Kacey Musgraves. Bluebird Theater. 04.20.16
It was 4/20 in Denver, Colorado and the place was packed. “Stir It Up” was rattling the house speakers as familiar aromas filled the air. There was nothing to suggest this 420 concert would be any different than the myriad of others taking place across the state all week; especially when Bob Marley gave way to the always amusing Afroman. Neon cacti seemed an odd stage prop for even the most eccentric member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the lack of booth babes repping Snoop’s latest strain of weed was a little odd, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Wiz Khalifa took the stage with a blunt in his hand. Instead, we were greeted by a 6-piece country band. Dressed in mariachi suits adorned with flashing LED lights, they took their places in front of the pedal steel, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, and various other instruments that would have been foreign at any hip-hop show. “Welcome to the Country & Western Rhinestone Revue! Are you ready to get high with Kacey Musgraves?!” The roar of applause was enough to silence those who protest the lack of diversity among 420 acts in Colorado.
Rhinestone-encrusted, vintage microphone. Impossibly short rodeo dress. White cowgirl hat, neck tie, and sparkling boots. I know it’s frowned upon to comment on a female artist’s appearance, but it was impossible to ignore Kacey Musgraves’ attire on Wednesday night. Projecting the image of the ideal Southern pin-up girl, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter kicked off her special 420 show with “Pageant Material”. Acting as a defense statement of sorts, the song is a perfect introduction to Musgraves’ refreshingly honest personality. Despite looking like someone who might be at home on a runway, she immediately put to rest any idea that she’s just another pretty face. There is no doubt she is proud of her physical qualities, but she’s also proud of her talents as a singer, songwriter, performer, and overall entertainer. Displaying impeccable wit when it comes to wordplay, songs like “Biscuits” and “Silver Lining” made it very clear why Musgraves finds favor among those who don’t usually listen to modern country music. Like Nikki Lane, Sturgill Simpson, and many others out there today, she is able to build on a solid country and western foundation, but with blueprints that have been updated for a new generation. There are countless country songs about small towns, but there are very few like “This Town”. The lying and cheating and gossiping are commonplace, but overdosing and biting nurses…not so much.
The simple, slight references to marijuana in Kacey Musgraves’ lyrics made her performance “holiday worthy”, but the capacity crowd at the Bluebird Theater didn’t buy tickets just because the show was on 420. It’s a fact that Musgraves is bigger than the Bluebird any day of year, so it was a treat to catch her in such an intimate setting. The evening was made even more special by her enthusiasm. She seemed as excited to be there as those in the front row. Anthems about strong women were augmented by heartbreaking ballads, the same way ‘shake your ass’ barn-burners were smoothed out by irie Bob Marley jams. Lyrics were changed on the fly to highlight Denver’s newfound status as the North American Amsterdam, as well as poke fun at Musgraves herself during “Dime Store Cowgirl” (“ok, just a little cheap”). Each track seemed to build on the last, allowing Musgraves and her band to loosen up as the night progressed. “Whose high is just kicking in? Who has been high since this morning?” Musgraves asked those rhetorical questions before admitting she’s never performed under the influence. “Maybe today will be different.” The day was different, but as far as I could tell she didn’t smoke during the set. She did tour a pot farm and local dispensary though; an experience she described like a wide-eyed kid seeing snow for the first time. “5,000 plants in one place!”
“I’m so glad you decided to spend your holiday with me. This is a safe zone, so don’t be paranoid,” she joked, before hinting that she might follow in Snoop’s footsteps and make the Denver show an annual event. If that turns out to be true, it could pave the way for a diverse selection of shows in years to come. And as if her voice, songs, and overall stage presence weren’t enough to bring people back year after year, snacks were provided. Cheetos, chips, and candy were all hurled at an audience who were more than willing to partake in free food. Munchies sated, the talent part of the show began. The pedal steel player made a balloon animal (that looked like a penis) before “Family is Family” was dedicated to everyone with “weird” family members…so essentially everyone in the audience. Then the bandleader/keyboardist showed off his joint rolling skills. He rolled it up, lit it up, and smoked it, but when Kacey thought it would be a good idea to throw it into the crowd, somebody stopped her. “I don’t know the rules,” she said in a slightly embarrassed tone, before adding “it would be cool if on 420 I didn’t go to jail.”
