A night with Taylor Swift

So I took Phoebe to see Taylor Swift perform at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City last night.

Taylor Swift. One of the biggest pop stars on the planet. I'm still having trouble believing it.

Phoebe has pretty much grown up with her music playing around our house – since the days of the “Love Song” music video rolling on our TV, back when Kates and I spent our Saturday mornings watching the VH1 countdown and we couldn’t name a single show on the Disney Channel. Oh, how times have changed, but that’s another post.

We own all of her albums and it’s no wonder Phoebe has grown to admire her music so much. Taylor is as wholesome as pop stars come these days, and I can’t think of another one I’d rather have Phoebe admire.

Fast forward to a year ago when the news broke that Taylor was unleashing a tour to promote her new “Reputation” album and coming to Kansas City. I started talking with Kates about the idea of taking Phoebe. Somehow I got a pair of tickets for us last December – we decided Faye wasn’t old enough for a big-time concert and Kates was ok with not going – and we presented them to Phoebe for her birthday in the form of a printed Ticketmaster confirmation. She opened the envelope, read the paper and let out a happy scream as she flopped into the couch.

And I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty darn excited to see Miss Taylor myself.

After months of waiting, the day of the concert finally came. As everyone was waking up yesterday, I went across the hall to Phoebe’s room and jumped on her as she lay in it. “Today’s the big day!” I shouted as I shook her and rocked her bed excitedly.

It turned out to be a beautiful night for an outdoor concert with an overcast sky and temperatures in the high 60s – which was a relief, considering it’s been raining nearly non-stop for the last two weeks. The grass, which had been on life support since late June because we had barely seen a drop of rain since then, is now a lush green, and I’ve mowed our lawn more times in the last three weeks – three times – than I did all of the month of July and for most of August combined.

A preview from the local news ...

With the concert set to start at 7, we left the house a little after 4 in the afternoon. I offered to take Phoebe somewhere for dinner, and she picked the McAlister’s Deli in St. Joseph, which she loves. It was a good halfway stop between The ‘Ville and Kansas City.

We arrived at the stadium complex around 6:50 and joined the parade of vehicles moving into the parking lot. We could hear the opening act, Charli XCX, on the stage inside Arrowhead as we drove through the parking lot. Finally, we got parked and started our walk to the stadium.

The place was a madhouse. But in a good way. … Taylor announced to the crowd shortly after she took the stage that last night’s show broke the attendance record for a concert at Arrowhead Stadium, and the number published this morning had it at 58,611 – and considering Arrowhead is the largest venue in Kansas City, that could mean it was the biggest in Kansas City history, right? The crowd was loaded with young couples and parents with tweens in tow, which relieved any doubts I was having about whether bringing Phoebe to a Taylor Swift stadium concert was the right thing to do. It only got better from there. The crowd was excellent and I didn’t observe an ounce of rudeness the entire night. A breath of fresh air.

Phoebe was all smiles and barely containing her excitement as we walked the ramp up to our seats. We were in the upper deck in a corner of one of the end zones. Charli XCX was ending her set with “Fancy” as we got to our seats around 7:30, and – although I would have liked hearing “Boom Clap – I didn't mind that we missed her.

Around 7:45, the second act, Camila Cabello, took the stage. When we sat down, I couldn’t have told you what songs she was known for. When I asked her, Phoebe said she knew a couple of her songs and knew she was formerly with Fifth Harmony. … I was soon pleasantly surprised by how many of Cabello’s songs I did recognize. Wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey, she opened with “Never Be the Same,” which has been all over the radio this summer. Plus, she worked in “Bad Things,” a Machine Gun Kelly song on which she sings an altered chorus of Fastball’s “Out of my Head,” and she ended with “Havana,” another popular radio tune this summer. I also really liked “Inside Out.”

On the downside, Cabello appeared as nothing more than a speck on the stage from where we were seated. Huge arena and stadium shows have never been my thing and I much prefer the club and small theaters that most of my favorite bands tend to play. I like the intimacy of those environments and the feeling that you’re so close to the stage that you could shake the band members’ hands and you can really appreciate the musicianship playing out before your eyes. … Last night, our seats felt so far away that we had to rely heavily on the video screens, and I had doubts about whether Cabello was actually singing or going through the motions to a recorded track.

