By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
These days, it’s rare for a big time country music show to feature steel guitar, fiddle and mandolin as something more than occasional coloring.
But on Friday night, Alan Jackson was in town. And Jackson brings it old-school — with all the classic country instruments of his band, the Strayhorns, big in the mix behind his mellow, resonant baritone. Together, they slung the hits in a 23-song set that ran an hour and 40 minutes.
It had been a while since Jackson was here. Last time, in a concert eight years ago with Martina McBride, the Roanoke Civic Center was sold out. This time around, with “American Idol” finalist Casey James opening the show, the coliseum was far from sold out — 4,290 showed up in a venue configured to hold 7,300.
But those in the room got a significant treat. Jackson, whose multimillion-record selling music makes him a lock for the Country Music Hall of Fame, delivered most of his 30-some No. 1 hits with class and laid-back fun.
And he let his players play. After all, long instrumental jams are good spots for impromptu autograph sessions. Take “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” for instance. On that boot-scooting number about neighborhood scandals, the Strayhorns traded solos while Jackson signed photos, hats, even boots.
He would sign even more boots during the encore as the band — including Staunton native Danny Groah on guitar — soloed through “Mercury Blues.”
The white cowboy hat-wearing Jackson knows how to use his show to bring the audience close. During “Little Bitty,” his ode to the importance of everyday people, he had the house lights up. It was a subtle but effective touch, allowing for focus on a crowd that paid to hear him sing “Might as well share/Might as well smile/Life goes on for a little bitty while.”
He played his biggest crowd-pleasers, including big-beat set-opener “Gone Country,” the post-9/11 tear-jerker “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene) in the first half of the night.
After a rousing “Don’t Rock The Jukebox,” he and band members took to stools to revisit his first hit, “Here In The Real World,” followed by his latest single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore.” That song has seemingly stalled outside the country top 20, but his show closer, the boogie/bluegrass “Dixie Highway,” might just get him back to the top of the chart.
If Jackson is one of the few stars still holding the torch for old-school country, his opening act leaned more toward rock and country-soul. James, who finished third in the ninth season of “American Idol,” had a good voice and a solid band. But the material he performed last night didn’t leave the impression that he would be atop the country charts just yet.