Early on in her performance at Pier Six Saturday evening, Wynonna Judd peered out into the crowd and caught sight of a group of Stetson-topped dancers.
"Are y'all over there doing the Achy-Breaky dance?" she asked. The dancers, expecting to be complimented, nodded and waved enthusiastically. But Judd offered a mock scolding instead. "Don't be doing the Achy-Breaky dance to my songs," she said, to much laughter.
It was a good joke, and typical of her teasing, jes'-folks wit. But at the same time, it also made a valid point about the kind of country singer Wynonna Judd has become since going solo. Unlike "Achy-Breaky" heart-throb Billy Ray Cyrus, there's nothing calculated or contrived about Judd's attempts at country cross-over.
Because when you get right down to it, her pop appeal has less to do with the rock and soul trappings of her music than with her ability to translate country's traditional lack of pretense and from-the-heart feel into a convincingly contemporary context. And that, more than any dance beat, was what had the fans on their feet and cheering Saturday.
That's not to say the music didn't help; if anything, her concert interpretation of songs from her current album, "Wynonna," frequently surpassed the recorded versions. Some were helped by the circumstances, like "She Is His Only Need," which was given added poignancy when Wynonna invited a fan named Mark onstage so he could propose to his girlfriend. ("It's a good thing she said yes," joked Judd afterward. "My show would have been ruined!")
Most songs made their point musically, however, helped along by Judd's crack backing band. Although the eight-piece ensemble looked nothing like a country combo -- one guitarist dressed like a refugee from a new wave act in a ponytail and purple suit, while one of the backing singers sounded a little like Luther Vandross -- they had no trouble sounding like one. "My Strongest Weakness," for instance, had all the pathos of a Nashville weeper but none of the treacle, while "River of Time" and "Why Not Me" were performed with as much authority as when Wynonna sang with her mother.
On the whole, though, it was the pop-oriented tunes that shone brightest. From the easy-going groove of "What It Takes" to the semi-funky feel of "No One Else on Earth," Judd and company had no difficulty updating the rhythmic underpinnings of the Nashville sound, while "A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)" used its "Gloria"-style rhythm guitar line to show well this crew could rock.
But the evening's highlight was "Live with Jesus," which pumped the album's gospel-blues arrangement into something reminiscent of a classic Staples Singers single.