‘This Moment, Capture It. Remember It!’:Taylor Swift @ John Paul Jones Arena 03.20.10

The job of a critic is to be an objective observer and report on the events going on around him with an unbiased opinion.

Nope. Sorry, can’t do it. Stop reading right now if that’s what you’re looking for. I paid for my ticket and I am unabashedly, unashamedly a Taylor Swift fan, so what follows is a review that is anything but objective…and very biased.

I’ll start at the beginning, because if I start writing about the headliner, there really is no point in talking about anything or anyone else.

Glorianna is a new band that, through a stroke of luck and with the help of a great sounding debut, landed the spot as the opening act on Taylor’s Fearless tour. They’ve played almost every show, and thus their audience has increased exponentially in a way that can only happen by playing in front of people. Lucky for them, the houses are mostly packed when the show begins. I originally wrote Glorianna off as a ‘minor league version of Little Big Town’, but I came away very impressed by them. They played a tight quick five song set, starting off with their latest hit ‘How Far Do You Wanna Go?’ and ending with their biggest hit, ‘Wild At Heart’. In between they managed to play a few Zeppelin riffs, even fitting in a chorus of ‘Black Dog’. All in all, a good start to the evening.

Kellie Pickler is quite a story. She has come a very long way from the gawky, naïve sounding contestant on American Idol. She’s now a full-fledged star, with the songs and the talent to back it up. Looking gorgeous in a black tank top, very tight leather pants and extremely high silver heels, she sang her hits and talked to the crowd in the same easy going manner she’s always had. It seems that no matter where she is, be it on a TV talk show, on a tour bus or on a stage in front of thousands, she seems very approachable and appreciative of her success.

The first surprise of the night came during her set when she sat on a stool center stage to sing the song ‘I Wonder’, written as a note to her mother who abandoned her when she was two years old. I’d heard the song several times before, but hearing it live, with the audience almost quietly singing along, it was a very moving moment that caught me off guard. She closed her set with the crowd favorite ‘Red High Heels,’ thanked the crowd and made a quick exit.

Now, a word about the crowd. I knew going in that this crowd was going to be made up predominantly of young girls and their parents and, yes, that made up about 80 percent of the audience. Do you remember the first artist or band you liked as a child? You never forget your first favorite band, and the fans in attendance last night are at that age where, for them, Taylor Swift means an awful lot to them, and her songs say things that they identify with and can’t say themselves. Fandom at that age is at an intensity that probably is never matched as you grow older. The crowd last night was full of fans with homemade ‘band geek’ shirts [as seen in the ‘You Belong With Me’ video] and signs professing unending devotion, love and thanks. And then there were the screams.

Ah yes, the screams. Nothing matches the sound of over 12,000 young fans shrieking in unequaled excitement. The chants of ‘Taylor! Taylor!’ started right after Kellie Pickler’s set ended; for the next twenty minutes there was chanting, shrieking and screaming, all in anticipation.

And then the lights went down and I’m pretty sure the roof flew off.

Starting with a brief movie describing what it means to be fearless, while also showing a quick montage of Taylor thanking her fans during her numerous award acceptance speeches…at least I think that’s what she was saying, I really couldn’t hear over the screaming, the curtain then rose up, revealing a huge stage with a massive hi-def screen behind it…and then slowly Ms. Swift appeared stage left in the now infamous band uniform to open the show with her hit [and my personal favorite song] ‘You Belong With Me.’

The screams were the loudest I will ever hear, but luckily the band was louder, and the sound mix was impeccable. I admit that I was a bit nervous about what her voice would be like in a concert setting, because her most recent TV appearance [The Grammys] was a train wreck, plus she had done two nights in a row in Philadelphia so, this was the third show in three days.

No need to worry, her voice was in excellent form, with no pitch issues or unsure moments. If there is one thing that Taylor Swift is, she is sure of herself onstage.

