by Bill Paddack
For anyone who might try to quibble and suggest that Saturday night’s country concert at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock wasn’t really all that country, that Rascal Flatts was great but more Elton John than Merle Haggard, that opening act Hunter Hayes was handsome and talented and all that, but in a black T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and red belt he, um, didn’t remind them of George Strait, we have two words: Sara Evans.
Sorely missed from the top of the country charts for a few years, Evans returned with a new album in 2011 with plenty of great tracks, but it was her 2004 up-tempo anthem to, as she puts it, “a rotten teenage girl who falls in love with a redneck boy” — that would be “Suds in the Bucket” — that guaranteed none of the 10,417 fans in attendance left without their minimum daily requirement of traditional country.
The girl, of course, runs off with her guy, the big voice in six-inch heels delights the crowd and the evening’s a success long before the headlining act comes out. Evans has a way with a country song — well, she ought to; she’s been on stage since she was four — and with her powerful voice, she doesn’t have to do much more than stroll around in those heels and skin-tight pants, smile, wave and sing her heart out.
She covered Rod Stewart (“My Heart Can’t Tell You No”), showcased a song (“A Little Bit Stronger”) sent her way by Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and displayed her versatility with hits ranging from “Coalmine” to “I Could Not Ask for More.” But Evans absolutely soared on the song many still consider to be her best, “Born to Fly,” which asks, among other things, “But how do you wait for heaven? And who has that much time?”
Evans provided enough country — pop-flavored as it may be at times — to satisfy that need and let us also enjoy the rest of the night as Rascal Flatts rocked the place out. The guys paid tribute to their musical influences with Jay DeMarcus pounding out Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Joe Don Rooney covering Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “If the House Is a Rockin’” and Gary LeVox offering up Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” (Ever heard Strait sing one of these in concert? We’re just sayin’ ...)
Lest we forget, Rascal Flatts has been a huge force in what sells as country music these days, the group is a new member of the Grand Ol’ Opry and the first single off the new album is a tune called “Banjo.” So there. And even though the guys offered up rousing versions of big hits like “Bless the Broken Road,” “What Hurts Most” and “Why Wait,” the Verizon crowd loved just about whatever they did.
That included coming back a little after 11 to encore with the well-received “I Won’t Let Go” and “He Ain’t the Leavin’ Kind.”
Hayes opened with a nice five-song set — highlighted by “Storm Warning,” his first song on the charts — that left us wanting more.