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Coming out of the woods: Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour at Detroit’s Ford Field
We had a debate about Taylor Swift at brunch today … well, not a debate so much as friendly banter, but, yes, about Taylor Swift. You see, I saw her stellar 1989 concert at Detroit’s Ford Field last night, and it seems to shock/awe/flabbergast that a grown (sort of) man appreciates the glittering pop output of one Ms. Swift. But I really do. Swift seems to be a polarizing force. Either you adore her or you really don’t ever, ever, ever like her style of wholesome-with-an-edge, high-waisted-Wonder-Bread-dominatrix, let-people-be-people, sh*tcan-the-jerks-in-your-life-with-a-smile jukebox jive.
I don’t think it’s easy to transition from child star to adult phenomenon in the public eye. I don’t mean the drug-addled, gin-soaked misadventures of a young (baby) Drew Barrymore or a slipping-down-the-rabbit hole Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes. Rather, it’s probably worse for someone like Swift, whose Amazonian work ethic and drive for world domination must never give her a moment’s rest and which seems to make her a perennial target for critique.
The 1989 show, named after the year a wide-eyed Taylor (now 25 years old, natch) powered into this unsuspecting world, brings all of the pop (formerly country) powerhouse’s disparate influences into sharp relief. And it makes abundantly clear just how profound her transition has been from kiddie cult to global superstar. Watching last night’s show, I was struck by Swift’s confident swagger (and I normally hate swagger) but she wears it well.
She is not limited by gender, age, public perception, nor a cavalcade of A-list ex-paramours. NO.
She has reverse engineered the formula for inevitable, relentless singularity: one part Mick Jagger, two parts Madonna, a pinch of Janet, with a healthy sprinkling Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos self-mythologizing confessional. Well-played, kid. No one else quite cracked that code – not Britney, not Rihanna, not Gaga. Not even sure Beyonce did it … but watch your back for Miley. Most important? Last night’s show was fun. (And, yeah, I might have been one of the oldest and fewest Y-chromosomed attendees – but if the Church of Swift teaches us anything it’s “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”)
The set list is essentially the 1989 album (from last fall) in its entirety with a few other now-classics (strange to say of songs not even five or so years old) thrown in (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Love Story”). Performance highlights included: a glitzy 42nd Street take on opener “Welcome to New York” with its swirling, infectious message of universal inclusion; a little Fosse in the stylized shadow-dancing of hypnotic “Blank Space;” some sweaty Velvet Rope-era Janet stylings on a molasses-throbbing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and a Rhythm Nation twist on rival-skewering “Bad Blood;” and straight-up Courtney Love guitar-raging on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (arguably the strongest reinvention of the bunch).
Before her (literally) soaring encore of the ubiquitous “Shake It Up” (staged as a can-can kick-line atop a spinning/floating catwalk), Swift closed with a stadium-rattling take on my personal 1989 favorite “Out of the Woods.” Against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of twisting Grimm Brothers trees and underneath giant spiraling paper airplanes, Swift nailed this Simple Minds/Tears for Fears/Kate Bush-homage, an anthem of empowerment and self-actualization and her ultimate thesis for this sleek, epic pop evening. You are you. Own it.
There were many surprises in an already jam-packed evening. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons popped up for a frisky duet on his own hit “Radioactive” that had the crowd in a frenzy. (Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get the 50K plus, sold-out crowd in a frenzy. They were going nuts over trivia questions about Taylor’s cats in the pre-show warm-up period.) Other members of the Swift celeb mafia put in video and live appearances – models GiGi Hadid and Martha Hunt walked the catwalk in “Style” to wish their singer-songwriter pal well, and Girls‘ Lena Dunham and the band Haim (not to mention, yes, Taylor’s cats Olivia and Meredith) offered their greetings from the big screens. (Is Swift the new Sinatra – and it’s not Jay-Z after all? Food for thought.)
The spectacle of the show was tasteful – more old-school Vegas than stadium bombast – with minimalist choreography, a series of subtle costume changes (all spangles and mini-skirts), a lot of rear-screen projection, and Taylor’s fabulously perfect 1989-bobbed haircut. (Seriously, she should never wear her hair any. other. way.) The niftiest touch of all? Every member of the audience was given a light-up wrist-band (RFID-powered?) that flashed and pulsed and changed colors to the stage activities. Such a simple thing, but had such a profound effect on the overall experience. The huge room at Ford Field looked like a twinkling galaxy, and all of us – young and, ahem, old – were gobsmacked by the clever inclusion of every one us in the concert staging.
