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Not folding, Kenny Rogers is a gambler holding on

It's jarring to see and hear what condition Kenny Rogers' condition is in these days.

Rogers, 78, knows it, joking Sunday to a capacity Ruth Eckerd Hall crowd about surgery that "replaced the wrong damn knee," after limping on stage for his opening number, the one with the lyric: "Yes, it's true that I'm not the man I used to be."

Yet only a two-timer like Ruby wouldn't still enjoy Rogers' company.

The bum knee keeps the Country Music Hall of Famer sitting through many of his hits on a farewell tour dubbed The Gambler's Last Deal. Sunday's matinee followed Saturday night's show in Fort Pierce, which may explain Rogers' occasional shortness of breath and lyric memory.

None of this mattered to a crowd of empathetic baby boomers and beyond, who grew up and old to Rogers' romantic ballads and three-minute myths. Behind him, a trio of video screens flashed nostalgia, face-checking Rogers' partners in 20th century celebrity, from being introduced by Ed Sullivan to hosting the Tonight Show.

Skimming a 60-year career in barely 100 minutes, Rogers tapped the expected peaks after an early valley. Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town led to chat about early work, letting a recording of 1958's That Crazy Feeling sing for itself. The chestnut Walkin' My Baby Back Home isn't what fans expect to hear Rogers sing, or poised and perky Linda Davis soloing on It's Only a Paper Moon.

"I see too many people yawning," Rogers said, taking the hint and a turn to the songs making Rogers one of the more successful recording artists ever.

Rogers described his ballads as what women wish they could hear and men wish they could say. Consider titles like You Decorated My Life and She Believes in Me. Or the beer can sexuality Mac Davis wrote into Something's Burning. Backed by his longtime tour band Bloodline, Rogers sang with conviction if not always with stamina.

The hits kept coming. Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) offered one of Rogers' cleaner vocals and an amusing dissection of Mickey Newbury's lyrics. Rogers picked a fine time to unleash Lucille. A portion was dedicated to Rogers' singing partnership with Dottie West, including sharing Every Time Two Fools Collide with her video image, a la Natalie and Nat King Cole.

West was then subbed by Davis — the mother of Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott — for Anyone Who Isn't Me Tonight and a solo turn on Fool Hearted Man. Davis' voice and animated presence made Rogers' limitations even clearer, an inevitability accepted with head shake humor.

Two of Rogers' acting endeavors inspired clips backed with songs: the TV movie title song Coward of the County and Love Will Turn You Around from the stock car comedy Six Pack. Davis returned in Sheena Easton mode to duet on Bob Seger's We've Got Tonight and knocked out Daytime Friends and Nighttime Lovers for good measure.

Rogers earned a second standing ovation since his intro for The Gambler, then a slow-dancing ovation by a just-engaged couple in the second row for Lady. They grabbed one of the tambourines Rogers handed out for Islands in the Stream, which would be an encore except as Rogers pointed out, when he gets to the wings these days he's staying there.

Another video compilation of celebrity pals set to You Can't Make Old Friends and a Blaze of Glory finale later, Rogers headed that way. Don't worry, he's booked in the United States and overseas into 2018. Kenny Rogers is well aware that it's time to fold 'em. He's just holding as long as he can.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

Not folding, Kenny Rogers is a gambler holding on 01/22/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2017 1:51pm]
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