Having been denied the opportunity to share a joint with Musgraves and her band, we were rewarded with a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. There is no way that song should have worked as well as it did, but when Kacey wasn’t on her harmonica, she belted out CeeLo’s lyrics like she wrote them herself. Speaking of covers, “A Spoonful of Sugar” (from Mary Poppins) found her in full character mode and it was ridiculously fun, as was TLC’s “No Scrubs”. The versatility it took to adapt and perform those songs was just another example of the talent she possesses as both a musician and entertainer. The idea that trailer parks in Denver are “pretty fucking cool” was off the mark, but “The Trailer Song” (“tequila, scotch, bourbon”) ended up being a highlight of the night. “High Time” and “Blowin’ Smoke” formed clouds inside the venue, while “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Die Fun” cut through the haze like a knife. A state flag (which she confused for that of a foreign country) confessed Colorado’s love for “KM” and was displayed from the stage until she wrapped it around herself during the introduction to “Merry Go ‘Round”. Acknowledging the song that kick-started her career, she also made it a point to recognize the diversity among the faces in front of her. “So many different people, but y’all seem to get it. I will continue to keep it as real and authentic as possible.”
The set began with a statement about who Kacey Musgraves is. It ended in much the same way. “Follow Your Arrow” contained a serious message within, but that didn’t stop it from being an insanely fun sing-along session. At that point in the night, the entire room of spectators became one big family. We were all so caught up in the moment that I hardly noticed she had left the stage until she returned with blinking lights on her boots. She had lost the hat, but found herself a pair of marijuana leaf earrings and a purpose. As she stomped around during “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, I couldn’t help but reflect on the television performances I had seen. She seemed stiff and stuck in one spot during those awards shows and late-night appearances. The Kacey Musgraves who showed up to the Bluebird was something else altogether. She was bursting at the seams with energy, fully engaged with her band and her audience, and seriously beaming with life. It was one of those rare shows that defied expectations. The main set clocked in at exactly two hours, but it flew by in a flash. When she followed her band off the stage after a quick bow, it seemed too soon, but then they all came right back out for an acoustic rendition of Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails”. We were left wanting more, but it was an extremely appropriate way to close out the night.
There were many shows going on while Kacey Musgraves and her band were performing at the Bluebird. Snoop Dogg and friends were down at Fiddlers. Cypress Hill and George Clinton were at the Ogden. Method Man and Redman were at Cervantes. Leftover Salmon were at Ophelia’s and Flosstradamus were headlining Red Rocks. I’m sure every one of those shows had its highs and lows, but I’ll also go out on a limb and assume none of them brought anything new or original to the 420 scene in Colorado. Kacey Musgraves did. As she says in her own song, she might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but her presence here for the holiday was important. She might love weed and Bob Marley and Afroman as much as the next person, but she also offers something fresh and exciting in a time when aging hip-hop and jam band acts can feel a little stagnant. StubHub selling $20 tickets for over ten times that amount just confirms Denver is hungry for something different on 4/20. Here’s to Kacey Musgraves for providing that diversity. Here’s to the 2nd Annual Country & Western Rhinestone Revue in 2017. And here’s to other artists following in her footsteps to make Denver an even more interesting place than it already is.
Step Off / Three Little Birds
I Miss You
Good Ol’ Boys Club
Dime Store Cowgirl
Family Is Family
The Trailer Song
A Spoonful of Sugar
It Is What It Is
Merry Go ‘Round
Mama’s Broken Heart
Late to the Party
Follow Your Arrow
These Boots Are Made for Walkin’