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The Final Night Of Taylor Swifts' "Speak Now" Tour At Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011, Reviewed

Standing on a platform in the middle of the Arena, Taylor Swift looked genuinely amazed. A young girl in the cheap seats randomly began to chant "Taylor, Taylor" and slowly but surely 14,000 young girls joined in, as if  Swift was Derek Jeter and she had just hit a home run and won the game. This wasn't part of the plan. Swift has been doing this for years now, getting the response she wants at the moment she wants it, she knows where the cheers should coax and how to coax them out: stopping dead in the middle of a song, staring out at the seats her eyes wide like saucer, or just a smile projected on the screens surrounding her.

But tonight's spontaneous outburst has taken Swift by surprise and it takes her a moment to regroup and it reminds you that despite the choreographed nature of the proceedings, what is going on is very real indeed. When Taylor gets back on script her words sound truer than ever: "I have the best fans in the world. You know ever word to every song, it is amazing, amazing…" Taylor nodded her head in pleasure and the audience screamed again, and if it was planned that doesn't mean the screams were feigned.  Taylor nodded her head and played the opening chords of "You Belong To Me", as if we've been transported back to the bedroom Taylor wrote them in. Later in the evening she would claim "Magic happens at Madison Square Garden. But this was the other garden variety Taylor excels at.

This is the 80th and last night of Taylor Swift's "Speak Now"  tour and you might have expected atrophy to have set in; by the time I caught up with the "Fearless" tour at the Prudential Center, last year in May,  the show was a series of tics and traditions. I wrote "She is one long, endless, pause. Eyes wide. Look of joy and happiness plastered on her face. So moving three years ago. Such a bore in 2010. It’s not that I doubt her sincerity. Not at all. I’m guessing she is insincere. " Got called a hater for that comment. On Tuesday night, Swift had learnt how to underplay her hand, how to let her fans in on the act, and it worked much better.

Everything worked much better.

Someone had the bright idea of having guest stars join her at every stop, Akon in Atlanta, Justin Bieber, just last night Darius Rucker. It's a good idea, the star comes out and plays one of their hits, a song Taylor loves, and it brings freshness to the set every night,. We get Selena Gomez and THE PERSON TAYLOR WAS NAMED AFTER  (more about that later)! .The piano medley based around "Back to December" is truncated, and the pace is picked up because there is so much to get through. Taylor is always a chatterbox, she is like the Springsteen of pop, but even by her standards she is being chatty so the musical pace has been picked up.

Otherwise, this is the set Taylor has been shopping around all year. Very, very heavy on Speak Now, much less so on Fearless, where "Forever And Always" fails to make an appearance. And her eponymous debut gets exactly one nod:, "Our Song". She performs three different ways:  video come to live , full band, solo turn, and she mixes them up so we can get close and distanced almost at the same time.

The standard opener "Sparks Fly" was followed as always by "Mine". There is nothing wrong with the performances, but nothing right with them either, and yet, there is something in the air and Taylor explains it. After months and months on the road, this is the last night and therefore very memorable ( a variation on her usual speech).. I have seen several last nights on tours, Springsteen, My Chemical Romance, Maroon 5, and it does tend to be a memorable night. It is like the moemnt you've finished your last exam in the school year, and something we working stiffs don't get much of any more. After months and months on the road, one last night with these friends in the band and these fans, and you are on your way home and the holidays have begun. Every last reservoire of energy can be used: Taylor explained how before the tour, they chose the venues where the audience were craziest and for the last night, they chose the craziest place of them all.

I totally doubt Taylor's sincerity and I may be wrong, if the audiences are this crazed in other cities, it must be constant pandemonium.The audience were the 5th Beatle Tuesday night.  Lady Gaga's fans treat her like a very cool maiden Aunt, sticking up for them when their parents just don't understand.  Katy Perry's fans treat her like a big sister, testing the adult world's waters for them. Swift is a mix of sister, role model and best friend forever; if you watch it up close there is no doubting this and there is no doubting the real bond between audience artist. This is partially due to Social media, which gives everybody a sense of community which didn't exist even as late as the start of Taylors' career.

But also, Lady Gaga embraces the misfits and Perry the bad girl; Taylor, despite the ugly gangly, girl who doesn't get the boy to the end of the picture, Taylor's fans are the mainstream, average, normal teenage girl. The thing is, I don't entirely approve of two things.