All of those thoughts were erased when Taylor took the stage.

During the intermission, Phoebe and I enjoyed watching the crowd and chatting about what we could expect during Taylor’s show. She was curious about the planning that goes into concerts in general and the stage construction, and I enjoyed explaining the production elements to her. After all, we’ve taken Phoebe to Summerfest a few times and some shows at the university, but she had never experienced a production even remotely close to the one we saw last night.

The main stage was shaped like an X with two huge panels at the back of it, each angled slightly toward the sides of the stadium and a giant skeleton of steel towers behind them. Red lights blinked at the top of the towers for extra effect. Adding to my own curiosity about the setup, two smaller stages were stationed at each corner of the end zone in front of us – which suggested additional performance space for Taylor, but I couldn’t figure out how she was going to get there if my suspicion was true

The time passed quickly. The sky darkened fast and at around 8:30, the stadium lights went out.

Suddenly the stage came alive with bright lights and thumping bass. The two huge panels slid apart at the center of the stage, and out came Taylor, eyeing up the crowd and busting out “… Ready for it?” the opening track from “Reputation.”

She performed all but one of the 15 tracks from “Reputation” and effortlessly weaved in her hits and fan favorites throughout her two-hour show in the form of medleys and mashups. Taylor and a collection of dancers paraded up and down the X all night long as the musicians rocked their instruments from the second story of the steel structure.

The show was everything I had hoped for and more – even when things on stage weren’t exactly perfect – with not a curse word uttered throughout. Early in the show, Taylor was pacing the stage and talking to the crowd when she realized her mic was cutting out. She immediately apologized to the crowd, recalling that it rained all week during the stage setup and that some of the equipment probably was affected. She played it cool, pausing to listen to crew members communicating the status through her ear piece and talking back to them as the crowd listened in. As the scene played out, I pictured in my mind dozens of crew members scurrying around backstage replacing cables, duct-taping attachments and working to fix the issue – which was resolved in minutes. … Later, while her band and dancers were taking a break and Taylor was on stage by herself to play a couple songs acoustically, she admitted she was battling a cold. A crew member stepped onto the stage to hand her a Kleenex and she asked for the crowd’s patience and forgiveness as she stepped away from the mic to blow her nose. … As the breeze was picking up toward the end of the show and she sat alone at a piano, it was easy to tell she was uncomfortably cold on the stage. But her professionalism shined, and her ability to power through it and deliver a top-notch performance for the grateful crowd was impressive.

And the wristbands. After passing through the gates, everyone was handed a clear Vivofit style wristband. We weren’t given any instructions but figured they had something to do with the show – and wow, did they ever. From the first moment of the show, they lit up and didn’t stop until the stage went dark at the end of the night, only adding to the amazing light effects throughout the show. They flashed to the beats of the songs. Sometimes they flashed bright white. Sometimes they were red. Sometimes they were multi-colored. Sometimes they blinked. Sometimes they illuminated like a wave spreading across the stadium bowl.

Every few minutes I’d sneak a look at Phoebe and I’m not sure she ever stopped smiling. She sang along to every. single. word. Several times, I leaned into her to ask the title of the song Taylor was singing, and she knew every time. How do you know all of this!? I thought. But I remember my mom asking me the same question when I was Phoebe’s age on the mornings that she drove me to school and I sang all the words to the songs that played on the car radio.

One of the high points of the night was a run of “Style,” “Love Song” and “You Belong to Me.” …

All night long, there were blasts of confetti and fog machines and no shortage of pyrotechnics. During “I Did Something Bad,” balls of flame shot from the stop of the stage, and we could literally feel the heat all the way from where we were sitting.

About a third of the way into the show, I got my answer about the smaller stages in the end zone when Taylor stepped onto a carriage that transported her over the crowd from the main stage to the smaller stage on the opposite corner of where we were sitting. It was a beautiful scene that fit the tone of the song and the stage transition perfectly.

