Better than: Every other currently touring Nashville hitmaker, for reasons gone into below.
The short version: Blake Shelton showed up. The Pistol Annies did five songs. Lambert's band actually rocked when it tried to rock, and then got first-rate old-timey when required, and then slopped through a cockeyed "King of the Road" for an encore. For once, some of the songs at a country-music concert sounded like what my grandpa would call "hillbilly music." Introducing "All Kinds of Kinds," Lambert said, "They expect me to act a certain way and look a certain way and weigh 100 pounds -- and I don't. But I'm looking out at 15,000 people who just like me enjoy a cold beer on a Friday night."
Then all 15,000 cheered the beautiful famous singing woman for being just like us, knowing she would do exactly the same if things were reversed and she were alone in the crowd and all of us were onstage presenting a well-rehearsed summation of our insecurities for her to identify with.
Her voice is stronger live than the pinched-up, too often too pitch-corrected voice on the radio suggests it will be. Miranda Lambert has a heap of great songs, more than any just-four-CDs-in Nashville star should, and she chooses them well, and she's a talent that would be absolutely adored by smart people who are country-curious but indisposed to current mainstream country if those people would be just a touch less smart and get over that silvery pitch-correction sound that lightnings through every phrase Lambert sings on Revolution, her best record. She's more impressive live than on record, and on record she's goddamn great.
Long Version: After bashing through six stellar, fight -pickin' rock/folk/country/whatever songs from her first-rate recent records and her pretty-strong debut, Miranda Lambert and her band lit into "All Kinds of Kinds," a gorgeous, lilting, we're-all-in-the-same-gang waltz that should by rights storm pretty much any radio category still dedicated to tradition-minded white folks.
This tour being a modern Nashville production, music-video nonsense streams on a barn-sized monitor behind her -- it's all dirt roads and heartland vistas and sometimes a tank-topped Miranda Lambert getting uppity about some dickhead boy. (Hell-raising Fury is her persona, and the country-star rulebook dictates that stars hold to their characters as firmly as professional wrestlers do theirs.) But this being a Miranda Lambert show, the songs and the performance don't need the multimedia distraction, as we see as "All Kinds of Kinds" winds down with the graceful, string-band coda that -- on record -- is one of the top guitar-layering moments in contemporary music:
Great as that was, after "All Kinds of Kinds" something greater still occurred. Lambert was joined onstage by Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, her troublemaking compatriots in Pistol Annies, a newish country-girl supergroup that is upending the gender norms of Nashville outlawism and (much more importantly) kicking ass. The Annies treated us to the tense, lush harmonies of the wicked anti-spiritual "Hell on Heels" and four other songs from their highly recommended debut record.
The best of these is Presley's "Lemon Drop," but "Hell on Heels" is the most interesting and radical. A slow-building dirge with a dark chanted vocal, the song is mock-serious boast of bad behavior: blessed with beauty and brains these women target dumbass men and then make off with houses, rings, and cars in the divorces.
After years of female revenge songs, and many more years of ramblin' menbreaking every heart they can, perhaps this was inevitable: An amoral empowerment fantasy that's not, for once, made palatable by the singer(s) having been wronged by some no-good man. These are crazy ex-girlfriends: These are shrewd, calculating women employing the gifts they've come by naturally to acquire the wealth they desire. Good looks and alimony are to the Annies what crack is in gangsta rap -- the only means available.
Anyway, here's the incredible thing about Friday's show, from the Annies to the Blake Shelton song to Lambert's wide-ranging string of hits: Live, the music was just as loose, sloppy, and grand as on the record. The Annies set involved a stand-up bass, a free downhome feel, and -- blessedly -- no projected videos. Earlier, bruising through "The Fastest Girl in Town" -- a killer recent rock tune that says nothing new but does re-establish her bad-girl bona fides -- Lambert's band worked up the fury and abandon of rock and rollers. Every fourth song in most Nashville shows is a straight-ahead rocker, but the bands -- Toby Keith's, Kenny Chesney's, whoever's -- rarely achieve that crash-along urgency of great rock. When TK does his godawful Ted Nugent cover, the musicians never sound like they've been unleashed -- they sound like skilled players polishing off a number. Lambert's is the first Nashville road-crew I've heard in years that doesn't play rock like they're the pit band in a Broadway touting company.
