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Martina McBride: The thorns amid love's red roses

February 15, 2012 |  5:10 pm

Martina McBride takes a skeptical look at romance in her Valentine's Day show at the Nokia Theatre.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride is an unlikely choice for a Valentine's Day concert. In one of the country star's best-known songs, “Independence Day,” she describes a battered woman who burns down her house, while the “it” in her current single, “I'm Gonna Love You Through It,” refers to breast cancer. Disease, domestic abuse, “teenagers walking around in a culture of darkness” (as she puts it in “Love's the Only House”): Calamity always looms in a Martina McBride song, even — or especially — when the song sounds like it should be about shopping for shoes.

Nevertheless, there was McBride on Tuesday evening at the Nokia Theatre, the main attraction in a Valentine's Day benefit for the PGA Tour Charities. Red lighting bathed the venue's lobby; onstage, a DJ from radio station Go Country 105 FM wondered how many wives had dragged their husbands to the show. Date-night sexy in a pair of shiny, skin-tight trousers, McBride was cheery enough between songs, introducing “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong” as a tune about “good friends and drinking wine” and ribbing her younger brother, who plays guitar in her touring band, for recently getting married — “again.” (“It's OK,” she added. “We like this one.”)

In the songs themselves, though, McBride assumed a series of positions, from sorrow to indifference to outright hostility, that seemed at odds with the occasion. (This was a good thing.) “Whatcha Gonna Do,” from last year's impressive album “Eleven,” warned a hot-and-cold lover to put his priorities in order, but did so in language entirely drained of passion: “You miss me, you want me, you need me / Whatever.” She was similarly aloof in “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong,” one of the peppiest of her would-be shoe-shopping numbers; the wine, it turns out, accompanies some stern advice to a pal recently dumped. “It ain't the end of the world,” McBride sang, “'Cause now that he's gone … you got nothing to lose.”

Other songs contained more emotion but felt no less skeptical of the hollow certitude that Valentine's Day embodies. 

In “One Night,” which opened her 80-minute performance, McBride contrasted the joy of a romantic tryst with the humdrum reality surrounding it; the same went for “My Baby Loves Me,” in which she sang of a partner's tolerance for the “dark clouds in my eyes.” Even “Valentine,” originally a late-'90s duet with the adult-contemporary singer-pianist Jim Brickman, seemed to dwell on the inevitability of disaster, what might happen if “the sun refused to shine” or “romance ran out of rhyme.”

McBride was best — and most vividly lifelike — in a mid-show stretch that began with “I'm Gonna Love You Through It,” the singer's first top 10 country hit since 2007. At the Nokia, she recalled hearing the songwriters' demo and thinking it might be a tune that “might lift somebody up.” That was the case Tuesday in more than one sense; McBride's performance received a standing ovation. But she wasn't doling out cheap sentiment or pushing buttons permanently ready to be pushed. Instead, she emphasized the unashamed candor of the song's lyric, digging into the phrase “baggy shirts” like an actor in a Stephen Sondheim musical.

After her fans resumed their seats, McBride changed gears completely for “Teenage Daughters,” a salty comic number from “Eleven” in which she refreshed familiar complaints about child-rearing with a tone that oozed firsthand experience. 

Then, somehow, she pivoted again, this time to the wistful sweetness of “Long Distance Lullaby,” about tucking her kids into bed over the phone from the road. It was the concert's only concession to greeting-card corn, but McBride's canny positioning of the song blunted its impact. Or perhaps the positioning strengthened it. By that point in the show, she'd gained your trust, so you swallowed the sugar as though it were one more spoonful of medicine.


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Image: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times