Concert Review: Shania Twain and Gavin DeGraw at Nationwide Arena

The best-selling female artist in country music history brought her "Rock This Country!" tour to an ecstatic Columbus audience on September 30th.

Columbus Underground
By Grant Walters
October 1, 2015

If you lived in Canada in the mid-to-late 1990s like I did, it was difficult to avoid hearing Shania Twain on the radio at least once an hour. Then again, when an artist amasses thirteen number one singles on the Canadian country charts in the span of just five years, it was probably also difficult for station programmers not to play a Shania Twain track just to keep her enthusiastic audience satiated.

Her achievement of an unprecedented level of commercial success — particularly within the context of Canada’s popular music landscape — was ignited by release of her second album (1995's The Woman In Me). However, her rise was far from meteoric. Twain had been a working musician for almost twenty years at that point, beginning her performing career by singing bars in and around her hometown of Timmins, Ontario from the early age of eight to help financially support her struggling family. She continued to make a living by touring as a singer in local cover bands through the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, all while honing her craft as a songwriter and recording demos of her own compositions. In 1992, she signed with the Mercury Nashville label and began work on her first album.

The rest is well-publicized history. The last time Twain was in Columbus was 2004 in support of her most recent release, Up! Yesterday’s near-capacity crowd at Nationwide Arena welcomed her back with open arms and plenty of enthusiasm. The fact that Twain can still pack large venues when she hasn’t released a new album in thirteen years is impressive, and it’s a reminder that upbeat, accessible music can have a surprisingly long shelf life.

Gavin DeGraw, who has toured extensively on his own and as support for Billy Joel, Maroon 5, and Train in recent years, opened the show promptly at 7:30 with his 2012 hit “Soldier”. Performing in front of a modest red curtain embellished only with a projected image of his namesake — sparse compared to the bath of lasers that would usher Twain onstage — DeGraw and his band cranked through a quick 40-minute set of mostly his chart singles. Fans hoping to hear deeper cuts (his standout third album, Free, was overlooked completely) will probably need to catch him on a solo tour in the near future. DeGraw is certainly talented and was in excellent voice, his vocals cutting easily through the mucky sound mix that hindered both his and Twain’s portions of the show. He seemed completely at home playing to the audience, spending the entirety of the performance of his breakout track “I Don’t Want To Be” parading through the floor seats, serenading sections of the lower bowl crowd, and high-fiving and taking photos with fans. At one point, DeGraw joked to the audience about his juxtaposition to Twain’s main event: “I know most of you don’t know who I am — and that’s OK. I don’t know you, either!” If that was true, he’d won the majority of them over by his set’s midpoint. Making his way through his other mainstays “In Love With a Girl”, “Sweeter”, “Best I Ever Had”, and “Chariot”, plus a capable cover of Joel’s “Big Shot”, he received the most boisterous response with his finale — recent top twenty radio favorite “Not Over You”. With the crowd on its feet, DeGraw and company said their goodbyes quickly left the stage. 

A short time later, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was piped in loudly over the facility’s sound system, the arena lights went dark, and an elaborate mixture of smoke, flashing images of Twain, and a veritable flood of complex lighting filled the stage. Eventually, she emerged from beneath the stage floor perched on a lighted platform against a background of pyrotechnics, and immediately launched into “Rock This Country!” — one of just twelve singles released from her 1999 album, Come On Over. From there, Twain and her band moved at breakneck speed through eleven numbers — pausing only for a few quick verbal nods to the audience and an instrumental interlude while the headliner changed outfits. Well-worn hits like “Honey, I’m Home”, “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”, and “You Win My Love” had concert-goers singing loudly, cheering emphatically, and dancing in their seats. Gavin DeGraw reappeared on stage to join Twain on “Party for Two” as a stand-in for her original duet partners Billy Currington and Mark McGrath.

The production value of Twain’s show aimed for grandeur and big fun, which it absolutely achieved. Following DeGraw’s example, Twain ventured out into the audience to interact with fans by traveling the perimeter of the arena floor in a wheeled cart while she belted out “Any Man of Mine”. Later, she climbed on top of what appeared to be an interpretation of a mechanical bull attached to a swinging crane arm, crooning her 2002 hit, “Up!”. The sets, the costumes, and the endless amount of special effects made for interesting eye candy, but a few of the over-the-top moments seemed to conflict with the folksy, relatable material that comprises much of Twain’s catalog.

A little more than halfway through the set, the party train slowed down just long enough for Twain to pull up a stool and strum an acoustic guitar — rolling a little more gently through lesser-known “Today is Your Day”, followed by “No One Needs to Know” and “You’re Still the One”. With all the theatrics stripped away for just a few moments, one was able to catch a glimpse into Twain’s original musicianship that set the stage for her international notoriety.

In any live performance, there are always imperfections that arise. The sound quality issues that dogged DeGraw’s performance also permeated Twain’s — the mix was loud and unbalanced, making it difficult to hear her vocals above the mighty wall of instruments played by her band. Twain’s voice has recovered remarkably well from a dysphonia diagnosis back in 2011, however it sounded progressively fatigued as the night went on. If there is any criticism I could make about her performance that could actually be helped, it’s that the bulk of the songs didn’t treat Twain’s adoring fans to much spontaneity or deviation from their recorded counterparts. Rock This Country! is a well-scripted affair that hurdles the audience through a tightly-wound, tried-and-true set list without apology – and the thousands who were there to see it last night soaked it all up for everything it was worth. If the rumor is true that this show will put a wrap on Twain’s large-scale touring career and its purpose was to take fans on one last playful romp through her back catalog, she did so — literally — with flying colors.