Newly redesigned Target Center hosts same old Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand in 2015.

Alan Jackson at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand in 2015. Special to the Star Tribune/Bre McGee

The more things change, the more Alan Jackson remains the same.

The country music veteran, kept away from his originally scheduled Minneapolis date last November by a snowstorm, became the inaugural musical act for the recently overhauled Target Center this past weekend.

After a dormant year and a half (and a hefty cash infusion), the modernized basketball arena now flaunts a more spacious lobby and an increased number of entry gates. In the past, a trip to Target Center could feel uncomfortably like scrambling to catch a flight, but if Saturday night was any indication, you’ll spend less time impatiently clumped with fellow frustrated showgoers on the wrong side of security straining to hear your favorite band’s opening songs. (Though I’m still not crazy about that dark brown siding on the exterior.)

And Jackson? He wears the same white hat and sports the same blonde mustache that made him an immediately recognizable, benign neo-traditionalist presence when he first cracked the charts 27 years ago. and he still begins his set, as he has for years, by running briskly through the chorus of “Gone Country” a handful of times. (Me, I miss that anthem’s verses, which contain some even-handed satire of music industry trend-hoppers.) Jackson’s setlist still draws from the same few dozen hits, with “Country Boy” and “Good Time, both from 2008, Saturday night’s most recent inclusions.

In other words, an Alan Jackson show is a comfortable, familiar place. A genial host, Jackson invited us to dance or to just sit back and enjoy the show early in the night, and depending on age, energy level, or general enthusiasm, the audience chose from among those options as the country star crammed 21 songs into an entertaining 90-minute set, its lack of surprises among its many charms.

Jackson remains a master of the aggressively modest Nashville humblebrag. “I couldn’t imagine people way up north listened to country music,” he aw-shucksed in his deep Georgian drawl when expressing amazement at his career longevity. Later, he would feign amazement and embarrassment at the inevitable standing ovation that greeted his mention that he’d just been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A pair of mid ‘90s oldies followed the “Gone Country” overture: the drunken romp “I Don’t Even Know Her Name” and the more characteristically domestic “Livin’ on Love.” Some even older hits – “Wanted,” “Someday” – were whooshed through in abbreviated versions, and then Jackson called offstage to his opener, the great Lee Ann Womack (“C’mon out here if you’re still awake”) to join him on Vern Gosdin’s ‘70s hit, “Till the End.” “That’s a lot of sad ones in a row,” Jackson joked before upping the tempo with “Pop a Top.”

Even by Nashville standards, Jackson is a bit of a square. His biggest cheating song, “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” gossips about adultery rather than committing it. (Saturday night’s version was preceded by a bit of guitar showoffery that referenced by the James Bond theme and “Secret Agent Man.”) But he’s always had an easy, unpushy way with an upbeat number that comes off as friendly and natural on the great ones, like “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” and a little glib when he doesn’t quite connect. The teen anthem “Summertime Blues,” which has never quite suited him, sounded less appropriate than ever coming from a 59-year-old on an unseasonably frigid October night.

The high points of Jackson’s set, as always, came with a pair of autobiographical hits. The gorgeous “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” is a stirring survey of the lessons he learned from his father and passed on to his own daughters that hits me square in the tear ducts every damn time, and “Remember When” is a lovely ballad about the subtle emotional rewards of an enduring marriage. (Saturday night’s version was preceded by a bit of piano showoffery, including a nod to Billy Joel.)

Between them came the song that marked Jackson’s finest moment as a country star in late 2001: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” “I’m not a real political man,” Jackson sings on the post-9/11 anthem of quiet unity, an admission that doesn’t feel like a copout, but now, just as it did 16 years ago, the song inevitably invites us to examine our political climate. Sorry, yes, I’m afraid we’ve come to the “blah-blah-blah Trump’s America” part of the review that folks always complain about in the comments.

In the Bush era, “Where Were You” contrasted sharply with the rowdier jingoist hits coming out of Nashville. “At a time when those trumpeting American superiority made the greatest case against themselves,” I wrote of Jackson’s ‘00s output shortly after his 2015 State Fair show. “Jackson quietly made our culture seem worth defending.” But Target Center is hardly the only thing that’s changed since then. If Jackson’s Americana has always appealed to the better angels of our nature, much in the way that the old Obama refrain of “this is not who we are” would in this country's crueler moments, it’s gotten harder to believe that Americans can be flattered into decency these days.

After the ballads, the set crested with the lamest of Jackson’s number ones, the thirsty tourist jam “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” and one of his friskiest, the youthful “Chattahoochee.” Jackson’s encored with “Where I Come From,” a southerner’s ramble through the north accompanied by a video that included some Twin Cities shots, including the logos of our sports teams, the newest addition to our cityscape, the U.S. Bank Stadium, and a teaser for the looming Super Bowl LII.

“I think the whole country needs a little good time,” Jackson ad libbed toward the end of “Good Time,” the evening’s only acknowledgment that the America he sings about is an ugly era. But an Alan Jackson concert is a place, for both better or worse, where the world stopped turning before last November.

The crowd: Though it was Halloween weekend, nobody was in costume, unless maybe the guy in the Confederate flag jacket was going as “jerkoff who wants to get his ass kicked in downtown Minneapolis.”

Overheard in the crowd: “I beat cancer!” shouted one of the quartet of enthusiastic gals who flooded into the press loft to dance during Womack’s set, before security shooed them off.

Notes on the opener: Lee Ann Womack’s opening set that dipped into her terrific new album The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone while drawing from two decades of her great country hits. Womack has a voice nuanced enough to draw in American fans but huge enough to fill arenas, with material as varied in style as the inspirational pop country power ballad “I Hope You Dance” and the folksy “The Way I’m Livin’.”

Critic's bias: Merely an admirer until he recorded “Drive,” I’ve been a Jackson fan ever since, and I made an exhaustive investigation into his continuing appeal here.

Lee Ann Womack setlist
Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger
You’ve Got to Talk to Me
Never Again Again
I’ll Think of a Reason Later
Mama Lost Her Smile
All the Trouble
I May Hate Myself in the Morning
The Way I’m Livin’
I Hope You Dance
Ashes by Now

Alan Jackson setlist
Gone Country
I Don’t Even Know Your Name
Livin’ on Love
Good Time
Summertime Blues (Eddie Cochran cover)
Who’s Cheatin’ Who
Here in the Real World
Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow
Till the End (Vern Gosdin cover, with Lee Ann Womack)
Pop a Top (Jim Ed Brown cover)
Little Bitty
Country Boy
Drive (For Daddy Gene)
Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning
Don’t Rock the Jukebox
Remember When
It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

Where I Come From