“I’ve come here to play you some real country music.”
Those were the rather comforting words Alan Jackson used to greet a crowd of 9,500 Friday night at Rupp Arena. But the veteran Georgia-born hitmaker didn’t exactly have to stretch his stylistic reputation to keep his promise. The just-shy-of-two hour set offered a confident, no frills and, at times, astonishingly laid back grab bag of ballads, shuffles and non-threatening party pieces. All were set to the lead of unassuming and conversational tenor vocals that have aged quite nicely over the nearly three decades Jackson has been sending songs up the charts. Ditto for his band, the Strayhorns, a troupe of quiet instrumental scholars with remarkable picking skills and an even a greater sense of taste in knowing when and when not to show them off.
What distinguished the performance from the dozen or so other times Jackson has played Rupp since his debut there as an opening act for Randy Travis in 1991 (all subsequent visits have been as a headliner) was how much the country music environment has shifted around him. With the touring retirement of George Strait, Jackson is now the genre’s reigning elder traditionalist. But the crown hardly sits heavy on him. From the assured swagger of the show-opening “Gone Country” to the sit-down solemnity of “Here in the Real World” to the easygoing sentimentalism of “Remember When,” Jackson dispensed songs with simple, unaffected candor and a host of between-song stories that came across convincingly as back porch confessions of sorts.
Sometimes the music heated up, as in a nicely electric take of “Summertime Blues” keenly timed to counter winter doldrums. In other instances, it moved with pure honky tonk flair, as typified by the still sterling drive of “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” Curiously, one of the biggest delights was a brand new tune, a sagely bit of reflection titled “The Older I Get” that Jackson performed for the first time last night. In less practiced hands, the song would have been dowsed in angst-heavy pathos. Jackson, however, performed it with a cool but very knowing assertiveness, making the work a striking new snapshot in his real world country canon.
From a stylistic standpoint, show opener Lauren Alaina sounded like she came from another galaxy. The 23-year-old singer understandably favored a far more contemporary slant to her songs, most of which she wrote or co-wrote. Musically, a frequent coupling of electric banjo and loop-style percussion grooves underscored her songs. But what drove everything was a turbo-charge vocal wail that rather cleanly ignited songs like “Georgia Peaches,” “Next Boyfriend” and the self-image anthem “Road Less Taken.” The latter threw the career of this one-time “American Idol” runner up into overdrive last year.
But the show stopper was “Three,” a reflection of childhood aspirations dashed and realized. More specifically, it was Alaina’s honestly emotive introduction to the tune that sparked the set. The audience nicely kept her in check, however. Prior to shedding a few tears, she explained she had recently learned to play piano for when she performed the song. That triggered a good natured and very audible wisecrack from the audience – “So don’t screw it up.” That defused the drama, sent the singer into a fit of laughter and cemented a rather arresting moment within a very earnest set.