Then an amazing dance party broke out. Watch …

The euphoria of “Shake It Off” felt like a finale – and yet we weren’t even halfway through the show. On the next two songs, the band when silent and the dancers disappeared as she performed “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” and a fan favorite, “The Story of Us.” Just her on an acoustic guitar and a beautiful crowd sing-along. (Here's an up-close version)

She walked through the crowd to get to the other small stage, where she performed a few more songs, and then boarded a snake-shaped apparatus that shipped her back to the main stage while she sang “Bad Blood.”

Back on the X, she sang a raucous “Don’t Blame Me” that was accompanied by some mean guitar and more fireballs sprouting from the top of the stage; for me it was the most powerful performance of the night. Then, she was left alone at a piano where she played a medley of “Long Live” and “New Year’s Day.” … I love “New Year’s Day,” and her moving performance of it on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon remains unforgettable. I had chills going through my body as she performed it last night and would have been disappointed if she hadn’t. …

A couple songs later, the drum beats of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” began pounding through the stadium. The crowd sang it loud with her and we were treated to just enough of it before the band transitioned into “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” – perhaps my favorite track on the “Reputation” album.

What unfolded was a concert finale for the ages …

When the smoke from the fireworks cleared, the lights at the stadium turned on, and Phoebe and I stood back against our seats and caught our breaths. Even then, the show was still going as end credits rolled on the big screens behind the stage. The screens flashed photos and names of the musicians and dancers who were part of the show, mixed with outtakes of Taylor and her crew rehearsing in an empty Arrowhead Stadium. Phoebe and I just stood there, soaking it in and relishing the final minutes of a truly memorable night.

I’m just going to say it. Of all my concert days and nights, this was the best concert ever … Sorry, Fun. You’ve been overtaken. (Ironically, Fun member Jack Antonoff co-produced “Reputation,” so there's that.)

Here’s The Kansas City Star review ...
The massive crowd witnessed an extraordinary spectacle. The main stage resembled an offshore oil rig outfitted with massive video screens. Most songs were complemented by an array of gaudy visual embellishments.

Swift zipped across the stadium in a skeletal snake during “Bad Blood.” She was flanked by aerial acrobats when she reached the stage.

The lavish display included an arsenal of fireworks, a phalanx of dancers, gales of confetti, and balls of fire that warmed the audience on a cool evening. Free wristbands distributed to all attendees emitted synchronized blasts of color. …

Swift’s interactions with the audience were unfailingly gracious, but a drawback of a nearly otherwise flawless two-hour production was revealed as Swift rendered tender songs on piano shortly after admitting she was suffering from a cold.

The setlist
1. “Ready for It?”
2. “I Did Something Bad”
3. “Gorgeous”
4. “Style” / “Love Story” / “You Belong With Me”
5. “Look What You Made Me Do”
6. “End Game”
7. “King of My Heart”
8. “Delicate”
9. “Shake It Off” (with Charli XCX and Camila Cabello)
10. “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” (acoustic)
11. “The Story of Us” (acoustic)
12. “Blank Space”
13. “Dress”
14. “Bad Blood” / “Should’ve Said No”
15. “Don’t Blame Me”
16. “Long Live” / “New Year’s Day” (solo piano)
17. “Getaway Car”
18. “Call It What You Want”
19. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” / “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”


Sunday reading

I'm lounging on the porch, listening to the Cubs game and reading the newspapers -- online -- while it rains on the other side of the screens. It is good.

Some good reads, all from The New York Times ...


Summerfest 2018, take 2

As disappointed as I was in the Summerfest lineup this year, I decided to take a gamble tonight. We had been settled in at Kates’ parents since Sunday night and I nearly decided to stay put, doubting it was worth the 2 ½ drive over to Milwaukee, essentially to hear two songs.

But Foster the People was playing, and I really wanted to hear two songs live and have the unmatched Summerfest experience. A night to myself, to be me.

