CEDAR RAPIDS — There was nothin’ “little bitty” about the bang-up job Alan Jackson and the rest of the country cadre dished up for KHAK radio’s 50th Birthday Bash.
This was one rockin’ celebration Saturday on the banks of the Cedar River, nearly four years to the day after raging waters swallowed up homes and businesses on both sides, forever changing the face of our city and others all the way to the Mississippi.
Thousands of revelers packed onto the pavement across from the Alliant Energy tower kicked up their heels when Jackson jumped into “Chattahoochee.” His 80-minute finale to a nearly nine-hour concert was packed with hits from “Gone Country” to “Dixie Highway,” a bouncy ride from his brand-new CD, “Thirty Miles West.”
His set was the perfect way to cap off KHAK’s milestone. Jackson is the consummate country star and country gentleman, completely appropriate for the all-ages crowd.
Saturday’s sound system was among the best I’ve heard at an outdoor venue. Every lyric, every fiddle flair, every pedal steel guitar twang rang through comfortably loud and clear.
Big video screens gave fans close-up views of Jackson and his top-notch band, as well as some fun shots accompanying his music. In the evening’s biggest hit, video of downtown Cedar Rapids hot spots played during “Where I Come From.” Every close-up of a Hawkeye logo drew rousing cheers, and kudos to the videographers for also including shots of construction sites for future hot spots.
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Jackson’s hit parade ebbed and flowed as he sang about “life and love and having fun and heartache and all that stuff.” His bandmates, The Strayhorns, got to strut their stuff in lots of solo spots, especially with the first encore of “Mercury Blues,” where Jackson stepped to the edge of the stage to autograph everything from pieces of paper to cowboy hats.
Plenty of hot licks came out of his acoustic guitar, too. But fiery fiddle and honky-tonk keyboards from his band kicked it all up a notch.
Jackson, 53, has had at least 35 chart-toppers, sold more than 60 million albums and racked up every industry award since 1990, bringing the new traditional sound back into vogue. Among the titles he played Saturday were the good-time beats of “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and “Summertime Blues,” as well as the new heartbreaker “You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” and the tearful 9/11 elegy “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).”
The extravaganza began with local and regional acts, then ramped into high gear with national stars, including the country-pop stylings of the legendary Phil Vassar and the old-timey sound of young heartthrob Joe Nichols.
Songwriter Vassar strutted through his material recorded by others, such as “Little Red Rodeo,” as well as his own hits, like “Just Another Day in Paradise.” He closed by putting a country spin on Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” showing off his own piano chops.
Nichols romped through his hits, from the 2002 ballad that first rose to the top, “The Impossible,” on through his party anthems “What’s a Guy Gotta Do” and “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”
The whole day christened a new outdoor venue for downtown Cedar Rapids, with the stage on First Street SE between Second and Third avenues, and the audience seated where the spiral parking ramp once stood.
The only drawback to the spot is the complete lack of shade from the summer sun. And I was dismayed about the trash so carelessly left behind — I didn’t see any recycling stations and way too few trash bins. The cleanup crew had its work cut out to prepare for KRNA’s Rockin’ The Rapids daylong concert in the same spot Sunday.
Still, applause all around for a rousing celebration of one of Eastern Iowa’s signature country stations, on the air for 50 years and counting.
- Diana Nollen
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