An aside about rock in country music: You know who needs to shut the hell up? Guys who complain that today's country sounds like classic rock. (It's always guys.) What these fools forget is that today's country audience likes it that way, and that country -- far from being some back hills, hard-times music picked out by sons of the soil on their dobros -- has always been a mongrel mess just like everything and everybody else in American life.
Adults who listen to country radio grew up on Tom Petty and Def Leppard and "Gin & Juice" but then maybe didn't cotton to all that mopey, sour-chorded modern rock that took over in the early nineties. No place else on the radio plays new music that sounds like Petty or Springsteen or the Rolling Stones, so Nashville has claimed it, set in lyrics that reassure that everything's good in America despite what the other radio stations say, and nobody worries over any of this except guys with hang ups about authenticity in pop music -- and worrying about that makes about as much sense as trying to source the specific farm that your McNuggets came from.
In short: Nashville's purview now includes all pop and rock sounds that white America has ever liked, right up to grunge and "Baby Got Back." This is fine. You know how Wynton Marsalis sounds like a dumbass when he argues that, say, Miles Davis' electric period isn't real jazz? You don't want to sound like that.
Okay, back to Miranda Lambert: Despite playing the hell-hath-no-fury role on hit after hit, and one full LP titled -- ugh -- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert has long flirted with singer-songwriter-ism. She's covered choice Fred Eaglesmith and Gillian Welch songs; she's written a clutch of her signature hits -- including "Dead Flowers" a metaphor-driven bad-relationship power ballad touched with something like majesty.
"The House That Built Me," one of her best and biggest hits, is itself an argument for what country radio does better than any other format: Here's a plaintive, under-produced slip of a song (by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin) about a woman visiting the house she grew up in not for reasons of nostalgia but to see if it might hold some truth that could help heal all that's fucked up in her life.
Friday night, opening her encore, Lambert sang Merle Haggard's masterpiece "Misery and Gin." "The House That Built Me" doesn't match Hag's melody, which I swear is the sound of ice melting and barfly slumping, but as far as standing-tall great songwriting goes, "The House That Built Me" is almost it's equal: Here, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is no longer a cartoon but a troubled young woman trying to sort her shit out in healthier ways than that bottle of ol' Hag's -- a bottle that, like the house that built you, is bound to let you down.
Lambert's at her best when she marries the hitmaking hellion character with the mature artist. Impressively, she nailed this on her self-penned breakthrough hit. "Kerosene"-- perhaps her band's finest, most brawling rock moment Friday night-- is an ace rewrite of Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright," itself an ace rewrite of The Godfathers' "Birth, School, Work, Death."
The Annies, the opening acts, and a heap of others sang a drunk-sounding "King of the Road" together to close the night. It was a mess of a singalong, but still great fun, a fitting reminder of what great country or rock or whatever offers: The chance for everybody open to it to feel the same big thing everybody else is, whether that big thing is frisky dumb fun, like Roger Miller's song, or the fantasy of being an acquisitional sexpot, or the awesomeness of having taken revenge against the lover who dicked you over, or -- most remarkably -- an adult trying to recall what life felt like before it all got cocked up.
Lambert and company have the songs, the grit, and the heart to make all this true, three minutes at a time.
Here's the songs they played:
Fastest Girl in Town
All Kinds of Kinds
Hell on Heels (Pistol Annies)
Lemon Drop (Pistol Annies)
Bad Example (Pistol Annies)
The Hunter's Wife (Pistol Annies)
Takin' Pills (Pistol Annies)
Some Rock Song About Rolling in the Hay Whose Title I didn't Catch