SHANIA TWAIN in concert, Auckland December 18

Into the second half of Canadian Shania Twain’s first Auckland concert at Spark Arena, and the singer songwriter takes up residence on a small elevated stage in the middle of the seating area. The big show that’s been unfolding on the main stage now becomes more intimate as she sits there with her acoustic guitar surrounded by fans.

She says it’s time to get to know a couple of them, and so an excited Erin from Gisborne is selected to join her for a few moments. Erin explains she’s there with some girlfriends, and Shania invites her to pose for a selfie.

Then Twain chooses another fan, a woman in a red dress with long blonde hair. She’s Maria from Papamoa. Who did she come to the show with?asks Shania. Maria came by herself. It’s her fiftieth birthday. She wanted to share it with Shania Twain. They try to take a selfie but it’s an old phone and Shania doesn’t know how to use it, and Maria is struggling too. Somehow, they end up calling a friend of Maria’s in Papamoa called Mark. Maria says hello to Mark and then passes the phone to Shania, who introduces herself. In the meantime a concert security staff member has worked out how to take a photo and Shania and Maria duly strike a pose. And then, with no prompting from Shania, the packed audience sings Happy Birthday to Maria.

People sitting around me just loved it. I couldn’t stop laughing myself, just at the spontaneity of it and the obvious pleasure Maria was feeling at that moment. And so, while Shania and her band of musicians and dancers put on an excellent show, it was this moment, where she let her guard down a little, that will stay in the memory, and also explains why the audience so obviously adored her. Twain has had a hard road, including a long battle with illness, and her fans know all about it. Waiting to enter Spark Arena before the show, Vicky from Kawerau told me how she views Twain as an icon, a trailblazer, a woman country rocker singing for women. It’s a powerful connection, and a connection fans like Vicky have waited a long time for to see completed. As Shania told the audience, after visiting New Zealand for fifteen years, this was her very first show here.

And what of the show? Twain’s choreographers earned their money, for this was a decidedly modern take on country rock, with the set featuring five big cubes, acting as video screens and portable stages, constantly moving both between and sometimes during songs. Musically the show felt more like a rock performance than a country one, this aided very much by a big drum sound, and at times two guitarists trading power chords. But other styles abounded. Twain and her band did don cowboy hats and boots for a couple of songs mid way through, while at other times the show had a Las Vegas feel, and at others, such as when her two male dancers danced with chairs and then swooned at Shania’s feet, it felt more like New York cabaret.

Perhaps not all the sequencing was spot on. Twice her band played instrumental pieces to allow her a costume change. In both cases two guitarists traded what sounded like heavy metal licks to produce a big sound, and my sense of it was these two pieces didn’t go down so well with the country music lovers in the audience. Hard core fans seemed to lap up another interlude where Shania offered a brief sampling of her music videos, although to me this felt rather too self indulgent. And there was no encore, which I now understand has been a feature of some shows on this tour but nevertheless came as a let down.

These are minor concerns in the big picture of this big show. Twain, looking fit and healthy at 53, displayed plenty of stamina, sass and vocal power, and effortlessly found a rapport with her audience. Her costumes were sexy and flambouyant and while they gave her an image akin to a diva, her manner was in no way unapproachable. She’s here for two more shows. If you’re a fan you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re attending out of curiosity, you might be pleasantly surprised.

With thanks to David Watson for some fantastic photos from last night’s show!

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