“Hey, you’re pretty lively for the middle of the week,” remarked the ever-casual Alan Jackson last night at Applebee’s Park.
To a degree, the Georgia-born hitmaker had correctly sized up the crowd of 4,500. After all, major country concerts are, as a rule, risky business when staged on anything other than a weekend night. And as any veteran of Jackson’s numerous Rupp Arena shows will tell you, 4,500 is roughly half of what the singer draws when he plays a Friday or Saturday in the great indoors.
But if this inaugural performance of the Alltech Festival lacked the sort of reckless abandon of a weekend bender at Rupp, it compensated by capitalizing on the unforced traditionalism that has long defined Jackson’s music. From a performance, performer and audience standpoint, this was an evening of artfully designed, G-rated, ultra-family friendly country. And, frankly, it wasn’t until Jackson’s 9/11 postscript, Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) wound down, that one sensed what a rare and inviting thing such music can be.
Aside from a brief blast of guitar boogie that introduced Don’t Rock the Jukebox – an early Jackson hit that, underneath its electric exterior, was an ode to George Jones – nothing approximated the sleek pop that passes for country music today. Similarly, the show-opening Gone Country aside, Jackson didn’t waste time having to boast to his audience of just how “country” he was – which has become another cloying marketing device of modern day Nashville. Jackson, with a conversational tenor and unhurried stage demeanor, had credible country spirit to burn. He remains the biggest country traditionalist on the road today outside of George Strait. But where Strait’s music reflects the swing and honky tonk of his Lone Star upbringing, Jackson’s music opens up.
Piano, for example, drove a surprising portion of last night’s performance. As such, the light melodic drive of Little Bitty (which projected live shots of gleeful and genuinely jubilant kids in the audience onto three video screens behind the stage), Small Town Southern Man and even a tempered and playful cover of Summertime Blues possessed a distinct Southern air that fell well outside the Texas state line.
And when the sentimentalism of the program became a touch extreme, as on Remember When and A Woman’s Love, Jackson responded by underplaying the pathos. In other words, he remained last night one of the few country singers from the video age that didn’t try to sell a song like a bad actor.
Curiously, the concert’s highlight was the one tune where Jackson deviated from straight up country tradition. On the title tune to 2006’s Alison Krauss-produced Like Red on a Rose album, Jackson designed a studious after hours sound that balanced country sentiment with stark jazz and blues. The record was a brave experiment that worked. The performance simply made one hope for another royally blue sidetrip in the future.
Clouds quickly covered the setting sun when show opener Lee Ann Womack took the stage with her hit version of Buddy Miller’s swampy, spooky heartbreak meditation Does My Ring Burn Your Finger? The promised evening rains never arrived, however, so Womack launched into a diverse 50 minute set that leap-frogged from the traditionalism of the pedal steel saturated Never Again, Again (where the higher ends of Womack’s plaintive singing brought early Dolly Parton records to mind) to the rockier terrain occupied by Rodney Crowell’s Ashes By Now.
But like Jackson, Womack’s most emotive moments came when she tossed a blue-dipped curve to the ball park crowd. In this instance, it was an update of the spiritual Wayfaring Stranger. The performance’s mood bordered on the haunting with Womack elongating vowel sounds into teases of vocal wails that were balanced by raindrops of Rhodes-style keyboards and a touch of Santana-ish guitar. It all made for a display of inventive country cool.