Nostalgia tours are big business because most people buy their tickets based on a connection to the performer and the songs, not to see musical brilliance from an aging (or aged) musician. This was the case for last night’s Kenny Rogers’ show at The Eccles Theater, and as a reviewer, I knew that going in. As a music lover, I was there for the same reason.
Rogers himself has billed it a farewell tour—clever name: “The Gambler’s Last Deal”—and he’s filling venues all over the country with fans who want one more taste of The Gambler himself singing songs everyone knows by heart.
As Rogers came onstage, singing “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” he hobbled over to a chair at the front of the stage. “I had a knee replacement,” he told the crowd, “And I think they replaced the wrong damn knee!” And so, he told his fans that he’d be seated through most of the night—but warned, “When I stand up, you bet your ass it’s going to be important.”
And this was the best part of the night—Roger’s voice may not be what it used to be, but his charm is still on point. When talking about Mick Jagger’s dancing (“He dances like a 50-year-old… It’s disheartening, to say the least,” Rogers said), his twin 12-year-old boys (!!!), poking fun of his own lyrics or an audience member yawning, Roger’s connection with the crowd as he walked them through his musical history and songbook was still very much in tact.
A screen behind Rogers showed footage of him in his younger years, from still photos of his band The First Edition to the made-for-television film based on The Gambler, there was no doubt that the he just isn’t quite the silver fox he used to be. His voice wavered a bit, probably due in part to his seated position throughout the show, but a strong highlight of the night was Linda Davis, who has been with Rogers throughout this tour doing much of the heavy-lifting.
Davis is a dynamo of a woman, whose booming voice was only matched by her many wardrobe changes, from one sparkly outfit to another as she danced around the sedentary Rogers. She took Sheena Easton’s part in “We’ve Got Tonight,” and Dottie West’s role in many songs—in fact, a good portion of the night was taken up by Rogers’ tribute to West, including Davis covering her “Lesson in Leaving,” surely to give Rogers’ a mid-set break. But she did not come onstage for “Islands in the Stream,” which Roger’s sang solo—a surprising move, but I guess it’s hard for anyone else to even come close to Dolly Parton (though, God knows we’ve all tried, haven’t we?).
The setlist included all the songs you’d want to hear—a medley of “Through the Years,” “You Decorated My Life,” and “She Believes In Me” showed up very early in the set and was followed by “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “Lucille,” “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County,” and of course, “The Gambler.”
So, back to the idea of nostalgia tours—as a critic, it’s sometimes hard to not judge a show by its musical value instead of its sentimental value. As I sat down to think about what I was going to write about this show, I kept thinking about the conversations I had at the theater—a woman in the ladies’ room told me she was voted Kenny Rogers super fan by a radio contest years ago, and another spent who-knows-how-much money on VIP passes and second row seats, she told me as she drunkenly scrolled through photos of her with the man himself on her phone. But perhaps the most relevant take I got on the night was from a woman I met after the show who told me that she had seen Rogers a few years before in Primm, Nevada and that his condition had noticeably worsened since then. But, she said, to her the show felt like sitting in her grandfather’s living room as he told her stories and sang songs. What more could you ask for in a ticket price than that?
And what’s more, it’s pretty clear—given this is the farewell tour—The Gambler knows when to walk away.