Tuesday night’s three-hour Universal Amphitheater concert was one of the better values around town: headliner Ricky Van Shelton is a star, second-billed Sammy Kershaw is a major talent, and third-billed Martina McBride has a current Top-5 single.
Last summer, Shelton brought a terrific show to the Universal. The Virginian’s strong voice and selection of material drawing heavily from hits of the ’50s and ’60s that present-day country radio ignores are a throwback to the glorious days of Wynn Stewart, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce and other male country stars who defined the genre before it wimped out in the ’60s and ’70s.
Sony/Epic artist Shelton has an ability to sell lyrics that marks him as the obvious heir to the late Conway Twitty’s title as “the best friend a song ever had.”
While the voice and material remain just as powerful, singer’s current show suffers from his success: In an effort to top himself, he’s spending money unwisely.
Even Shelton would probably admit that he’s not the most charismatic performer around; he’s attempting to compensate with a garish, distracting stage set (the most overwhelming aspect being a mock-up diner), and a plethora of Vari-Lites, kept in constant motion throughout the show.
Tuesday, he brought on eleven line-dancers, who evidently worked with him while taping an episode of “Baywatch” to be aired early next year. To say that the singer doesn’t need all this folderol is an understatement — it works against him.
Sammy Kershaw, second billed, is the Real Thing and so far hasn’t had the opportunity to overglitz himself. A straight-ahead George Jones disciple, the Louisiana-born singer has a strong ear for contemporary material, and a natural easy vitality onstage.
Tuesday’s set included material from his first two Polygram/Mercury albums, most impressively the title song from the new one, “Haunted Heart,” which sounds like a great old Hank Williams number.
Acknowledging Florida rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd as an influence, Kershaw and his terrific band turned in a rocking version of Merle Haggard’s “Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man” in Skynyrd’s style.
Martina McBride, added to the tour when Lorrie Morgan bailed (ostensibly to work on her next album), performed a brief set including the current No. 2 single, “My Baby Loves Me.” Standing in Morgan’s shadow at BMG/RCA, perky Kansan McBride isn’t receiving the kind of attention she deserves; an excellent singer — an a cappella encore of “O Holy Night” was one of the evening’s standouts — she deserves stronger material and more inspired arrangements.