I’ll be honest; prior to this gig I had very little knowledge of Kenny Rogers and his music. All I knew was that he was a massively famous country music singer and song-writer. I’d heard a couple of his songs but think my lack of knowledge is mainly down to my age. A quick search of the ever-unreliable Wikipedia tells me he is not just a singer but a photographer, record producer, actor and entrepreneur. He has also had over 70 hit singles across different genres in his career. I know from personal experience that he has collaborated with the likes of Dolly Parton and Wyclef Jean, of all people. With this in mind, I head out to the NIA in anticipation of seeing something special.
The gig is not scheduled to start until 8pm and there is only one support act, which sees me and several others sitting in our seats bored stiff for half an hour with only some Crowded House on the PA to keep us amused. I’ve got to hand it to them; Brum Live have done very well. I’m smack bang in the middle, just seven rows from the front. As I look around I realise that, at 20, I’m by far the youngest person I can see, bar a couple of young lads clearly dragged along by their parents.
By the time the support act start their set the venue is hardly packed and I hope it will fill a little more in the next hour. Savannah Jack is an honest, talented country band from Nashville, Tennessee. The three-piece consists of two guitarists and a lead singer, with all three contributing to some absolutely spot on vocal harmonies. Tonight will see me find a new respect and admiration for country musicians and this is no more evident than when I find myself staring, open-mouthed, at Savannah Jack’s lead guitarist mid-solo. Halfway through their set he even pulls out a fiddle and is more than competent with it. The band as a whole have some great banter with the crowd and cover songs by the Gatlin Brothers and The Eagles – with the latter really giving their harmonies a chance to shine. They also throw in the classic ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ which gets the whole audience singing along. Lead singer Don Gatlin (a cousin of the famous Brothers) has a fantastic voice. He even walks through the crowd at one point, picking out a woman to serenade. Despite only having one single release to their name, Savannah Jack have been around as song-writers for a long time and have even written for tonight’s headliner. This is a deceivingly experienced band and it shows in their live performance. I would more than recommend giving them a listen.
Kenny Rogers is a seasoned professional. There’s nothing more to it; this guy knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows every trick in the book and it shows. His huge backing band consists of three keyboards, a fiddle, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. The band is flawless throughout, as you’d expect from a group of musicians chosen to support one of the biggest names in the history of country music. They are all smiles for the duration of the concert and it is obvious that they love working with him.
I am immediately stricken by how good Kenny looks for his age. He may be 70 years old but he walks and talks like a man at least 10 years his junior. If that wasn’t enough, when Kenny Rogers sings the years really fall off him. He has a smile on his face for the entire gig and is clearly still completely in love with his job. This is no more apparent that during ‘Through The Years’, which he sings with his eyes closed, still taken aback by the beauty of the music.
I would describe the experience as half music, half stand-up comedy. Kenny’s banter with the crowd is great; he manages to make everyone in the room laugh at every opportunity. After a few songs I realise that I am thoroughly enjoying myself tonight and am completely in awe of the figure just seven rows in front of me. The audience feel the same way too, with everybody clapping and singing along to each song.
Kenny plays some older songs such as ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, ‘Reuben James’ and ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ made famous by his first band The First Edition. He might not move like he did in those days but he definitely still sings with the energy and passion of old. Kenny plays a few more hits including ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Lucille’ before concluding that encores are a waste of time. He makes a joke about how everybody knows you’re coming back and he’s sorry that he won’t be doing it tonight as he doesn’t have the legs for it anymore. This gets another big laugh from the crowd and Kenny Rogers is coming off as a really funny guy.
Throughout the gig Kenny has been giving one person in the front row money. He started off giving him $10 for each hit of Kenny’s he could name. The guy reeled off about five in a row and despite already having $50 Kenny kept throwing him bills all night. The man leaves at the end of the night with $120 of Kenny Rogers’s cash. This may be a sign that money may not really matter to Kenny Rogers anymore. He is much more worried about the finer things in life, such as his wife and two young children, who he sings a touching tribute to.
Kenny finishes his set with ‘Islands In The Stream’, once reworked and brought to mainstream fame by American hip hop artist Pras Michel in his song ‘Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)’. The song has most recently been covered for comic relief by Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon from the BBC’s hit show ‘Gavin and Stacey’. Tonight, though, it is the Kenny Rogers version and he hands out tambourines to the crowd to get them involved in the last song of the night. They duly oblige, with most on their feet singing and clapping along. As I leave the NIA with a smile on my face I realise that I have been well and truly treated to a performance by one of the greatest musicians in any genre is recent times.
Review – Jack McCormick
Photos – Betty Haglund