1. Taylor, a self-proclaimed "hopeless romantic", offers romantic daydreams that are at odds with the realistic romance the fans can expect in the real world. I am all for daydreaming, but at some point some aspects of reality need to be brought in. If you are told not to settle and then either a) are forced to settle or b) hold unrealistic standards, you feel like a failure when you're not.

2) The Swift machine is a manufactured behemoth selling everything that moves. I am all for capitalism but again, this BFF is out for your money uber alles. What you are really getting is best shown in this pix, taken in MSG's lobby. A cardboard cut out.

 

Third song "Story Of Us", costume change, then  "Our Song" with a wobbly choreographed hoedown. Taylor mentioned she had two left feet in her 60 Minutes interview on Sunday and she is so tall, Taylor can seem to have lost her center of gravity. It effects all the dancing and none of it is that good. "Mean", which I didn't like on the album, is straightforward and very enjoyable live. Maybe the sets best song. Then a couple of numbers  on piano.

An hour in, Taylor and cast act out "Speak Now" (you know, where she stops a wedding and steals the guy) opening  with the entire audience doing a double finger snap and ending  with her running off stage with the groom, before walking through the auditorium, hugging and handslapping her fans. A ritual at her concerts, and even with two burly bodyguards before and after her, a risky proposition.

At the mid-floor platform, Taylor performed a couple of songs including a bewildering singalong to "Last Kiss". Is that all these kids do,  memorize her songs? Taylor wonders the same thing.. She begins "You Belong To Me" mid-arena and walks back down the other aisle like a politician the day before the election, I'm sure if there were babies there, she'd be kissing them. Meanwhile, the band vamps.

Her band, who have been with her for years, are what they are: anonymous figures, who, given the chance to shine during a guitar solo at the end of "Better Than Revenge" fail to.

 The songs are never really country any more, indeed only the first album was really country. The songs are now there for two reasons, to work as songs and to be made into videos and performed in arenas. On Speak Now they were oversized. and overcooked -they went on too long. But on stage, on an arena level, they are scaled back down to size. On Taylor's next album she should work on that, arrange downwards, streamlining things.She can build it up on stage through dynamics. In pop music, at least Taylor's type of songs, nothing can beeat a three minute pop song. If it is a hit, an audience will appreciate it being extended. Any way, even if  the days when a fiddle opens a song (as it does on "Our Song") is gone never to return, she can still get more with less.

Selena Gomez, Taylor's best friend for the past four years apparently, hits the stage for a rousing "Who Said" (another weirdly off girl power track but a catchy one) and a couple of songs later Taylor dedicates the last song of the set TO ME… well, us, the fans,, "Long Live" and mentioned that the AMA (she won best performer) was voted by us..

For the encore, Taylor sat on a sofa and openedwith the newly released "Ours" -a really great song that should've been on the album proper instead of hiding for a year on the "Target Only" deluxe.  It is what she does best, a high melodic quota folky-pop veering towards rock-pop and back with a superb aural hook, "Don't you worry your pretty little mind, people throw rocks at things that shine". Throughout the concert, her best songs are her driest, her least arranged. There is a reason why Swift (incidentally, like Noel Gallagher) could play a huge chunk of her ouerve acoustic with little loss of quality.

Taylor ends with "Love Story" and before that joins her audience with "15". there is a guest guitarist playing with her on that number. He had come on a song earlier, after Taylor Swift told a story about hating band practice in High School, except for a song they played every week and waiting all week just to hear that song. "That's strange," her Mom replied, "You were sorta named after the guy who wrote it." And out walks James Taylor. He kisses the other Taylors hand and they sing "Fire And Rain" together. The fans, who I didn't think would even know him, gave him a rapturous welcome.

Look at it this way: Taylor can't act, can't dance. isn't much of a singer though she's getting better. But she is also one of the greatest songwriters of her generation, and a deeply empathic young lwoman whose compassion and insight into teenage girls emotional life is without peer. During the 60 minute interview Taylor said, I paraphrase, that early success meant she would spend her career maintaining it. That's youth speaking. She will spend her career, and life, in the ebb and flow of chance and skill. But without a doubt she will be considered a legendary figure in popular music. I feel fortunate to have seen her so many times so early.

Grade: A

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