This past weekend was one fraught with Big Show Decisions here in Pittsburgh. As is our tradition, we got about 25 huge shows packed into one weekend, despite the fact that next month we'll probably go weeks with out anything particularly worthwhile.
While my personal propensity is generally to go to the smaller shows, the weirder acts, the locals, I instead went to a couple of big shows this weekend. And, somewhat to my surprise, I had pretty great music experiences.
Friday night was Devo at Stage AE; there were a lot of giveaways for this show, so it would seem that tickets weren't selling well, but the place was pretty well filled with a crowd of devotees, old heads and folks who seemed to have no idea who Devo was, but were having a good time anyway. As it turned out, it was probably better that the show had been moved inside for fear of bad weather; the indoor venue fit the show well.
I'll admit I had my worries going into the show: Folks who were doing cool, weird stuff thirty-plus years ago don't always hold up, and there's nothing sadder than seeing someone who was way cool in 1976 just being a goofy dad now. No worries; Devo's still got it.
After a preliminary sound issue, Mothersbaugh, Casale and company jammed three mini-sets with multiple costume changes. There were new songs ("Don't Shoot, I'm a Man") and classics ("Jocko Homo," "Mongoloid"), and they placed the requisite hit, "Whip It" in the middle of the first segment, so as to get people excited, and not have it hanging over their heads all night. Good move. (I did hear two disappointed fellows behind me at the end of the show lamenting that they'd shown up late and missed it; sorry, guys.)
The energy was still there, the banter was filled with Anthony Weiner jokes, and Booji Boy came out to sing "Beautiful World." Mark Mothersbaugh stuffed a bag of potato chips down his pants then opened it and threw it into the crowd. He tossed out energy domes. As the grand finale, he took handfuls of SuperBalls out of a fanny pack and bounced them into the audience. It was weird, it was fun, it was participatory; Devo delivered.
Saturday night I went in a different direction: Yes, I know you're going to give me shit for being an alt-weekly music writer and going to see the least "alt" thing happening all weekend. I can take it. Yes, Taylor Swift is the biggest country-pop crossover artist of the past decade, and possibly ever. She sold 50,000-plus tickets in Heinz Field Saturday night, and a great many of them were teenagers (whose sartorial tastes were generally questionable, but hey – I won't push it, lest you dredge up pictures of me when I was 15).
But there's a lot to like about Taylor Swift if you care about pop music at all. She's 21 and is wildly successful at writing and performing her own songs, and they're not vapid. (They're often quite literal, but that's not always a bad thing, and it's definitely not in this case.) She's a multi-instrumentalist and plays her own songs live. She's a mainstream popular country artist who appeals to mainstream country fans, but she doesn't extol the know-nothing ideological principles of a lot of mainstream country artists. (She's not political, pretty much ever, that I know of, and I'm sure that's intentional, although she has supposedly cited the Dixie Chicks as an influence to her as artists, and you don't do that if you're trying to stay on the good side of Nashville.)
She's enigmatic, writing song lyrics (not her own) on her arms and plastering herself with her lucky number 13; she knows how to work a crowd, at once both endearingly grateful and slightly aloof. When she came out Saturday night at Heinz Field, she performed three songs before talking at all; between songs early on, she'd simply look around, wide-eyed and smiling, taking it all in like a princess.
There was more to the show than I expected. (I'm not sure exactly what I expected.) There were more set changes, more costume changes, more ballet dancers during the costume changes, more walking-through-the-crowd-to-get-to-the-"in the round"-stage, more fireworks, more fight choreography than I'd imagined. There were more instruments – Swift herself played guitar, piano, banjo and ukulele, and she had an entire strings section at one point.
It was over the top, for sure. But in a genuine way: It didn't feel like a performer just trying to do everything they thought they should do (like opener Needtobreathe did). It felt like a performer knowing what her audience wanted and giving it to them. Straight down to the explosions of glitter at the end.
Taylor Swift's character fascinates me: Her personality is all sugar, but isn't saccharine. She's deceptively aggressive (hence the fight choreography). She's very traditionally "girly," but also "girl-power-y," and not in an overstated, artificial way. Her girl power is about saying what she feels, not talking about saying what she feels.
You probably expect me, being who I am, to approve of the weird performance art of Devo but disapprove of the theatrics of T. Swift – to tear down the (admittedly ridiculous) Cover Girl sponsorship, to trash the huge stage show, to ask why a musician can't cut the crap and just play songs well without the pomp. But, to be honest, there were a lot of people – a lot of them quite young, but plenty of them adults – having the best night of their summer at Heinz Field on Saturday night. Probably more than a handful having the best night of their young lives. And really, it was enchanting, in the same way Devo was. Well written, well performed music with the support of a creative stage show that made for a special night for the audience. Some social probing and questions, some personal probing and questioning. Isn't that what we want from our pop stars?