Linda Ronstadt and Hank Williams Jr.

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 29, 1988

As with opera, I didn’t understand much of what Linda Ronstadt sang in Spanish Saturday night at Poplar Creek Music Theatre. But her voice was so emotional, and the theatrics so striking, I could sense what was going on.

In the first of two Poplar Creek shows, Ronstadt played to an enthusiastic, predominantly adult audience, of many of whom sang along with the Mexican lyrics she belted out in her inimitable, guttoral soprano. I got the impression that if she needed to, she could do just as well without the microphone.

The tour is in support of her latest album, “Canciones de Mi Padre” (Songs of My Father).  Subtitled “A Romantic Evening in Old Mexico,” the Poplar Creek show was the same production that played for three weeks on Broadway. The two-act revue was as much theater as it was a concert.

The stage setup was impressive, with backdrop changes and a color scheme that made good use of black and red. Besides Ronstadt’s numerous costume changes – from flirty village girl to sexy siren – 21 singers, dancers and actors fleshed out the lively stage show.

From the time the curtain went up to reveal the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitan – a baker’s dozen musicians lined up like the Rockettes, playing everything from violins to the harp – to the grand finale, the audience was a vocal participant in the event. They sighed in recognition of many of the Mexican folk songs Ronstadt sang.

She delivered a haunting rendition of “Rogaciano El Huapanguero,” a moody ballad that showed off Ronstadt’s strong falsettos and precise phrasing. During “Hays Unos Ojos,” she did a little waltz on stage with another dancer.

Listening to her sing, it’s difficult to believe she is not fluent in Spanish. But after spending up to 30 hours learning the nuances of each song, she sounded authentic and comfortable.

Ronstadt, who is no novice to theatrical acting and singing – she starred in “The Pirates of Penzance” and “La Boheme” – has one of the most powerful voices and expressive faces in music today.

Sitting about halfway back in the pavilion, I had no trouble making out her handsome features and the way she changed them to suit the songs’ moods.

While many fans remember Ronstadt as the Stone Poneys’ girl singer who sang “Different Drum” or the roller skating sex symbol clad in satin running shorts, she’s proven herself as an artist willing to take chances that don’t always seem commercially rewarding. And the Poplar Creek crowd gave her rowdy ovations for her effort.

While Ronstadt charmed the audience with her pretty ways and songs, Hank Williams Jr. performed a different kind of concert Friday night at Poplar Creek. Playing to a vocal crowd clad in jeans, fringed vests and cowboy boots, Williams came out in his lookalike outfit with a guitar strapped around his neck. He stormed his way through an eclectic set of rock, country and blues.

Launching with the rocking “My Name is Bocephus,” Williams didn’t let up for 45 minutes, when he settled into a relaxed acoustic set that included “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and “Country State of Mind.”

His voice has the same vibrancy it did when, as a 14-year-old, he dubbed George Hamilton’s vocals in “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the biography of Hank Sr. But the years of roughhousing have given it a gruffer tone that is not unappealing in context to his music.

Throughout the show, Williams playfully dabbled at the violin, harmonica and piano. He also related a story about how being the son of Hank Sr. paid off in more ways than one: He got to hang out with his dad’s friends, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis often dropped by the house and encouraged him to play the piano not only with his hands and feet, but with his heart and soul.

Friday night, Williams did Lewis proud. 

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