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Live review: Faith Hill at the Hollywood Bowl

July 18, 2009 |  7:30 am

“Dawg! When you hit that high note -- 'That’s the the way that love’s sup-POSE-ed to be' -- THAT was the Faith we’ve come to know and love throughout this competition. That was hot -- you ARE the next American Idol!!”

Oh, that’s right -- Faith Hill got the jump on "American Idol" long ago. Yet it was tough Friday not to keep watching from the wings during the opening of her two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl expecting Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul to pop out and give her a standing ovation.

She’s everything “AI” contestants strive to be: outwardly humble, vocally unrestrained, temperamentally not too hot, not too cold. Hill’s the diva for people who don’t like divas, so even-keeled there’s never a hint of the kind of distracting quirk that can come with a Whitney, Celine, Madonna or even a Kelly.

On Friday, that meant despite the added forces of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra behind her six-piece band and three backup singers, there was a striking shortage of musical electricity during the 65 minutes she was onstage.

Not a shortage of volume or sonic density given close to 100 musicians were there with her. But Hill’s music studiously avoids any sort of dynamic tension or thematic ambiguity that might give listeners a second thought. Or at times even a first one.

She noted that it was her first show of the year, outside of the performance she gave in January for the inauguration of President Obama. If her country-star hubby, Tim McGraw, ever makes a White House run, she’ll be the kind of first lady who never causes so much as a ripple of controversy: polite, gracious and not a rebellious bone in her fashion model body.

It’s also the formula for a singer who’s interested in hits, not one who’s particularly motivated to plumb the mysteries of the human heart, mind and soul. She introduced “Paris,” from her 2005 album “Fireflies,” as one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever sung, and true enough, this wistful ballad has a gorgeous melody whose appeal to a vocalist is a no-brainer.

But it’s one of those romantic cheats that too easily promise things the singer isn’t empowered to give:

I’d give this world to you
Every rock and every stone
Every masterpiece in Rome
But tonight I can’t give you Paris.

Even ignoring the fuzzy logic in Gordie Sampson, Troy Verges and Blair Daly’s lyric, there was none of the full-throttle passion that Texan Joe Ely pumped into “For Your Love,” a far superior examination of the lengths to which love can drive someone. That’s the kind of committed delivery it takes to makes you want to believe such over-the-top vows even when you know they’re beyond the reach of mortal beings.

It’s the same problem Hill ran into with “Mississippi Girl,” a song from the same album, which came after her pop-minded “Cry” album had country fans grousing that she’d turned her back on her roots. Eager to prove them wrong, she sang, “A Mississippi girl don’t change her ways,” sounding anything but credible as she belted it in her designer floral gown under a hair and makeup job that cost more than most of her fans’ cars.

She’s sold nearly 20 million albums in the U.S. in the last decade and a half, and not without reason: She has a versatile pop-soul voice that can go admirably gospel when she wants, as in her medley that saluted Aretha Franklin by stitching together “Dr. Feelgood” and her arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

But long before those nefarious two other Simons (Fuller and Cowell) started inflicting their vision of what music should be on the world, Hill opted to devote herself to pull-no-punches verses and overblown choruses,  giving discerning listeners only fleeting glimpses -- as on her impressively tender 1999 recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” -- into what artistic heart might reside behind those giant killer vocal cords.

Hill's conductor and orchestral arranger, David Campbell, occupied the first half with a refreshingly diverse program of music by Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Elliot Goldenthal and Ottorino Respighi and one selection from a musical he and his wife, Raven Kane Campbell, are working up.

-- Randy Lewis