Friday Night: George Jones At Arena Theatre

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George Jones Arena Theatre April 29, 2011

For Rocks Off, going to see George Jones radiated much the same feeling of apprehension we had about the Pogues show at House of Blues in October 2009. On one level, we half-expected - no, feared - a train wreck, a career-marring embarrassment for both artist and audience.

Come on, none of us wanted to see Shane MacGowan clutching his chest onstage while we wait for EMS to arrive. On our highest level, we hope against hope that things will be okay, that the old magic is still there, that our heroes win one more glorious battle before galloping off into the sunset.

With the Pogues, that essentially happened. With George Jones, less so.

Call him No Show Jones if you want - and he's got T-shirts he'll sell you that declare him No Show Jones, if you think that's cool somehow - but The Possum showed up right on time Friday night, seeming sober as a judge and honestly wanting to be back in front of a crowd. He was especially gracious with his nods to "being back in Houston, where we don't come often enough it seems."

And his Jones Boys, who tore through a quick four song warm-up, were up to the occasion.

But the truth of the matter is, Jones voice is, by and large, gone. He tries, and Aftermath gives him major kudos for trying hard - very, very hard - to deliver on hit songs like "Take Me" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

He was funny and gracious as he apologized for allergies and not feeling well the past week, and his best moment of the night was when he asked the crowd what it thought about "new country" radio. After a hailstorm of boos, Jones told the crowd that one thing wrong with new country radio was that they had screened out all "the cheatin' and drinkin' songs."

"Well, I'm just gonna tell you right now, we're gonna do a whole lot of them boogers right here tonight," Jones declared before breaking into one of the best performances of the evening, "Bartender's Blues."

Yes, he said "boogers."

But Jones may still be singing drinking songs, but he's sipping water these days, at least onstage.

We have admit the audience, whom we suspect came half in homage, half in respect, and almost 100 percent in "I want to say that I saw him" mode, was entirely supportive, loving even, and dug what Jones was putting down, just happy to see him standing on that big white medical-tape X and singing the lyrics to a slew of country hits as they scrolled by on the teleprompters, which were in full view of everyone.

And we have to tip our hats to Jones for opening the show with his Houston-made recording of country classic "Why Baby Why," and for giving his 100 percent best available shot on every song as he worked his way through most of the biggest hits of his career in a performance that lasted an hour and 20 minutes.

There is no arguing that Jones gave his absolute best as the adoring crowd sang along at numerous junctures, but the fact is his voice is pretty much gone and, at this point in his career, he either wants to get away from home and play some dates or his circus just can't afford to shut down. We doubt it's the latter.

And please don't mistake us here; Jones still loves to do this. Why else would he do it? And he means it. He's not just floating by like some of the nostalgia acts do; he honestly wants to deliver a quality show to the people still paying to come see him.

But his voice is letting him down, particularly on songs like "Two Dollar Pistol," which came across in a hoarse whisper rather than the insane-hillbilly/East-Texas-pines signature wail of the original.

For us, that part of the show was truly sad.

But, on the other hand, there was six-year-old boy sitting two seats over from us, wearing a Garth Brooks-ish American Flag cowboy shirt and a black felt cowboy hat. When the show was over, as the crowd filed out without an encore, we asked him what he thought.

"It was great," he smiled.

It was great to see Jones, who turns 80 on Sept. 12, up on the boards. And it was sad to realize the odds are high that we will not see him there again.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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