• By: OLM Staff

Jazz Fest Plays a Full House for the Gambler’s Last Deal

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Feature photo by Dan Nawrocki

Though it's been nearly a decade since leaving us far too soon, I can still hear my mother singing. Everybody filling the lawn in Confederation Park for last night’s TD Ottawa Jazz Festival concert seemed to have some kind of connection to country legend Kenny Rogers. It could have been one of his songs playing for their first slow dance, it may have been watching reruns of his Gambler flicks or catching his Christmas special with Dolly Parton each holiday season, or maybe it was just  a real tasty piece of fried chicken. For me, Rogers' songs are forever linked to Brenda Labelle.

In perhaps his most famed tune he ssings of finding an “ace that I could keep” left behind  as a gift from somebody who's passed on. Mom left me that ace in the form of a 1980 cassette tape called Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits. It was one of the few she owned and playing it now is like a journey back in time. There she is humming along to “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” while washing up the dishes. I can clearly hear her belting out “Every Time Two Fools Collide” over the whir of the vacuum clearer.

Yeah, mom liked to sing while cleaning the house.

I knew it was going to be an emotion experience seeing Rogers perform on his Ottawa stop during his farewell tour. It was the Gambler’s Last Deal, a chance to say goodbye, but his music always makes me say hello again. As the years pass certain things fade out of view but, in some ways, Kenny Rogers gives my mother’s voice back to me. Through his songs I hear her again.

So, yeah, emotional night? You damn well better believe it.

Though packing a full house, the bulk of the crowd initially reacted like a stalled car on a cold night. They needed a jolt from some jumper cables to turn that engine over, something not lost to Rogers who playful chastised the audience for a lackluster singalong to the show’s opener, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”.

“First thing, that is the worst any group has ever sung that. We just came back from China. They don’t even speak English in China and they sang it better than you.”

Though evident in a voice that is showing signs of age and wear and tear from thousands of performances, the 78-year-old musician was quick to  make light of his noticeable limp by acknowledging the damaged chassis in typical Rogers fashion.

“I recently had a knee replacement and I think went and replaced the wrong damn knee,” he quipped, explaining why he would be doing most of the show sitting down. He assured the crowd that if he stood up “you bet your ass it’s going to be important.”

The show continued as a near chronological trip through a career that began when a teenage Kenneth Rogers had a minor hit with a 1958 single called “That Crazy Feeling”. He was told to change his name early on, something he didn’t quite agree with until one night on Houston’s American Bandstand the more teen idol sounding "Kenny" received wild screams from the girls in attendance.

“I can live with that,” Rogers said with a smile.

Mostly known for his later country hits and syrupy sweet ballads, Rogers early work moved from teen dream rock to jazz and a foray into psychedelic rock with his band The First Edition. Though many these days discovered the group byway of a famous scene in The Big Labowski which used their chart topping hit "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), the band ushered in Rogers' first big wave of popularity and helped pioneer the merging of rock and country. Rogers would tell the crowd of fond memories he had playing the CNE and of how the band actually had a television show for a short time based out of Toronto.

“You have always treated us so nice here. For years they thought I was Canadian, eh!” he said with a chuckle before unloading a triple shot of First Edition cuts including the controversial for its time “Something’s Burning”.

Perhaps realizing the lesser known songs would elicit quick dashes towards the beer tents, Rogers interspersed the flashback set with his best known hits beginning early on with a touching medley of ballads “Through the Years”, “You Decorated My Life” and “She Believes in Me”.

Often times the show played out like an intimate, living room chat with the musician telling stories of his long career accentuated by video clips on the screen from his various television shows, movies and concerts. The crowd was even treated to a performance of "We Are The World", the USA For Africa song penned by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. Rogers took part in for the recording  which featured a who's who of music back in 1985.

“I can honestly tell you that was one of the most humbling experiences in my life walking into that room with all that talent. It was life-changing for a lot of us.”

This got a bit of a vocal rise from the crowd but things weren’t catching fire just yet. It was clear the Gambler was all in even if the crowd would need a few more tunes before they caught up. I couldn't help but smile, though, thinking how mom would be emphatically joining in through most of these as though she were one of the many women Rogers has sung duets with over the years.

While the audience wasn’t expecting Dolly, Sheena or Kim Carnes to strut out on stage, guest Linda Davis was a pleasant surprise filling in the duet gaps nicely and even singing a song or two solo. Moving from one glamorous outfit to the other, she nearly racked all the chips off the Gambler’s table when she performed her tribute to the late Dotti West.

“My grandmother never looked like that,” said Rogers after Davis beamed that she’d love to show the crowd pictures of her grandchildren. He light-heartedly urged her stand further away from centre stage as he voice and beauty were distracting the audience.

Ah, but the Gambler had a few more aces up his sleeve and the crowd was finally in the game when he slapped down his 1977 hit “Lucille”. Rogers appreciated the singing but playfully bantered that the swaying hundred or so people in the platinum seating area looked like a room full of his hero, Ray Charles.

“Coward of the Country”, “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream”, the hits would keep coming. These were songs from a time when country music didn’t need the gloss and glimmer (outside of the occasional rhinestone) that modern day multi-million dollar pyro and dazzle filled concerts have. Rogers showed you just needed a microphone, a voice to sing into it, a neatly pressed suit and a powerful collection of songs. 

As the night drew to a close, Rogers stood up. You knew it was going to be important. When “The Gambler” finally made an appearance in the set, the crowd rose up as well. They still knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and Rogers thanked everybody for 60 years of support before riding off into the proverbial sunset in a blaze of glory.

“Thank you Kenny,” I shouted, joining in on the chorus of appreciation showering down upon the stage. Thanks for the music that made these memories and the songs that found their way onto a well-worn cassette inside my mother’s old stereo. Yeah, she loved Elvis but if she were to have an extra-musical affair it’d have been due to Rogers charming stage presence and songs full of heart.

And, sure, it might have just been the wind brushing lightly against my shoulder all night but…then again…

…in his final words I found…an ace?

No, she was a Queen.