“But…it’s not just a concert, it’s Taylor Swift!!”
I heard that exact sentence three different times over the weekend as fans tried to explain the forthcoming event to the uninitiated. In just a little over two years, Taylor Swift has gone from country-pop darling to megastar, and her current tour is not just a concert or a show, it’s an event that rivals those seen on Broadway or in Vegas. It’s big, it’s frenetic, and Taylor’s thousands of screaming fans make sure that every night is loud. Very loud. Easily the loudest crowd I have had the pleasure to be a part of. The location of my seat may have had something to do with the volume.
These two shows in Atlanta were my second and third time seeing the Speak Now 2011 tour. If you follow my blog, then you know very well that I saw the Fearless Tour twice in 2010. These two shows in Atlanta were the first shows where I bought just a solo ticket for me when they went onsale, and that’s how I ended up with some incredible floor seats. I’ll get to just how incredible they were in a bit, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first thing I noticed as soon as I got inside Phillips Arena was that Taylor’s face was everywhere. Huge life size posters advertised Cover Girl [the tour’s sponsor] seemingly every twenty feet around the concourse. At the merchandise tent where you could buy almost anything with Taylor’s face on it, there was also a big screen showing Taylor videos [I stopped to watch the video for the song ‘The Story of Us’. Watch it on YouTube if you haven’t seen it. Just a few seconds in and you’ll know why I stopped.]. Yes, wherever Taylor’s likeness was found, there was a crowd gathered in excitement; ready to make this a very memorable night for themselves and for the artist.
As I made my way back from the merch tent with new t-shirt in hand, I stopped by Guest Services to inquire about an elevator ride down to the floor. The staff was great and led me to the freight elevator which landed me ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I wasn’t backstage, but I did see a group of about twenty fans who had ‘T-Party’ passes getting the lecture from the tour coordinator on how the pre-show meet and greet with Taylor would work. Looking at one girl’s face, maybe ten years old, she was so excited she looked as if she was going to burst. Would I have liked a backstage pass? Sure. But I wasn’t bummed or jealous one bit, because the experience is multiplied exponentially the younger the fan is, so that these fans were about to meet someone they admire more than almost any authority figure, I shared their excitement as I nodded to the tour coordinator and made my way to my seat.
“Drop Everything Now!”
If forced to pick one favorite song from Taylor’s last two albums, I would choose ‘You Belong With Me’ from the Fearless album and ‘Sparks Fly’ from Speak Now. I mention this only because for each of the last two tours, my favorite songs have been the show opener. Not that I don’t like or love the other songs. I love them all, but that ‘Sparks Fly’ was the opener of the evening meant things were going to be off to a fantastic start.
After a brief video message, Taylor rose from under the stage, surrounded by smoke and looking regal in a long gold gown that sparkled and caught light with every step she took. Fireworks in the middle of song one told me this was a bigger show than the Fearless tour, but this was just the beginning.
Having never been to Phillips Arena before, I wondered what the sound was going to be like. Would it be as bad and echo-drenched as Washington, DC’s Verizon Center, or as clear and crisp as John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville? While maybe not as crisp and intimate as JPJ, the sound at Phillips was stellar for an arena of that size [14,000+]. Not a lyric was lost except when the screams overwhelmed the PA and literally shook the stage.
After costume change #1 two songs in, Taylor, playing the banjo, and her fiddle player Caitlin Evanson played the opening notes of ‘Our Song’, the lone representative from Taylor’s debut album, and that segued nicely into ‘Mean’, with the band dressed in the same outfits they wore in the video. Each song in the set was a sing along, because all of Taylor’s fans know all the words to all of her songs. Experiencing that aspect of the show from the floor was wonderful and something I will never forget.
That’s the thing about Taylor Swift. If you are a fan of her music, then you get it, you love her and you don’t care what anyone else thinks. If you’re not a fan, then there really is no point in me trying to explain it. You don’t get it and you probably never will. For the 28,000 who ‘got it’, this weekend was one they won’t soon forget.
Now, the setlists. Most of the set was the same both nights, but each night had some surprises. The bracketed songs are departures from the scheduled set, and the night they occurred is noted beside the song title:
3.Story of Us
6.Back to December / Apologize /You’re Not Sorry
7.Better Than Revenge
9.Fearless (Acoustic on ukulele)
10.Last Kiss (acoustic)
11.Baby Girl [Sugarland cover] (acoustic)
12. You Belong With Me
14.[Yeah! with special guest Usher – Nite #1]
17.[Live Your Life with special guest TI – Nite #2]
19.[Ours – solo acoustic – Nite #2]
The setlist leans heavily on the new album, but that’s okay. I love the new record. I doubt ‘Haunted’ and ‘Enchanted’ will be in the setlist for whatever tour Taylor does next, and the fact they are both huge production numbers with aerialists falling from the sky, three huge bells and dancers meant there was a lot going on, but, as always, all eyes were on Taylor.
