Kenny Rogers is now 71 years old. And, as of a few years ago anyway, his boys can still swim. Aftermath knows this because we were treated to a slideshow of Rogers' twin five-year-old sons - even some shots from the delivery room - as he sang the ballad "To Me" with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall Thursday night. Cute kids and all, but it made for about five of the most squirm-filled minutes we've experienced at a concert, well, ever. It was like being trapped in line at the DPS. All you want to do is renew your driver's license (or, in this case, hear "The Gambler"), but the guy in front of you insists on whipping out his wallet and thumbing through umpteen family photos. Thank God the Roaster didn't have any pictures of his pets, or we would have been so out of there. Luckily, this was about as sappy and maudlin as the evening got - and we're talking about a show that also included "Through the Years," "Lady" and lesser-known but no less sentimental heartstring bullseyes like "The Greatest" and "Buy Me a Rose."
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Rogers looked a little gaunt, and he hobbled a bit as he walked back and forth across the stage, but he seemed to be in good spirits. He joked about wanting to play Jones Hall with the Houston Symphony when he was growing up a mile and a half away "and Jones Hall wasn't even here yet," and chided one section of the audience about not singing loud enough during "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town." ("They were louder in Quebec, and they don't even speak English.") Funnier still was a running gag where, after quizzing a fan in the front row about how many of his hits the fan could name (we think he got maybe one or two), Rogers promised to flip him a $10 bill during each one. He proved as good as his word, and there were a lot of hits.
Too many, maybe. Aftermath has never been a fan of medleys, and we were a little annoyed we only got one verse and chorus of "Lucille." But he gave us all of "The Gambler," and we enjoyed every second. Naturally, Rogers' voice isn't quite as robust as when he was tearing up the charts in the '70s and '80s, but he was still up to the challenge his band and the symphony presented on a swingin' big-band arrangement of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," gospel-ish cover of John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith In Me" and just about everything else during the 90-minute set. A deluxe "Daytime Friends and Nighttime Lovers," especially, was orchestral country-pop at its finest. Lest we forget, the Roaster used to be a rocker too. His cover of "Hey, Bo Diddley" was a little stiff - Diddley's chicken-fried stomp translates to the symphony stage about as well as you'd expect - but "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)" sure wasn't. Listening to Rogers sing about tearing his mind on a jagged sky and joking about acid flashbacks to a staid symphony crowd is about as surreal as it gets, especially when coupled with vintage video from his First Edition days. The symphony opened the show with a suite of selections from Western movies: Bruce Broughton's themes from Silverado, John Williams' overture to The Cowboys, Aaron Copland's "Morning at the Ranch" from The Red Pony and excerpts from Rossini's William Tell overture (aka "The Lone Ranger theme") and paid tribute to Rogers with Tchaikovsky's overture to The Queen of Spades, which conductor Brian Mitchell explained was a "classical-music version of 'The Gambler.'" With soaring strings and booming brass, the orchestra evoked sweeping plains, thundering trail drives and wide-open Western vistas all by itself - no slideshow necessary.