01/12/2015

Review: Alan Jackson's songwriting shines in 25th anniversary tour stop at Tampa's USF Sun Dome

Jay Cridlin, tbt* Staff Writer

To those who say beer-swilling country music cannot be beautiful, I present to you: A pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight.

That right there is the humble, heartfelt poetry of Alan Jackson, who for 25 years has reigned as one of Nashville's most respected singer-songwriters. The genteel, mustachioed bard is celebrating his silver anniversary on his new Keepin' It Country Tour, which stopped Friday at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, and in a way he's never felt more needed. When today's biggest country acts sound more like Shinedown than Strait, a guy who doesn't want to rock the jukebox might be just what Nashville needs.

Soft-spoken and slow-moving, and calling Florida a "second home," the Georgia-born songsmith warbled lived-in lyrics about life, love, happiness and heartbreak for an appreciative crowd of 5,307.

This is billed as a hits tour, and over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, Tampa got 'em all, some long, some in snippets and often back to back to back. Taken in one sitting, they reveal just how much Alan Jackson has to say about so many things, and how frequently one philosophical musing bleeds into the next.

Chattahoochee may be a song about cars, women and beer cans in the moonlight, but it’s really a song about nostalgia, a fondness for the places where you learned “a lot about livin’ and a little ‘bout love.” Love, he sings on Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning), is the greatest gift God gave humans – “I remember this from when I was young,” he said. And when you’re young, he sings on Drive (For Daddy Gene), something as simple as steering your daddy’s plywood boat can make you feel like “king of the ocean … I can’t replace the way it made me feel.”

With his voice high enough in the mix for fans to hear every word – because why offer such confessions if you don’t want them taken to heart? – Jackson sang with a slight smile and utmost humility, rarely moving from behind his mic unless it was to toss out T-shirts or sign autographs. (How’s this for a sign of the times: During consumerist anthem Mercury Blues, he actually Sharpie’d someone’s iPad.)

To compensate for his relative lack of motion, the stage was backed by a giant screen that played the original videos to the very songs he was singing, resulting in sort of a cross-generational duet between Jacksons young and old.

That juxtaposition of Jacksons – that Jaxtoposition? – enhanced the impact of his many meditations on aging and youth, nostalgia and generational tradition – Drive, Chattahoochee, Livin’ On Love, Small Town Southern Man. Jackson would sing about his daddy or his girls, himself as a teen or an old man, and there behind him would be a younger Alan, looming much larger than the one audiences saw up on stage.

“Remember when 30 seemed so old?” he sang on Remember When. “Now, looking back, it’s just a stepping stone to where we are, where we’ve been.”

In places the show felt as if it strived to seem career-capping, like a lifetime achievement special come to life. There has been a bit of that in this 25th year – the Country Music Hall of Fame is currently featuring an exhibit on Jackson that includes, among other things, the childhood radio that inspired the swinging Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.

At 56, Jackson is far from retirement age, so you hope he’s not thinking about hanging up his hat. He may claim to be “just a singer of simple songs,” but he has too much to say that younger singers still need to hear. Too many of ‘em sound content to crush beer cans in a truck bed. Someone’s gotta teach them how to stack them up all nice in the pale moonlight.

*****

The closest we got to modern mainstream country on Friday was guitar-totin' young buck Jon Pardi, a denim-clad dude who sings about drunken dials and trashed hotel rooms and calls his fans "Pardi Animals,” because of course he does.

On the other hand, Pardi also sings about driving to Alan Jackson on the radio on 24-7-365, and feeling as drained and unloved as a spent pop top on Empty Beer Cans (there's that imagery again).

Happens All The Time dialed back his gunslinger act in favor of a loping early-'80s groove, as did the twangily soulful When I Been Drinking. And he got his Cali blood pumping on the rowdy, Yoakamish see-ya note Write You A Song. The guitar, the good looks, the honky-tonk assurance -- picture John Mayer on a Bakersfield bender, and you might land somewhere near Pardi.

Opening the night with an understated set was Brandy Clark, a surprise (but not undeserving) Best New Artist nominee at this year's Grammys. She last came through Tampa Bay last February, opening solo for Jennifer Nettles at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

This time she brought a full band, but oddly, the fleshed-out sound seemed to dull a bit of Clark's me-against-the-world edge; it wasn't until she ditched the guys for mostly solo renditions of The Band Perry's Better Dig Two and Miranda Lambert's Mama's Broken Heart (both of which she wrote) that she regained a bit of that wild-eyed fire. But the band earned its keep in other ways, adding gruff gusto to the wryly funny Big Day In a Small Town, Crazy Women and Broke, and bouncy, organ-driven soul to Get High, a bored housewife's pro-pot lament.

Clark is still finding her zone as a live performer, but at least her sturdy voice and memorable lyrics rang cleanly through the Dome. Which is as it should be. At an Alan Jackson show, the lyrics still matter. Every last one.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

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