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A Long, Strange Trip With Celine

September 4, 2008

By Jeff Miers

Celine Dion didn’t have to call her latest album “Taking Chances.” Nor did she have to christen her first tour since setting up home base in Las Vegas — where she bid the faithful come to her – - the “Taking Chances Tour.” But she did. This proves — and Wednesday’s performance inside HSBC Arena underscored as much — that the French Canadian chanteuse has a great sense of humor.

In fact, humor was the order of the evening. I can’t remember a concert where fuller, deeper belly-laughs were more forthcoming. The entire experience was an exercise in one’s ability to follow the path of the surreal, to fully engage in the “down the rabbit hole” nature of modern pop music, as exemplified by the truly bizarre (and clearly immensely talented) Dion.

My understanding of the history of the surreal and its beatnik origins — much of it provided by re-readings of Dennis McNally’s wonderful “A Long Strange Trip” — leads me to the conclusion that a bunch of intellectual types who found themselves in San Francisco, circa 1967, were interested in challenging the tenets of accepted reality and creating some sort of alternative reality to supersede it. I missed all of that, claiming my date of birth right smack in the middle of all this activity, and on the other side of the country, to boot.

Still, I take comfort in the occasional surreal experiences that come my way. And Wednesday evening’s concert was definitely one of them.

Celine Dion is either a complete genius, or one of the most repulsive pop stars to come along, pretty much ever. In terms of “over the top-ness,” it’s clear she is queen. Her singing voice is absolutely extra-human. She hits notes in full voice, with a controlled vibrato and an incredible conception of pitch, like she’s shucking an ear of corn, or doing something that takes a similar amount of deep concentration.

I’m going to lean toward the “genius” side, based on Wednesday’s presentation, which I accepted as an example of the theater of the absurd. Dion is clearly channeling the ethos of late-’50s surrealists and ’60s pranksters. Why else would she put us through such severe twists in thought, form and taste during a single 90- minute-plus concert?

I accepted all of this as ironic from the start, since the show was prefaced by a video presentation that found our heroine driving what looked like an old Jaguar around some barren landscape populated only by a bunch of those modern-looking windmills. Clearly, Dion is a butt-kicking driver, because she found time in between navigating hairpin turns to gaze lovingly into to camera, trying with all her might to look like a sex-starved extra on the set of “The Fast and the Furious.” It was awesome! OMG!

Then she started singing, beginning with “I Drove All Night,” and then straight into the first of the evening’s power ballads, the epic “Power Of Love.” Whoa! Dion marched right over to my side of the stage. Climbed up on a big, glowing, “Saturday Night Fever”- esque ramp, and hit the high notes at the song’s less-than-subtle apex. Holy cow! She killed it.

Dead.

It all became even more trippy and surreal, and Dion’s grasp of post-modern irony, as it applies to mass, commodi-fied, pre- packaged pop-art, became even more evident. I mean, how else to explain “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” a clear swipe at those who would interpret rifts in their romantic lives as events of earth- shattering consequence?

Brilliant! And it got better, as “Because You Loved Me” poked fun at the soap opera-watching automatons who confuse narcissism with “love” at the drop of a hat, all the while embracing the sort of romantic entanglement Dion so deftly mocked during the tongue-in- cheek “Shadow Of Love.”

There were moments where I wondered if the surrealist buzz was wearing off, later in the show. When I noticed that the three outstanding harmony singers who backed Dion throughout the concert spent most of their time sunk down in a pit below stage level — a result of the many risers employed on the stage, which looked like a futuristic version of the stage set for “Jeopardy” — it did seem for a moment that this might all be a bogus charade.

But then, Dion did one of her super-cool “Fat Elvis”-period karate moves, ending in the twin-fingered salute common to heavy metal bands, and I realized that all of this was ironic commentary on the lack of human contact inherent in the modern pop concert spectacle. Phew! For a minute there, I was worried.

When Dion sang the dramatic ballad made famous by the band Heart, “Alone,” I was temporarily deceived into thinking I was watching a supremely gifted singer proceed through the motions as would a child in a high school play, all the while wondering why the peerless power of her singing voice was being put to such dubious use.

The moment passed, however.

Heh heh. “Taking Chances” — that’s a good one!

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

Originally published by NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC.

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