It had all the makings of an explosive night as downtown Denver celebrated America’s 233rd birthday. Fireworks, miniature red, white and blue flags, roller coasters, beer ... and Sara Evans.
Then the rains came.
But that didn’t stop Evans, one of country-pop music’s dream queens from the past decade who recently hasn’t been the force she was while competing with the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill for No. 1 dominance on the charts a few years back.
Of course, there are several reasons why Evans has been low-profiling it since 2006, when she began going through a very public and very nasty divorce that not only created chaos in her life but interrupted her singing career (not to mention a chance to keep competing on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars).
So that slow climb back to the top has her playing in venues such as Elitch Arena, an open-air facility with metal bleacher seating on the grounds of Elitch Gardens, where musicians compete with the sounds of roller coasters and other nearby thrill rides. The concert was free with the price of admission to the amusement park.
None of that mattered, though, to Evans, who treated the wet and tired but enthusiastic crowd like they were Ryman royalty. Once the thunderstorms stopped and all the onstage puddles were soaked up, the RCA Nashville platinum-selling artist and her eight-member band (including brother Matt on bass and sisters Ashley and Lesley on backup vocals) put on an entertaining show that was made in the USA with tender-loving care.
Opening with “Desperately,” a tune unrecognized by many of her loyal fans from back in the heyday, Evans quickly moved onto familiar ground with two of her biggest hits, “Perfect” and “A Real Fine Place To Start.”
“I’ve got a brand new album coming out later on this year, and if it’s all right with you, we’re going to do several new songs tonight,” Evans, during her first break in the action, said before launching into “Anywhere.”
Evans looked tanned, rested and fit as a country fiddle. She wore an all-black ensemble with a revealing blouse and tight jeans that showed off her toned calves. The former member of People magazine’s "50 Most Beautiful" list was sporting a fabulous new ’do, too, a sexy, angled cut that might send a jealous Kate Gosselin back to the stylist.
Remarried to former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker in June 2008, life these days in Birmingham, Ala., apparently agrees with the 38-year-old singer-songwriter who grew up on a farm in Missouri, the oldest girl in a family of seven children. Her new home might be only 180 miles away from Nashville, but it’s light years removed from the hectic pace and pressures of the Music City, where Evans first arrived in 1991.
On several occasions throughout the show, Evans lovingly mentioned Barker, who attended the show but remained behind the scenes. However, his four children – Andrew, Braxton, and twins Sarah Ashlee and Harrison (pictured at right with Evans) – shared the spotlight with their stepmom before she introduced their favorite song of hers, the foot-stomping “Suds In the Bucket,” one of Evans’ four No. 1 singles.
With three children of her own creating a Brady Bunch-like household, Evans proudly rattled off all their ages (10, 9, 9, 7, 7, 6, 4), then promoted her next single “Feels Just Like A Love Song.”
“I hope it will be my next No. 1 ...,” she said before joking, “because I’ve got seven children to support.”
A cool and confident performer, the easy-going Evans, who will release her first novel (The Sweet By and By) in September, possesses comedic ability and timing. She amused the audience with stories about her family (past and present), and playfully picked on her brother, who co-writes many of her most popular songs. Growing up, Evans allowed, “Matt played Barbie dolls with me all the time.” Then she revealed that he once cut off all the hair of her Bionic Woman Barbie because he thought the doll had lice. “I’ve never forgiven him,” she said in mock disgust.
The interaction with her sisters was cute, too. Remembering how they wanted to be like the Mandrell Sisters, Evans brought Lesley (the blonde) and Ashley (left, with Sara and Lesley) front and center, where the trio casually sat on stools for a three-song set. That included Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” with luscious three-part harmonies, followed by what Evans called “a very sad country, country, country song,” another new selection co-written with her brother, “What That Drink Cost Me.”
Her brief appearance on Dancing With the Stars undoubtedly helped improve Evans’ stage moves, although she’s always had that finger-wave (apparently in every female country singer’s repertoire) down pat. Moving effortlessly from one side of the stage to the other, she often mingled with fiddler Jonathan Lawson and lead guitarists Brent Wilson and Justin Ostrander. Both guitarists (Wilson, far right, with Ostrander and Evans) were given several chances to shine, especially during “I Keep Looking,” a song that first appeared on 2000’s Born To Fly and was recycled on her Greatest Hits album in 2007.
While members of the audience, perhaps eager for one last ride on the Sidewinder before closing time, hesitated slightly before encouraging Evans to return for an encore, they certainly seemed satisfied with the end result.
Little girls were dancing with their dads and redneck cowboys were whooping it up when Evans and Co. pulled out all the stops for the finale, a cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me.”
The brightly colored stage lights at Elitch Arena might not compare with the high wattage likely to electrify the nearby 19,000-seat Pepsi Center on July 15, when Sugarland and Keith Urban invade Denver. But for a night of wholesome, family fun, this country ought to thank heavens for Ms. Evans.
The winner of numerous top female vocalist awards, who earlier had admitted, “I forgot it was the Fourth of July,” did make it a night to remember with her first encore. There was a patriotic (OK, and somewhat corny) slant to her introduction.
“We wish you a very happy Fourth of July,” she said. “I know we’re all so grateful to live in such an amazing country and that’s why we’re celebrating. And I know we all feel this way. It’s the same way that I felt the first time I ever heard this song ... about how lucky and how blessed we all are. And I truly believe this, in my heart, that ‘I Could Not Ask For More.’ “
She proceeded to belt out Edwin McCain’s soaring song, a near-No. 1 for Evans in 2001 that highlights her powerful voice and amazing lung capacity.
This All-American girl fittingly left with a bang, not a whimper.
• See more Denver concert photos of Sara Evans at flickr.com.
• See one of Sara Evans webisodes from her current tour below: