Anne Murray dishes pop-glop at Tanglewood
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., June 27, 2002) – About 30 years ago Anne Murray began scoring pop and country hits with arrangements of ballads and upbeat songs that could well stand as the very definition of “easy listening.” Murray’s strategy, then as now, was to deracinate the tamest fare by soulful singer-songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, Jesse Winchester, Bob Dylan and Kenny and Dave Loggins, or to record previously unknown tunes by commercial songwriters like her favorite, Gene MacLellan, by recording them in middle-of-the-road arrangements that appealed to the least-common-denominator.

It was a formula that worked, and Murray hit big on the pop and then the country charts in the 1970s and 1980s. The last decade has been less kind to her, commercially speaking, but judging from the two-thousand or so concertgoers who turned out for her concert at Tanglewood on Wednesday night, apparently there still is an audience for her timid, watered-down pop-rock.

Murray appeared with her six-piece touring band -- most of whom have been performing with her for nearly two decades – backed by a 20-piece string section. The concert began with the orchestra running through an overture of themes from her greatest hits, before Murray took the stage looking very much like the TV host she appears to want to be, dressed in a white pants suit over a sparkly black T-shirt.

Murray launched into some generic pop-soul, and a gushy ballad that could well have been a precursor to today’s power ballads. The singer is still rich of voice, with a deep alto that boasts a resonant vibrato. In the upper register, however, her voice turned raspy. This actually gave some of her more rock-based tunes an edge that they otherwise would have lacked, but edge is not something Murray wears well. The Rod Stewart-by-way-of-Kim Carnes role doesn’t suit her at all.

The end of her first set featured an “unplugged” section with the singer holding a guitar surrounded by her two guitarists and backup vocalist. The rich harmonies and resonant guitar work featured Murray and her material at their best on signature numbers like “A Love Song” and “Snowbird,” although the latter’s high notes only emphasized the deterioration in her upper register. She catered to nostalgia with a version of “California Dreamin’,” by the Mamas and the Papas, after which she said, “They used to call that rock and roll.” Well, maybe in Nova Scotia they did.

After intermission, Murray tackled “Put a Little Love In Your Heart,” which only underlined the fact that she is no Jackie DeShannon. Then the show turned blatantly commercial, with a medley of “inspirational” songs from her latest album that featured short verses and choruses from a half-dozen different tunes on the album (including Taylor/King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”) going by in the wink of an eye like one of those late-night TV ads for a budget label’s greatest hits collection.

She made her way to the end of the second set with a slew of her own greatest hits, including “Shadows in the Moonlight,” with the immortal line, “The night is young/And baby so are we,” and “You Needed Me,” with the equally memorable couplet, “I sold my soul/You bought it back for me.” If these songs aren’t featured in Dave Barry’s “Book of Bad Songs,” they should be.

Early on, Murray let her guard down with a perhaps unintentionally revealing moment. She picked up a copy of a newspaper review of a recent TV appearance and began reading the reviewer’s comments about her “too-tight face lift … with cheeks like an army bedsheet and eyes pinned open.” It’s unclear what her point was in sharing this with the audience, unless it was to win them over to her side out of sympathy rather than on the merits of her performance. In any case, it was a fit of nastiness that was unbecoming a professional of her stature.

Early on in her show, Murray said “I cannot believe I’ve been doing this all these years and never played Tanglewood.” Well now she has, and the joke’s on us.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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