Maybe it was the Halloween weekend at hand that planted the thought, but watching Taylor Swift take the stage last night at Rupp Arena before a feverish sold out crowd of 16,200 that included the singer’s parents brought to mind cinematic images of Glinda the Good Witch descending upon the faithful munchkins of Oz.
After all, unlike so many teen and post-teen stars before her, Swift maintains a genuinely family-friendly image that translates well to the stage (and the charts), making her immensely kid friendly in the process.
In keeping with the Oz frame-of-mind, the performance was also continually framed by images of theatrical fancy brought to life. There were set changes galore, costume changes galore and a battalion of dancers and backup musicians that swept about and around the 21-year-old Swift like an entourage,
Little in this dazzling production was designed to convert the skeptical. As such, the program was immensely audience friendly, especially to the sea of children and pre-teens that thrilled (and sang along) to most all of the 20 or so tunes Swift served up.
Taking the stage as the final recorded chorus of Tom Petty’s American Girl wound down, Swift presented herself as every bit the pop princess with the show opening Sparks Fly. While never a naturally arresting vocalist, Taylor’s singing seems to have matured and deepened since her 2010 Rupp outing. It certainly outdistanced her own vocal estimations. She several times apologized to not being “in the best voice” after having recuperated from an illness that caused the postponement of several performances earlier this year (including a Louisville show).
But the Rupp crowd cared little for such trivial matters as singing. It seemed to expect spectacle. And on that score, Swift fully delivered. Her multi-level stage was converted at various times to a country gazebo (for Our Song and Mean, both with Swift playing banjo), a wedding chapel (for the title song to her year-old Speak Now album, a spunky and satisfying bit of vintage girl group pop fun) and a platform for the dancing crew to stage an impromptu sock hop (for the equally pop-savvy You Belong With Me).
In terms of technical hi-jinx, though, the show’s most eye-popping trick was also one of its simplest – hidden lifts that that shot several of the dancers (and, in one instance, Swift) up from under the stage floor and into the air.
Even when Swift stripped the show down to acoustic essentials, the fanciful props were still paraded. A mid-show segment took the singer through the arena floor crowd to a revolving second stage where she performed Fearless (on ukulele), Last Kiss and Never Grow Up under a makeshift tree that looked like it was carved out of golden ice.
Sure, the constant shuffling of props and costumes added some between-song baggage to the performance. But such is the price of maintaining Oz – or, more exactly, the kingdom of pop music’s reigning princess.
Opening sets by needtobreathe and David Nail, understandably, were pretty streamlined affairs.
The contemporary Christian-turned-mainstream rock ensemble needtobreathe offered a 40 minute set that was balanced neatly between anthemic post-grunge tunes (Let Us Love) to earthier party pieces (Girl Named Tennessee), although the fairly obvious appropriation of pop accents established by Arcade Fire and U2 didn’t speak well to any real sense of musical invention.
Country singer Nail may just get the award for the shortest set ever at a Rupp show – three songs. Highlighted by the current radio hit Let It Rain, he performed on the lip of the stage with only a pianist and drummer. Such lean musicianship was a welcome and refreshing switch from the production-saturated recordings favored in recent years by many Nashville artists, including Nail himself.