After an onstage costume change [the first of many], song number two was ‘Our Song’, and it set the tone for the evening: This was going to be a mutual admiration society sing-along. For the rest of the night, the audience sang along loudly. [I did a bit as well, but honestly I was just happy to watch and listen and take it all in.] Several times, after a song was over, Taylor would stand center stage, twirling the hair and flashing that smile while the audience screamed and applauded. This went on for minutes at a time and, if allowed, I’m sure it could have gone on for hours. She seemed sincere in her response to the adulation. Maybe it’s all choreographed, but I’m not quite cynical enough [at least when it comes to talking about Taylor Swift] to wanna believe that yet.

There were countless highlights for me, but the moment I’ll take away is this: Taylor sung the song ‘Hey Stephen’ on a small stage to the right of the main stage on the ground floor. At least I think that’s where she was, I couldn’t see because she was so low and everyone was standing so, the sight line was obscured. After that song, while her band played an instrumental interlude, Taylor walked from the front of the stage all the way to the back of the arena, where a small mini-stage was setup. Now, I’ve seen other bands do this. KISS did it starting in 1997. Martina is also using a mini-stage on her tour as well. The difference here is, while Paul Stanley [of KISS for those that don’t know] and Martina ‘fly’ above the crowd to quickly reach the back of the arena, Taylor walked all the way back there, hugging and kissing everyone she came in contact with. I timed the return trip, after she performed two songs [‘Fifteen’ and the first half of ‘Tim McGraw’], she took a good fifteen minutes to make her way back through the crowd to hug, kiss, high five and shake the hands of her fans. A woman behind me complained that it was ‘taking too long’ but I could only stand there in awe at this gesture, on a scale I have not seen before. [Yes, Martina does walk back to the stage but she is usually only shaking hands and moving much quicker. Not a diss on Martina at all. This was very different.]

Those fans who were lucky enough to get a hug, especially the young ones, they are going to remember that singular moment for the rest of their life, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to say that those fans are now Taylor Swift fans for life as well. And I bet many of them now will ask mom and dad for a guitar or a keyboard so that they can write what they feel, like Taylor does.

That gesture can’t be topped with any marketing strategy or media blitz. It really was a moment where the wall between fan and artist came down and mega-platinum superstar Taylor Swift was just ‘one of the girls’.

Taylor has learned well from those who came before. She commands the stage and demands your attention, and she keeps it and won’t let go. She’s a pro as a front-woman…and she’s not even twenty-one yet! I’ll also mention here in case you’ve just arrived from another universe…she’s beautiful.

This show truly had everything, and hit a range of emotions. I was happy to see that ‘You’re Not Sorry’ [another personal fave and one of the sadder songs in her catalog] was still in the set and was ‘mashed up’ with a cover of Justin Timberlake’s ‘What Goes Around.’ On those rare moments when I wasn’t watching Taylor, I loved watching the band interact. Fiddle player Catlin Evanson and backup vocalist Liz Huett were dancing around and having fun the whole night. Bass player Amos Heller and banjo player Mike Meadows are both from Charlottesville, Guitarist Grant Mikelson had a stand out solo moment, and guitarist Paul Sidoti has worked with everyone it seems, including KISS. [See, it’s all connected in some way]. Plus there was confetti, a castle and an onstage waterfall.

It was an unforgettable night, one of the best shows I have ever seen by any artist in any genre. It had the excitement of a Springsteen show, and the spectacle of a Vegas show. I had high expectations going in that were met and exceeded.

I already know I was very lucky to have been there, and luckier still that I get to see it all again in June.

Thanks again Eddie for everything.

Setlist from website setlist.fm:

1. You Belong With Me

2. Our Song

3. Tell Me Why

4. Teardrops On My Guitar

5. Fearless

6. Forever & Always

7. Hey Stephen

8. Fifteen

9. Tim McGraw

10. White Horse

11. Love Story

12. The Way I Loved You

13. You’re Not Sorry / What Goes Around

14. Picture to Burn

15. Encore:

15. Today Was A Fairytale

16. Should’ve Said No

Thanks for reading,

Barry [A Taylor Swift fan for life…even though I didn’t get a hug.]