Miranda Lambert Blends Old and New on Highway Vagabond Tour Stop in Connecticut

Andrew Lipovsky/NBC
Miranda Lambert performs on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' on Nov. 17, 2016. 

"Let's do a drinking song," Miranda Lambert said early in her set at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena Saturday night (Feb. 4) -- certainly an expected exhortation at any arena country show, where the Budweiser and bourbon flow with equal abundance.

But when Lambert started singing self-deprecating layman's anthem "Heart Like Mine," it was neither as anonymous party-starter nor reserved A-list country conservative -- for the first time in a long time, fans at her just launched Highway Vagabond tour got to see the woman who both takes a few tries to get her drink back in the mic-stand cup holder and writes the confessional, deeply down-to-earth songs they can't shake. To paraphrase her current single, Lambert made it feel like just maybe we should all be friends.

The temptation for the country veteran (and easily the genre's most important female star) to avoid vulnerability, onstage and off, is understandable. "I got a divorce in 2015," she said just before singing "Ugly Lights," addressing the elephant in the room that's followed her since she married another of country's biggest stars, Blake Shelton, in 2011. Unrelenting tabloid coverage of their relationship and split meant that the stories in her songs became secondary to the inescapable coverlines of Us Weekly and People, a dissonance that seems to have finally ended with her undeniably personal 2016 album The Weight Of These Wings.

Finally, her stories are her own again: "It really sucked, as divorces always do, so I started drinking a little more," Lambert continued. "Mostly at a bar in Nashville called Losers -- of course -- and after I was there three nights in a row until last call, I decided to write a song about it." She proceeded to sing "Lights" with all the theatricality of a cabaret singer, and none of the artifice.

Fittingly, the arena shrank to the size of a Nashville dive as Lambert ran through a series of sassy confessionals: "Vice," "Mama's Broken Heart," "Baggage Claim," "We Should Be Friends," "Little Red Wagon" (during which she smacked her own ass), and another new standout "Pink Sunglasses," where she conceded to her sole costume change, a pair of fuchsia Ray-Bans.

In concert, these songs (along with earlier fire-starting singles "Kerosene" and "Gunpowder and Lead") show Lambert at her devil-may-care best: her singing is reliably flawless, but when she's telling someone off (including herself) her skill as a story-teller really shines through. "Sunglasses," which on Wings is fairly laconic, was transformed live into a swaying, belting last-call anthem.

Lambert, with shades on and her arm around her backup singer Gwen Sebastian, danced how she probably also does to Drake -- while selling every word of the song. Others were sprinkled with commentary ("This is my favorite line," she said before singing Kerosene's "I don't hate the one who left/you can't hate someone who's dead"), which, given Lambert's recent press-shyness, made the set feel especially intimate. Lambert struts and shimmies and strums in a manner one expects more from a rock star than from a country singer, but that's precisely what makes her so magnetic. More than one song ended with a James Brown-esque wave of the hand -- it's Lambert's stage, yet somehow instead of feeling like outsiders looking in, it's like we're right up there with her.

The only place that refreshing candor faltered was when it came to politics -- understandable, though not necessarily excusable, given that it's a sore point in most contemporary country music. Though some speculation has pointed to Wings' "For The Birds" as commentary on the political climate, the track came and went without even the vaguest mention of current events.

"I wrote this song from the perspective of not giving a shit what anybody thinks about me," was as outspoken as she got. The same happened with "All Kinds Of Kinds," the nebulous-enough-to-be-unthreatening ode to inclusivity off Four The Record that's more explicit about welcoming people in freak shows than of different races or religions. The intended kumbaya moments fell flat -- instead, they arrived with (of course) Lambert's infallible, evocative "House That Built Me" and the newer "Tin Man," with which she brought down the house while all alone onstage.

After playing for about an hour and 15 minutes, Lambert wiped away a tear as she thanked the crowd for attending, who by then were hanging on her every word. Three words were projected on the set's backdrop while a few thousand of her new friends trickled out onto the casino floor, truer maybe even than the fact that one of 2017 country's most important artists is also one of its most fun to watch: Music is medicine.


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