Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift's life has been something of a fairy tale.
Partly raised on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, she moved with her family to Nashville when she was 14 so she could pursue her dreams of a music career. Just two years later, at the age most kids are getting their first job, she released her self-titled debut album and promptly saw it shoot to the top of the charts as did her two follow-ups, 2008's Fearless and last year's Speak Now.
Her sold out concert Sunday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis before a crowd of over 13,000 shows that fans want to keep that fairy tale going. Though Swift is 21 now, her base remains young girls, tweens for the most part, who are eager to gobble up her adolescent musical vision of princesses and first loves.
Not to mention all the accessories that go with it. Besides the usual concert merchandise, Cover Girl, for whom Swift is a spokesperson, had a makeover station on the arena concourse, and towards the end of the night samples of the singer's new fragrance, Wonderstruck, were being distributed.
But even the whiff of commercialism could not stink up the fantasy world Swift constructed on stage. The set looked liked something a Disney animator might dream up; a huge intricate backdrop of swirling golden staircases framed by red drapes. But it was also much more. In one of the more ambitious and impressive stage productions in recent memory -- reportedly the brainchild of Swift herself -- the set was constantly moving and transforming, giving each song of the two-hour show its own look and feel.
The effect was more like watching a string of videos that a live concert. The rousing show starter "Sparks Fly" built to a trio of aerialists dropping out of the ceiling shooting sparkles before disappearing into the floor. The scene turned chilly when confetti "snow" blanketed the arena as Swift rose up out of the stage at a white piano for the melancholic "Back To December."
She worked her way to a satellite stage in the back of the arena -- stopping for long periods to greet fans -- for an "acoustic" set that included a ukulele version of "Fearless." And for those at FedEx Forum's who had not yet had their up-close time with her, for the night closing rendition of "Love Story" Swift sang from a floating balcony that flew her to the upper levels.
It's hard to say whether the dazzling visuals enhanced or detracted from the music, which in itself could either be a blessing or a curse. It's clear that Swift, who writes all her own material, is a talented songwriter.
But as a performer, she's spotty. After seeing some of her frankly disastrous awards show appearances, I was expecting the worse. However, she came through. Despite suffering recently from a bout of bronchitis -- during the acoustic set she had one brief coughing fit before launching into a version of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River" -- she acquitted herself reasonably well, though high notes like at the climax on "The Story of Us" still may not be her thing.
Such imperfections may just endear her all the more to her audience, who seem to revel in her willingness to show vulnerability. But if Swift is going to progress beyond fairy tales and dollhouses, she's going to need to find her mature voice
Among the openers for Swift this night was South Carolina rock band Needtobreathe. Lead singer Bear Rinehart spoke rapturously about the city and his first visit to Sun Studio as the band cranked out rootsy arena rock off of their recent Top 10 release The Reckoning.
The other opening act, Kennett, Mo., singer-songwriter David Nail, also brought a personal touch to his brief, stripped-down set featuring just acoustic guitar, keyboards, and drums. Nail, whose sophomore record The Sound of a Million Dreams is due Nov. 15, dedicated his affecting, churchy hit “Turning Home” to his wife, Memphis native Catherine Werne.