By Mark Guarino
Thousands of people participated in what was possibly the biggest live television audience in the city when country pop star Shania Twain taped a prime time special Sunday in downtown Chicago.
Over 50,000 people attended the free show, which will air as a two-hour concert special on NBC Aug. 19. Twain — who has not performed live in almost three years — will use the show to hype her fall tour.
Twain is the second performer to turn the contingent of soccer fields into a major outdoor music venue. The first was the British art rock band Radiohead in 2001.
Twain’s show kicked off just before sunset over Hutchinson Field, buttressed between Buckingham Fountain and the Field Museum. Three cranes with television cameras swept over the crowd throughout while fireworks periodically exploded high above.
The affable cheerleader persona Twain has long cultivated — along with her showy nine-member band of multi-instrumentalists — is tailored for television. As the night wore on, Twain tried different ways, with varying degrees of success to make the magnitude of such a large event work for the small screen. Her reliance on audience participation was an attempt to humanize things, but it often backfired. A male suitor who proposed to his girlfriend onstage was hyperactive to an uncomfortable degree (as was watching the couple woodenly slow dance to “When You Kiss Me”). Another time, after “picking” crowd members to help her sing (a stage bit long due for retirement), Twain settled upon three little girls. Their perfectly timed cuteness suggested the entire interaction was staged.
But that’s to be expected from an arena-sized show designed for the living room. Twain played the proper host, entering with a neon yellow top to guarantee she was the center of attention and later ratcheting up the glamour with subsequent costume changes.
A majority of the setlist came from her blockbuster breakthrough “Come On Over” (Mercury) and its follow-up, “Up!” (Mercury), released last winter. Every song was arranged for heavy delivery — a trio of fiddlers (“Honey I’m Home”) a four-guitar line (“Up!”) and a six-man string section (“Thank You Baby!”) sold their respective songs in bulk.
Although most of her show was strong on power ballads and arena pop, she did return to her country roots with a slimmed-down version of “No One Needs To Know,” a country shuffle from the mid-‘90s. Twain may be a country star who has the least to do with country music, but she remains true to the music’s populism and has a knack for making even a field of thousands feel like they’re at a downhome get-together.