WINNIPEG - They may not have been serving any booze, but it still looked an awful lot like Ladies Night at the MTS Centre yesterday.
Partly, the illusion could be chalked up to an abundance of female fans in the stands (and on the concourse, where the lines snaking out of the women's washrooms were at least three times as long as those for the merch tables).
But most of the feminine mystique came courtesy of country queen Martina McBride, the Kansas-born beauty whose crystalline vocal chords have earned her the nickname "the Celine Dion of the CMT set."
Oh, don't worry -- there were no descents into diva-dom last night.
Just one of country music's most consistent performers knocking another powerhouse set out of the park.
And even with the beer taps turned off for the night, the crowd of 7,500 still had plenty of reasons to party.
Clad in spiky stilettos and what looked -- from afar, anyway -- like a black sequined cape, McBride kicked off her Waking Up Laughing show with the life-affirming ballad Anyway, a recent hit that also marks the first time she's scored a co-writing credit for a song.
Even without the creative input, McBride probably wouldn't have had any trouble "owning" the track, as its many high notes gave her ample opportunity to show off that far-reaching soprano of hers.
After admitting she was feeling a little "feisty," McBride -- a mother of three, if you can believe it -- followed with the fiddle-heavy rave-up When God Fearin' Women Get the Blues, one of several songs in her set geared specifically towards the ladies in the crowd.
Flanked by a seven-piece backing band and strutting confidently across a stage adorned with modern-looking glass-and-steel sculptures, McBride maintained the momentum with hit single Happy Girl and a faithful cover of Lynn Anderson's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, before pausing to reveal she'd brought her entire family with her on tour this time out.
"We decided to take our spring break together," she quipped. "But it's not really spring here, is it?"
Power-ballad For These Times -- another single from her new album -- set the stage for more vocal gymnastics, not to mention a cute video montage of fans scribbling their hopes and dreams (or something like that) on huge sheets of paper outside the show.
Later, the tune Wild Angels seamed into the self-empowerment anthem My Baby Loves Me, a cover of Anne Murray's Danny's Song (McBride is one of the guests on Murray's recent Duets disc) turned into a singalong session with the audience, and tear-jerker In My Daughter's Eyes saw McBride paying touching tribute to her three kids.
"The fact that I have a teenager and another one just going into her terrible twos -- not very good planning on my part," she joked.
As press time rolled around, McBride was wrapping those pipes of hers around covers of Merle Haggard's Today I Started Loving You Again and
Dwight Yoakum's Heartaches by the Number, making it clear that while she may not always write the songs, she sure as hell can sing 'em.
Earlier in the evening, after an opening set by Canuck crooner Johnny Reid, Nashville quartet Little Big Town delivered a 45-minute set of seamless harmonies and smooth country melodies.
The group's lineup (two guys, two girls) allowed for a series of highlights -- the road song I'm With the Band, the lullaby Stay, and a rockin' version of Good As Gone, among them -- and as if in anticipation of the inevitable Fleetwood Mac comparisons, they even closed with a cover of Go Your Own Way.