Kid Rock, Foreigner
Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, Raleigh
Saturday, July 11, 2015
The devil came down from Detroit, and he was looking for a sucker to scam. On Saturday, Kid Rock found more than 20,000 of them in Raleigh at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. But how exactly does one businessman from Michigan repackage a culture not his own and sell it back to the people who gave it to him?
STEP 1: LET ’EM GET DRUNK.
While parking my diminutive hatchback between a pair of full-size trucks in a field outside the amphitheatre, it became clear that the main event—you know, the concert—was actually the culmination of an afternoon-long parking-lot celebration. I can’t blame folks. No sober body is going to wait to pay $12.50 for a Corona Light at a concert when you can get a suitcase of Bud Light for about the same price. The high price of drinks and free parking only encouraged people to walk in drunk enough to think it’s a good idea to pay an hour’s wage for a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita, or whatever.
Bean bags thumped on cornhole boards. The cheap aluminum of Bud Light cans crunched. Woos shot skyward to the beat of indistinguishable bro-country hits. People sat outside RVs and on tailgates. One lone man even “Woo!”ed from his trailered pontoon boat and tossed his beer over the side, like the gravel was the infinite ocean.
I lost count of many things while walking through the parking lot—men’s nipples, Confederate flags, American flags, blatant acts of sexual harassment, woos—but not boats. That lone barge offered a certain mystery. Did this wobbly captain come straight from the lake after remembering he had to pre-game the “First Kiss, Cheap Date” tour? Inside the venue, I lost count again: number of people double-fisting, piles of vomit, the number of people I witnessed creating said piles of vomit.
STEP 2: MAKE ’EM SING.
Most everybody was already wasted, but it was early yet. The sun was still out, and the opening pop bluegrass act, Packway Handle Band, only played a few songs. Likely emboldened by Kid Rock’s comment on Friday that Confederate flag protestors could “kiss [his] ass,” several fans took advantage of the lull to show support. On the hill, a group of white men unfurled a Confederate battle flag eight people wide and two people tall. They used the universal “woo” to get everyone’s attention, and a roar of approval came from the seats. People raised their phones to take pictures. Dozens of other fans revealed their own flags.
But before things could escalate beyond flag-waving and hollering, what’s left of Foreigner took the stage. Drunk folks love karaoke, and this was the next best thing. Mick Jones is the only remaining original member of Foreigner. Everybody else has been replaced at least twice. Their drummer’s been replaced often enough to make a Spinal Tap joke seem tame. All of these new members seemed to be thrilled to be in Foreigner. Their enthusiasm rivaled that of a Disney theme-park performer, only more cartoonish. Lead singer Kelly Hansen was the most over-the-top. He played the tambourine like he was playing lead guitar. He sang from the top of a tower in the crowd during “Jukebox Hero.” When the smoke jets erupted from the stage, he jumped on them and pantomimed a fart.
The only person not openly having a good time was Jones. At one point, Hansen trotted him center stage and introduced him as the patriarch of the band and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The beleaguered Jones seemed there only to give the other men acting as Foreigner some legitimacy. Otherwise, they’d just be a cover band. The crowd sang the hits full-throat, and Foreigner left no low-hanging fruit un-plucked. Hansen emphasized every word in the title of “Dirty White Boys,” and they really milked it with a slide show featuring Elvis and James Dean.
Foreigner ended on a happy note, at least. They left the stage and came back to play “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” borrowing a choir from a local school in Wendell and announcing that the proceeds from their record sales Saturday would go to that choir.
STEP 3: CONVINCE ’EM YOU’RE JUST ONE OF THE GUYS.
Hank’s “If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Dixie” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared from the PA as a banner of a $20 bill with Kid Rock’s face on it obscured the stage. The dude is not subtle.
The 44-year-old hasn’t changed much over the years physically. He’s still skinny with thin, long hair, which hangs straight down from a fedora. He’s still pretty spry, too, bouncing around stage and leaping into cat-like stances. His face is a little worn, and he gets winded, so his performance is built around long breaks for dialogue. That’s when he becomes the common man, you see.
He’s a grandfather now, he explained. Nobody thought he’d be doing this so long. He’s an underdog, just an angry kid who went on to sell more than 20 million records. He learned the hard way and knows what’s most important: friends and family. His switch from rap rock to country, he explained, was about doing whatever he wanted and tapping into his roots.
But that was hard to believe when so much of his show played like the output of extensive market research. When the banner dropped, Rock and his Twisted Brown Trucker band kicked off with “First Kiss,” the single and title track from his new album. It checked all the boxes—truck driving, small towns, reminiscing about women over a heartland lick ripped ripped from Mellencamp. Each element was vague enough to trigger a memory. The audience filled in all the details, stories and feelings. Despite doing the work themselves, each fan thought Kid Rock could relate to them.
Nearly every song of Rock’s is built for references. His earliest material shouted out Run DMC and N.W.A., but those didn’t move the crowd in Raleigh. The nods that raised beers Saturday were to Johnny Cash, Hank Jr., Willie Nelson and other outlaws. These were all accompanied by a slideshow of Rock with celebrities. Saying “Kentucky,” “bourbon” or “Carolina” frothed up the audience. At times, it felt like Rock was just standing on stage, listing anything remotely related to a commercial about country life.
Rock played to his audience perfectly while avoiding any offensive soundbites. He showed appreciation for all his fans in the northeast and then told the crowd about the special place in his heart for the South. He crossed his arms in an X and smiled when Confederate flags appeared. The giant video board lingered on the flags in the crowd before returning to the band on stage. He never mentioned the flags, and, as if in his own preemptive defense, he called his African-American backup singer to the front of the stage and danced. When he played religious songs, Rock showed YouTube videos of black folks dancing in church as if to say, “Hey, I like black people, too!” It was the low point of the night.
STEP 4: FORGET ABOUT THE MUSIC. IT’S JUST BUSINESS.
Rock played the entire night underneath a giant Chevy logo. Bottles of Red Stag and Jim Beam strategically littered the stage and pre-recorded videos. In the corporate climax, the lights went off and a Kid Rock-narrated Chevy propaganda piece played. It was very similar to the popular Super Bowl commercials in recent years, specifically the “Made in Detroit” Clint Eastwood ads and the repackaging of Paul Harvey’s “God Made A Farmer” for Dodge. It weaved through manufacturing plants and the sacrifice of soldiers before peaking with Rock shouting that the United States was “the greatest motherfucking country on the planet.” The lights came back up, and Kid Rock played “Born Free” while standing on a camo piano. A giant American flag dropped behind him. Confetti fluttered.
This was the climax of an hour of build up, including a navel-gazing 15 minutes where Rock took the audience through his musical history and the reasons he now writes sappy songs. He wants to be a better father, grandfather, husband and friend. He wants to show people that he cares. His support of American soldiers and their families seems admirable. Despite this, the final take-away wasn’t service or love; it was “You’re free, buy a truck.” You’d think that would make some in the crowd cynical, but without Chevy, he’d have to take more of their money, you see.
The crowd cheered their hero, and for one last time, he rewarded them with “Bawitdaba” as an encore, though he’d already said he couldn’t believe he was still playing a song he wrote at 24.
But they like it, so he likes it, too.