10/13/2008

ALAN JACKSON KEEPS PERFORMANCE SIMPLE

By Mark Jordan
Special to The Commercial Appeal

Twenty feet of golden-locked, all-American-male country singer crossed the stage of FedExForum Saturday night as Alan Jackson's "Good Time Tour" pulled into town with supporting acts Trace Adkins and James Otto.

The casual country fan could be forgiven for confusing the three performers. Each stands over 6-feet-5-inches tall, has long blond hair, and sports some form of facial hair. But if the artists looked the same, their sounds were remarkably diverse within the confines of the contemporary country music scene.

Alan Jackson squeezed 33 songs into his two-hour set at FedExForum on Saturday. Opening acts included Trace Adkins and James Otto.

Of the three, Jackson, soon to turn 50, though looking fit and young in close-ups on the giant video screens behind him, has emerged as a leader of the old line.

Especially coming after the whiz-bang performances of the two opening performers, his set was startling in its simplicity, with just Jackson -- backed by his eight-piece band, the Strayhorns -- standing at a mic for two hours banging out familiar favorites to a steady country beat. As he told the crowd of 8,000: "We're pickers and singers, and that's pretty much all we do."

The band squeezed an amazing 33 songs, most of them hits, into their set.

As pure a honky-tonker as you're likely to find these days, Jackson doesn't dress up songs with hip-hop beats and horns. Instead, the top-notch band favored lean, efficient arrangements on material as diverse as the opening manifesto "Gone Country," and the Jim Ed Brown barroom ode "Pop A Top." The unadorned approach emphasized the common poetry of "songs about sinners and drinkers, songs of loss and love."

While Jackson's performance favored the traditional, the two opening performers illustrated the ways in which country has crossed over to reach mainstream pop music fans.

Adkins has become perhaps Nashville's most canny updater of the country sound. His biggest hits, like "I Got My Game On" and "Swing," are up-tempo rockers with humorous lyrics, big catchy choruses, and a sensibility that seems to borrow heavily from hip-hop and professional sports. This hit-making combination reached its zenith in Adkins' performance of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a song about women's hind quarters which the singer answered the age-old question: How did Eve get Adam to eat that apple? "She worked that badonkadonk," he told the audience.

First up on the bill, James Otto pushes a mixture of country rock rhythms and R&B-style emotive singing that he calls "country soul." The hooks on numbers like "These Are the Good Ole Days," and the No. 1 hit "Just Got Started Lovin' You," were ingratiating.

And the affecting ballad "For You" packed an unexpected emotional wallop, when, after singing it, Otto brought an audience member out on stage to propose to his girlfriend.

She said yes.

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