Mickey Gilley & Johnny Lee at Stafford Centre, 6/25/2014
Photos by Jason Wolter
Urban Cowboy Reunion Tour Feat. Mickey Gilley & Johnny Lee Stafford Centre June 25, 2014
Urban Cowboy has had an unusual half-life. As fiction, it comes up somewhat wanting today; its star-crossed lovers Bud and Sissy ain't exactly Romeo and Juliet. But the film did have the good fortune to be largely set in a real nightclub overflowing with larger-than-life characters, an earthy but alien culture that proved irresistible once Esquire scribe Aaron Latham and then Paramout Pictures came calling. And in some ways, the myth of Gilley's has only grown in the three and a half decades since the film's June 1980 release.
But how to account for the continued interest in Urban Cowboy, which brought a full house to the Stafford Centre Wednesday night for the "Urban Cowboy Reunion Tour"? Part of it had to have been simple nostalgia; at the beginning of the evening a DJ from 97.1 Country Legends asked the theater how many people had been to the old honky-tonk on Pasadena's Spencer Highway, and at least half the room cheered in the affirmative. The other is that tour headliners Johnny Lee and Mickey Gilley are charismatic entertainers with a repertoire of classic-country hits as long as your arm, and often a wincingly corny joke at the ready.
That amounted to a rabbit-hole sort of evening that felt like it really did suspend time for the show's three-plus hour duration. It didn't always make a whole lot of sense, and felt markedly out of step with the times once or twice, but overall it was enjoyable enough if you rolled with what was happening.
Actually resembling Urban Cowboy co-star Barry Corbin (aka Uncle Bob), Johnny Lee came out shortly after 8 p.m. fronting a seven-piece-band all in white shirts. The steel player had on a huge Alice In Wonderland hat like in those Tom Petty videos, but all seven looked and played like they could go from first dance to last call without taking a break.
As a performer, Lee is not that far removed from another singer of his generation, Don Williams. The Texas City native won't knock you out with his vocal talents or instrumental ability (though he isn't bad on either count), but his low-key delivery allows the audience to focus on what he's saying; in turn, that makes him even more relatable, and he already seems like a pretty personable fellow.
Musically Lee's country/easy listening hybrid might have wandered a little too far into Holiday Inn lounge territory, but he got the balance right on the crushed-velvet vibe of "Could Have Heard a Heart Break," "Pickin' Up Strangers," "Bet Your Heart On Me" and especially Urban Cowboy soundtrack standout "Cherokee Fiddle." Laced throughout the set was a rakish sense of humor that found him joking about cruising retirement homes and doing Jell-O shooters with the residents, plus a new song called "He's a Mexico Mexican" that was a little too off-color. Still, it wasn't hard at all to imagine the likes of Eric Church recording another new one of his, a Southern rocker Lee introduced as "If You're Comin' For My Guns, I'll Give 'Em to Ya Bullets First."
Review continues on the next page.
First things first, it was impressive to see Mickey Gilley at all, considering the fall he took in June 2009 he said left him paralyzed from the neck down and required three months of intense therapy. But the 78-year-old entertainer rolled onstage in a Rascal motorized scooter, in front of a band that had obviously learned to adapt to its leader's condition and was seasoned and professional enough to smooth over the rough spots.
Essentially Gilley narrated his own career for two hours. He's still unable to play the piano (or play golf, he mentioned), but his voice is still strong and his wits are still sharp. Gilley's rapid-fire stage patter often had a real nervous edge to it, but when he was telling stories (jabs, really) about the misadventures of his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart or reminiscing about opening shows for Loretta Lynn in California or getting advice from Conway Twitty, who told him that "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time" would never be a hit. But it was, and later on led to a video featuring a lot of dudes in drag.
Gilley seemed to relish showing clips like that, or his sweep of the 1977 Academy of Country Music awards, or his appearances on The Dukes of Hazzard and Fantasy Island. He had a lot of ground to cover - his career dates back to 1957, he said, and Kenny Rogers played bass on his 1961 swamp-pop single "Lonely Wine." Another early tune, "Ooh Wee Baby," was all but forgotten about until Yoplait yogurt wanted to pay him $55K to put it in a commercial.
Those sorts of stories, interspersed with songs like Ray Price's "City Lights"; George Jones' "The Window Up Above"; Gilley's first national hit "Room Full of Roses," 40 years old this year; "Bring It On Home," (his ACM-winning 1976 Sam Cooke cover; a duet with Ray Charles on "You Don't Know Me"; and easily a couple of dozen more, made for both an entertaining and instructive evening. Even the songs Gilley said he didn't remember originally recording, such as "Easy Come, Hard to Go," were present and accounted for.
The set could have been half an hour shorter without losing any momentum, and tacking on a super-compressed segment of Urban Cowboy songs at the end made sense but still felt a little awkward in practice. Especially when Lee was pushed onstage with a bouquet of yellow roses he later waved toward Gilley's crotchular area.
Like Urban Cowboy itself, no one should ever mistake showbiz schtick like that for high art. But if you grew up in this area, there's still something about it that strikes really close to home. This is our culture, and for better or worse, it's better appreciated watching a couple of old guys cutting up onstage than standing in some stuffy museum.
Personal Bias: Amateur Gilley-phile. Always been fascinated with the Urban Cowboy saga, and think it's one of the very best chapters of Southeast Texas mythology.
The Crowd: Plenty of Gilley's alumni. Lots of teased hair.
Overheard In the Crowd: "It is cold in here...I know...it's freezing."
Random Notebook Dump: ...and an Obama joke. Almost made it out of here without that happening.
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