DURHAM – Early on during his Saturday night show at Durham Performing Arts Center, George Jones paused to offer up a bit of philosophy from The Gospel According to Jones. He allowed as to how he didn’t much care for the modern era’s “hot young country radio,” especially the fact that it shies away from cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs. Surveying the crowd, he gave the punchline with a standup-comic’s timing.
“I wouldn’t a had a job!”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine “The Possum” without songs about life’s carousing side. And even though time and indulgences have robbed him of most of his voice (he turns 81 years old next month), Jones still has impeccable timing, a way with a one-liner and fierce fashion sense, as evidenced by his stage attire – a dark plaid sharkskin jacket that appeared to date from the Carter administration.
Jones’ performance did not get off to an auspicious start, however. His Jones Boys backup band did three songs before the star’s entrance, which was also preceded by the bass player announcing that Jones was recovering from an illness, “and we hope you’ll understand if he’s not 100 percent.”
Even with diminished expectations, the opening “Tell Me Why” was pretty dismal. Jones’ voice was a harsh croak, and he was so low in the mix that the band and backup singers drowned him out.
Fortunately, he seemed to gain strength as the set wore on, thanks to judicious pacing and a couple of fiddle-tune instrumentals (“Black Mountain Rag” and “Fire on the Mountain”) that allowed Jones to catch his breath. “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” with a video montage of departed stars including Conway Twitty, Hank Williams and Buck Owens (as well as the still-living Loretta Lynn, oddly enough), went over well.
But the songs about drinkin’ and carryin’ on got the best response. “Tennessee Whiskey” was still a hit, and the 20-something mooks seated directly behind me hollered along with every word of “Bartender’s Blues.”
The pacing paid off in that it allowed Jones to save his best for the end. Even without the 1980 studio version’s massive wall of strings, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” remains a marvel. The song fits him better now than it did three decades ago, although somebody chose this moment as the one to pay tribute to Jones’ nickname by throwing a stuffed possum onstage.
“I thought it was a skunk,” Jones quipped.
“Today” was Saturday’s penultimate song, and Jones closed with “I Don’t Need No Rockin’ Chair” – flashing enough of an ornery growl to make it seem like more than an idle boast. But he didn’t push his luck, waving goodbye after a single verse and letting the band vamp on as he took his leave.
Saturday night began with local country singer John Howie Jr. living a dream, sharing a bill with George Jones as opening act. Not surprisingly, Howie was wearing a smile as broad as Texas when he walked onstage.
Howie and his band (with Southern Culture on the Skids drummer Dave Hartman filling in for the late Matt Brown, who died of a heart attack in April) played an excellent 40-minute set, highlighted by an ace cover of Buck Owens’ “Hello Trouble” in which Billie Feather played a solo on a standup bass twice her size. You could tell this was a career highlight, and they made the most of it.
“We are thrilled to be here,” Howie said between songs. “It is the honor of honors.”