SAN FRANCISCO In his first Bay Area appearance in more than a decade, George Jones fell short of selling out the cavernous Masonic Auditorium on Friday night. But that didn't diminish the enthusiasm of the youngish crowd eager to pay their respects to the country-music legend.
Following a set by opening act Kelly Willis and a few warm-up songs by the Jones Boys, his backing band, the silver-haired singer took the stage. "I told you I'd be back," he said softly, his acoustic guitar in hand.
Jones, 68, had a brush with death last year when he crashed his sport-utility vehicle into a Franklin, Tenn., bridge while attempting to play a tape of a just-completed studio session of Cold Hard Truth for a relative on his cell phone. The accident totaled the vehicle and left Jones unconscious for more than a week, but after completing a rehab program, in conjunction with his guilty plea to a drunken driving charge, Jones is back on the road.
Jones opened the set with the title track to 1993's High Tech Redneck, following it with "Once You've Had the Best," one of the dozens of hits Jones has notched in his 40-plus-year career.
Not Quite As Fit As A Fiddler
"We've been lost all day. I'd like to apologize I've been taking antibiotics, so my mouth's a little dry. I've been drinking sparkling water," the singer who once earned himself the moniker No-Show Jones explained, adding that his wife won't let him alone long enough for him to indulge in refreshments perhaps more to his taste.
"The Race Is On" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Four Walls" were the next to fly, then Jones took a moment to sing a different tune, namely, the praises of sideman fiddler Jim Buchanan. "Not too many good old-time fiddle players left," he said, as Buchanan broke into the instrumental "Black Mountain Rag." Besides Buchanan, the Jones Boys consisted of a drummer, a pedal steel player, a guitarist, a keyboard player and a bassist.
Despite a big rift in mainstream country music that has, by and large, shut out many such as Jones, who were once mainstays of the genre, the Grammy-nominated Cold Hard Truth has been warmly received.
On Sept. 22, Jones was the focus of some controversy at the Country Music Awards when Alan Jackson stopped what he was playing, midsong, to sing instead Jones' "Choices," in protest of the organizers' refusal to grant Jones enough time to sing it himself. "Had George Jones died, there'd be a 10-minute tribute [on the program]. But then he lived, and they wouldn't give him three minutes," Jackson said in a statement through a spokesperson that night.
A Moment To Give Thanks
Jones took a moment Friday a night when the Gavin Seminar was filling halls all around town with radio executives to thank programmers for "playing us a little bit now" and to praise Asylum Records for knowing how to promote the disc, his first for the label.
As he broke into "Choices" (RealAudio excerpt), the album's first song and a Grammy nominee for Country Music Single of the Year, a fan sedately walked up the center aisle of the auditorium and set a large bouquet at Jones' feet.
Jones' voice seemed to gather strength as the evening progressed, but his band was in crisp form throughout. He followed "Choices" with "Sinners and Saints" (RealAudio excerpt), also from Cold Hard Truth, "I'll Give You Something to Drink About" and "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"
Jones then took a break to introduce after asking Buchanan to remind him of her name labelmate Chalee Tennison, who took the mic for a few songs.
The Possum as Jones is nicknamed returned to do "One Woman Man," "The Cold Hard Truth" and "Fire on the Mountain" before telling the crowd, "We would stand up here all weekend and play all the old songs, but we'd never get to all of 'em," offering a medley instead.
The band then broke into snippets of "I'm Waiting to Share My World With You," "I've Been Watching You," "Step Right Up," "Come Take My Hand," "White Lightning" and "She Thinks I Still Care."
A sideman acknowledged the crowd's enthusiastic applause and milked the audience for another hand for "The man of the millennium with the prettiest hair in country music George Jones!"
Always Leave 'Em Wanting More
Jones closed out the set with "He Stopped Loving Her Today" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Don't Need No Rocking Chair," whereupon he left the stage, not to return, despite a boisterous appeal for an encore.
"It's just great. Sixty-eight years old, and he's still doing it," said Kathleen Bannon, 41, of San Francisco, who watched the show from the balcony. "I don't blame him for using a Teleprompter; I'd be using one."