The Judds, mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna, are the best thing to happen to country music since Ricky Skaggs. Their records, built around Wynonna's supple lead vocals and exquisite familial harmonies, are wonderfully engaging, but as 5,000 fans found out at Fairfax High School yesterday, those records don't begin to tell the story.
From the raucous energy of their opening "Girls Night Out," punctuated with Wynonna's roadhouse growls and exuberant swoops, to the jaunty finale, "Mama He's Crazy," the Judds sang like angels -- heavenly and honky-tonk -- and showed why their meld of mountain sound and modern sensibility is delivering a new audience (and, judging by yesterday's jam-packed concert, a much-needed young one) for country music, even as it rejuvenates and sustains the old one.
Wynonna Judd's quicksilver voice, with echoes of Patsy Cline and Bonnie Raitt, is so achingly soulful and revealing that she sounds as though she's 20 going on 40. On weepers like "If I Were You" and "My Heart Can't Love Anyone But You," she bent notes toward the blues, slipped in soft-spun yodels and tore lyrics from the soul. "Change of Heart," another bittersweet love ballad, was offered as simple confessional, without affectation.
On "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," "Dream Chaser" and "Love Is Alive," she managed to be sentimental without being maudlin, celebrating the hope and continuity offered by old-fashioned values. "Have Mercy" and "Rockin' With the Rhythm of the Rain" were four-on-the-floor romps, as was the genuinely robust rockabilly release of "Rip It Up." In the familial tradition of country singing, Naomi Judd's seamless and empathetic alto harmonies shaded and colored her daughter's vocals, while a crack band cushioned everything in essentially acoustic but surprisingly energetic arrangements.