Miranda Lambert divulged the game plan for her Rupp Arena return last night within the opening minutes of a vibrant, inviting and thematically far-reaching performance. In that short space of time, she sang a storyline of homespun sensibility, one that was perhaps country in design but very worldly in its narrative scope — a trait that would play out in varying ways over the next hour and 45 minutes
Curiously, the song in question wasn’t one of her own hits, but rather a cover of a 40-year-old gem penned by one of America’s most revered songwriters, John Prine. The tune was “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.” While Prine sang it originally (and still does today) with a hapless, wide-eyed reserve, Lambert plugged the tune in and turned it into an Americana carnival packing a searing electric jolt that was also a forecast of what was to unfold.
What the Rupp crowd of 13,500 witnessed was, in essence, a kind of artistic duality. For die-hard fans, there were tunes full of rocking defiance that established Lambert’s musical reputation more than a decade ago — songs like “Kerosene” (which shot out of “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” like a bottle rocket) and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Lambert’s voice, while hardly the epitome of country poise, possessed a might that, once detonated, sailed into upper registers to give these early tunes a properly anthemic authority.
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But a considerable chunk of the show was devoted to newer music — specifically, a half dozen fine entries from 2016’s “The Weight of These Wings” album. Among the most expressive was “Vice,” a heartbreak tune cast in layers of elegiac cool but born out of an environment “where the numb meets the lonely.” Equally arresting was “Tin Man,” which echoed similar despondency (“Take it from me, darling, you don’t want a heart”) but without the orchestrated aid of Lambert’s eight member band. She instead performed the song alone with fitting but informal grace on acoustic guitar.
The crowd pleaser, though, came when Lambert welcomed Ashley Monroe and Martin County native (as well as one time Lexingtonian) Angaleena Presley onstage for an impromptu Pistol Annies outing. Though limited to a scant two songs (“Hell on Heels” and “Takin’ Pills”), the trio fully embraced and celebrated the electric independence of Lambert’s early music. It was, in essence, the diesel fuel that very much made her world go ’round.
The evening’s two show openers — Jon Pardi and The Steel Woods were remote footnotes amid Lambert’s pageantry. While Pardi displayed an honest immediacy in his performance energy, songs like “Cowboy Hat” and “Head Over Boots” still came off as the sort of numskull bro country product that sounded like it was written in a corporate board room with an early afternoon deadline. The show-opening Steel Woods fared better by recalling Chris Stapleton during his Southern rocking Jompson Brothers days. Hats off, also, to Woods guitarist Jason Cope, who provided “Straw in the Wind” and a set-opening cover of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Wild and Blue” with inventive, electric atmosphere.