In performance: Taylor Swift/Ed Sheeran/Brett Eldridge

taylor swift at rupp

Taylor Swift performed Saturday night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

It was large on ceremony and, at times, uncomfortably long on talk. But when it stuck to essentials – tunes and performances that reveled in youthful celebration – Taylor Swift’s sold-out concert Saturday night at Rupp Arena became quite the party.

With three Lexington shows in slightly more than four years now to her credit, it has become clear that the multi-platinum-selling 23-year-old seldom opts for the simple. Last night’s outing came with staging that simulated an ancient cathedral and a Paris skyline. It had a violinist popping out of the stage floor, percussionists being flung about on wires like slingshots, and parades of musicians, singers, dancers and, of course, costume changes that continually gave the concert the feel of a music video come to life.

And there was red. Lots if it. Not so coincidentally, Swift’s newest album is titled Red. The favored color could be found in costumes (the Oz-esque ruby slippers the singer wore at the top of the performance), the backdrops, the stage dressings and the lighting. In short, red was more generously red splashed about at Rupp on Saturday night than in a Friday the 13th movie.

There also was the metaphorical red that was the basis for one of several life lessons that Swift dispensed between songs. Declaring red as symbolic of “the crazy emotions,” the singer also offered this bit of social guidance: “The only thing you have control over (in life) is how you look at it.”

To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Wow. That’s deep.”

But the truly curious aspect to this performance was that despite its sense of (and seeming desire for) spectacle, Swift’s pop smarts have matured markedly. Take, for instance, the sock-hop pop of 22, which sent the singer and a platoon of dancers to a stage near the back of the arena floor. There was no ballyhoo, no costumed theme, just a moment when honest, exuberant music and motion were in sync.

There were similar moments in the vintage girl-group pop of You Belong to Me and Holy Ground. But there were just as many instances when some of Swift’s more melodically inclined hits were suffocated by the staging. The bizarrely vampish courtesan setting for I Knew You Were Trouble, in particular, was a real head-scratcher.

A serviceable vocalist at best, Swift has nonetheless become a confident and tireless stage artist. As she journeys into her 20s, maybe she can lasso in the floor show a bit to bring it more in line with the pop properties that she is so obviously schooled in.

The 30-minute opening set by British pop stylist Ed Sheeran was as spontaneous as Swift’s show was choreographed. In a rare move for an arena act, Sheeran performed as a solo acoustic act, building on-the-spot arrangements out of looped bits of vocal and percussive fragments. The homemade formula hit a dizzying zenith during You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.

It was difficult, however, deciding which was the gutsier move during Sheeran’s cover of Wayfaring Stranger – singing the tune’s final chorus a capella before the crowd of 17,000 or deciding to tackle the traditional folk favorite in the first place within a set of contemporary pop originals.

Illinois-born country singer Brett Eldridge began the evening with a brief five-song set. The musicianship of a four-piece band was effective and thrifty, the singing was crisp and authoritative, but the material was completely innocuous.

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