While the new album is heavy on the ballads [Back to December, Dear John and Last Kiss, for example], the song Better Than Revenge was one moment when Taylor and her band rocked out. The image of background singer Liz, Caitlin and Taylor standing on a bridge center stage, headbanging and having a mock fight was one of my favorite moments of the show. And the extended guitar outro that followed [so Taylor could do another quick change] showcased how great her band is. Guitarists Paul Sidoti and Grant Mickelson traded riffs and solos that were so fast and furious, you forgot that Taylor was offstage for a second.
Now I must confess, when the song ‘Speak Now’ was being performed, I was a bit distracted. Having seen the show in DC in August, I knew that the end of the song was when Taylor would leave the stage and make her way through the crowd en route to the mini-stage at the back of the arena. On night one, I was sitting in the third seat from the left in my row on the far left side of the arena floor. I wasn’t sure what path she would take, but I knew she’d be close. As the beginning of ‘Speak Now’ rang through the arena, security staff put up a long black rope alongside our aisle. That meant that yes, she was indeed going to make her way down the floor close by. We [the people in my row] made sure that a four year old girl was moved up to the aisle seat so she could at least get a good look. Taylor made her way to our row but she was facing the crowd to the left, sitting in the first row off the floor. No eye contact was made with our row, but she was less than five feet to my left. So close I could see the body glitter on her shoulders and arms. That was a very cool moment.
On nite two, I was sitting in the same row, but this time on the far right side of the arena…and this time I had an aisle seat! So, knowing how this worked, I knew that after Taylor sang three songs on the revolving mini-stage at the back of the arena, she would leave there and make her way back to the main stage, and thus pass our row. Well, not just our row, but pass me! Taylor sang her three songs and then the first verse of ‘You Belong With Me’ [Did I mention that’s my favorite song by her?] and she then made her way down the floor, with security in front and behind. I stuck my hand out as she approached [so as not to get it swatted back by security before she arrived] and, as luck would have it, she turned away from the row directly to my right and quickly grabbed my hand and made eye contact before moving on.
“She just touched your hand!” screamed the woman beside me.
I knew it happened, but it happened so fast, literally a millisecond, that it didn’t really register until a few seconds later. So, all of the waiting for this show, that was originally supposed to happen in July but was canceled because Taylor was ill, and the extra expense of booking another flight/hotel in Atlanta to see these shows in October…it was all made more than worth it by that one millisecond. It was very cool.
As noted in the setlists, each nite had a special guest. While Taylor has had guests join her onstage before, those appearances [by the likes of Katy Perry, Faith Hill and Justin Beiber] are usually reserved for cities like LA, NY or Nashville. Or so I thought. On nite one, after Taylor performed ‘Dear John’ she didn’t run off for a scheduled costume change [a huge ‘fairy tale gown’ for Enchanted]. Instead she stood on one of the stars onstage and said ‘Peace Up…A-Town Down!’
All of a sudden, the first four notes of ‘Yeah’ blared over the PA and then before the crowd knew what hit them, Usher was standing center stage, wearing camo and sunglasses. The place went nuts! And, to hear Taylor say the lyric she’s ‘a freak in the bed’ ranked as one of the biggest surprises of the nite.
On nite two, I was looking for another special guest in the same spot of the show, but ‘Enchanted’ happened as scheduled with no interruption, followed by ‘Haunted.’ After Haunted ended [with Taylor being hidden by a large bell so she can sneak off for, you guessed it, another costume change], she popped up immediately after the bell lifted from the stage, announced ‘We’ve got company tonite!’ and sang the opening lines to ‘Live Your Life’ which were originally sung by Rihanna.
Then T.I. appeared onstage to rap. No lie, he had just been released from an Atlanta halfway house less than 72 hours before the appearance. Quite a way to announce you’re back! [If you’re curious, both surprise duets are available on YouTube, though they are videos shot from the audience and, as mentioned, the crowd goes nuts, so at times the audio is poor. But, they’re still worth checking out.]
Lastly, the topper that surprised me more than the special guest was the addition on Sunday nite of the song ‘Ours’, which was included on the Target Deluxe Edition of the Speak Now CD. As a rule, if a song is a bonus track or a B-side, you’re not gonna hear it live in concert, especially when an artist such as Taylor has so many hits to choose from to compile her setlist. As far as I know, she had only performed the song once before a week earlier in Kansas City for a football stadium sized crowd. That the song was included as a ‘Thank you’ from Taylor to her fans was a completely unexpected and wonderful surprise.
What’s next for Taylor? Well, a live CD/DVD document of this tour hits stores November 21. And then, maybe another US leg gets added to the tour in late Spring 2012. Will the next tour be even bigger? Right now, I can’t fathom how that’s possible. Maybe she’ll go the opposite route and present an Unplugged tour of smaller venues. Whatever is next, her audience of dedicated fans will follow her. And I promise you, if she appears anywhere close to where I am…or even far away enough where I have to fly to get there, I’ll be there to see whatever it is she chooses to do next. After all, what better excuse for a road trip than to see Taylor Swift?
If you’re a fan, you’re already saving your money for that road trip!