The show is a reverent homage to an era which Swift couldn’t possibly remember – the late 80s. I do. Unlike Katy Perry’s Prismatic Tour (which I enjoyed), Swift is not winking at the Day-Glo era. She is embracing it and exploring those musical influences she never knew she had. I was 17 in 1989, and it was the year I started loving pop music from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to Madonna’s Like a Prayer to, yes, Prince’s Batman. I still treasure those albums as they transport me to a simpler, maybe sillier, possibly less socially divisive time when a lifetime of opportunity still extended before me. Whether she knows it or not, Swift captured the summer fun of listening to pure pop escapism on my little red boombox on the sundeck of my parents’ house in 1989. Thank you, Taylor.
P.S. Taylor loves Detroit. She first sang the National Anthem at a Lions game at Ford Field years ago, and she even brought her mom along last night to help usher ecstatic fans backstage. My pal Linda Cameron, mom of frequent Penny Seats cast-mate Matt Cameron, was there as a belated holiday present from her family, and Linda even got a chance to meet Mom Swift whom Linda described as a “sweetheart.”
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.
Funky college professors who change your life … The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Grace & Tony at Ann Arbor’s The Ark
If you aren’t familiar with this group, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and check out their stuff. I have never seen so raucous a crowd at The Ark as I did last night, jubilant and joyous and energized by the band’s world-class musicianship and delightfully irreverent intellectualism.
This group of multi-hyphenate performers have mined hundreds of years of musical history: folk, roots, hip-hop, spiritual, blues, country, bluegrass, and even Celtic rhythms to create an intoxicating brew of acoustic, string driven, pop delights.
While the lineup of the group has undergone some changes in recent years, lead singer Rhiannon Giddens is a mainstay. (One of the night’s biggest laughs came when she stated, “A certain pop star came on the scene a few years back [the similarly named Rihanna] … and pretty much ruined my life … I wear clothes, though.”
Giddens is a marvel. As much accomplished actress as she is exceptional vocalist and amazing instrumentalist, she breathes life into songs that veer wildly from a 200 A.D. war chant to Blu Cantrell’s one-hit-wonder “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops).” She makes every song her own. With wide-eyed wonder, heartfelt intelligence and charm, and an impish smile, she delivers raw roots vocals with operatic technique, all while playing nearly every stringed instrument on stage from mandolin to banjo. Many of last night’s selections focused on the mistreatment of women through the ages and the essential reclamation of female power. That may sound stuffy. It ain’t.
The talents of this quartet cannot be overstated. The Chocolate Drops’ nearly two hour set flew by. Opening with the propulsive and gripping “Country Girl” through their encore “Cornbread and Butterbeans” (which was aggressively – and quite humorously – requested all night long by one notably vocal fan), the set was a dynamic and earthy array of the group’s best work with a handful of undiscovered gems tossed in for good measure.
I felt like I was at a fabulous party that I never wanted to end. The Chocolate Drops were relaxed and authentic, gracious and inclusive. Their repartee between songs (and during!) was both instructive and hysterically funny, like that of funky college professors whom you adore for making you laugh … and changing your life.
(The Chocolate Drops also gave some local dancers the opportunity to hit the stage and interpret their music as they were playing it. If there ever was a textbook definition of a “happening,” this was it.)Opening act, alt-country/folk/steampunk husband/wife duo Grace & Tony may have been an acquired taste for some. I loved them! By the time they played their last number, they had completely won me over. (I listened to their CD November in the car today on my way to work, and I highly recommend it – ethereal, zany, and compelling.)
Tony White (brother of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White) knows how to work his hipster winsome charm in service to songs inspired by such diverse topics as Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, Frankenstein’s monster, and a couple of serial killers who sold cadavers to universities in the 1800s. These topics sound ghoulish, but Tony (and Grace!) sold these cracked ditties with such saucy glee that the audience was in the palm their hands by the time the Chocolate Drops took the stage.
Thanks to our dear pal Rachel Murphy who introduced all of us to the Carolina Chocolate Drops music. And I, in turn, hooked my parents on the group and have given several copies of their spectacular CDs as gifts.
A plug for The Ark: this is a fabulous, nonprofit venue staffed by volunteers, bringing in internationally known performers many times a week. Definitely check out their schedule, and take in a show there first chance you get!
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.