Review: Shania Twain's Stagecoach performance felt like an amazing computer simulation

Los Angeles Times
By Mikael Wood
April 30, 2017

Shania Twain sounded so good Saturday night at the Stagecoach country music festival that I briefly wondered if she’d been replaced by a robot.

Her perfect pitch wasn’t the only thing that raised that possibility.

Headlining the annual three-night event at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, Twain — whose performance was softening the ground before the release later this year of her first album in more than a decade — sang with incredible precision as she moved through the tightly crafted hits that made her one of the most successful pop stars on the planet in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”: Each was a masterful display of vocal control, with Twain navigating tricky intervals like someone sheltered in a private recording studio rather than standing on a dusty field whipped by desert winds.

Yet all the power she was bringing to the music — including a bouncy new tune, “Life’s About to Get Good” — kept blowing away between songs as she addressed the crowd in a weirdly stilted manner that suggested she’d never interfaced with another human.

“This is the party of the year for me,” she said with laughable emptiness at one point, the words seemingly determined by an algorithm. “I really feel very welcome.”

Later in the show, before “You’re Still the One,” she described her signature ballad as “a community spirit song” but made the community in question sound like a server farm.

And anyway that interpretation is exactly wrong: The reason “You’re Still the One” will live forever — why, indeed, it survived the breakup of Twain’s marriage to her former creative partner, Robert John “Mutt” Lange — is because it shrinks the world to the tiny space between two people. It’s a song that convinces you (if only for three minutes) that community is irrelevant.

I can understand Twain’s desire to reframe “You’re Still the One” as something else, of course. She’s said that her painful divorce is partly why it’s taken her so long to follow up her last album, 2002’s excellent “Up!”

Who’d want to remind herself every night of a broken promise? But the singer’s cheerful optimism wasn’t persuasive; it felt untested by any use in the real world.

That disconnected vibe was especially vexing because in other ways Stagecoach demonstrated Twain’s importance to the current country scene.

Earlier Saturday, Maren Morris played an impressive set that confidently blended traditional country sounds with slicker textures from pop and R&B — a once-heterodox gesture Twain helped normalize with her zillion-selling “Come On Over” album.

Elle King, known to many for her modern-rock hit “Ex’s & Oh’s,” similarly benefited from that evolution when she dropped in to sing “Different for Girls” with Dierks Bentley during his headlining performance on Friday night.

Morris and King were part of a larger female presence at this year’s festival that also included two singers whose proudly old-fashioned styles — Margo Price’s rough-and-tumble honky tonk and Nikki Lane’s ringing country-rock — take less direct inspiration from Twain.

Yet there’s no doubting Twain’s role in extending the womanly self-determination that’s resurged in country music recently following the decline of so-called bro country.

“It’s kind of a real female moment,” she observed before she brought out Kelsea Ballerini, another young country star deeply attuned to pop, to do “Any Man of Mine.” Twain went on to say that she was seeing signs of “female assertion,” then added in a kind of don’t-worry tone that men like it.

“They find it sexy,” she said.

Ballerini’s appearance was a clear indication that Twain, 51, wants her new music to reach listeners beyond her now-middle-aged demographic. So was a cameo by Nick Jonas, who turned up for an unannounced duet on Twain’s “Party for Two.”

But the chemistry in their performance was purely transactional; Twain spoke glowingly of Jonas before and after the song but in the most generic terms imaginable — “handsome,” “talented” and so forth — as if she’d merely selected him from a database, unconcerned with how they’d actually look together onstage before an audience.

Twain ended the show with a typically assured rendition of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” her exuberant late-’90s smash about going totally, thoroughly, unapologetically crazy.

Before she started the song, though, she told the crowd how much playing Stagecoach had meant to her — and how she planned to celebrate backstage.

Potato chips, she said. A huge bag. Dill-pickle flavored.