DENVER — Alan Jackson finished a very long work shift on Friday (Sept. 8) with a crowd-pleasing concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver — and what a difference a day makes. Earlier that morning, he had performed on the Today show in New York City to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. After some flight delays in Chicago later that day, his band, the Strayhorns, arrived at the mountainous venue only about 20 minutes before the performance. It was almost like watching a club show where the band doesn’t get a chance to set up until the opening act is through.
But if anyone in country can keep his cool, it’s Jackson. Like George Strait and Don Williams before him, Jackson offers a tranquil, easygoing presence on stage. He doesn’t do much up there, but he doesn’t really need to. Any audience anxieties about waiting 45 minutes after Lee Ann Womack’s opening set vanished after he sang a few favorites like “Gone Country” and “I Don’t Even Know Your Name.” The fans also remained on their feet for “Little Bitty,” with row upon row of people happily bouncing to the rhythm and singing along.
Jackson then slowed things down to perform his new single, “Like Red on a Rose.” (The album of the same name arrives Sept. 26.) He’s blessed with an arsenal of upbeat hits, but the Georgia native can still deliver a ballad, proven by the warm reception of “Remember When” and “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” He also included a bluegrass-inspired version of “Seven Bridges Road,” which may suggest that contemporary country music and ’70s rock music are not at all distantly related.
He only played just over an hour, perhaps because of the late start or maybe because a storm looked imminent toward the end of the night. Even so, it’s a kick to hear the string of radio-friendly hits he’s accrued in the last 17 years, from “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Chattahoochee” to “Drive” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” His show isn’t nearly as explosive or as high-tech as many other country concerts, but when he took a few moments to thank the crowd for their loyalty throughout his career, you could tell he’s sincere — and that’s one of the best “special effects” an audience can ask for.
Womack, too, has gathered enough country hits by now to keep the audience engaged throughout her 45-minute set. A slower, heartbreaking rendition of “The Fool” earned her the biggest applause of the night, and her new single, “Finding My Way Back Home,” seems to fit nicely into her repertoire. Of course, “I Hope You Dance” brought about an initial burst of applause, but, all in all, everything she sang was well received by the audience. She was rewarded with a standing ovation and an encore — not always a given for an opening act.
Even though Womack was the one in the spotlight, she often directed the attention to members of her band as she lingered nearby and watched — really watched — the musicians step out on a solo. (Many entertainers might feel the need to also shake a tambourine over their head or something.) She does occasionally work the stage, but like Jackson, she’s at her best when she’s singing traditional country without pretense. Classics like “You Don’t Know Me” and “San Antonio Rose” are not easy songs to sell, but she can do it without breaking a sweat.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre is famously nestled among enormous rock formations, making it very easy to relax in the middle of such striking natural beauty. Good acoustics, too. Plus, it’s quite a hike up there, so by the time you actually reach your seat, you’re ready to chill out for a bit. And if Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack happen to be onstage, so much the better.