Sunday, April 06, 2003

George Jones shows up

To the Massey Hall in Toronto to see George Jones. Known in the business as "No Show" Jones, we take the precaution of phoning the venue to check that he is in fact there. The tour bus out in snowy Victoria Street has "No-Show" written on the front in recognition of his former alcohol-fuelled lifestyle.
The first performance at the hall took place in 1894 and this triple-deck Victorian theatre is a fitting venue for one of the great survivors of country music. His powers may be ebbing but Jones has a few more bullets left in the gun.
We're sat right next to a coach party from Alliston, Ontario who fittingly have been enjoying a few beers on the bus. They complain that the gig is cutting into their drinking time.
The show is opened by the comic Cowboy Bill Martin from Texas - "We just played a gig in Oklahoma City. I'm not saying they're stupid in Oklahoma but let's just say, as a comedian, I came back with a lot more material than I went with."
Now the Jones band is warming up the audience - a seven piece "proper" country band with fiddle and pedal-steel guitar. They are joined by the husband-and-wife singing team of Barry Smith and Sherri Copeland. The band plays Alan Jackson's "Don't rock the jukebox, I wanna hear George Jones..." and you know that the old possum can't be far away.
Suddenly George is here and he receives a standing ovation. He opens with the recent "High Tech Redneck" - it is an unsteady start with the sound and the back projector playing up but George is unfazed.
After "The Race is on" George complains that country radio won't play drinkin' and cheatin' songs anymore - "Hell I'd be out of a job. They're not fallin' off barstool songs, they're sippin' tunes."
He sums up his remarkable life with "Alcohol is OK if you can handle it - I couldn't."
Band member Jim Buchanan is summoned periodically to play hot fiddle, urged on by George while he sips on a mineral water. When he stumbles he counters with "We've been on the road since '56."
Jones pays homage to Roger Miller with "You oughta be here with me" and follows with "Whose gonna fill their shoes" a powerful tribute to the old-time artists whose images flash up on the screen - Elvis, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette and all the rest. The man who was allegedly trashing hotel rooms when The Who were still in short trousers has outlasted them all. The most remarkable thing about Jones is that he is still here.
"You won't see any smoke in this show, I'm not gonna swing on a rope or run about the stage."
By the time George reaches his signature song "He stopped loving her today" the group from Alliston are getting restless. It is ironic that this mawkish song, that Jones originally thought a dud, brought him his biggest success.
After plugging his new gospel album he closes the show after a full two hours with "I don't need no rockin' chair." There are no encores.
He's corny, he's lowbrow, he's raucous, he's flawed. Yet somehow George Jones is magnificent.

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