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Shania Twain barely says farewell in concert

The country-pop superstar's first San Diego concert in 11 years (and, ostensibly) her last was a mixed affair.

The San Diego Union-Tribune
By George Varga
August 23, 2015


Shaina Twain’s Saturday night performance at Valley View Casino Center boasted an eye-popping stage production worthy of both a Broadway show and a Las Vegas spectacle. The hits-packed concert had enough pyrotechnics to make a Kiss gig seem almost understated by comparison.

Yet, despite this – and despite the muscular playing of her one-woman, six-man band – less was often more for this veteran country-pop superstar, whose crowd-pleasing, 100-minute San Diego show was the penultimate stop on the first leg of her Rock This Country farewell tour. Just how much this less-is-more dictum applies was demonstrated in two key ways Saturday – one audible, the other visual.

Even at the height of her stardom in the 1990s, when she ruled country radio and was the top-selling female artist in any genre, the Canadian-born Twain has never been a powerhouse singer. This holds true even when she is delivering powerhouse hits produced and co-written by her now-former husband, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, whose high-octane work with such bands as Def Leppard and AC/DC had a palpable impact on the sound and style of some of Twain’s biggest hits. Now, with her 50th birthday just five days away, her voice is thinner, lower and has less range and color than it did during her often engaging 2003 concert here at SDSU’s Cox (now Viejas) Arena.

Of course, few Twain fans go to hear her expecting a night of emotionally charged feats of vocal daring. But notes that once were within her wheelhouse now seem distant. Moreover, several of the numbers she performed at Valley View Casino Center appeared to feature pre-recorded backing vocal tracks that were mixed at least as high as Twain’s singing. Wisely, then, she let the strength of her material and the prowess of her well-drilled band provide much of the heavy lifting, while relying on her infectious verve and well-honed charm and personality to seal the deal.

Twain fared better during a three-song acoustic set, which began with the self-affirming “Today Is Your Day” and concluded with two versions of “You’re Still the One.” The first featured her singing alone, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, with the nearly 9,000-strong audience joining in word for word. She then reprised the song, with her band performing sensitively behind her. While a whole evening of stripped-down songs by Twain would have quickly worn thin, the simplicity and intimacy of this interlude – and its lack of visual and sonic bombast – provided a welcome contrast.

That less-is-more approach was even more apparent in Twain’s stage attire Saturday, which contrasted markedly with what she wore at her SDSU show 11 years ago. A radiantly beautiful woman, then and now, she owes at least some of her success to the wholesome brand of sex appeal that fueled some of her most popular music videos two decades ago. It was that appeal which led Country Music Television to proclaim that Twain likely had “the most famous belly button in country music.”

At SDSU, she dressed demurely for most of her 2003 concert, wearing jeans and a loose fitting Tony Gwynn Padres for part of the show and black sequined pants and a loose LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers jersey for another part. Her only nod to glamour came in between, when she switched to dark pants and a sleeveless blue-and-white stretch tank top that exposed just a hint of midriff. The result, as I wrote in my review at the time, “was more suburban mom than Hollywood harlot.”

On Saturday, as on the previous stops on her current tour, Twain ditched her unassuming style of a decade ago in favor of a va-va-voom! look worthy of a line of glossy posters. (Perhaps such posters could provide a new revenue stream, should she follow through on her vow to quit touring in order to focus on songwriting and recording.)

Opening with the romping, stomping “Rock This Country,” she rose from beneath the stage on a hydraulic lift and proceeded to deliver the song from 30 or so feet above the stage. Her once-brown hair now blond and impeccably coiffed, Twain wore a black fringe jacket, a glittering Rolling Stones mini dress, black short shorts, thigh-high black boots and red sunglasses. The sunglasses came off by her third song, the loping, Stones-flavored “You Win My Love,” while the jacket was doffed after her next selection, the violin-fueled “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” her 1995 breakthrough hit.

Twain’s first costume change came five songs later, when she reappeared in an AC/DC t-shirt, possibly even shorter short shorts, sparkling black net stockings, heels in place of boots, and a soon to be discarded black coat. Later, in between “You’re Still the One” and “From This Moment On,” she changed into a nearly sheer black choir robe. One song later, for “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” the robe was removed to reveal a low-cut black mini dress and red thigh-high boots.

That outfit seemed conservative, though, compared to what Twain wore two songs later for the exultant “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” which was her sole encore selection. This time she put on a high cut, one-piece black leather and mirrored metal dominatrix get-up, with black thigh-high boots and elbow-length black gloves. The absence of a whip or riding crop seemed like a mere oversight.

Were this a show by Britney Spears, Beyoncé or Katy Perry, the number of costume changes – and the revealing nature of some of them – would be par for the course. But considering how Twain’s previous tours put the focus firmly on the music, it was jarring to see her rely so much on the look (rather than the sound) of her performance. Then again, the visual emphasis could have been a tacit acknowledgement of her declining vocal range, or simply an unwelcome carry-over from her performance residency at The Colosseum at Caesers Palace in Las Vegas between 2012 and 2014.

Either way, this visual emphasis distracted from – rather than enhanced – her songs. It also impeded the momentum of the concert, with Twain’s band performing two hard-rocking, mostly instrumental numbers, “Ka-Ching” and “Don’t,” to provide time for her to change.

Her band played with well-oiled precision throughout, whether providing a Texas-swing lilt to “I’m No Quitter” or rocking out with gusto on “Honey, I’m Home,” a high-octane song that suggested what Def Leppard might have sounded like if it had relocated to Nashville. Standout members included Cory Churko and Megan Mullins, who between them played violin, accordion, mandolin, guitar, keyboards, dobro and helped provide backing vocals. During Twain’s opening number, “Rock This Country!”, her band briefly but nimbly inserted the riff from The Beatles’ “Birthday. Later, during the zydeco-flavored “Come On Over,” there was a fleeting allusion to “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot,” a New Orleans classic that has been covered by everyone from Fats Domino to Rockin’ Sidney and John Fogerty.

Twain was joined at the concert’s midpoint by Gavin DeGraw, her opening act, for a vocal duet on “Party for Two” (which, on record, teamed her with Billy Currington). With DeGraw as a foil for singing and dancing, Twain seemed notably more animated.

At various points during the night, Twain sang from a catwalk and from a revolving circular mini-stage at the end of the catwalk. She also sang while being rolled through the arena on a wheeled stand and while astride a saddle, which was attached to a crane that lifted her high over the crowd. Twain repeatedly thanked the audience for its support through the years. She also accepted a bouquet of roses from a male fan, although she declined his request for a hug.

During one interlude, Twain referred to some of her songs as being "diary-like," although moments of introspection (whether sung or spoken) were almost nonexistent Saturday. So was any reflection on this being her farewell tour. And, given the well-publicized upheavals she has undergone in the past seven years – including a career-threatening bout of dysphonia, leaving her husband after he had an affair with her best friend, then marrying her best friend's former husband – Twain has much she could have shared.

She did, in fact, share those upheavals in her 2011 tell-all book, "At This Moment." Whether they will provide fuel for any future musical catharsis remains to be seen (her most recent album, "Up!", came out in 2002). It also remains to be seen if Rock This Country is really her farewell tour, or if – like many other stars before her – she finds the allure of doing concerts too great to resist. As Shania Twain's current stage wardrobe seems to suggest, she may not be the retiring type after all.

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