Normally, being in or around my state’s capital during the precipice of such a divided political event is something I never thought I would do... Taking such great strides out of my comfort zone for the sole purpose of watching a billionaire open for classic rock legend Don Henley, is another, very uncharacteristic decision. However, with the damned awfulness of 2016, I’m taking new strides into uncharted territory in 2017. Albert Einstein’s mantra of: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” could apply here.
Friday night JD and The Straight Shot opened in the lovely and newly renovated Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. Upon entering, it was easy to see, as a couple in our late twenties, my wife and I were perhaps the youngest in attendance. (Come as you are and rock on) Before, I get to the music, I’d like to air my opinion. Now is usually the time I get the glaring look to ‘stfu’ from the Mrs. But it’s not about the above mentioned political situation nor about age discrepancies, as if any of that mattered to enjoy great music.
Nope, rather it’s about my job as a reviewer. I can’t stand idly by and watch someone purchase their way to the top, even if this their hobby or side hustle. I don’t get to stand up for the little guy very often so I’ll try to respectfully do so now. Others with better skill sets sweat it out for a lifetime and most only dream of an opportunity like this. Still, the music business is just that. A business. In other hobbies which have also turned into massive corporate industries like professional: fishing, bull riding, racing or you name it, a negative review of how someone bought their way to the top would likely never be written. So I look at it like a trade-off: Mr. Dolan might find it annoyingly difficult to obtain a solid review, but as a self-proclaimed lifelong sponge of the arts, the feeling of annoyance is mutual.
Onto the music: The genre of JD and The Straight Shot is a very straightforward alternative country. The Straight Shots were phenomenal. On a moment’s notice the band could dive into a fantastic and interesting solo. The lot of them are studio quality musicians. Standout Erin Slaver would be a treasure to any string band. The instances where musicians (other than Dolan) were given a chance to shine came too infrequently and were cut off by someone not holding an instrument. The duo of very technical guitarists who seemed to air the essence of : “yeah, we know, he’s always like this” were much more entertaining than the between song ad-lib which included a 10 minute explanation of a 4 minute song named Ballyhoo which honestly didn’t have many more words than that of the title.
My favorite aspects of the performance were the contents of the original song writing. But it’s rarely flattering to proclaim a song as a radio hit, admit that it isn’t, then proceed to play the song. I felt built up, let down, and disappointed all in the same moment, even when I had heard the song before. Embarrassingly, I and four others in attendance clapped when asked from on-stage if we had heard it previously. It’s a good song, but an awful story. Some of the original music has been featured in very popular movies such as ‘Lawless’. Although they weren’t asked to perform it. Instead Willie Nelson was chosen. Again, great song, awful story. I feel if the material was presented in a different light, it would be more readily acceptable. Mr. Dolan’s singing voice is best in the lower register. When he sings with the gravel and the smoke he could easily hang with many of outlaw countries finest. It’s when he channels a Sinatra-like quality and tries to clean up a lifetime of hard living to sing upper registers, his voice falters, and frankly, that paired with the delights backing him up, unfavorably cuts through and is most memorable.
I guess to end a near critical review positively, I’d like to say, I applaud anyone that takes the time to express themselves. I love all art. I may not get all art, but I’d like to think anybody’s and everybody’s form of self-expression is worthwhile. It takes guts to get up on stage, to put yourself out there.
To ALL you warriors of self-expression: fight on.
Afterwards Don Henley further perfected the art of being a spectacular front-man paired with a world-class ensemble. Starting the evening off with a lights out auditorium and Don’s entire ensemble, side-by-side, began singing Seven Bridges Road with the proclamation of angles the exact moment the lights came up. It was magic. Don played tracks from his most recent album Cass County, dedicated to his home near the Arkansas-Texas border as well as hits from the entire span of his career. Witchy Woman, Dirty Laundry and many, many others. Don said, “Tonight, we’re in like a time machine, and we’re just gonna go back and forth and back and forth”.
I am ultimately very thankful to have witnessed such performances. On one hand I got to see the epitome of an American Rock Legend with an undying love for his craft. It was inspiring, exhilarating and a joy to see people double my age actually be right about something. Don Henley’s music is a craft. It’s been chiseled and sculpted for decades. It absolutely shows.