Review: Shania Twain proves she's still the one, hints at new direction

It’s worth reminding ourselves just how astoundingly, unprecedentedly big Shania Twain was at her peak

Montreal Gazette
By Ian McGillis
June 27, 2018

The word “comeback” is never spoken, but clearly that’s what this is.

Shania Twain’s Now Tour show in front of 13,700 fans at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night was a lesson in the double-edged nature of grand-scale popularity: it never really goes away, but it can make forward progress tricky.

It’s worth reminding ourselves just how astoundingly, unprecedentedly big Shania Twain was at her peak. In Canada she has three of the 10 best-selling albums of all time. Those turn-of-the-century multiplatinum free-for-all days can feel like an awfully long time ago, but Tuesday carried multiple reminders of how influential the work Twain did with her former husband and producer Mutt Lange has been. Taylor Swift’s country-to-pop shift, for one thing, would be unthinkable without Twain’s groundwork. While early Twain’s connection to the country music tradition was sometimes tenuous, at a certain point that became irrelevant. This music marked the moment where country didn’t so much go mainstream as become the mainstream — a position it has since ceded to hip-hop.

Success beyond measure notwithstanding, Twain eventually discovered that making it all the way from Timmins, Ont., to a chateau in Switzerland doesn’t make you immune to life’s bruises. She fell victim to a Lyme disease-related condition that left her temporarily unable to sing at the same time that her marriage and working relationship with Lange was sundered when he was found to be cheating with one of their best friends. Twain’s late-2017 recovery and re-entry album, Now, was an interesting creative response to all that trauma: she took a more active hand in the production, made her lyrics more introspective, generally conducted herself less as a brand planning a new campaign than an artist making a personal statement.

So, how would that lower-key approach play in a massive hockey arena? Well, we never really found out, because after an introductory mission statement in the form of the new Life’s About to Get Good, the focus turned squarely to the hits, and Twain rolls her hits out with the confidence of someone who knows they are foolproof. Don’t Be Stupid, That Don’t Impress Me Much, Any Man of Mine, Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? These girls-night-out anthems were crafted with the assumption they’d be sung in big venues, and they continue to inhabit that space unimpeachably. When new songs were interspersed, they sat awkwardly among their mass-singalong neighbours in the setlist.

Twain’s between-songs banter, much of it in French, had an endearing awkwardness, but overall the show’s pacing could have been tighter. A rendition of You’re Still the One sung from from a vertiginously elevated trapeze swing was a highpoint, but an interminable interlude involving local wrestler Kevin Owens, followed by a corny “slide show” of excerpts from old videos brought things to a virtual standstill. We knew there were still hits in reserve, though, and indeed they came to the rescue. Resistance is futile when a power ballad like From This Moment On gets everyone hugging each other, while first encore Man! I Feel Like a Woman! (before you ask, she did indeed don the iconic miniskirt and thigh-high boots combo) was less a song than an all-devouring juggernaut, fully earning its two exclamation marks.

So, then, a beloved Canadian global megastar comes back home to restate her case after it appeared it might all be over. The story would be unadulteratedly feel-good had Twain not stated in an April interview with The Guardian that if she were American she would have voted for Donald Trump in 2016. For an artist who counts women and gays among her most loyal supporters it was a shocking thing to say, and her subsequent attempt to walk it back, tweeting that her words needed “more context,” didn’t hold water. This reviewer cannot have been alone among the crowd in wondering how she would acknowledge the considerable fallout.

As it turned out, she didn’t, but if there was disappointment, no one voiced it. Maybe it was unrealistic to think that a pre-sold house of devotees was the place to address the question; maybe, in this bewildering historical moment, the whole thing will simply blow over, forgotten in the 24/7 cycle. But it deserves to be remembered, and Twain deserves to be held accountable, especially given what happened to the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against George W. Bush.

Opener Bastian Baker took the challenge of facing someone else’s room alone armed only with an acoustic guitar and turned it to his advantage, addressing the crowd in French (he’s from Switzerland, not that you’d guess it from the subtle Nashville twang of his singing voice), performing the ubiquitous Hallelujah in its composer’s home town, and even returning late in the headliner’s set for a pair of duets. Stardom looks like his for the taking.