So I went. I dropped my stuff at Orrin’s and Kelli’s house – which has become our de facto Airbnb when we visit the state each summer. I rolled into downtown around 6 p.m., found a parking garage and began my walk to the grounds.

With the lakefront fireworks set to launch at dark, a crowd was filling the grounds surrounding the art museum. It was a festive and gorgeous night downtown. But what night at Summerfest isn’t?

I took my time strolling through the grounds tonight, more so than usual, wanting to soak up the sights and sounds. As I told my mom the other night, I live for being in that atmosphere every summer.

There was a lot of great music coming from the side stages tonight. I caught a long-haired rocker at the Tiki Lounge doing “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Better yet, I walked up to another stage where a classic rock cover band had a crowd of people dancing to a spot-on version of “Melt with You,” and they followed it with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” Further down, a male duo was wielding their guitars on a grunge-style original.

I passed through the marketplace. Gazed at the Ferris wheel. And grabbed a cheeseburger at one of my favorite Summerfest eating spots, Miss Katie’s Diner.

I settled in at the Miller Lite Oasis to hear Attica Riots last song, “Blood, Sunshine and Hysteria.” And I liked it.

Drax Project, a New Zealand outfit, came on at 8:30 and announced they were playing their first U.S. show. The crowd immediately jumped to their feet on the benches as the band opened with “Toto.”

The jazz-pop band’s hour-long set featured a mix of songs off their newly released EP and unreleased tracks, including “Hollywood.” They kept the atmosphere light and fun and were a perfect warmup for Foster the People. … I liked them, too, and have already downloaded their EP, along with a few Attica Riots tracks. Summerfest did me good tonight.

As if it was planned, Drax Project left the stage and Milwaukee’s lakefront fireworks began lighting up the sky behind us, providing an entertaining interlude while the stagehands went to work to set the stage for Foster the People.

Rarely off schedule at Summerfest, the clock struck 10 and the stage began filling with fog. It barely let up the rest of Foster the People’s set, a flashy showcase –literally – of punchy electronic rock.

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
As white clouds enveloped and sometimes obscured Foster the People, I couldn’t help wondering about the indie-pop band’s smoke budget. Must be sizable. 

Not that it was needed. Foster the People has enough hits, including “Pumped Up Kicks” and “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” to attract an overflow crowd at the Miller Lite Oasis Tuesday night. Plus a light show that competed with and sometimes complemented the fireworks over Lake Michigan.

Lead singer Mark Foster played guitar and keyboards and commanded the stage in a Hawaiian shirt while powering through “Helena Beat,” “Coming of Age” and “Don’t Stop.”
Commanding indeed.

But seriously. The sole reason I went to Summerfest tonight – although, once there, I found several other things to enjoy – was to hear “Pumped Up Kicks.” It was the song of the summer in 2011, and it felt like everyone in the crowd was there last night to hear it. It helped that “Sit Next to Me” is hot on the radio this summer – it might be my favorite song of this season – and I like “Don’t Stop,” too.

I played Foster’s three albums a couple weeks ago to re-familiarize myself with the band’s work, but still nothing about them excited me like the songs I named above. Tonight was one of the rare occasions I went to see a band perform without a broad admiration for their whole catalogue. Tonight was all about discovery and hoping to find a deeper appreciation.

It turned out to be the right decision. With a youthful crowd cheering them on, every song seemed to begin with a roar of synthesizers. Foster bounced and slid his feet across the stage at times like he was channeling James Brown. The flashing lights combined with the pumping electronic beats made it a full-fledged party. I couldn’t sing any of the songs word for word tonight, but it didn’t matter. I just listened let my eyes soak up the spectacle surrounding me.

One of the highlights included a romping cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

To close out the set, Mark Foster, who hadn’t spoken more than a few words to the crowd all night, offered up a rallying statement about the issues dividing our country – something I was expecting before “Pumped Up Kicks” – and then glided into a smooth-sounding “Sit Next to Me.”

