"You know, my cousins saw Kid Rock at Sandstone around 6 to 8 years ago," my friend said, shivering in the cold with me outside the sold-out Sprint Center on Friday night before Kid Rock took the stage. At the show he was describing, Kid Rock had been rolling through his set with his usual hard-hitting badassery when something truly remarkable happened: The woman next to them, er, "dropped to her knees and started working away at her man" in the middle of the show. (Kid Rock was simply too much for her and her boyfriend, I guess.)
You understand why I wasn't quite sure what to expect. After all, how many boob flashes have ever happened at the Sprint Center?
The main difference between a raucous crowd at Sandstone in late summer humidity, however, and a raucous crowd at the Sprint Center in February is a marked one. (Leather jackets and bandannas replaced tube tops and cut-off T-shirts, for starters.)
It must be a requirement to have a beard to be in country opener Jamey Johnson's band. Johnson is schooled in old-school country, and it shows. His music's heavy-hearted despair hearkens back to the chilling gothic bluegrass roots of the genre, and his grungy voice has just the right amount of grit to be compelling. "And I thought Townes was dark," my companion confided, awed.
Bros in the front row in jerseys and cowboy hats threw devil horns when the longhaired country star sang "In Color," the tender ballad about poring over black-and-white photographs with his grandfather: And if it looks like we were scared to death / like a couple of kids just trying to save each other / you should have seen it in color. The sold-out crowd engaged in mammoth sing-along with the lights up. Johnson pointed his finger out at the crowd as they sang his lyrics back to him, genuinely amazed.
Very few artists can pluck out a tender, acoustic guitar line and make the crowd roar. It isn't only that Johnson is a good performer but he's also a great talent. Here's hoping that you can save country, Jamey Johnson. Count me among your believers.
After finishing his set, Johnson held up his red solo cup to the crowd: Cheers. And he walked offstage.
I was in the incredibly, impossibly long beer line when Kid Rock took the stage. From the echoing expanse of the Sprint Center's hallway, I could hear the opening riffs of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Oh yeah, he's from south Detroit.
"We're gonna rock this motherfucker like we never rocked before," a guy in the beer line screeched, bending his knees with his fists in the air. Everyone stared. He straightened up and faced the other direction.
Kid Rock has the same raspy voice of some of the Southern-rock saints of the '70s, even though his guitar strap loudly proclaims his Michigan roots. (My notes: "big flames; big bull horns. And I can smell weed for the first time during the show.")
Kid Rock flipped his mic in his hands, pointed at the crowd, and jumped 2 feet in the air, commanding the catwalk and electric guitar with equal ease. He's the only artist I've seen live who can actually use a runway. (And, yes, that includes you, Gaga.)
A great example of Kid Rock's stupid brilliance: combining the riffs "Werewolves of London" and "Sweet Home Alabama" in "All Summer Long." Kid Rock has effortlessly channeled the late-summer bliss of the party cove at the lake. The song is all sunburn, cheap beer and shitty tattoos, incarnate. And Kid Rock sells it: He's sweaty, tan and totally kick-ass -- and the woman with the mullet behind me was totally blushing.
"This is the second show I've sold out in KC," said Rock between numbers. "I've been playing this town since I was in a U-Haul and a truck 12 to 15 years ago. A special thank you for spending your hard-earned money." Kid Rock's philosophy, as he explained it to the crowd, was simple: "If you sing about the truth and you charge people a fair price, they'll come out to see you play."
The show took a hard left into trashy territory about halfway through. (I love my trailer-trash indulgences, but a line like You can kiss my Anglo-Saxon ass is something I have a little trouble getting behind.) A gigantic 100-dollar bill with Rock's face emblazoned on it cascaded down, and he emerged in a glowing, weird tube-light suit that looked like a wizard costume.
Afterward, Rock took a break to declare, "I actually made it to 40 years old last night."
Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel (and Jimmy Kimmel's 3-foot fake penis) all wished Kid Rock a happy birthday via the gigantic TV screen behind the stage. Then, Rock launched into one of the better self-deprecating gestures I've seen at a show: a song called "Fucking 40." He laments: I never dated Winona Ryder, and I guess I never will. Another great line: But Bruce Springsteen is 62, and the Stones are almost dead.
There were several moments that belied Rock's wildly underrated songwriting chops. "Rock On" ushered out a crop of lighters in the crowd, and men and women waved their palms toward the stage like they we're in church during "Only God Knows Why." It's understandable: Johnson and Rock's combined power was remarkable. (This was preceded by a quick episode where Rock came out onstage to an empty mic stand. For a minute, before a stage dude brought out the mic, he poked his finger through the empty mic holder in a banging motion, and giggled. Nice.)
More cheeky immaturity plagued the set, too: There was a Beavis and Butthead montage to usher in the encore. "Kid Rock? More like Kid Soft Rock," said Bevis, cracking one after a solo attempt at "Picture," Kid Rock's duet with Sheryl Crowe. Then, Rock slammed directly into "Bawitididibiaibaba." (Or whatever.)
For his final number, Kid Rock was lifted on a revolving, bumper-sticker-laden American-flag platform for "Born Free" -- a title that shares the same ring as Lady Gaga's new single, by the way. (Clearly, these two are in cahoots.) I wasn't in love with this track, but the delivery was undeniably full of the kind of pageantry worthy of any dinosaur act.
The best moment of the night - and the most telling, in my notebook - was the moment that Kid Rock dragged a lawn chair from behind his fake stage-bar to the end of the catwalk, and plunked his ass down in it, looking totally at home. It felt like a front-yard chat. (I couldn't quite see, but I think someone from the crowd handed him a Bud Light.) That's really what Kid Rock's appeal is: It's a glorification of drinking domestic beer in your front yard and shooting the shit with your buddies. After all, there's nothing wrong with giving people exactly what they want: rock, nostalgia, a cold one, and a little well-won grit.
Critics' Notebook: By the end of the night, my eyebrows feel singed off from the fake flames.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm not fat enough to be a grandma."
Set List (which is totally rough because Kid Rock is quite fond of medleys):
God Bless Saturday
You Never Met A Motherfucker Quite Like Me
Slow My Roll
All Summer Long
When It Rains
Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp
Somebody's Gotta Feel This
What's My Name
Only God Knows Why