In the world of Lady Gaga, there are so many different ways to put on a show — none of which are haphazard. Her tours have taken the forms of Warholian performance art spectacles, outlandishly disco-fied rock operas and swinging, supper-club sophistication, and she’s currently plotting her halftime blowout for Super Bowl 51. Even in her early days, before massive hits yielded massive production budgets, she loved to bring ambitious theatricality to cramped club stages.
Gaga’s Bud Light Dive Bar Tour, framed as a return to her humble performing roots, is her latest experiment with transforming how she presents her music and herself. She’s been thought of as a creature of New York art and drag shows, and it was no accident that she chose to launch this string of dates at a small East Nashville rock club just across the river from the epicenter of the country music industry on Wednesday night (Oct. 5). She pulled up to the front of the 5 Spot in a black Ford Bronco (featuring a vanity plate emblazoned with “Joanne”), while throngs of local fans who’d caught wind of the show’s location pressed against the barricades across the blocked-off street.
Inside the club was the sort of diverse crowd that you’d expect Gaga to draw — including Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, rising country-pop act Haley Georgia, and a clutch of deaf fans who’d been flown in from all over, and were wearing vests and wrist and ankle bands synced to the sound system to enhance their bodily experiences of the music.
One reason the show proved such a hot ticket was that Gaga was debuting material from upcoming album Joanne, due out October 21. The cover art, a side profile shot of the superstar sporting a floppy hat and very little makeup — plastered on several walls around the club last night — is by far the most naturalistic visual image that she’s ever attached to her music.
Gaga wore a hat that closely resembling that cover image when she took the stage, thought it also bore a rhinestone-bedecked hat band that matched her flashy western suit jacket — a nod to the jazzed-up, Western ranch attire that was worn by many a country entertainer generations ago.
The cowboy aesthetic extended to her opening song, “Sinner’s Prayer,” a classically countrified unburdening of the heart that began with her acoustic-guitar strumming before her band kicked in, with the sinewy bass line instantly steering the number closer to the dance floor.
Gaga switched to a hollow-body electric for her hooky, kinetic pop’n’B number “A-Yo,” with its sing-along chorus and hand-clap groove. By the end of the song, she’d removed her hat so that she could whip her ponytail around.
Between numbers, she addressed the audience in low, confiding tones: “I’m from New York City, and I’m coming through Nashville, but if you could do this for me tonight — if you could just call me Joanne.” Everyone obliged, switching from chants of “Gaga! Gaga!” to the name of the comparatively down-to-earth character that she’s currently inhabiting, inspired by Gaga’s late aunt of the same name.
Soon the country hit writer Hillary Lindsey appeared on stage, poised to supply harmonies. Gaga introduced her as the “Nashville native” with whom she’d collaborated on “Million Reasons.” (Lindsey’s own frequent collaborators, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna, looked on from the crowd, as did her songwriter-husband Cary Barlowe.) Though it was Gaga’s first public performance of the pleading, anthemic ballad, it had the instant familiarity of broadly appealing, well-crafted, confessional pop. Fans swayed and waved their hands in time, clutching iridescent blue bottles of Bud Light, the event sponsor.
“Put your hands up! Everybody jump!” Gaga urged moments later, before performing her single “Perfect Illusion.” By then she’d shed her jacket, and writhed around the stage in a crop top and cutoffs to the propulsive dance beat.
After the music stopped, fans had a chance to retrieve their phones from the numbered bins to which they’d surrendered them before entering the club. Those who immediately hopped online to preorder Gaga’s album were invited to queue for a meet-and-greet of sorts. She stood behind the bar, leaning forward to give a signed photo and 30 seconds of her affection as each person stepped up.
There are lots of ways to read the progression of Gaga’s career up to this point. Did she reach high-concept fatigue with her 2013 album Artpop? Were the duets with Tony Bennett and the Sound of Music medley on the Oscars intended to remind the world of the pure vocal ability beneath the costumes?
The interviews that she’s done so far about her new artistic direction imply a fascinating shift in focus; where her early efforts spoke to her “little monsters,” marginalized by their outré outsider identities, she’s taken an interest in listeners whose mundane lives tend to render them invisible, which has always been a specialty of country songwriting. As Gaga put it to E! News, “I kept envisioning this girl in the middle of the country somewhere crying her eyes out in the field with a drink in her hand and her kid in the other, going, ‘I can’t believe that Lady Gaga understands how I feel.’”
Judging from Wednesday’s show, Gaga’s latest reinvention has her embracing emotional directness, and coming from her, that too packs a punch.