NEW YORK — New York City’s Apollo Theater, occupying a place of prominence on 125th St. in Harlem since 1934, has seen a hell of a lot of history. From the Apollo stage, Duke Ellington helped spearhead the Harlem Renaissance, and James Brown recorded one of the most acclaimed live albums ever made. But one thing the world-renowned hub of African-American culture has never seen is a country headliner — till now.
Honored to be the first country headliner at the – sold out – iconic Apollo. Gonna sparkle extra hard in NYC tonight pic.twitter.com/3n6ru3bqiq
— KACEY MUSGRAVES (@KaceyMusgraves) October 24, 2015
Bringing her Country & Western Rhinestone Revue to the Apollo on Saturday (Oct. 24), Kacey Musgraves proudly informed the audience, “Apparently I’m the only country act to have headlined the Apollo Theater. We sold it out. I feel pretty good about that. This is a fancy-as-hell place, I don’t know how they let me in here.”
Of course, Musgraves already has some history behind her. The Texan singer/songwriter’s 2013 album, Same Trailer, Different Park turned the country world on its ear with its blend of old-school sounds and forward-looking lyrics, garnering Grammy and CMA awards, a No. 1 chart placement, and a Platinum single (“Merry Go ‘Round”) and making her one of the very few artists to find favor with both mainstream country and alt-country audiences. And the 2015 follow-up, Pageant Material, has proven Musgraves’ staying power.
Her stage setup for this tour, with its retro-kitsch 1950s C&W look, is a fitting visual companion to Musgraves’ music, which maintains an earnest attachment to classic country while not-so-subtly subverting its conventions. And the Apollo, with its dazzlingly appointed neo-classical design, is an ideal venue for Musgraves to trot out her vision with all its inherent old-school entertainment values—she was bedecked in sparkles from her eyeshadow to her guitar strap and her hosiery, with the boys in the band sporting matching Western suits that literally lit up.
Musgraves made the country-mouse-in-the-big-city dynamic work for her, informing the audience, “I’m from a really tiny, bitty town in Texas” by way of introducing “This Town,” Pageant Material’s ode to the affable humility of hamlets like the singer’s hometown: Golden, Texas.
And she seemed to take particular delight in revealing the backstory of the album’s second single, “Dimestore Cowgirl,” in which an adolescent Kacey about to perform live was informed by another kid’s pushy stage mom that her hat made her look like, yes, a dimestore cowgirl. “So here we are and we’re singing a song about it at a sold-out Apollo Theater,” declared Musgraves in jubilation, waiting a beat before adding, with dead-on timing, “I wonder where that b***h is now.”
The tongue-in-cheek glitz of the stage set-up was underlined mid-show by Musgraves introducing “the talent portion of the pageant,” in which members of the band took the spotlight to display such feats as juggling, barking like a Chihuahua and doing an uproarious, slurring impression of “Drunk Guy.”
At this point in the evening, the band shifted into all-acoustic mode for a batch of songs including “Stupid” and “It Is What It Is” from Same Trailer…, achieving an incisive blend of bluesy groove and bluegrass flavor.
Leading into an all-acoustic “Somebody to Love,” Musgraves told of playing in Washington, D.C., on the day of the Supreme Court’s historic gay marriage ruling in June, observing how special it felt to play the vive-la-différence anthem “Follow Your Arrow” on NPR that day and that “we’re all just little kids looking for somebody to love.”
Musgraves didn’t ignore the hits, either — she launched into the latest album’s biggest single to date, the sassy “Biscuits,” early in the set, and ended the unplugged portion of the evening with her first hit, “Merry Go ‘Round.” She also delivered a vehement version of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” the 2013 Miranda Lambert mega-hit she co-wrote.
And before the night was over, of course she offered up what has become her signature song, the aforementioned “Follow Your Arrow,” rallying the crowd to join in on an extra round of the chorus at the end by exhorting, “Since we are making history tonight, I think we should sing that one again.”
Musgraves’ mile-wide sense of humor took the spotlight for both the set-closer, a revved-up version of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘60s classic “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” that found the Texan songbird donning a pair of boots covered with flashing lights, and the encore, an a cappella version of Western standard “Happy Trails” with the whole band helping out on harmonies.
Over the years, the Apollo has seen its share of showmanship and then some, but it seems pretty safe to say that the storied Harlem hotspot had never featured the likes of Musgraves’ Rhinestone Revue before.