" is the real showstopper. In the expertly written song, an elderly gentleman cares for his wife who has Alzheimer's, all the while fighting back the inevitable anger and hurt the disease can bring to families. Like Vince Gill's "Go Rest High on That Mountain," it hits you where you live, and there's a sense of inherent drama in the melody that McEntire can deliver like no other.
There's no question she's a superstar on her own merit, but McEntire also seems to know the value of surrounding herself with excellence. This goes for listening to songwriters who know what they're doing, to hiring a road crew that makes it look so easy. (Substantial praise must be given here to the very capable lighting team that kept the show visually interesting without ever intruding or showing off.)
With hits like "Celebrity" and "Me Neither," Paisley has a knack for choosing fun songs that fit perfectly in outdoor shows. The giant screen behind him (framed within the outline of a red amplifier) visually complemented the fun instrumental, "Make a Mistake With Me," as well as the harrowing, award-winning "Whiskey Lullaby." He also previewed his upcoming single, "Alcohol," told from the perspective of its title subject.
But the crowd seemed to perk up the most on the tongue-in-cheek "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)," which the teenager behind me knew all the words to. Actually, every time I glanced her way over the course of the night, she was grinning and singing along. And that's cool, because in 15 years -- when Paisley is the headliner bringing out the new hat acts -- that same teenager will probably be sitting there with her kids thinking, "Dang, that guy has had a lot of really great tunes."
Likewise, Clark's good-time attitude and laidback demeanor are ideally suited to lounging in the sun with buddies. Ever since the beginning of her career, Clark has made no bones about being a huge McEntire fan, and Clark's elation is obvious when she strolls on stage for the encore. You can almost read the thought-cloud over her head: "Am I really getting to do this?" Best of all, she's more than just holding her own out there.
McEntire's contributions reach further than just show biz, of course. A longtime supporter of charitable causes, she has teamed with a Whirlpool for this tour to raise money and awareness for Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization that builds houses for people in need. In turn, those people will help build houses for other families. One dollar of each ticket price benefits the organization, and Whirlpool donates a refrigerator and oven range to each new home.
Meanwhile, McEntire's fans can be thankful that, despite her far-reaching accomplishments, she is still comfortably at home in country music.
"So Good Together"
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"
"Whoever's in New England"
"I'd Rather Ride Around With You"
"The Nights the Lights Went Out in Georgia"
Medley: "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain"/"Little Rock"/"Rumor Has It"/"Walk On"/"Can't Even Get the Blues"
"He Gets That From Me"
"The Fear of Being Alone"
Medley: "Take It Back"/"Why Haven't I Heard From You"
"I'm a Survivor"
"Is There Life Out There"
"Does He Love You"
"When Will I Be Loved"
"Making That Easy Money"
"Make a Mistake With Me"
"I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)"
"Mud on the Tires"
"Better Things to Do"
"Easy on the Eyes"
Medley: "Emotional Girl"/"If I Were You"/ "A Little Gasoline"/"When Boy Meets Girl"
"Now That I Found You"
"I Just Wanna Be Mad"
"Poor Poor Pitiful Me"
"Girls Lie Too"
"I Wanna Do It All"