Saturday Night: George Jones at Arena Theatre

George Jones Arena Theatre September 8, 2012

I never wondered what it's like to be almost 81 until Saturday. I never expected to live that long, and still don't. But while watching George Jones onstage at the Arena Theatre, it was difficult to not at least wonder.

But hell, I'm not even 40 and most days I consider myself old. I've spent enough time around the elderly that the idea of living into my early 80s seems like somewhere between slow torture and outright cruelty at the hands of a heartless higher being. There must be an upside somewhere.

Arguably the greatest living country singer since Hank Williams Sr. died (in 1953), Jones turns 81 Wednesday. Trim, fit-looking, and surprisingly tiny, he doesn't quite look his age. But frankly, he sang like it Saturday night.

Jones was hospitalized for pneumonia in April, and still seemed his short of breath Saturday. His wonderful voice, once so elastic and expressive, has diminished noticably in both range and magnitude. He could be frisky and playful on a song like "The One I Loved Back Then," and the actual sound of a heart breaking in two on "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

This time he just sounded thin and hoarse, and very, very tired. He also had trouble enunciating some of the lyrics, and kept his gaze fixed on the floor-mounted flatscreen teleprompters a good bit of the time.

But it's also hard to imagine anyone at his age doing anything different, and Jones seemed to be in good spirits. He gamely bantered with the crowd about cleaning up his ways and his colorful past (represented by some vintage TMZ-like video footage of Jones waving off a camera crew near a police car), joked about docking his band's pay after a stumbling over the transition into "The Grand Tour" during the penultimate '60s/'70s medley. He thanked the audience for being there at every available opportunity, and gave the general impression that he was legitimately happy to be there.

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For what he must be going through, his performance was remarkably brave. And every so often he would hit one of those perfect notes that just takes your breath away, and makes you imagine what it would have been like to see him live during his prime. Provided of course he showed up at all -- these days his T-shirts say "No Show Jones," but he hasn't skipped an engagement for non-health-related reasons in many, many years -- it must have been really something.

God bless them, his six-piece band the Jones Boys did everything they could to allow Jones to rest his voice as much as possible, starting by acknowledging right up front that he was not 100 percent. They also warmed up the crowd with a couple of songs, Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" and Reba McEntire's "The Last One To Know," sung by Brittany Allen, Jones' duet partner and the evening's master of ceremonies.

The youngest Jones boy, a twentysometing fiddle player named Billy (didn't catch the last name), showed off some impressive chops on the bluegrass breakdowns "Black Mountain Rag" and "Fire On the Mountain." The entire band was surefooted and professional; in fact, it felt like they were holding back a notch or two to avoid upstaging the star.

It must be almost impossible to condense a prolific career like Jones' into an hour of material, but he managed to hit all the must-hears: Opener "Why Baby Why," "Tennessee Whiskey," "Bartender's Blues," as well as later songs that address his mortality and position in the Nashville pantheon ("Choices," "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes"). Two Tom T. Hall covers, "I'm Not Ready Yet" and the toe-tapping gospel number "Me and Jesus," were definite and somewhat unexpected highlights, as was his second "George & Tammy" duet with Allen on "Golden Ring."

I've always been fond of his more lighthearted moments, so maybe one or two of those would have been nice; still, I'll take "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" over "High-Tech Redneck" anytime. And even when his voice was flickering, it was easy to fill in any gaps in your head with what you know George Jones truly sounds like. The crowd absolutely adored him.

I couldn't help but think of Glen Campbell's Stafford Centre concert in September 2011, but that was different. Campbell was definitely showing signs of Alzheimer's, but his voice was mostly intact. Jones was with-it mentally, but his voice is almost gone. A shadow, a whisper, whatever you want to call it, there's no getting around it.

Is it better to lose one's voice or one's mind? If you're a legendary country singer, which one would you rather see go first? Roll that around your brain for a while.

On his supposedly final "The Grand Tour," Jones is scheduled to visit Southeast Texas one more time, at Nutty Jerry's "Thank God for Texas" festival November 23 in Winnie, with Folk Family Revival and Hayes Carll. It's hard to recommend people not to go see a legend like Jones, especially if they never have, so long as they know what's in store. Saturday night was long on smiles, good humor and priceless memories, but also awkward at times and heartbreaking overall. Still, it was worth the trip.

Said a wise man -- Jason our photographer, actually -- "I can't say I was disappointed, because I knew what to expect."

Personal Bias: In terms of ability and longevity, I consider George Jones the equivalent of Frank Sinatra. Except he's from Southeast Texas, just like me.

The Crowd: All ages, about 80 percent full.

Overheard In the Crowd: "You'll have to talk to him about the bad seats" - the man behind me, in row L

Random Notebook Dump: At least he wasn't talking to an empty chair.


Promised Land (Jones Boys; Chuck Berry cover) The Last One to Know (Jones Boys feat. Brittany Allen) Why Baby Why I'm Not Ready Yet (Tom T. Hall cover) Choices Tennessee Whiskey Same Old Me I Always Get Lucky With You (Merle Haggard cover) Black Mountain Rag (fiddle) Bartender's Blues A Picture of Me Without You Take Me (George & Brittany) Me and Jesus (Tom T. Hall cover) Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes Fire On the Mountain (fiddle) Medley: The Window Up Above/The Grand Tour/Walk Through This World With Me/She Thinks I Still Care/White Lightnin' Golden Ring (George & Brittany) He Stopped Loving Her Today Don't Need No Rockin' Chair

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