Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A Fine 'Reputation'': Taylor Swift Delivers a Fun Stadium Spectacle, Amplified by Its Quieter Moments -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Taylor Swift 
w/ opening acts Camila Cabello and Charli XCX
June 2, 2018 (also played 6/1)

I like Taylor Swift.

I think she is a talented songwriter, and an artist who clearly puts considerable thought and effort into her music, overall presentation and concert performances.

For reasons beyond me, she seems to attract as much scorn--and a truly ridiculous amount of online hate--as she does admiration (and album and ticket sales). 

And based on casual observation of the crowd makeup at Soldier Field on Saturday night--where I might well have been the oldest male without kids in tow among the 62,500 people gathered (she also sold out Friday's show)--her cred among the 30+ population still seems to lag behind peers like Beyonce, Adele, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink and Halsey.

Heck, my top concertgoing pal, an avowed TSwizzle fan, refused to go with me for fear of feeling icky among so many prepubescent girls.

And to be honest, I did feel out-of-place, but not to any degree I really cared about.

At a time when guitar-driven rock 'n roll is in a death spiral--in terms of exciting new acts--Taylor Swift has been the world's biggest music star for a good decade, and I think that in itself merits my attention.

I enjoy live entertainment of many types--including Broadway musicals, plays, opera, ballet, Cirque du Soleil, etc.--and am not only a fan but a passionate & critical observer of concert performance. 

In addition to the classic and alternative rock bands that are my bread and butter, over the years I've made a point of seeing Madonna, Prince, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks and others, most of whom I've rather enjoyed.

If I didn't see Taylor Swift on Saturday night--a day after seeing Depeche Mode, which precluded attending her Friday show--or David Byrne, who I'm glad added a third Chicago on Sunday, I likely would have excitedly gone to hear Diana Ross at Ravinia.

So I've established why I went to see Taylor Swift, even if I don't don't consider myself a "Swiftie" or like her current Reputation album as much as some past ones.

I had actually seen her once before, in Des Moines of all places, as she happened to be playing an arena there on a 2013 road trip I took through Iowa.

To be honest, I probably would have seen her more often by now if not for the relative hassle of getting to, in and out of Soldier Field, her sole Chicago venue on the past 3 tours.

But did I like her show?


Not quite on par with Depeche Mode, Byrne, U2--who I saw twice the previous week--or other of my true favorites (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, etc.) but more than enough to be glad I went.

As you can see above, I'm awarding this Reputation Tour outing @@@@ (out of 5), but can readily imagine her more avid fans loving it even more. If you did, I have no quibbles.

Coming as it did among U2, Depeche Mode and Byrne--whose phenomenal show I'll review next--I can genuinely give the now 28-year-old Swift credit for similarly creating an audiovisual concert experience, not merely turning on the lights and singing songs (not that this can't often be great as well).

Sometime several years ago, I read that Swift--who truly was a teenage songwriting prodigy--was inspired by Broadway musicals to create concerts made up of multiple segments, vignettes and costumes.

Although on this tour there are several wardrobe changes, three stages and six "Acts" to the performance--see the setlist for a delineation--any sense of narrative storytelling seems less overt than on the Red Tour I'd seen in Des Moines, or the Sparks Fly Tour I've seen on video. (The 1989 Tour was Swift's most recent, but I'm not familiar with its approach.)

Rather, not so unlike a stadium extravaganza by Coldplay that I attended in 2016, Taylor Swift--along with her band, dancers, stage designers and other team members--puts copious time, talent, effort and production cost into making every song feel like an event unto itself.

After upbeat sets by Charli XCX and Camila Cabello--each of who have garnered close to or well beyond 1 billion Spotify song streams; Cabello having both a #1 album huge #1 single ("Havana") this year--at about 8:40pm, the home of the Chicago Bears began to rock as Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" blasted over the P.A.

In a sparkly black leotard matching the fans' free electronic wristbands as they lit up the night sky, Swift opened the the show with Reputation's first song, "...Ready for It," followed by two other cuts from that album, "I Did Something Bad" and "Gorgeous."

All of these were well-delivered, complete with huge video backdrops and/or stage props.

But the Swifties really seemed to get excited by the medley of "Style / Love Story / You Belong With Me," even if some of the fans were younger than the last two of those songs (from 2008's Fearless).

Of 24 full or partial songs played, 14 came from Reputation, with only "So It Goes" not performed from the new album.

On one hand, I admire Taylor's chutzpah, having repeatedly noted her proclivity to quite heavily feature her newest material, leaving some fan favorites to past tours and DVDs.

But with the caveat that I haven't listened to it a ton, I haven't found Reputation to be Swift's best album, with only a few of the electronic-infused songs--and some nice ballads--among her finest.

While I fully realize that I'm not Taylor Swift's target demo, and respect that songs about longing for love, bad breakups and disses & grudges not only represent her experiences as a young woman but have made her a superstar of the grandest proportions, I would like to see her turn her vast talents to writing about more worldly issues.

So while noting that perhaps not every parent nearby was seemingly thrilled to have their young'uns hear it, I was delighted when Swift--seemingly deviating from her more rote stage patter--saluted June being Pride Month.

As quoted more fully by Rolling Stone, she said:

"I want to send my love and respect to everybody who, in their journey in their life, hasn't felt comfortable enough to come out. And may you do that on your own time and may we end up in a world where everyone can live and love equally and no one has to be afraid to be vulnerable to say how they feel."

This led into a nice take on the Reputation song, "Delicate" before "Shake It Off"--with Charli XCX and Camila Cabello alongside--shook the stadium.

The bombast on that one, and several other tunes, was fun, even for a crusty old curmudgeon like me, but I often even more so enjoyed when Taylor toned it down.

In a setlist slot that's been rotating across shows, she sang Red's "22" solo with an acoustic guitar.

Even better was a pairing of "Long Live / New Year's Day"--the latter a fine new song of hers, not the U2 anthem--during which it began to rain.

I genuinely mean this review as a predominantly positive one, and believe Taylor Swift truly delivered a fine show, even to a more middling fan.

She certainly needn't apologize for not yet being U2, Depeche Mode or David Byrne--and may not ever wish to be--and if she confidently loves all of her new songs more than I do, well, she should.

So I do not mean to be too damning or disparaging to say that there were several times--from my vantage point 100+ yards away, mainly watching the video boards, which didn't always feature live imagery--when I wasn't sure if she was singing live, or if so, perhaps only barely accompanying backing tracks.

This possibility, along with all of the (often fun) grandiosity of the evening--including some huge snake props supposedly representing all the "snakes" who hate her (including Kanye & Kim), which I kinda see as beneath her--gave seeing a woman singing in the rain while playing piano at the center of a packed stadium an elevated sense of realness.

Though it never quite poured until after the show ended, it was raining pretty steadily, so I also valued seeing Swift carry through her planned encores--"Getaway Car," "Call It What You Want" and a pairing of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together / This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things"--while clearly getting soaked, on what had already been a somewhat chilly June night.

To be honest, I would probably prefer to see Swift in an arena--with much of the spectacle toned down--and likely with a generally older crowd that has come to recognize that she should also appeal to them, maybe considerably more so in years ahead.

But I have no problem recognizing why she's the biggest music star in the world, was happy to see the show she's put together this time around and have no hesitation calling myself a Taylor Swift fan.

Whatever it may do to my Reputation.

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