Country music fans have come to expect fireworks and colored smoke, fancy costumes, choreography and the occasional Tarzan yell on stage.
Saturday night, Alan Jackson slammed them back to Earth. His set was sparse. There were no explosions of light or smoke. He didn't prance or clog or turn cartwheels across the single-level stage at the Delta Center.Instead, the thousands-strong crowd was greeted by a man and his band. He didn't move around much. He didn't talk much.
What he did was simple: He sang his heart out - a beautiful baritone voice offering up a rich journey through country music's past and present.
Jackson's one nod to the embellishments made possible by technology was the set of big screens above the stage that allowed everyone the chance to see what was going on. Sometimes they showed Jackson or his band. Sometimes they played video clips timed to go with the numbers being performed. But they enhanced rather than distracted from his music.
He's a traditionalist; his brand of country music is pure, rooted in the tradition of Hank Williams and George Jones, to whom he pays verbal and musical homage. His "Midnight in Montgomery" is about encountering the spirit of Williams. He also used Williams' "Mind Your Own Business" to showcase the individual talents of his six-member band. And his version of Jones' "A Good Year for the Roses" was lean and lovely.
At its best, country offers a look at the loves and heartaches, the successes and failures of the human journey. A little rhymin', a little punnin' and a lot of toe-tappin'.
Country - and Jackson - never sounded better.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening wasn't the simplicity of the show but that it was possible to hear the actual words of the songs. What a concept! Concertgoers used to the too-loud, too-blurry sound of many local venues - and those problems are certainly common at the Delta Center - have probably accepted bad sound as the price one pays to be in the same room with "someone important." Jackson proved it's an unnecessary compromise.
The crowd swayed and tapped, and a few adventurous couples tried (but were stopped by security) to dance along to swing tunes like "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" and "Chattahoochee."
They were pin-drop quiet and attentive during the mournful, honky-tonk "Tonight I Climbed the Wall" and "(Who Says) You Can't Have It All." But the high point of the evening was "Here in the Real World," which has all the qualities one associates with Jackson.
He also folded in a great Southern gospel song - "What Kind of Man Is Jesus" - that was so fast no one could sit still.
Salt Lake City's been lucky, bringing in the hottest country music acts on a regular basis. But Jackson's two-hour, 22-hit show, which ended his Fruit of the Looms County Tour, may have set a new standard. No fireworks, no smoke. And he's going to be a hard act to follow.
Lee Roy Parnell opened the show with a 45-minute set that included "Workin' Man Blues," "Knock Yourself Out" (with some great keyboarding) and the upbeat "The House Is Rockin'."
He didn't fare quite as well acoustically. "(Thank You) I'm Holdin' My Own" sounded a bit like "Thank You, I'm Over My Cold." But he's got a terrific voice and knows how to pace a set, mixing the fast and slow to deliver a very satisfying show.