Making the most of a tough situation, country music performers K.T. Oslin and opening act Garth Brooks delivered a knockout, one-two punch at the Illinois State Fair Grandstand Thursday night.
The daytime rain forced fair officials to close the wide dirt track area in front of the stage, causing the artist and the audience to seem completely isolated. In addition, scheduled co-headliner, balladeer Ricky Van Shelton, had to pull out Tuesday due to a throat infection.
He wasn’t missed.
The last-minute replacement, super-eager newcomer Brooks, delighted the small crowd — then the sparkling Oslin simply dazzled them. This show will be one of the fair Grandstand’s highlights this summer. Or any summer.
Elegant and sassy, Oslin closed the concert with one hour of engaging numbers powered by her strong vocals. From the free-wheeling “Hey Bobby” to “Do Ya’,” Oslin strolled the stage comfortably, weaving tales of bitter-then-better relationships.
Sandwiched between her hits, the 49-year-old Oslin (who rose quickly to fame in 1987) performed material from her upcoming album, “Love in a Small Town,” set for an October release. A gifted songwriter, Oslin showed she has lost none of her witty edge. On “Willie and Mary,” she takes aim at a pair of single people too stubborn to find love.
Before that, Oslin performed the first song that she ever wrote, “I Ain’t Ever Gonna Love Nobody But Cornell Crawford,” which was inspired by graffiti she saw written on a bathroom stall. Delivered straight, the tune unintentionally and deftly sends up country ballads.
With her own personal stamp on each song, Oslin remains a step ahead of most country performers. In concert Thursday, that advantage was apparent.
It also was a very good day for the husky Brooks. He earned five Country Music Association award nominations, the most of any artist. Then he performed a stellar 50-minute set that left no question as to whom the next country star will be.
The 27-year-old Oklahoma native appeared full of unrestrained energy like a rodeo bull. The award nominations – all garnered from his year-old debut album – obviously inspired Brooks performance. (Incidentally, though, he’s strictly a biscuits-and-gravy country singer, his LP sits at No. 50 on the pop charts this week.) With vocals drenched in neo-traditional country style – a bit pop but totally country – Brooks flavors each tune with a barroom clamor that works wonderfully in concert.
He also puts his aw-shucks charm to good use.
Sizing up the far-away grandstands (“You guys seem 800 yards away,” he said), Brooks vowed to make his portion of the show more intimate. Later, Brooks jumped off the stage, strolled across the empty, foot-deep muddy track and performed two songs, including the tender hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” The audience, which rushed up to the fence, loved his showmanship. The husky opening act turned a terrible situation into an unforgettable set. This guy had charisma to burn, even for a near-empty grandstand.
So many of Brooks’ songs are better than their titles, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” or “We’re Two of a Kind, Working On a Full House.” His delivery squeezes every drop of sentiment from either a beautiful ballad like “The Dance,” to the rollicking “Friends in Low Places.”
The few, fortunate concertgoers who caught Thursday’s show certainly saw a hungry singer on the path to stardom.
Pity the first opening act Les Taylor. The former Exile lead singer (he left the band two years ago) faced an indifferent audience, while playing cuts from his bland, poor-selling solo album. Meanwhile, Exile has experienced an undeserved rejuvenation on the country charts recently without Taylor. Touche.