The wait allowed conventioneers to make their way over to Nautica, the picturesque downtown open-air venue on the Cuyahoga River. The couple hundred invite-only patrons there at 11 p.m. tripled by showtime and were treated to a solid 75-minute set.
Rock hit the stage to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," cutting off on his cue line, "born and raised in South Detroit." Clad in his standard issue black t-shirt, blue jeans, sunglasses and black bowler hat, he didn't look much like a cowboy, but the one-time rapper should've been sporting a ten-gallon hat, as he sounded more like Eric Church than Marshall Mathers all night.
He opened with the title track off last year's country album, First Kiss, a nostalgic glance back that evokes Tom Petty, old Chevys and teen smoking, echoing conservative yearnings for simpler, sepia-tinged days.
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That album's country sound feels pretty consistent given Rock's transition the last 15 years into Southern and heartland rock. It's like he's tracing Motown's genealogy from Bob Seger back to the Dixie transplants that moved North to man the auto plants in the fifties. (Obviously he presaged the move with the country-tinged hits off his 1998 breakout Devil Without a Cause album.)
Rock made but one ambivalent reference to the occasion that brought him to Cleveland, saying, "I'm not going to stand on a soapbox here -- I'll leave that to the professionals."
Rock did give a nod the Democrats' way -- with his full-employment band. All told there were eleven musicians backing him most of the night including three electric guitars (turned down low), bass, organ, DJ/keyboards, drummer, bongo player and three backup singers.
The 16-song set naturally drew heavily on Cause, featuring the singles "Bawitdaba," "Cowboy," "Wasting Time" and "Only God Knows," and First Kiss, for additional tracks such as "Good Times, Cheap Wine" and "Johnny Cash." Other favorites included "Rock n Roll Jesus," "You Never Met a Motherfucker Like Me," the clever "Werewolves of London"/"Sweet Home Alabama" mash-up, "All Summer Long" and "Picture," the duet he originally recorded with Sheryl Crow.
Rock's a splendid showman with a loose, lively personality that plays well from the stage. He doesn't talk much, but he knows who he is and what he does, and he does it well and with purpose.
After pulling out that hoary old rap concert trick of having the girls say "Kid" and the boys say "Rock" (and I'll go to the bathroom), the dirty blond singer put on a showy display of his musical skills. Yes, he does more than "sing."
Rock proceeded to hop behind the decks and scratch out a beat on the turntables, which he did with great skill. On guitar he showcased that beginners-guitar-lesson classic "Smoke on the Water," and he finished up by banging out Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" on the drums.
Rock returned for a two-song encore after an hour-long performance and a short political ad-ish video intermission honoring small town American values that concluded with the message "the only party that matters is the one we're having tonight." With that he returned on piano for the title track from 2010's Born Free, and closed with "Bawitdaba" played before an enormous stage-length American flag.
The evening's highlight evening came mid-set and proved to be Rock's aging acknowledgement, "Forty," one of three songs he's covered by John Eddie over the years. It's sort of the perfect country song with a great mix of indignant outrage and tongue-in-cheek disdain from a "petered out Peter Pan."
Like a lot of his music these days, it vaguely recalls the Eagles, and as such, it's well-suited for his continuing transition from Kid Rock to Dad Rock.