Live: Wynonna at Lake Tahoe Music Festival & Northstar at Tahoe
It’s not often the venue for any concert is as much a part of the discussion as the performance, but for the Wynonna Judd show during the Lake Tahoe Music Festival at Northstar at Tahoe this past Saturday, that was definitely the case.
Quite the unique experience awaits attendees as they pull into Northstar at Tahoe–a longtime established ski resort during the winter and a community of mostly vacation and retirement homes by summer. After parking in the large lots reserved for wintertime skiers, large state-of-the-art buses pick concertgoers up and take them into the heart of the ski village where restaurants, bars and shopping experiences await those that arrive early enough. Electronic signage and volunteers everywhere assist with finding the gondolas–the same gondolas that run attendees up the face to the top of Northstar Mountain. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the incredibly peaceful, mile-plus ride that rose over 1,000 vertical feet up the mountainside. (The actual summit is 8,610 feet in elevation.) At the end of the gondola ride was a stage that had been set up in the middle of a flat spot on a wide ski run and a recently sod grass hillside for a attendance of roughly 1,500 people. Behind the stage is the North Tahoe basin of the Eastern Sierra Mountains with Martis Lake off in the distance. Lake Tahoe isn’t in view, but is just over the mountain a few minutes down the road. The scenery and environment are unmatched. As the concert got underway, the temperature was perfect in the low 70’s.
Seating arrangements were three-fold: Sponsors and special guests had 20 rows of seats or so and the rest of the crowd had two general lawn-seating areas. They called it ‘Preferred’ and ‘General.’ We thought it ‘Close’ and ‘Closer.’ As we entered the seating area, we were handed two low-back folding chairs given to those without chairs of their own as to not block the vision of those behind. Multiple wine-tasting and wine vendor booths were sprawled around the venue. It was difficult not to be impressed by the grandeur of it all–and all of that’s before Wynonna ever came out and sang a note.
Much to the delight of the crowd, she came out right on time–looking healthier and better than she has in recent years–and kicked right in with the brassy “If the House Is a Rockin.” She was involved in a serious car wreck just a week or two before this performance and showed no signs of stiffness or discomfort dancing around the stage. Wynonna was supremely backed by a solid and professional band, featuring two guitarists that switched from electric to acoustic to mandolin seamlessly depending on the number, a bass player, a drummer, two back-up singers and a keyboardist.
She finished up the first song and announced to everyone in the audience, “Hi, I’m Wynonna and I’m attitude personified.” That became the theme of the night. Like VH1 Storytellers, Wynonna would share personal stories of growing up with her Mom and sister, Ashley–always with sass and oftentimes self-deprecating. In between songs, she’d alternate between lessons learned throughout her career and hysterically chastising those who arrived late or had to get up to use the restroom. One poor guy (who took it all in stride) had her commenting all his way to the porta-potty. And on his return, she started right back in again. “Are you going to be able to make it the rest of the show, now, huh?” Her trademark growl came out several times throughout the night, reminding me that she’s really the female country “Elvis” of our time. One break was spent talking about her dedication and performance at Tammy Wynette’s funeral service and how a comment she made about how country radio ignored the legend at the end of her career really hurt her own relationship with radio in general. The comment was philosophical, but her attitude of “I have to say and do what’s in my heart” really played well to the crowd and spoke volumes about where she is in her career these days.
At one point during the event, she stopped and made a comparison between where she was now and where she was growing up. She remarked that when she was growing up on welfare up on a mountain side with a single mom who worked long hours and a younger sister she had to take care of, she couldn’t wait to get off that mountain. Now, here she was full circle on a mountainside again. Only this one was okay because it had a Ritz Carlton on it. “Room service is going to be up all night tonight, everybody!”
Her voice is as powerful and strong as ever and gained strength and power as the night went on. That brassy and sassy persona carried forth into her singing and gave it an edge and uniqueness that is specifically Wynonna. Her voice is big and bold and rose to the occasion on the slower songs that she covered. After her opening number, she did four straight classic hits of her own including, “No One Else on Earth,” “Tell Me Why,” “Rock Bottom,” and “Only Love.” A fan in the front row pleaded for “To Be Loved By You” next and after making the lady promise that she wasn’t a stalker, satisfied the fan with the beautiful soft ballad.
Wynonna has had no shortage of covers in her career and her most recent album, Sing: Chapter 1, has many different tributes on it. She went on about how every artist needs those to look up to and take them by the hand–for girls she called them her “Sheros.” Female heros. She performed songs from classic 1930’s tunes such as The Boswell Sister’s “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” to modern soft rock anthems such as Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is.” She flipped genres fluidly from Haggard to Christian band MercyMe to Tammy Wynette to Elvis. Wynonna commented how, at this stage of her career, she really has musical ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) which is why she borrows so easily from many genres. Each cover was unique in its semi-country arrangement, always honoring the original version but allowing Wynonna to put her own take-no-prisoners attitude in the song. The balance never swung too far either way.
The encore brought Wynonna back out for two last numbers, both of which she played an acoustic guitar with a much quieter set behind her. But that wasn’t all that was behind her: the setting sun across the valley and adjoining mountains cast an amazing sunset that combined multiple shades of yellows, blues, oranges and reds. Evidently Mother Nature knows how to run special effects as good as any concert operator.
Her first song upon returning was the classic “Grandpa (Tell Me Bout’ The Good Ole Days)” which was followed up with the other huge Judds hit, “Love Can Build A Bridge.” Over the course of the two songs, the evening darkened up on the hill. Wynonna let the crowd finish the chorus of “Bridge” completely on their own to end the concert, giving at least two of us in the audience goose bumps–and it wasn’t from the Sierra Nevada chill. As Wynonna left the stage to a standing ovation, the first stars of the evening began poking through the evening sky and reminded me that, while Wynonna’s own star may have faded a bit on current country radio, for this night she shone as brightly as any in the night sky.
“The House Is Rockin’”
“No One Else On Earth”
“Tell Me Why”
“To Be Loved By You”
“That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (Boswell Sisters Cover)
“Don’t Advertise Your Man” (Sippie Wallace Cover)
“Til’ I Get It Right” (Tammy Wynette Cover)
“Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)” (Merle Haggard Cover)
“Burning Love” (Elvis Cover)
“I Can Only Imagine” (MercyMe Cover)
“I Want To Know What Love Is” (Foreigner Cover)
“Grandpa (Tell Me Bout’ The Good Ole Days)”
“Love Can Build A Bridge”
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