Part of the reason for the strong turnout is that it's been 10 years since McEntire played in Birmingham, but a more likely explanation is that the 2 Voices, 2 Worlds tour is one of those concert opportunities that may not come around again. Indeed, the itinerary concludes on Saturday (Nov. 22) in Baltimore.
Earlier this year, the country star and pop singer played 15 dates together after discovering their musical chemistry on an episode of CMT Crossroads. McEntire told the Birmingham audience that she and Clarkson enjoyed each other so much during those first few months, they booked another 25 concerts for the fall. On the surface, that makes her sound like she was baiting the audience for applause, but as far as I could tell, they really do enjoy sharing the stage.
After opening with a cover of the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," they traded vocals on "Why Haven't I Heard From You" -- one of Clarkson's favorite McEntire songs and a pacesetter for a string of up-tempo hits, like "Walk Away," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," "Behind These Hazel Eyes" and "The Fear of Being Alone." This isn't exactly breaking news, but McEntire tends to be a little ... um ... theatrical in her delivery, but if you give yourself up and just go with it, it's impossible not to be entertained by her. And when she sang backup on Clarkson's reading of "Beautiful Disaster," she seemed just as impressed as the rest of us with the young star's vocal talent.
With a bunch of radio hits between them, it was kind of a surprise to hear McEntire dig up a Western swing tune ("Why Not Tonight" from Tremors), with Clarkson following up with a jazzy number, "Stuff Like That There." Carmella Ramsey, a well-respected musician in acoustic circles, suddenly stepped out from the band to wail on the saxophone. Both McEntire and Clarkson brought their bands along for the tour, and they all stayed on stage for nearly two hours, without an intermission.
The crowd came alive when Clarkson busted out "Miss Independent" -- a term that could now apply to McEntire following her recent departure from MCA Nashville after 25 years to sign with an independent record label, the Valory Music Co. Both women are planning new music for next year, although they chose not to share any of it with the crowd in Birmingham. Speaking of the crowd, it's hard to pin down a description of the audience -- middle-aged parents, younger couples, small groups of girls, large groups of guys ... and so on.
The entertainers slowed down the momentum in the middle of the set by pulling up some stools and letting McEntire's catalog take center stage on favorites like "The Greatest Man I Never Knew," "Cathy's Clown," "How Blue" and "One Promise Too Late." They also covered Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain," which Clarkson once sang on a charity episode of American Idol. McEntire said she liked the song when Clarkson first sent it to her via e-mail, but she acknowledged she didn't love it until she heard Clarkson perform it. Then, Clarkson shared her memories of discovering McEntire's music at a slumber party, and confided to the audience, "I am obsessively in love with this woman!"
The crowd was revived on "Love Revival" before the singers plumbed the emotional depths of their music with Clarkson's "Never Again" and McEntire's "And Still" -- two of the most devastating songs in their repertoire. I remain impressed by the way McEntire can turn the word "still" into 22 syllables. Although it happened several times during the night, it was weird to see McEntire blend into the background as a backup singer, allowing Clarkson to shine on her pop hits. Clearly there's no ego battle on this stage.
Of course, they saved the monster hits for the end -- "Break Away" (which could easily be reinterpreted as a country song), "Does He Love You" (with both singers poised at opposite ends of the stage until the dramatic showdown) and "Is There Life Out There" (as relevant now as it ever was). McEntire was "surprised" by an appearance by comedian Melissa Peterman, who played Barbara Jean on the Reba TV show. Peterman had opened the concert with a witty comedy routine, but when she interacts with McEntire, it really is comedy gold. Peterman is a gifted physical comedian, and considering how many heavy songs that these singers are famous for, a little bit of levity was certainly welcome.
Just prior to the encore, Clarkson offered her first single, "A Moment Like This," her winning theme from American Idol and a song that she doesn't often perform. But the real reward from that Idol victory, she said, was the opportunity to sing with her music hero during the Idols tour -- which spawned a friendship, a hit country duet ("Because of You") and, ultimately, this tour. Both artists currently share a manager -- Narvel Blackstock, who is McEntire's husband -- so hopefully he can work out details for a live CD/DVD. Although we've all heard "Since U Been Gone" and "Fancy" countless times, it's stii-ii-i-iill worth remembering a moment like this.