Any pop star can put out a Christmas album. Other than a greatest hits collection, a holiday record is the easiest money grab in the industry.
But an elaborate Christmas tour? That's a different ballgame entirely.
Only a certain kind of artist can inspire folks to shell out money for concert tickets around the holidays -- to a show where they're going to hear more Christmas carols than hits, no less. And Kenny Rogers is the king of this kind of thing.
The 73-year-old star and his excellent band swung through Kleinhans Music Hall on Wednesday night as a part of Rogers' 30th Christmas tour. Like you'd expect from somebody who's been doing the same thing for so long, the guy ran the gig like a well-oiled machine, delivering a carefully selected mix of hits and holiday classics to ensure that his wildly devoted fan base would have little to complain about.
Happily, while there wasn't much spontaneity to be found in the music, Rogers the human being wasn't content to go through the motions. Churning out these overtly cheerful shows, year after year for three decades, has uncovered a delightful sarcastic streak in the singer, who took every opportunity to berate and make fun of his audience. Early in set one -- which, smartly, was all hits -- Rogers took the crowd to task for not chiming in on the chorus of "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town."
"Honestly, that's the worst any group has ever sung that," he chided, and it sounded like he was only half-joking.
So even if you're not all that into Rogers' music, the man's natural instincts as an entertainer made this night fun. With his eight-piece band fleshing everything out beautifully, Rogers tore through one smash after another, scoring big with country-pop sing-alongs like "Lucille" and "The Gambler" (that chorus is undeniable) and dying on the vine a bit during the hammy ballads "Lady" and "Through the Years."
While he still can hit all the notes, the singer's voice has understandably weakened.
But like I said, the guy's got star power (he played a photographer on that episode of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," remember?). So when he stepped aside to let an understudy take the reins -- a country singer named Billy Dean, whose original tunes are excruciating -- you felt his absence every second.
About 20 minutes into the Christmas-themed second set, which was all Dean up to that point, some guy behind me screamed, "WHERE'S KENNY?" It was a blatant breach of crowd etiquette, but I admit, I was thinking the same thing.
Finally, in the middle of "Let It Snow," Rogers returned to the stage, and things got interesting again. Instead of just singing "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," he taught us that Mel Torme wrote the tune on an especially scorching California day.
And after another wonderful audience scolding -- this time for providing half-hearted support during "White Christmas" -- Rogers and his band ripped through a spirited take on Ronnie Milsap's "It's Just Not Christmas (If I Can't Spend It With You)."
This was an appropriately festive evening, thanks to an old-school star who knows how to give his fans what they want, while having quite a bit of fun at their expense.