Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Country Carolling

Theatre at Westbury, December 2008

Last year around this time, I asked Anthony at work if he wanted to go see Kenny Rogers with me at Westbury Music Fair. He declined, which surprised me because he had previously established himself as a big fan. I took it personally, and worst of all, I never ended up going.

I regretted it for nearly a year until I remembered that it was an annual concert, and promised myself I'd go alone if I couldn't find a companion again this year. Fortunately I was able to wrangle up Edith, Eric and Dan without much convincing.

Eric and I had similar childhoods growing up Upstate, three hours apart but often experiencing the same things at the same time. Kenny Rogers' voice was as familiar to us as our own mothers'. And as much as I've tried to shed/forget/run away from my childhood, certain visceral experiences draw me back to it - Christmas trees, Heluva Good French Onion dip, and cosmopolitan country music, just to name a few.

Apparently every year, this concert is normally all Christmas repertoire, but we got lucky this year, hearing hit after hit in the first half and then nothing but Christmas songs in the second.

Kenny looked OK. He famously got some bad plastic surgery a few years ago that reduced his eyes to tiny slits, and earlier this year had knee replacement surgery that left him hobbling up and down the steep aisles to and from the in-the-round stage (which rotates!). But a real highlight was getting to see what he looked like back in the late 60s, performing with his first band The First Edition, in a performance video projected on a huge screen that showed a hot and hunky young Kenny Rogers singing very seriously "I Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In" with present-day Kenny providing live vocals. Though released before my birth, I know that song well - the only Kenny Rogers one my father ever played. Most other people know it from the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. (I wonder if Anthony, also a big fan of that movie, ever made that connection?) Sharon Jones does a great cover version of it.

Kenny played plenty of other big hits - "The Gambler," "Coward of the County," "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Lady," even a solo version of "Islands in the Stream," but I was left wanting more. The Christmas-themed second act was a bit too schlocky and gimmicky for me, featuring red-clad children chiming in on the choruses of songs, and an audience participation version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which just dragged. Fortunately the rest of Kenny's repartee with the audience was was so entertaining that I'd probably be willing to go back and see him at another show (maybe without the Christmas part) to hear more hits.

If you could get through weird religious talk about how Christmas is a celebration of "Christ the Child," Kenny's renditions of Christmas carols were quite nice, especially when he was joined onstage by a gospel choir draped in red gowns. There's something in me that really loves religious songs, be they carols or just gospel hits. Somehow I can separate the message (which I could really care less about) from the sound. Oh, the sound! And in that little round room, that in-the-round theater, everything sounds great.

Kenny's beard is a lot whiter than it used to be, and it's more of a goatee now, but that voice still brushes against me like a corduroy coat or a wooly blanket - a little rough, but soft and warm, comforting and familiar.