On Saturday night, Wynonna finds her soul side

BSO musicians mute their playing

MusicReview

March 22, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

After a while, you wondered why they were even there.

Sporting magnolia-white tuxedo jackets, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sat behind Wynonna Judd's tight rhythm section looking like mannequins - their instruments at rest during most of her show at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday night. But when the orchestra did join in, usually during the tender ballads and poppy mid-tempo numbers, the effect worked, often beautifully.

The stage definitely belonged to the full-figured country star with the flame-red hair. The performance may have been billed as Wynonna with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but it was more like a country-rock groove-a-thon with occasional strings and muted horns. The singer's 10-piece band provided a rock-solid foundation for the lush, economical arrangements. The packed house - a mixed group of people sporting fat diamonds and designer hand bags seated next to folks with cowboy hats and mullet hair cuts - was responsive all night: Lookin' good, girl! We love you, Wynonna! Wy-nona rocks!

She smiled and nodded, graciously accepting bouquets between songs and looking cool in a black and burgundy crushed velvet suit. (The two fans constantly blowing on her at the edge of the stage surely kept the cool look intact.) But chatting was at a minimum as Wynonna slid from one rocker to the next, covering the greatest hits of her 14-year solo career.

Her latest album, the seamlessly exuberant and overlooked What the World Needs Now is Love, and Saturday's show suggest that the Kentucky-born performer is embracing more of the sultry, soulful side that was always part of her sound. It was usually buried under sappy pop productions. On her latest album and at the Meyerhoff, blazing threads of gospel, Southern R&B and rootsy rock embolden Wynonna's musical tapestry.

She opened her hour-and-a-half set with "(No One's Gonna) Break Me Down," a no-nonsense number off the new CD, and followed it with the high-octane "I Saw the Light," a smash from her triple-platinum 1992 self-titled debut. It was well into the show - after the first 20 minutes or so - that the orchestra awoke, adding sweeping strings to "Heaven Help Me."

The symphonic touches were subtle, never overwhelming Wynonna's warm vocals, which have evolved well since her days of singing with mom Naomi Judd. The unmistakable twang is still there, but her phrasing Saturday night suggested more Aretha Franklin than Tammy Wynette. When her three background singers weren't busy with their cute, simple dance steps, they bolstered Wynonna's soul-laden vocals with runs and flourishes straight out the black Baptist church.

"It pays to believe in dreams as I move forward to my destination," Wynonna told the house. Where she's trying to go personally, who knows? (She certainly won't be driving to that "destination." In December, a Tennessee judge took away her license for a year after the singer was busted for driving under the influence in Nashville last November.) Musically, though, Wynonna's direction is clear: The approach is bluesy, rock-influenced and satisfying.

The highlights of her show were definitely the ballads: the wistful "Love By Grace," the sublimely poetic "Flies on the Butter," and a stirring a capella take on "How Great Thou Art." Her rendition of Elvis' "Burning Love" could have been the corniest moment of the evening, but it worked.

She ended her show with her biggest hit, "No One Else on Earth," to which the orchestra added punchy, Stax-like horns and sharp strings. The house sang the chorus with the country sensation. And as Wynonna left the stage, everybody, including the stiffs in the tuxedo jackets, was rockin'.

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