It was “Divas.” It was Vegas. So it had to be an over-the-top, throw-subtlety-to-the-wind kind of affair, right?
Not entirely, though “VH1 Divas Las Vegas” did offer a show-closing Elvis medley and enough vocal gymnastics to turn the MGM Grand into the earth’s vibrato epicenter. Between host Ellen DeGeneres’ low-key approach and a few quiet acoustic numbers from Shakira, Dixie Chicks and Stevie Nicks, this year’s edition may have been the mellowest yet.
Even the opening number — an out-of-breath DeGeneres rapping Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” while crawling among a slew of sweaty studs — suggested that this show might offer more nuanced treats than years past. And when Celine Dion and international dance star Anastacia stormed the stage with a version of AC/DC’s headbanging classic “You Shook Me All Night Long” (featuring a cranked-up guitar solo by Meredith Brooks), it was clear that any bombast would be delivered with a self-deprecating wink.
That self-deprecating wink is something that Cher has mastered, allowing her to offer up her anthemic “Believe” and “Song for the Lonely” with convincing sincerity while later she donned a black pompadour and fake sideburns for her tribute to the King. While she fell short of some of the high notes on “Believe,” she made up for it with her enthusiastic version of “Lonely,” spurred on by Cyndi Lauper.
The Dixie Chicks slowed things down with their upcoming single, “Long Time Gone,” backed by stand-up bass and dobro. Dressed in loose, flowing shirts that said “Appalachian gypsy,” the Chicks’ acoustic turn suggested they might have been inspired by the success of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” to reveal a rootsier side than on their crossover hits. Even the full-band version of “Wide Open Spaces” was airier than usual, and their duet with Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was the evening’s quietest moment.
Shakira took a similar approach, forsaking the uptempo “Whenever, Wherever” for an unplugged version of “Underneath Your Clothes.” While her sleeveless t-shirt and ripped jeans were biker chic, her harmonica solo revealed her folkier side, and she went back and forth between her throaty vibrato and reedy chirp on the song’s chorus.
Despite her song title to the contrary, Mary J. Blige’s set was full of drama, no moreso than when she and Whitney Houston engaged in a growling call-and-response duel at the end of “Rainy Dayz.” Blige repeated the formula on “No More Drama,” ending the song, almost on her knees, with repeated shouts of the song’s title.
Anastacia, a native New Yorker who’s scored massive hits in Europe despite being a relative unknown Stateside, took her solo shot to present “One Day in Your Life” from her upcoming album, Freak of Nature (which has already been released overseas). With her flowing sleeves and oversized shades, she looked a bit like Nikka Costa, but while Costa offers her funk with icy coolness, Anastacia attacked her tune like a disco diva-in-waiting.
At the other end of the spectrum was Dion, who was already well established when she appeared on the first “Divas” broadcast in 1998. After a two-year hiatus, Dion returned to the stage and the charts this spring with A New Day Has Come, and she used her closing spot to focus on her new material. Wearing a simple, sleeveless white cocktail dress, Dion kept her performance of “I’m Alive” and the album’s title cut relatively low key, for her at least.
Everyone threw caution to the wind with the Elvis medley that wrapped things up. Anastacia offered up “Jailhouse Rock” and Blige did “Blue Suede Shoes,” both in appropriately slick Vegas arrangements, while the Dixie Chicks’ “That’s All Right (Mama)” was practically a parody of country music, replete with dancing cowboys. Shakira and Dion took the ballads heavy on the theatrics, the former stretching out her notes on “Always on My Mind” while the latter sang the first verse of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” a cappella.
Reprising “You Shook Me All Night Long,” all nine divas (Houston didn’t return) closed the show together, with the cross-dressing Cher planting a big kiss on DeGeneres’ lips. As the King himself might have said, “Thank you, ma’am.”