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Miranda Lambert is damn near perfect at the Xcel

Miranda Lambert at Xcel

Miranda Lambert at Xcel Joe Lemke

Miranda Lambert knows a good song when she hears it.

The 35-year-old Texan crammed 26 numbers into 100 minutes at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night, and maybe two dozen were keepers—a helluva percentage. An expert craftswoman herself with great taste in other people’s material and even better taste in collaborators, she’s rarely let an artiste’s need for mere self-expression or a star’s obligation to placate crowds interfere with her appreciation of the material itself. Oh, and her band fuckin’ smokes.

Given the competition, calling Lambert the sharpest country star of her generation is saying far less than it should. So try this on for size: She stands alongside Beyoncé and Taylor Swift as the most conceptually astute pop entertainer of the past decade, and if fewer cool people listen to her than Bey ‘n’ Tay, well, that says something about what sorts of snobbery remain acceptable in our enlightened, ecumenical times, don’t it? She strikes the perfect balance between star persona (discovering within feisty pluck, that old female country staple, an impossible store of multidimensional nuance) and an aesthete’s appreciation of how to snugly pack an emotionally resonant lyric into an accessible verse and chorus just so.

So yeah, the songs. Lambert gathered ’em in from a bunch of sources Saturday night, including Wildcard, the album she’ll drop next week. She performed five of the seven cuts she’s released from it so far, weaving them expertly into surefire oldies and a couple curveballs from her six solo albums. On their own, a few of these new tracks have seemed slight, like genre exercises or echoes of past successes, but live they felt, if not essential, as fitting adornments as Lambert’s outfit: jean shorts adorned with pink pocket fringe, cute pink ankle boots, and a bottom-knotted floral blouse.

Lambert’s opener “Locomotive,” a straightforward rocker, blasted straight into her career-igniting 2005 stomp “Kerosene.” The new-wavey discombobulation of “Mess With My Head” rested comfortably up against the folksy “Famous in a Small Town.” And the blithe outlook of “It All Comes Out in the Wash” (“You take the sin and the men and you throw 'em all in/And you put that sucker on spin”) was balanced by “Vice,” which takes a much less sunny perspective on the wages of dissipation.

A new ballad, the fluttery “Bluebird,” set up a trio of slow ones rounded out by the Jesus-liked-to-party argument of “Heart Like Mine” and “Over You,” a song of mourning disguised as a breakup lament. No country star can go the distance without slow stuff, but Lambert’s strength is her refusal to overwhelm them with lung power, as has often been the pop country trend. Instead, she typically sidles up to a lyric and, depending on her mood, either strokes its hair or squeezes its butt.

And then Lambert upstaged herself: She brought out Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, her accomplices in the Pistol Annies. Monroe and Presley are both in Lambert’s class as songwriters, and their collaborations have offered the most famous of the three a site for artistic and personal recharging. (Psst, their albums together are even better than Lambert’s.) If there’s a common theme to their work together, it’s that life is inescapably a state of emotional, financial, and romantic shambles, and you just gotta power through with a grin and a couple of pals. Lambert took stock of their collective family lives: “Three husbands, two ex-husbands, three children, one stepson, and one-two-three animals.”

The trio started with “Takin’ Pills,” a celebration of their respective vices, a topic picked up again in the forlorn “Best Years of My Life,” which kicks off with Monroe’s unforgettable opening line “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet.” “Hush Hush,” with its advice for surviving a family gathering, and the self-explanatory “Got My Name Changed Back,” both swung hard—where a lot of country pounds to fill up an arena, Lambert’s band never lost its groove, and the guitar fills never sacrificed wit to wattage or slickness. The Annies combined for lovely three-part harmonies on Elvis’ “Love Me” before bringing it home with the unsentimentally playful gold-digging “Hell on Heels.” This six-song set was everything I’d hoped for, and my expectations had been stratospheric.

Once the Annies had dispersed, Lambert maintained momentum with two songs about avenging yourself against men: “Gunpowder and Lead” suggests shooting him, while “Mama’s Broken Heart” advises you to fuck up your bangs. The mood eased with the inclusive worldview of “All Kinds of Kinds,” even if the crowd appeared to be mostly one kind of kind, and the slight but charming new “Tequila Does,” its retro-styled chorus seemingly Lambert’s way of saying she could make a Midland record in her sleep.

Country radio being what it is, not all Lambert’s hits are surefire. The mawkish “Tin Man” (“you don’t want a heart,” because they break) still lacks brains and cuh-rage, and as nostalgia exercises go “Automatic” is a little too true to its name. Both came late in the night, with Lambert introducing the former as emerging from the hellish “shit show” that was 2015, the year of her divorce from hunky cipher/TV game show host Blake Shelton. (Don’t worry about Miranda—she and her new hot cop hubby send all their love to Gwen, I’m sure.)

After the takes-one-to-know-one blast of “White Liar” and the absurdist spree “Little Red Wagon” took us home, Lambert turned to the ’70s for what amounted to a two-song encore. First she belted the Little Feat trucker’s credo “Willin’,” its refrain of “weed, whites, and wine” pretty much a Pistol Annies chorus when you think about it. Then Presley and Monroe rejoined Lambert, along with openers Elle King and Ashley McBryde, for Elvin Bishop’s frictionless AM radio rock hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” It was nothing fancy and it was something special: just a stage full of women sharing their appreciation of a song that deserved every bit of affection they laid on it.

Setlist

Locomotive
Kerosene
Mess With My Head
Famous in a Small Town
It All Comes Out in the Wash
Vice
Bluebird
Heart Like Mine
Over You

With the Pistol Annies

Takin' Pills
Hush Hush
Best Years of My Life
Got My Name Changed Back
Love Me (Elvis Presley cover)
Hell on Heels

Gunpowder & Lead
Mama's Broken Heart
All Kinds of Kinds
The House That Built Me
Tin Man
Tequila Does
Automatic
White Liar
Little Red Wagon
Willin' (Little Feat cover)
Fooled Around and Fell in Love (Elvin Bishop cover)

About the openers: Maybe the best country song of the night was performed two hours before Lambert even came onstage. Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards” is proof they do still write ’em like that anymore, a description of a hook-up as unsentimental as it is precise, and McBryde’s whole set motored with southern rock and sharp lyrics when you listened up. But she got 20 minutes, where Elle King got three times that to over-sing in an affected drawl and bludgeon tuff-gal clichés with dull blooze riffs. Like Carrie Underwood, Lambert has given country radio’s no-girls-aloud programming the finger with her all-female touring lineup. But just think: King’s hour could have made way for two half-hour sets from Presley and Monroe.