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Kenny Rogers sheds some holiday spirit and Branson humor

Special to the Star

The first night of the holiday chapter of his farewell tour started roughly for Kenny Rogers.

He opened his 100-minute show Friday night at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena with one of his biggest hits: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The crowd of several thousand responded accordingly — with a loud ovation, for him and the song.

Rogers, 78, is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, so he was moving slowly, and during this first number he seemed distracted, enough so that he lost himself in “Ruby,” forgetting where he was and losing the lyrics.

He would recover, however. And after needling the crowd for what he felt was a less-than-enthusiastic sing-along, he cracked a few jokes about his age and the condition he is in. Citing the vigor of Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson, Rogers concluded his physical condition isn’t as good as theirs because he didn’t do enough drugs in the ’60s and ’70s.

Kenny Rogers is retiring, and he is calling this phase of his live performances “The Gambler’s Last Deal Christmas and Hits Tour.” Rogers has been doing Christmas shows for decades. Friday’s show was the first of his final holiday tour. Thus, the relatively minor kinks and occasional rough patches.

The show was primarily a nostalgic look back at the career of a unique entertainer, a guy who shined in music, TV, movies and other media for decades. Throughout the show, the video screens behind him broadcast images from throughout his career, back to the release of his first-ever single, “That Crazy Feeling,” when he was known as Kenneth Rogers, and through his stays with the First Edition and as a movie and TV star and collaborator with the music elite.

The first part of the concert showcased his earliest hits, like the acid-washed “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Something’s Burning,” both First Edition classics; “She Lifted Me,” the title track of his first solo album (which featured a Muppets video); and the medley “Through the Years/You Decorated My Life/She Believes in Me.”

The middle third of the show was dedicated to holiday music, cheery secular songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Let It Snow,” which featured a sprinkling of fake snow from above the stage that was so meager, Rogers blamed it on the tour’s low budget for special effects. It also included classic Christmas carols like “O, Holy Night.” On that one, Rogers was joined by the 17-member Blue Valley North Chamber Singers, conducted by Jason Sickel, a Kansas Teacher of the Year finalist.

The choir would perform on several more songs, including a rousing gospel-funk rendition of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Mary Did You Know.” They also delivered backup on “We Are the World,” which served as a transition from the holiday music back to Rogers’ hits. (The video screens showed the song’s 1985 video during the performance, which included Rogers, who was in his mid-40s.)

Throughout the show, Rogers was joined by country singer Linda Davis, who took lead vocals on a few songs, including “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and accompanied Rogers on others, such as “But You Know I Love You” and “We’ve Got Tonight.”

Rogers’ voice has shed range and power since his previous show here — it was called the Independence Events Center then — in 2010. But after “Ruby,” he regrouped and for the most part delivered at least worthwhile renditions of his best-known songs. As the show progressed, he sounded stronger on songs that required more vocal heft than on the ballads.

He also tossed out plenty of wisecracks and one-liners, some directed at his fans — when they swayed during “Lucille,” which aroused the loudest sing-along of the night, he compared them to Ray Charles at the piano. He also poked fun at himself. After he revealed his recent surgery, he said, “I think they (worked on) the wrong knee.”

During “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” he dropped in a Bill Cosby reference that got a laugh but really wasn’t appropriate (roofies aren’t funny). But otherwise, he was engaging, charming and funny. At times, the show took on a sharp Branson flavor.

The show closed with a flourish of his classics, including “Coward of the County,” which featured the barroom brawl from the film on the video screens; “Love Will Turn You Around,” one of his best ballads; and “Islands in the Stream,” during which Rogers tossed tambourines to fans up front.

Instead of the overdone formality of leaving before the encore, he remained on stage because, to paraphrase: Given the state of his knee, if he walked off stage he might not walk back on.

The video screens showed pictures and footage of him from throughout his long career as he sang the very sentimental “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” Then he sent the crowd off with “Blaze of Glory,” a farewell anthem that brought to a smooth, rousing close this show and his final appearance in our area.

SET LIST

Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town; Walkin’ My Baby Back Home; It’s Only a Paper Moon; Through the Years/You Decorated My Life/She Believes in Me; Something’s Burning; Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In); Love Lifted Me; But You Know I Love You; It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year; Let It Snow; Baby, It’s Cold Outside; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; O, Holy Night; Mary, Did You Know; Go Tell It on the Mountain; The Light; We Are the World; Lucille; Coward of the County; Love Will Turn You Around; We’ve Got Tonight; The Gambler; Lady; Islands in the Stream; You Can’t Make Old Friends; Blaze of Glory.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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