Alan Jackson singing OutKast! It's true. But we'll get back to that later. First, some context.
You'd have to hit the beaches during spring break to find a happier, more festive crowd than the one that poured into Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center Saturday night (May 22) to pay homage to Jackson and his opening act, Martina McBride. Most of the fans appeared to be in their 40s or older. The show wasn't a complete sellout, but you had to look hard to spot the few empty seats.
"It's always good to play where I get my mail," Jackson drawled amiably after he and his nine-piece band, the Strayhorns, ignited the revels with "Gone Country," his usual opener. Three massive TV screens directly behind the band and two more on the sides illustrated the songs with videos and carefully chosen still shots. As always, Jackson was essence of cool, this night clad in tight, torn jeans, dark blue shirt and good-guy white hat.
Jackson kept up the pace with the raucous "I Don't Even Know Your Name" and then moved along to such autobiographical gems as "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" (which he called "kinda one of those startin' off songs") and "Livin' on Love." While it is commonplace for country artists to spin songs from their childhood backgrounds, Jackson does it with greater skill and thoroughness than anybody else. He's never maudlin, overwrought, cute or inordinately self-centered. And despite his small-town frame of reference, his songs, like those of Hank Williams, pin down experiences and feelings with which nearly everyone can identify. By the time he got to "Little Bitty" (a Tom T. Hall song), the people on the floor near the stage were on their feet and spontaneously singing along.
Jackson told the crowd he wanted to try out a new song. "I'll throw it out there and see if it sticks," he said. It was a slow, contemplative piece called "Too Much of a Good Thing (Is a Good Thing)." Judging from the reaction, it's going to stick.
Although every song he did set off waves of applause, the emotional high point of Jackson's performance was his melodically sweet and exquisitely crafted "Remember When." This may have been because so many in his audience -- like Jackson himself, who is 45 -- had reached that looking-back and taking-stock stage of life.
After repeated requests for it -- and after speaking to two buxom women near the stage whose homemade T-shirts bore the phrase -- Jackson finally tore into "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." He followed it with "Summertime Blues" -- and here's where the OutKast came in. Midway in the song, he stopped and warned the audience that he was going to sing something for his daughters. That something was a snippet from OutKast's recent megahit, "Hey Ya!" Looking more determined than comfortable, he reeled off enough chant-like lyrics to make his point and then returned to finish the song he'd started. Whether it was from appreciation of Jackson's heretofore hidden skill or relief that it was over, the crowd cheered him mightily.
Jackson did two songs from his Under the Influence album -- "The Blues Man" and "Pop a Top" -- both of which he also performed when he last played the GEC in November 2002.
McBride joined Jackson for a powerhouse duet, "Let's Get Back to Me and You." Pointing to the diminutive singer as she took her bow, Jackson remarked, "It's all right to be little bitty." His next song was his memorial to the events of 9/11, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." This earned him a standing ovation. It is a measure of how much things have changed since he introduced that song on the 2001 Country Music Awards show that he was able to follow it with the joyful but relatively lightweight "Chattahoochee."
Jackson wrapped up the evening with "Where I Come From," which set off round after round of cheers as familiar Nashville landmarks flashed on the screens. He encored with "Mercury Blues" and, as customary, let the band vamp through the song while he walked along the edge of the stage signing the T-shirts, caps and scraps of paper thrust up at him.
McBride had the crowd in her pocket from the moment she walked down the steps of her stage set, wearing a sleeveless, V-necked black blouse and black leather pants. She opened with "It's My Time," proceeded to "Wild Angels" and then triggered a tidal wave of cheers when she inserted "Nashville loves me just the way that I am" into the final chorus of "My Baby Loves Me."
Noting that she was from Kansas -- Wizard of Oz territory -- McBride told of watching the movie as a little girl and being swept away by Judy Garland's performance. This led into a rafter-reverberating rendition of "Over the Rainbow." Spotlighting her hot seven-piece band, she did acoustic versions of "Reluctant Daughter," a gospel song from her new album, and "Baby, I Love You." Then, with only a piano and guitar backing her, she sang "In My Daughter's Eyes," as family pictures flashed in the background.
She brought six contest winners on stage to sing with her on "This One's for the Girls" -- and hugged them one by one when the song was over. "A Broken Wing" earned McBride a standing ovation. When the applause subsided, McBride said, "I don't take this for granted. I get up every day and thank God I get to do this." She ended her set with her signature hit, "Independence Day." As she belted out this tale of wife abuse, murder and suicide, she hurled the microphone stand to the floor and paced back and forth, the very model of outraged womanhood -- and then exited as the crowd again leaped to its feet. She encored with the sassy and finger-pointing "Harper Valley P.T.A."
The only thing lacking in McBride's performance was nuance. Whatever the song, subject or attitude, she confronted it with operatic power. There was no softness, lull or hesitation to mark those subtle gradations of feeling that even the most passionate song embodies. Her voice is so remarkable that, left unreined, it can risk upstaging the lyrics. Clearly, though, the crowd loved her -- just as she was.
"It's My Time"
"My Baby Loves Me"
"Over the Rainbow"
"Baby, I Love You"
"In My Daughter's Eyes"
"She's a Butterfly"
"This One's for the Girls"
"Whatever You Say"
"A Broken Wing"
"Harper Valley P.T.A."
"I Don't Even Know Your Name"
"Chasin' That Neon Rainbow"
"Livin' on Love"
"When Somebody Loves You"
"Too Much of a Good Thing"
"Don't Rock the Jukebox"
"Here in The Real World"
"It's Five O'Clock Somewhere"
"Summertime Blues"/"Hey Ya!"
"The Blues Man"
"Pop a Top"
"Drive (For Daddy Gene)"
ALAN JACKSON and MARTINA McBRIDE
"Let's Get Back to Me and You"
"Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)"
"Where I Come From"