My last “big” show was back in the late ‘80s, back when bands like R.E.M. were playing places that held 10-15,000 people. Due to sticker shock and a lack of desire to see tiny figures on a stage a hundred yards away, I never really checked out the stadium shows that came through my area. Instead, I descended into the happy little cocoon of club shows, spoiling myself on the immediacy of bands still learning their chops, the crucial pairing of short lines for both beer and restrooms, cheap ticket prices, and vantage points about six feet from the stage. Can’t be beat, even to this day.
So when a buddy offered me a free ticket to see Kid Rock from the comfort of a luxury box, I was immediately tempted. While I’m not a huge Kid Rock fan, I do like some of his more aggressive stuff (my inner sixteen-year-old has apparently camped out in my soul for good), and you do have to give props to anyone bold enough to proclaim “I am the bullgod.” You say something like that, and pretty soon someone will ask you to back that shit up. So props to Kid Rock in the bravado department. An age-induced fear of the new was strong in me, though, so it not only took assurances that my friend would drive us through the dangers and mysteries of a strange new parking lot, but also that the luxury boxes had their own restrooms. I’m not in enlarged prostate territory just yet, but private restrooms are a selling point no matter where you’re going.
1 Mar 2008: Bi-Lo Center Greenville, SC
As we neared the auditorium, the street corners became dense not only with black t-shirts, but also with microphone-armed protesters full of fire and brimstone. Greenville, SC, is the home of Bob Jones University, and their presence at many shows is pretty much expected. I’m still not sure why they picketed a John Cougar Mellencamp show back in the ‘80s, but it was no surprise that Kid Rock brought them out. The drinking, the cussing, the carnality, the stripper culture, the references to himself as the “rock ‘n’ roll Jesus” ... yeah, protesters were pretty much a lock.
Inside, I realized how much I’d forgotten about big rock shows, and shows that didn’t depend on indie cred. As the crowd waited for the show, they whooped, wave-like around the stadium, for no apparent reason. They cheered when the songs they liked came on the PA system. Every other person at this Kid Rock show was wearing a Kid Rock t-shirt, an indie cred crime that would get you flat-out shunned at a Wilco or Arcade Fire show. And heck, after a short warm-up segment featuring some musical snippets and scantily-clad dancers, the entire stadium was singing along not only to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, but also to the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter.
As Kid Rock appeared on stage, silhouetted by a single white spotlight, the crowd went nuts, and one thing quickly became apparent: the guy is a showman. Dancing and jumping around, making full use of a stage that included a crucifix-shaped walkway jutting into the crowd, he worked hard to keep the energy level up for the majority of the show. Billed as the “Rock & Roll Revival Tour”, the concert also underlined Kid Rock’s strength: his ability to merge metal, rap, outlaw country, the musical heritage of Detroit, and Southern rock into a lucrative whole. It’s not complicated, and it’s not seamless; the influences are laid bare for everyone to see. But Kid Rock picks his sources, such as the Metallica riff that supports “American Badass”, really well.
While the show didn’t quite match Rock’s claim that it would explore the history of music, it did feature plenty of nice nods to the past. A medley that included “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” prompted a hearty singalong from the crowd, who also went nuts during a segment featuring the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts. The night’s highlight, however, was a miniset with Run DMC’s Rev Run that stretched back to some hip-hop from 1983. The show lost momentum only during the requisite sensitive portion, featuring Rock’s ballads and midtempo songs, and, sadly, the encore.
Through it all, Rock worked the crowd, dropping the word “Greenville” numerous times and engaging in loud call-and-response with the crowd. A gangsta pose here, a well-timed jump at the start of a heavy guitar riff there, he had onstage charisma to spare. Sure, the show was choreographed to the smallest detail—although switching lone spotlights between two guitarists as they traded pieces of a rapid-fire solo was undeniably cool—and parts of the songs felt like square blocks pounded securely into square holes, with no room for improvisation (a point which really came home during Betts’ extended solos). But when you’re playing for a big crowd, you can’t just wing it; playing to the back of the room demands dynamics and precision (and apparently the occasional wardrobe change for dramatic effect). I mean, as much as I like a band like Son Volt, their live show is about as scintillating as watching the animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese. This is apparently never a danger at a Kid Rock show.
Kid Rock also might be one of the few big-name artists to remember that his fans aren’t making millions a year, and he seemed genuinely sincere when he thanked them for dropping their hard-earned money on the show. This struck me as I sat in the luxury box, downing two six-packs of Bud Light that cost us an exorbitant $49.50 (which was actually a far sight better than the $6.50/draft the crowd on the floor was paying). Kid Rock might have some sympathy for the workin’ man, but the venue apparently has mouths to feed.
I was there for free, but for much of the crowd, this might have been their very first show, or their only show this year. And forty bucks for a ticket is hard to come by these days, especially when it costs that much just to fill up the tank in your car. Consequently, there’s a distinct lack of self-consciousness at a show like this. You can be as snarky as you want about some of the things you see—I mean, I hadn’t seen a bustier at a rock show since Madonna’s heyday—but you have to be downright envious of a crowd’s willingness to fully give themselves over to a show. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some installment of “the tweedy over-educated critic heaps patronizing praise on the salt of the earth.” No, it comes from the fact that I’m a fairly distant, unemotional, self-conscious person. I don’t even sing along to the songs that speak to my soul (well, maybe I do when I’m alone). I’m genuinely bewildered and envious of people’s ability, even when they’re lubricated by vast amounts of alcohol, to shed their inhibitions and raise their arms in the air / and wave ‘em like they just don’t care, just because Rev Run asks them to.
Sure, I cringed when Kid Rock asked the crowd to turn around and shake their neighbors’ hands. But I cringe when that happens every Sunday in church (especially during flu season). And I had to respect the fact that in some small way, even a huge rock show could have some communal spirit.