In a variety of ways, it may appear as though Alan Jackson isn’t aging well.
It would have been impossible, for instance, to not notice how gingerly he hobbled onto the stage at the start of his show at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Saturday night; how he moved more like a man north of 70 than a man who just turned 60 last year; and how his knees seemed to get even more rickety over the course of his 100-minute headlining set.
During almost every hit song he sang, a giant screen to the rear of the stage projected the music video that originally went with it, each featuring a vibrant-looking, thirty- to forty-something Jackson — and if you weren’t actually saying “Man, it’s crazy how young he looks in those videos” to the person you’d come with, certainly you were thinking it.
Then at one point halfway through the show, Jackson had a brain blip between songs that stood out as a briefly awkward moment: “What are we doing next?” he said. For just a second, his face went as blank as his mind apparently had. “I forgot what my next song was,” he added, before someone or something reminded him, and he found his way again.
Yet anyone who came to the show with concerns about whether Jackson’s voice had lost a step since his last appearance in Charlotte (in May 2005 at the former Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre) could have safely checked those concerns at the door.
Thanks in part to some of the best sound mixing I’ve heard at Spectrum Center in recent memory — but mostly to the still-warm, still-powerful, and still-perfect pitch of one of the most famous voices in country music — the singer’s renditions of his many monster hits sounded as good on Saturday as they did when he recorded them now close to half a lifetime ago.
His goal, which quickly became clear to anyone who hadn’t seen him live in a long time (or ever), has always been to faithfully re-create in a live setting his vocals on the studio versions.
And he still succeeds in impressive fashion; with one or two brief exceptions, Jackson’s delivery was in spot-on sync with the classic music videos playing behind him, all night long — a testament to both his painstakingly practiced command of his material and the show’s producers knack for pressing the start button on those videos at exactly the right moment.
With dozens of number-one hits to his name, he was never going to get to all of them, of course. But he started the concert with maybe the most appropriate one (1994’s easy, breezy “Gone Country”), followed that up with arguably his funniest (1995’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” accompanied by that madcap video starring comedian Jeff Foxworthy), then made it four chart-toppers in a row with “Livin’ on Love” and “Good Time.”
Though he clearly has less energy and less mobility than he used to, Jackson doesn’t lack for enthusiasm and for a genuine love for his fans. Particularly early on, he seemed obsessed with flicking guitar picks into the pit and lobbing rolled-up white T-shirts into the first several rows, smiling through it all — albeit somewhat apologetically.
“Sorry, that’s as far as I can throw them T-shirts. I never was that good at sports. They always said I was tall and that’s all,” quipped Jackson, who is listed at 6-foot-4 but probably measures about 6-8 with that cowboy hat on. “Anyway, I’ll fling ’em out far as I can, y’all.”
He also seemed obsessed with making it a night to remember for a blonde-haired, cowboy-hatted, 7-year-old girl at the foot of the stage. She got a guitar pick from him during “I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” a T-shirt from him during “Livin’ on Love,” an autograph on her cowboy hat from him during “The Blues Man,” and her cute smile up on the giant screen during “Little Bitty.”
That was one of just a small handful of moments when the screen showed something other than an Alan Jackson music video or a live-stream of the onstage action, and each of those moments was hugely crowd-pleasing.
During his 9/11 tribute “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),“ for instance, the screen stayed black until the closing notes, when Thomas Franklin’s famous photo of the firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero appeared — eliciting thunderous applause and a brief “USA, USA” chant.
Later, during the final song before the encore, “Where I Come From,” video clips featured not his original hometown of Newnan, Ga., or his adopted hometown of Nashville, Tenn., but of Charlotte, North Carolina. Loud whoops went up at the sight of a CMPD patrol car parked at Trade and Tryon; restaurants like Bar-B-Q King on Wilkinson and Price’s Chicken Coop on Camden; bars like Coyote Joe’s and The Dog House; pro-sports havens like Bank of America Stadium and Charlotte Motor Speedway; and more.
He also got the crowd going by slipping North Carolina twists into the lyrics of several songs: In “Good Time,” the line became “Shot of Jack Daniels, beer on tap / Good-lookin’ Carolina woman set on my lap”; in “Country Boy,” it was “Climb in my bed, I’ll take you for a ride / Up city streets, down them North Carolina country roads, y’all”; and in “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”: “I ain’t had a day off in more than a year / My Carolina vacation’s gonna start right here.”
“Five O’Clock” and “Chattahoochee” — played back-to-back near the end of the night — were the biggest crowd-pleasers and generated the loudest revelry from the near-capacity crowd. But on a night packed with raucous moments, it was the quietest section of the show that arguably stood out the most.
Situated on stools with members of his eight-piece band during an acoustic break mid-show, Jackson spun campfire-style stories to set up some of his oldest songs, from “Here in the Real World” (which he credits as the one that saved his career from going nowhere) to “Wanted” (he says the chorus came to him in a motel during a rainstorm while he was watching “this old John Wayne Western” that he’d seen a dozen times) to “Chasing That Neon Rainbow.”
Part of the opening verse of the latter, he told the crowd, was inspired by his memories of his late father winning a wooden radio in an employee contest at the Pepsi plant he worked at in Newnan, back when Jackson was about 5 years old. He said the radio sat on a counter at home and produced the first memories of music in his life.
That old wooden radio, he pointed out, is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And so is Jackson, having been inducted in 2017.
Saturday night’s show was a good reminder of why he belongs there, and proof that — despite the loss of some of the spring in his step — he’s still a country force to be reckoned with in a live setting after all these years.
Don’t worry, y’all. Alan Jackson is aging just fine.
Alan Jackson’s setlist
1. “Gone Country”
2. “I Don’t Even Know Your Name”
3. “Livin’ on Love”
4. “Good Time”
5. “The Blues Man”
6. “Summertime Blues”
7. “Who’s Cheatin’ Who”
8. “Here in the Real World”
10. “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”
11. “Song for the Life”
12. “It Must Be Love”
13. “Seven Bridges Road”
14. “Little Bitty”
15. “Country Boy”
16. “Drive (For Daddy Gene)“
17. “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)“
18. “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
19. “Remember When”
20. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
22. “Where I Come From”
23. “Tall, Tall Trees”
24. “Mercury Blues”
25. “Dixie Highway”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes