Music Review: Martina McBride, down-to-earth diva, at Radio City

Special to Newsday

May 21, 2007
The outfit that Martina McBride wore onstage at Radio City Friday night said a lot, both about her public persona and about the position she occupies on the stylistic map of popular music.

While the tails on her black jacket triggered thoughts of Fred .Astaire, the sequined pattern that ran down its front emphasized McBride's connection to decades of country-music royalty. Below that jacket was a leather belt covered in metal studs, the same kind you'd see in a Judas Priest video from the '80s.

And then there was the capper: a silver crucifix, dangling suggestively on a chain from the singer's right hip. McBride may be, as the words to one of her songs puts it, a God-fearin' woman, but she's not going to let that keep her from looking sexy.

This eclectic mix of fashion components showed just how comfortably McBride combines different styles. The 19 songs she sang only drove this message further home. From one tune to another, she morphed from a honky-tonk queen, to a tough rocker and to a pure-pop diva -- though her unpretentious chatter between numbers defused any notion of her being a .Streisand-style prima donna.

Particularly telling was the evening's choice of cover material. Early on came the gritty "She Ain't Woman Enough," first made famous by a singer McBride called "the original redneck woman," Loretta Lynn.

Later, she took a gutsy romp through Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." And for the final encore, she gave a nod to Judy Garland with her own showier version of "Over the Rainbow."

That last song was one of the set's few missteps, exposing McBride's Achilles heel -- a tendency to oversing. It's an understandable tendency, though. If you had pipes like hers, you might feel the temptation to show off, too.

McBride's voice is honey-sweet and stunningly pure, and when she leaps into her upper register and milks a note for every possible ounce of emotion -- as she did on "Where Would You Be" and "A Broken Wing" -- it's guaranteed to get a crowd on its feet.

There's more than a little Celine Dion in those big climactic sustained notes. Although McBride began her solo career in the early '90s as a country singer, newer songs such as "How I Feel," from her latest album "Waking Up Laughing," have more in common with Benatar than Lynn.

At this point, McBride is a model of the successful crossover artist. Apparently she can sing, or wear, whatever she wants and make it work for her.

Likable country boy Rodney Atkins and four-part harmony act Little Big Town opened the show. The latter's meticulous cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" was apt, since most of its other songs sounded like Fleetwood Mac.

MARTINA McBRIDE. A down-to-earth diva demonstrates for all to hear -- and see -- that she's mastered the fine art of the crossover. Seen Friday at Radio City Music Hall, Manhattan.

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