Saturday Night: George Jones at Arena Theatre
I never wondered what it's like to be almost 81 until Saturday. I never expected to live that long, and still don't. But while watching George Jones onstage at the Arena Theatre, it was difficult to not at least wonder.
But hell, I'm not even 40 and most days I consider myself old. I've spent enough time around the elderly that the idea of living into my early 80s seems like somewhere between slow torture and outright cruelty at the hands of a heartless higher being. There must be an upside somewhere.
Arguably the greatest living country singer since Hank Williams Sr. died (in 1953), Jones turns 81 Wednesday. Trim, fit-looking, and surprisingly tiny, he doesn't quite look his age. But frankly, he sang like it Saturday night.
Jones was hospitalized for pneumonia in April, and still seemed his short of breath Saturday. His wonderful voice, once so elastic and expressive, has diminished noticably in both range and magnitude. He could be frisky and playful on a song like "The One I Loved Back Then," and the actual sound of a heart breaking in two on "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
This time he just sounded thin and hoarse, and very, very tired. He also had trouble enunciating some of the lyrics, and kept his gaze fixed on the floor-mounted flatscreen teleprompters a good bit of the time.
But it's also hard to imagine anyone at his age doing anything different, and Jones seemed to be in good spirits. He gamely bantered with the crowd about cleaning up his ways and his colorful past (represented by some vintage TMZ-like video footage of Jones waving off a camera crew near a police car), joked about docking his band's pay after a stumbling over the transition into "The Grand Tour" during the penultimate '60s/'70s medley. He thanked the audience for being there at every available opportunity, and gave the general impression that he was legitimately happy to be there.
For what he must be going through, his performance was remarkably brave. And every so often he would hit one of those perfect notes that just takes your breath away, and makes you imagine what it would have been like to see him live during his prime. Provided of course he showed up at all -- these days his T-shirts say "No Show Jones," but he hasn't skipped an engagement for non-health-related reasons in many, many years -- it must have been really something.