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One artist, one stage, one guitar: Taylor Swift rocks JPJ

Pop-country star shines brightest digging into sweet, innocent roots

Sprinkled throughout the crowd of 14,000 screaming Taylor Swift fans were illuminated signs covered in various combinations of glitter, Christmas lights and beloved lyrics. While some college students may have felt a little too old among the predominantly preteen crowd, they could find some solace in the woman with a homemade shirt imprinted, “I may be 42, but I feel 22.”

This is just a glimpse into the enchanting atmosphere Taylor Swift brought to John Paul Jones Arena Saturday night after selling out the venue and being deemed the highest grossing country artist to ever play in the stadium. Though the spotlight on Swift was overwhelmingly bright, she was not the only shining star on the stage. Her opening acts Casey James, from American Idol’s Season 9, and Ed Sheeran, up-and-coming English singer-songwriter, out-performed the Grammy award-winning country-pop artist, at least on certain levels.

James jumped on stage first with a type of boundless energy not always present in an opening act. James succeeded in setting the tone of the show with spunk and heart as he smoothly moved along the stage — contagious smile wide as can be — and instructed the audience to come on the journey with him. As he sang “Crying on A Suitcase” with cell phones and glowsticks in the audience swaying, it became clear that this little-known American rock-country singer could become the next big thing. Keep your eyes peeled.

Ed Sheeran, on the other hand, needs no introduction. After his hits “A-Team” and “Lego House” took radio stations by storm, few would not be able to recognize the lyrics he crooned over the JPJ sound system in only a dark green t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and a guitar. Despite his massive hits grabbing most of the attention, I found Sheeran’s lesser-known songs the most tantalizing. Once he started beatboxing and chiming off fast lyrics — which I hesitate to call rap because it was far too appealing to the ear — few could keep up with the sing-along. Later in the set he encouraged the fans to sing — or for the tone deaf among us, chant — along to “Be My Husband” singing, “Oh Daddy, now now, love me good.” I suggest you check him out — whenever one guy with just one guitar can briefly turn one stage into my whole world, I know I’m witnessing musical greatness.

Following Sheeran’s mastery, Taylor Swift literally took over the entire stadium, using all the space that Sheeran left empty to fill with her fantastic props, dancers and show stunts. Swift set the scene with the first track from her new album, “State of Grace,” giving the audience the overarching theme of her entire body of work as she sang, “This is a state of grace/This is the worthwhile fight/Love is a ruthless game/Unless you play it good and right.” For Swift, love is a game and her songs are expressions of whether she wins or loses.

The theatrics of the performance, however, were on par with the musical and lyrical performance. Everything I’ve ever heard about a Taylor Swift concert is true — she loves being on stage, being looked at and admired for her music, but she is also whimsical, fun and, despite all the hype, a talented musician and performer.

The show’s “Red” theme kept the mood bright and bold as she sang the title’s namesake in her sparkling red, Wizard of Oz inspired shoes. The atmosphere extended to her dancers as they performed their first stunt, flying in the air on blinking red drums during the ironic, “Holy Ground” (get it – they weren’t on the “ground”). Swift soon returned to her roots, however, coming back to earth for an oldie but goodie, “You Belong with Me,” returning memories of the young girl who once opened for Rascal Flatts. Watching Swift sit and sing her heart-aching ballad “Last Kiss” front and center on a three-legged stool brought back other memories of sitting in my room listening to the honest words of Swift’s, as she called it, “musical diary.” In these, albeit rare, moments of Swift stripped raw to her emotions, it’s easy to remember how this star came to be — literally through the “Teardrops on [Her] Guitar,” which, sadly, was not on the set list.

But Swift simply could not help ending her performance without an over-the-top circus theme performance. As the shrill lines of “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together” blared from the speakers, Swift’s journey could be viewed in a new light. She is still the girl who writes from her heart, but just has a different vision of herself these days — a dancing, flashy, contemporary artist. Whether you like this direction is up to you, but it is inspiring to watch her as she digs into her true country roots. I will always admire that girl with a sweet disposition, a desire for true love and a guitar by her side.