The band had barely left the stage and the crowd started a fist-pumping chant of “Pumped Up Kicks” when Foster returned. They fired off “I Love My Friends” and then their signature hit – which the band seemed to play hastily as if they just wanted to please the crowd and get it over with.

The setlist:
  1. Houdini
  2. Are You What You Want to Be?
  3. Pay the Man
  4. Helena Beat
  5. Coming of Age
  6. Waste
  7. Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)
  8. Lotus Eater
  9. Blitzkrieg Bop (Ramones cover)
  10. Pseudologia Fantastica
  11. A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon
  12. Doing It for the Money
  13. Loyal Like Sid & Nancy
  14. Sit Next To Me

  15. I Love My Friends
  16. Pumped Up Kicks


Summerfest 2018, take 1

So I saw James Taylor perform tonight. For the third time. ... Twelve years ago, I was dreaming of seeing him just once.

But when Summerfest began announcing its headliners last spring and my mom saw James Taylor was coming, she urged me to get tickets, mostly for Dad. James Taylor is one of his musical heroes and seeing him live was a bucket list item. I was skeptical of how my mom might do, though, with her MS in the loud and crowded environment of Summerfest, but she insisted she wanted to go with us. So I jumped on it the morning tickets went on sale and snagged us three bleacher seats at center stage. Kates, having seeing him with me two times, was comfortable staying back with the girls.

To my surprise and delight, Mom was all about getting the full Summerfest experience. While Kates and the girls went to Orrin’s for the day, we hung out at our hotel and then headed for the Summerfest grounds mid-afternoon.

With Dad driving and me navigating in the front passenger seat, getting through Milwaukee traffic was the toughest test of my mother’s delicate mind. She freaks out at the swerve or brake of any vehicle and raises her voice at my father any time he goes even one mile per hour over the speed limit. “Oh-my-gosh-geez-camoni” she shouted at one point of distress, leaning back and grabbing her seat as if we were riding a roller coaster. It was only that treacherous in her mind.

When she said during our drive that she needed a beer, I would have sworn she was being facetious. But she asked Dad and me to stop at the first Leinenkugel’s stand we came to inside the grounds and had Dad buy us a round of Summer Shandys. What a moment that was, and, wow, it tasted good.

I led them on a tour of the grounds, explaining how the landscape has changed in my 15 or so years of going to Summerfest and showing them some of my favorite spots. We stopped at a couple of the stages to get a taste of the culture - from the Ecuadorian band that plays somewhere on the grounds every summer to a bongo drum collective. Mom reflected on coming to Summerfest back in 1974 when it was mostly gravel and the stages were much smaller. Now it’s paved with state-of-the-art stages, and full-scale restaurants and dining areas, among other features, from one end of the grounds to the other.

Having walked the entire grounds and with the James Taylor show scheduled to begin at 7:30, we made our way to the amphitheater entrance. With Mom in her wheelchair, the guest services staff was accommodating at every turn, pointing us to our seats and providing a place for us to store her wheelchair during the show.

We had been sitting for a couple minutes when the crowd erupted, and we looked up to see Mr. Taylor walking on to the stage. He welcomed the crowd, assured us we were in for a great night and then introduced his opening act, the one and only Bonnie Raitt.

Admittedly, I’m probably under appreciative of her work. Growing up, if I wasn’t listening to oldies stations and classic rock with my dad, I was listening to light radio with my mom, and the latter is how I got to know Bonnie. “Something to Talk About” was a staple, as was “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” two songs I might put on a list of my 500 all-time favorites. I also remember how much I hated hearing “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” when it came out in 1994. By that time I was deep into my teenage years and had migrated to the top 40 radio stations more suited for my age, bit that song was so overplayed no matter what radio station I listened to that summer.

With all of those memories as a backdrop in my mind, she was an exciting act to see. While she stuck to a set filled mostly with bluesy covers that I didn’t recognize, her voice was still crisp and her command of the guitar appearing effortless.

About midway through her set, she pulled out “Something to Talk About” - which was every bit as great as I had hoped.

She followed it with “Nick of Time,” a song I’d forgotten about, and it sounded so good live.

