Taylor Swift at the Pepsi Center, 6/2/13
Taylor Swift knows what people say about her. She's heard it all -- the rumors, the criticism, the constant derision. She knows, as she acknowledged a few times during her performance at the Pepsi Center last night, but she doesn't care. Why should she? Coming off the major success of her latest album, she no longer has anything to prove. To anyone. And the Red Tour is a celebration of that new Taylor: acutely self-aware, resolute, strong and sexy. This is Taylor 2.0, and she is one helluva force to be reckoned with.
It took less than thirteen seconds into an explosive performance of "State of Grace" -- forever the perfect show-opener, with atmospheric guitar riffs and drum hits not out of place on a U2 album -- to see that and understand why the Pepsi Center had sold out so quickly for the Red Tour.
Swift was here to deliver the show of all shows, her confidence on blast and her swagger stretching longer than her model-perfect legs as they marched in perfect time with the chugging beat. This woman was here to take us on a Technicolor journey through her diary, complete with confetti and emphatic pyrotechnics. Here we go.
During "State of Grace" Swift worked the crowd in only a way she could: graceful hand gestures that would make an envious Vanna White consider changing her name to Vanna Green; darting eyes, decorated by cat-eye makeup, that went from the left side of the arena to the right, cuing the corresponding seats to cheer at their every turn; and a pitch-perfect delivery of an otherwise technically difficult song to sing. Impressively, Swift's voice did all of the heavy lifting, as her four backing vocalists were assigned just to the "oh, oh, oh's."
Swift didn't miss a beat. Hitting with a one-two punch that couldn't have been better executed, Swift followed up with "Holy Ground" -- nine tracks removed from "State of Grace" on the album tracklist, but the perfect sister song in every way. Together these two songs, including "Holy Ground's" drum break -- I've never seen a singer beat a drum with as much ferocity as Taylor did! -- made it clear Swift deserves to be where she's at right now.
Swift worked her crowd like a rock star. Song segments were divided by costuming changes, as Swift went from more casualwear to what looked to be her take on a Victorian era dress to the bandleader costume she donned for the 2013 Grammys. There wasn't a particular tie-in between song segments and costumes -- or the staging, for that matter -- except for the surprise '60s-style revamp of "You Belong With Me."
Swift wore a red sequined dress and matching gloves up to her elbows as she and her backing vocalists offered up their best sh-bops to a crowd initially skeptical to embrace the reimagined (more interesting) version. "You Belong With Me" worked because it was different, and as we had seen so far in the show, a different Taylor is a great Taylor.
Swift's bare rendition of "Enchanted" was also a wonderful surprise. Alone, seated on the stage extension that reached to the back of the Pepsi Center, it was Taylor and her guitar (no teardrops), and it was impressive the way she strummed so effortlessly. The same could also be said for her performance on the piano later, for "All Too Well," at which point, her stream of emotional consciousness was palpable, as if teardrops were ready to decorate the keys instead.
"Red" was a lesson in what Taylor Swift 2.0 sounded like with her own guitar amp plugged in, while "I Knew You Were Trouble" showed us what Swift was like with even more of a dubstep breakdown than what you hear on the radio. (It felt a little incomplete without the goat accompaniment, though).
The song "22" was a lesson in Dr. Luke-ensian radio pop, with Swift clearly feeling young and carefree and, for the briefest moment during the entire show, going out of her head a bit and acting her age. It wasn't a change of pace, per se -- since Swift's setlist was as varied as it gets for a crossover pop star with a back catalogue like hers -- but it was a break from expectation. The "22" choreography was also a nice break from the Vanna White-style gesticulations that had grown stale up to this point.
But Swift wasn't all unpredictable rock star the entire night. She was also skilled guitarist in her own right, and she played some mean banjo on "Mean" -- an absolutely enjoyable, albeit predictable highlight. Swift's intro to the song ran on the preachy side, but the message was nonetheless a relatable one: "No matter who you are or how old you are... there are always people that are gonna be picking on you. The best way I learned to deal with it was to write a song about it." It was a cute intro for a cuter song about rising above the haters.
The synchronized dancing with the rest of the band made for a visual treat -- shoulder sways were dead-on in timing among all band members less the drummer. Ultimately, however, the best part was the way Swift delivered the middle eight with a sass unavailable on record: "All you are is a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life, and mean" -- and when Swift says pathetic in that way, all you can think is "pond scum."
"Mean" bled into another intro, this time more tongue-in-cheek, for "Stay Stay Stay": "I'm aware I have a little bit of a reputation to write break-up songs," Swift said beforehand. "I don't only write break-up songs, because sometimes people stay." The song was too cute for its own good, but it was also just barely redeemed by a brief inclusion of Swift's take on The Lumineers' "Ho Hey" on the middle eight and substituting a reference to the Broncos during the first verse (she sang "a Broncos helmet," not "a football helmet").
It would have been more noteworthy if Swift had instead taken on the similarly happy "Starlight," which has a few subtle synthesizer swoops on record that would be all too perfect to soundtrack blast from the confetti canon without coming off as cheesy. Swift closed with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," decorated by circus staging and impressive theatrics on and off stilts.
The bombast that came off during her 2013 Grammys performance of the same song, with similar staging, didn't exist. Instead, it was pure excitement. This was Taylor's full-circle moment -- from February to the present, Swift had lost all of her performance baggage. She was lighter, more playful and much, much, much more fun. This was the Red Taylor, and we were the lucky ones.
Show openers Joel Crouse and Ed Sheeran brought an energetic start to the Red Tour. Crouse, the least recognizable name on the bill, was a charmer on the stage. He had few standout songs, but his cover of Adele's "Someone Like You" was one of, if not the best, remakes of the commanding song.
Joel Crouse on stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver last night.
Ed Sheeran, known for his hits "The A Team" and "Lego House," was not at all what you'd come to expect from the somber radio singles of the songwriter with the purposely unkempt looking hair. A one-man band with a loop pedal, he sings, he raps and performs upbeat songs. Sheeran's skills were top-notch, the most perfect foil to Swift's own style. Though his British accent was thick enough to prevent comprehension of specific lyrics, Sheeran was best when he let his music do the talking.
Ed Sheeran on stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver last night. Slide show: Taylor Swift and fans at the Pepsi Center
Personal Bias: I got upgraded from a pretty good seat to a pretty damn good non-seat (the pit in front of the stage) when security realized my row needed to be removed to make way for Taylor's parade through the crowd during "22."
Random Detail: There were many teenage girl tears shed throughout the show. These were regularly preceded or followed by banshee-pitched screams of sheer excitement.
By the Way: Swift made a point to acknowledge one of her more prominent dancers, Mason Cutler, the Romeo to her Juliet for the "Love Story" choreography, because he was from Denver. Hometown pride!
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