Shania Twain walks the line between showbiz and songcraft at Erwin Center

Austin 360
By Peter Blackstock
August 10, 2015

One minute, Shania Twain is up on her high horse, almost literally: riding a mechanical bull attached to the end of crane that slowly sends her soaring above the Erwin Center crowd as she sings the title track to her 2002 album “Up!”

The next, she’s entirely back down to earth, strumming a guitar and joined by her bandmates on acoustic instruments at the edge of the stage, singing out the simple reassurances of her 2011 single “Today Is Your Day.”

That back-to-back sequence, coming about two-thirds of the way through Twain’s 100-minute show at Erwin Center on Sunday night, summed up a fundamental conflict at the heart of the Canadian singer’s artistic identity as she stands at a career crossroads.

Twain, who will turn 50 later this month, stressed in a pre-tour interview that she envisions a future for herself that’s much more like the moment she presented on “Today Is Your Day” — focused almost entirely on the craft of songwriting, with performance placed on a distant back burner. And yet it’s hard to imagine her ever giving up the ambitious onstage persona that reaches for grand productions like the airborne show-stopper of “Up!”

Most of Sunday’s concert leaned toward those grand productions, not surprisingly, because it’s still what Twain knows best. Her entrance involved an elevator bringing her out from beneath the floor, then pushing her up high above the stage while pyrotechnics blasted all around her as she began singing. 

“Rock This Country!” was the name of that opening song, and it’s also the name of the tour, which began in June and ends in October . While a heavy reliance on fiddles — most songs featured two, and there were three at one point — put a country spin on much of the material, Twain is clearly more drawn to rock, as evidenced by the blasting of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” over the sound system immediately before she and her band took the stage.

Then again, straight-up “pop” may be a better tag for Twain than either rock or country. The songs that got the crowd singing along most devotedly were chart-topping ballads from her 1990s heyday: “From This Moment On,” sung from the end of a long catwalk that extended far out onto the Erwin Center floor, and “Still the One,” which she started solo acoustic with the audience immediately joining in.

Her seven bandmates provided first-class support throughout. They deserved, but never received, a personal introduction like the one that opening act Gavin DeGraw – an arena-working pop showman who returned to duet with Twain on “Party for Two” – gave to his four supporting players. In addition to providing thunderous ballast alongside bursts of fire and smoke on the likes of “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “Honey I’m Home,” they turned up the twang on more countrified tunes such as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and swung skillfully to the island rhythms of “Come on Over.”

They also covered for Twain with brief instrumentals during a couple of mid-set costume changes. That device worked fine until the encore, when one of the final two songs (preceding the sexy show-closer “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”) consisted of over-the-top instrumental wankery that the audience clearly could have done without.

Before the tour began, Twain sounded eager to work up some of the material she’s been recording for a new album. “Maybe near the end of the tour, I’ll be able to introduce a couple of new songs,” she said in a May interview. That moment at the start of the encore would have been an ideal spot to give it a shot. Instead, the crowd got laser lights and meaningless bombast. If Twain is in fact determined to step forward toward a future based on writing fresh songs, the time is ripe for her to bring it on.