It was far from a warm summer's evening last night at Kenny Rogers' Christmas & The Hits concert at the Riverside Theater, but that didn't stop fans from making an impressive showing at the legendary country music superstar's remarkable show.
Rogers hardly needs any introduction, but his list of accomplishments is truly astonishing by any standard. He has charted more than 120 times with hit singles. He's recorded more than 65 albums in his more than 50-year career.
He's sold more than 120 million records and on top of winning three Grammy Awards, Rogers has won top honors at the Country Music Association awards, the American Music awards and the Academy of Country Music awards. A poll in 1986 taken by USA Today and People Magazine placed Rogers as the readers' "Favorite Singer of All Time."
Pulling hits from a historic and storied career, Rogers spent the first half of the concert bringing to life songs from his expansive archive for the Milwaukee crowd, rolling out his biggest hits one after another.
Early in the show Rogers sang "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" and a medley of old hits that included "You Decorated My Life" and "She Believes In Me," a song that Rogers said "out of all those ballads of the '80s, this one was my favorite." True to form, he sang it as such, with genuine heart and soul.
"Coward Of The County" and "Daytime Dreamer" also made appearances on the setlist last night. Rogers was upbeat and enthusiastic throughout the concert, and near the end of his first set shared the stage with fellow country artist Billy Dean, a guest vocalist on Kenny's No. 1 single "Buy Me A Rose," which charted back in 2000. The two crooners looked comfortable onstage together during the duet, looking back and forth in honest admiration. Dean also performed his tune "Billy The Kid."
Rogers took a moment to call attention to his fiddle player, Amber Randall, who, like all of the musicians in his band, was simply outstanding last night. You could feel the energy between everyone onstage, and the amount of interaction and communication going on for such a large band was incredible.
The true highlight of the show for me happened next. After making a joke about the numerous Gambler movies and how it would take two hours to sing all the songs from them, Kenny, in almost total darkness, sat down on a stool and performed his most beloved and well known hit, "The Gambler," and while I was allowed to photograph the entire show, there was really nothing to photograph, and for a few minutes I stood in silence and just observed the gentle and warm tone of Rogers as he offered up his advice to "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away, and know when to run."
It was, for me, a moment I've waited for all my life, having grown up with the song. Never until last night have I had the honor of seeing Kenny Rogers perform it live. It lived up to every bit of my expectations and beyond. In my mind I saw a younger Rogers as I first saw him on "The Muppet Show" in 1979.
The hits portion was finished off with "Lucille," "Lady" and "Islands In The Stream." It was a powerful way to close out the set. These iconic songs resonate so deeply for those who remember when they were released, they're much like old friends, always welcomed with open arms. Rogers took his time with every song, giving them each the attention they deserved.
It was also a reminder that country music has taken some radical turns since the 1970s and 1980s. Today's country music, dominated currently by Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, in my opinion, is a totally new art form.
I'm a big fan of both styles and I have an incredible amount of respect for Swift, Underwood and Lambert, but it makes me a touch sad that perhaps we'll never see another Tanya Tucker or Dolly Parton, and songs like "Delta Dawn" and "Islands In The Stream" have been replaced with "Inside Your Heaven" and "You Belong With Me." The traditional country twang has been replaced with a pop edge. People will be debating the course of country music for years to come as genres seem to collide more and more in the music industry.
Although it was just a few days past Thanksgiving, Christmas cheer was in the air, and after a quick break we were treated to the second half of the concert, an outstanding selection of Christmas music featuring numerous songs with six children from the Milwaukee Children's Choir and a finale with the local Holy Redeemer Choir.
Billy Dean came out first after a quick and fun run-through of Charlie Brown's theme song. The festive stage setting was much like a winter wonderland, and even featured a snowman. The children joined Dean for classics such as "Let Them Be Little," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Let It Snow," which featured the illusion of snow falling upon the stage.
Kenny came back to the stage just as the snow stopped falling, and Rogers acknowledged to the crowd it was perhaps a bit early in the season for such a concert of Christmas songs. He went on to say, "Let me be the first to say Merry Christmas."
Rogers continued on to address a concern that as a country we're close to losing "Merry Christmas" as a phrase in an all-too-politically correct world. He recalled a situation where a clerk he came in contact with at a store was not allowed to say Merry Christmas. Kenny responded, "Well, I am. Merry Christmas."
The Christmas songs came fast and furious at this point and some of the highlights included "The Christmas Song," more commonly titled "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire," "White Christmas," "Away In A Manger" and "O Holy Night."
Usually when someone shouts out for a song, it's "Freebird," but someone broke tradition last night and yelled out for "Silent Night," to which Rogers responded, "On its own good time, young man." The Children's Choir was brought out once again, and Rogers and Dean delighted in harmonizing with the young singers. The children did exceptionally well, and appeared pretty comfortable on the big stage. I can only imagine how proud their parents must have been.
The concert began to wrap up with "Joy To The World," and the Holy Redeemer Choir, Children's Choir, Billy Dean and Kenny Rogers all took their places onstage. It was a very impressive display of some of the finest voices Milwaukee has to offer, and a really unique way for Rogers to share his experience with each city on his tour. The children will have quite a story to tell their classmates this week, and lifetime memories of performing with a legend.