How, exactly, do you celebrate your 40th birthday when you’re a musical icon whose 20-year-plus career leaps from hard-partying hip-hop to hard-rocking arena pomp, shit-kicking outlaw country revivalism to Soccer Mom-approved radio ballads? When you’ve danced the line between tabloid-fodder rock excess and humble, working class everyman?
Well, if you’re Kid Rock, you throw a boozed-up party for yourself at the biggest arena in the oft-beaten but never-bowed city that launched your career, Detroit. And you do whatever the hell you want — with all the bombast, fun, humility, ego, guest stars, and mixed-up eclecticism that has defined your career.
On Saturday night, the city’s beloved Red Wings were playing at home and the annual Auto Show was kicking off. But the city’s gravitational center was Ford Field as 50,000 well-lubricated celebrants lined up in the freezing cold to usher their own into middle age.
Rock let it all hang out over his three-hour, star-studded greatest hits set that was equal parts stadium rock vaudeville, homecoming, and “cuz I can” attitude.
From the opening 10-minute video montage of Kid’s life and career — starting humbly enough with the title card “On Jan. 17, 1971, Jesus was Born” (with a cheeky “Rock and Roll” modifier eventually added) — it was clear that this was no ordinary Rock show. The unifying thread? Rock’s cat-that-ate-the-canary grin and boundless stage presence, fed by the crowd’s tipsy energy. Rock was MC, star, and roast recipient from the get-go and he paused frequently throughout the evening to express his gratitude for the audience, his home state of Michigan, his parents, his friends, and pretty much anyone who’s crossed his path in the last two decades.
“This is a hard-working town, with hard-working people. And we’re so thankful you spent your hard-earned money to be here tonight. There’s no place on Earth I’d rather be tonight.”
The show kicked off (why not?) with a run through the Beatles’ “Birthday” by Rock and his 10-piece Twisted Brown Trucker Band, on a stage flanked by two sets of strippers dancing on risers and massive video screens.
The first half hour was like being on the deck of an aircraft carrier with the noise of two jet engines battling — the band giving as hard as the fans.
The litany of Rock’s hits got the full treatment, including “Cowboy” (with a mid-song foray into the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme — because, why not?), “Devil Without a Cause,” “American Badass,” “All Summer Long” and more. But Rock made sure to let the crowd know the full scope of his roots, too. He emerged late in the set to run through his early hip-hop jams “Yo-Da-Lin in Tha Valley” and “Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp.” And, as befitting a party, the guests kept things lively. Early appearances included Martina McBride duetting on the ballad “Care” (complete with a video verse from jailbird rapper T.I.) and Uncle Kracker.
Other guest highlights included Run-DMC’s Rev Run, who worked the crowd masterfully on “King of Rock,” as Rock ably held down his rhymes, and on “Walk This Way,” during which Kid deftly switched from DMC to Steven Tyler.
Sheryl Crow turned up to duet on the country-tinged breakup ballad “Picture.” The two giggled, whispered in each others’ ear and lightly brushed hands like middle school kids at a dance. Their mini-set went from sublime to silly as the pair rocked a karaoke-bar-style take on Free’s “All Right Now” that wouldn’t have been out of place at any of the bars Kid’s fans usually crowd on a Saturday night in suburban Detroit.
Not every guest fared as well. Rock introduced a cover of J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” honoring the band’s frequent and legendary stints at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. The crowd ate it up until Geils’ wiry frontman Peter Wolf ran the band through “Detroit Breakdown” — his showmanship and enthusiasm a bit lost on the Rock-adoring masses.
Civic pride took center stage twice: First as Charles Pugh — president of the oft-embatled Detroit City Council — presented Rock with the Spirit of Detroit Award. Later, Rock opened up his philanthropic coffers, giving stage and screen time to four local charities to which he donated $25,000 each from the night’s take.
The massive video screens on each side of the stage were put to good use throughout the night, showing video birthday greetings from late night luminaries Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and others, as well as NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, who used his time to bestow upon Rock a custom Chevy Camaro SS parked mid-field behind the soundboard. Beavis & Butthead even appeared to introduce his massive hit “Bawitdaba.”
The clear winner in the greeting wars was O’Brien. He called Rock a hero and even quoted his hit “Cowboy,” praising him for “starting an escort service for all the right reasons.” Leno, typically, read the room wrong, dropping a tired “you still live dangerously. You’re spending your birthday in Detroit.” Fail.
Detroit R&B star Anita Baker cued up the Patriotic end of the evening by singing the national anthem before Rock capped it all off with a speech equal parts chest-thumping and heartfelt, reiterating a motif of the evening: How very fortunate he felt to be where he is, doing what he’s doing, and loving each and every one of us. Then he sent the crowd off into the frigid night with a pumping version of his recent hit, “Born Free.”
Exhausting, exhaustive, and the cause of many a Sunday morning hangover throughout Detroit, Kid Rock’s celebration honored place, pride, and partying as only he can manage.