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Across 10 songs, she showed she was worth every accolade and then some, including a smoking blues-rock rendition of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” (with Ivan Neville’s keys throwing a bit of gas on the flames).

And she dedicated a sparsely gorgeous cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to women suffering around the world, including those “separated from their children right now,” an apparent reference to the immigration crisis. 

And before she wrapped up, she slapped on some lipstick as Taylor returned to the stage to jam along to John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” the friends huddling together, electric guitars in hand.
After an intermission and a complete set change that morphed into a colorful house, the stage soon came alive with a prolonged video retrospective of Taylor’s career through interview and concert footage, photos and TV appearances that included - a favorite from my childhood - his performance of Jellyman Kelly on “Sesame Street.”

Finally, Taylor appeared with his band and took centerstage on his iconic stool and began strumming “Carolina In My Mind.”

Similar to when Kates and I saw him a few years ago in Kansas City, the show seemed to begin quietly and took time to hit its stride. Mixed with the easy going melodies of “Walking Man” and “Handy Man,” he threw in lesser knowns “Sunny Skies” and “First of May.”

Part of the reason the first half the show seemed to drag could be attributed to the man sitting in front of us and his dingbat female companion, who proceeded to play games and scroll through social media feeds on her brightly lit phone the whole time Taylor was performing. And when she wasn’t doing something on her phone, she was stretching her back and moving in a way that blocked our views of the stage. Her father or much older boyfriend or whoever the guy was sitting next to her never raised a finger to stop her. It was the worst concert etiquette I’ve ever witnessed, and we were thankful to God when they got up halfway through the show and never returned.

Like the Kansas City show, Taylor and his band turned the energy level up when he hit “Mexico” and barely let up on the gas pedal the rest of the way, spinning hit after hit.

We marveled during the previous shows at Taylor’s storytelling ability and comic timing, too, and it was present tonight also. One story he told tonight that I didn’t recall from the other shows revolved around him playing “Something In the Way She Moves” for Paul McCartney and George Harrison when he auditioned for Apple Records. George liked it so much that he rewrote it himself, Taylor quipped.

And the multimedia production that provided the backdrop to Taylor and Co. throughout was a show of its own. Jumping off on the retrospective that opened the show, the screen alternated from close-ups of the band members to colorful scenes of Americana and beautiful landscapes to go with Taylor’s lyrics. Every time Taylor introduced a band member, a photo appeared of the musician performing as a child or early in their career. During “Sweet Baby James,” images rolled across the screen of the lyrics printed in a book, giving the audience the sense they were following along with a bedtime story.

While I enjoyed my personal favorites like “Mexico” and “Your Smiling Face,” Taylor’s performance of “Fire and Rain” felt especially poignant. It’s Dad’s favorite, and I could feel him flush with emotion as he listened to it.

The nostalgia and good vibes were really flowing by the time Taylor closed out his set. Bonnie Raitt joined him on stage for a rousing cover of “Johnny B. Goode.”
That initially appeared as though it was going to be Taylor’s last song as the band bowed and waved to the standing crowd. But then Taylor appeared to call an audible, huddling with his band and waving a finger as if to say, “one more.” A camera shot on the big screens showed a woman wearing headphones in the audio booth and waving a finger back at Taylor in agreement. The result was Taylor leading a crowd sing-along of “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Finally, Bonnie Raitt rejoined James once more. I knew what was coming and they took their seats on a pair of stools to sing, “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

It had been a truly special and memorable night with my mom and dad. We left the grounds with smiling faces.

The setlist
  1. Carolina In My Mind
  2. Country Road
  3. Sunny Skies
  4. Walking Man
  5. First of May
  6. Handy Man
  7. Steamroller
  8. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
  9. Up On The Roof
  10. Mexico
  11. Something In the Way She Moves
  12. Sweet Baby James
  13. Fire and Rain
  14. Shed a Little Light
  15. Your Smiling Face
  16. Shower the People
  17. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)

  18. Johnny B. Goode
  19. You’ve Got a Friend
  20. You Can Close Your Eyes