Kid Rock just can't help himself.
This is a guy who has built his own legend through hard work, persistence, and a unique talent for blending musical genres into a seamless stew that has worked well over the course of eight studio albums and 20-plus years. In many ways he's the embodiment of the blue-collar ethic he celebrates so righteously — a hard working guy who's busted his butt to improve at what he does album by album, tour by tour.
He could stop there and just be that guy. Seriously, he could.
But he's also a dude who calls himself the Rock and Roll Jesus. The Early Mornin' Stone Cold Pimp. American Bad Ass. The Bullgod.
The swagger is as real as the sincere shout-outs to the folks he mentioned at Wednesday night's, two-hour, sold-out show at Toledo's Huntington Center who “get their asses out of bed every morning and work 40 to 50 hours a week,” but it's also frustrating.
At his best, the Detroit native personifies all that made arena rock in the ‘70s so fun. He works the stage with consummate lead-singer, alpha-dog panache and brings a freakishly high energy to the performance that carries all the way to the cheap seats and turns a hockey arena full of 7,000-plus people into a wildly fun house party.
Every song is delivered with maximum commitment and, like the J. Geils Band or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in their prime, the goal is to send you home thoroughly rocked out and simultaneously exhausted and stoked. He bounds around the stage like the Energizer bunny on speed, blessed with a decent vertical and all the right moves for a rock and roll front man, kind of like a Detroit version of Mick Jagger.
You've got to love that part of Kid Rock when he's leading the limber Twisted Brown Trucker Band through a catalog of tunes like “Bawitdaba,” “Early Mornin' Stone Cold Pimp,” “All Summer Long,” or “I'm a Cowboy” and sweating it out with a combination of chops and Detroit soul.
There's pyro and barely-dressed dancing girls and flames shooting out of the stage and it's a KISS concert crossed with a Run/DMC show. That's a blast and everything that over-the-top rock and roll should be.
But about mid-show things lagged and the reason could be pinpointed pretty quickly:
The Kid himself.
He started the evening with a series of film clips that celebrated his life and the fact he just turned 40. A bit self-indulgent, but OK. If he had dropped it there and just been satisfied to deliver a tight, well-paced show, with the focus on the songs rather than himself he could've served up a concert that stayed at a high peak the entire time.
But he stopped for some oddly paced songs, most notably the goofy political ode, “Care,” that never should've made it on his new “Born Free” album, much less into his concerts. The “slow songs” have always been iconic in big rock shows — Bob Seger had “Turn the Page” and KISS had “Beth” — but Kid Rock's problem is that with the exception of “Only God Knows Why” he doesn't really have any ballads that are worth ruining the momentum of the show.
The other issue was stopping the music for stuff like clips of Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, and Jimmy Kimmel wishing him a happy birthday. Kid Rock likes to poke fun at celebs like Steven Tyler and Lebron James (he lambasted the latter in a short film interview during the show, receiving a loud ovation), but he comes across like those he's tweaking when he so blatantly celebrates himself at the expense of the music.
For example, it's always been a mid-set schtick for Kid to play guitar, then some turntable scratching, and some drums. He should let that die, especially the guitar part. It's a given that he's an exceptional musician and a soulful singer and he doesn't need to prove it.
But the effect was way too much like being in some hyperactive high school kid's room (pun intended) and he grabs his axe and plays the riff to a ZZ Top song, which Kid Rock did, and then some Ted Nugent before running over to his turntables and you're thinking, “That's nice, but couldn't we just get on with this?”
All that said, Wednesday night's show was no doubt a blast for everyone there with undoubtedly more high points than lows. And Kid Rock deserves credit for working so hard to blend his newer material, which is straightforward rock and country, with the more hip-hop and rap/rock styles from his early years.
That's not easy to do and you get a sense that he's not exactly sure how to make it work as he continues to add good new songs to his repertoire like the title track of his new disc, “Born Free,” with the old stuff that people pack arenas to hear.
Near the end of the show, he started playing “Picture” the hit from 2001's “Cocky”. It's a slow ballad that in its original form featured Sheryl Crow. The tune seemed like an odd choice and before the song advanced more than a minute, it was interrupted by Beavis and Butthead on the video screen hovering over the stage as the music ground to a halt.
The ‘90s cartoon slackers were chiding Kid Rock for not rocking and while it's probably a mistake to read too much into it, the point seemed to be that he, A) knows he's a bit pompous sometimes and needs to be knocked down a peg or two, and B) he's very much aware of the tricky balance of trying to meld the old with the new and this is his way of addressing that issue.
Beavis and Butthead got their way and the aborted “Picture” turned into a ferocious, rocking “Bawitdaba” complete with lasers and a full-throttle arrangement that rattled the arena's walls and set the floor to shaking.
Rock and his band have been on the road for only two weeks so it will be interesting to see how the show evolves over the course of the tour. Despite the intrusive nature of the Kid's self-aggrandizing, it's about as fun of a rock concert as you can imagine.
He just needs to get out of his way a little bit. As Kid Rock said, “It' ain't cocky... if you back it up.”
What he should accept is that at 40 you don't have to back it up anymore. You can just bring it.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.