On the front cover of her most recent release, “The Weight of These Wings,” which came out in late 2016, Miranda Lambert appeared in a long, soft dress, holding an acoustic guitar case, standing on front of a pair of angel wings — imagery clearly meant to convey that the double album would emphasize the star’s more reflective side. The cover art was fair, if subtle, warning to casual country fans who might still associate her with her earliest signature hits — pistol-packin’ mama songs like “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Kerosene” — that the new music would present Lambert as tarnished angel, not avenging wraith.
But how to present herself in concert, after this turn toward more introspective balladry in the studio? Before Lambert came out on stage for her headlining gig Saturday at L.A.’s Forum, the symbol projected on the rear curtain sent out an appropriately mixed message: The wings from that album cover were overlaid with a pair of pistols. She might be in a quieter mood nowadays on record, but on tour, Lambert will always be expected to take her guns to town.
The singer is nine dates into the 23-city “Livin’ Like Hippies” tour, and there are other symbols of Lambert’s colliding sensibilities than just that wings-‘n’-firearms symbol. She is a heroine to the alt-country crowd — the smart part of that audience, anyway — as well as a mainstream country superstar, and the tour’s triple bills reflect that. The middle act on the entire trek is Jon Pardi, the lovable young California honky-tonker who has developed almost overnight into one of the most popular acts at country radio. Meanwhile, the opening slots have been given over to a rotation of slightly more edgy or Americana-leaning artists, like Brent Cobb, the Turnpike Troubadours, Sunny Sweeney, and, at the Forum, British country singer Lucie Silvas. If opening-act curation can be its own form of self-revelation for a headliner, she’s done a pretty savvy job of that this go-round.
As for her own headlining performance, the name of the tour is a misnomer, albeit a cute one. (“Livin’ Like Hippies” comes from a lyric in “Highway Vagabond,” one of the few non-single album tracks Lambert performed Saturday.) There’s nothing particularly Woodstock-ian about a set that burns through 21 songs, most of them hits, in a tight, breathless 85 minutes. Lambert may take a lot of chances on her recordings, but she leaves almost nothing to chance on stage. You see less of the Lambert who almost always wins the CMA Award for album of the year than the Lambert who should’ve won the entertainer of the year but hasn’t.
If the show didn’t include much in the way of deep cuts, there’s depth aplenty to Lambert’s so-called shallow cuts; it’s the greatest run of singles that any country artist has produced in the 21st century. The breadth of hits she performed Saturday was something any other contemporary figure should aspire to. A large-scale painting of Monument Valley provided the backdrop for the mortality-themed “Over You,” equaled on the tear-jerking scale by “The House That Built Me,” a song about how you can go home again, for 10 minutes. Her fringe-y boots were made for stomping in “Mama’s Broken Heart,” during which you might have thought you heard her putting some extra vim into the “acting like a lady” line, though it’s surely always been there.
In-between these poles of sass and salty tears were some of the more underrated minor hits, like the wry inclusiveness of “All Kinds of Kinds” and the defiantly sad sinfulness of “Vice.” When Lambert introduces something as “a drinkin’ song,” you know that what comes next — in this case, the post-evangelical theological treatise “Heart Like Mine” — is going to be only nominally that simple.
The playful “Pink Sunglasses,” “We Should Be Friends,” and “Bathroom Mirror,” in particular, reminded us how much we lose by locking women out of country: determinedly feminine in subject matter, and universal enough to make every guy in the audience think, “Man, I feel like a woman” (with apologies to you-know-who).
On the covers front, opening act Silvas joined Lambert for a show-highlighting duet of the Etta/Aretha/Burritos classic “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Lambert also characteristically throws a more hard-rocking ‘70s number into her shows, with “Tush” and “Stay With Me” being a staple of past tours; now, she’s inserting Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” toward the end of the set, though it’s not clear what value this faithful rendition brings to the show, other than something familiar for the non-country-loving dates in the audience to latch onto.
Lambert didn’t tell the full house at the Forum why she chose those two covers, and she didn’t explain much else, either. The one moment she opened up to the crowd was when she prefaced “Tin Man,” one of the singles from “The Weight of These Wings,” by saying, “I had a really shitty year in 2015, and I wrote some really good country songs.” Aside from that, she was surprisingly light on stage patter for a headliner. (When she spoke about the heart-wrenching “Over You,” it was simply to tag on a quick “Thank you for that song,” which is country-ese for “Thank you for making that a No. 1.”) It seems as if she never trained herself away from the need for sheer efficiency that is drilled into country acts in the years they spend in Pardi’s position, whereas if she ever allowed herself to open up and become a storyteller on stage, she could be country’s Bruce Springsteen.
But if she’s mostly business on stage, business is awfully good in a set that — speaking of wings — seems to fly by, its hour and a half up almost before it was getting started. It’s hard to argue with Lambert when she tells interviewers that her audience gets all the candor its needs in the songs, the selection of which on this tour effectively furthers the case for her as the most important and full-bodied country artist to have come along so far this century. Changing the world’s expectations of what “acting like a lady” means in country is a weight she continues to wear as well as all that fringe.