by Bill Paddack
Lately country music is many things.
Clean-cut traditionalist George Strait can still, after more than 30 years, send a single to the top of the charts. And Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, though differing in styles, both can pack an arena. But more and more, it’s a world that belongs to country-pop queen Taylor Swift and her shaggy-haired male counterparts that populate the many so-called country groups.
Halfway through 2012, Central Arkansas has already seen the likes of Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, the Zac Brown Band, Sara Evans, Chris Young and Alison Krauss. But perhaps no show this year illustrates the current state of country music as well as Wednesday night’s triple bill of Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker and Thompson Square at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.
(Read the rest after the jump, plus more photos from Brian Chilson.)
The sweet sounds of Lady A are certainly pleasant and have earned the threesome a large following and a boatload of awards. I remember reading a review a few months back that claimed Lady Antebellum is the band for people who think Taylor Swift is just too darn country. That pretty much sums up how we feel. Their show just seemed very slick; a bit too calculated. But, hey, obviously that wasn’t a problem for most of the crowd of 9,278.
Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott share lead vocalist duties and are joined by Dave Haywood – who’s proficient at a variety of instruments – and are backed by a talented band. The latter was highlighted by a buzz-cut, bearded guy named Chris Tyrell who is one heck of a drummer and who, we learned, just happens to be married to Scott.
Kelley, Scott (the daughter of country music artist Linda Davis) and Haywood harmonize well on songs like their first No. 1 hit, “I Run to You,” and Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” And Kelley uses his soulful voice to help the trio soar on numbers like “Love’s Lookin’ Good on You.” They performed on a gigantic stage (the final setup of which, we assume, was what brought a 45-minute interim between Rucker and Lady A) that featured a lengthy catwalk and allowed them close exposure to the audience. That was handy since they taped this stop on their Own the Night 2012 World Tour.
A highlight of their hour-and-a-half set was when they brought Rucker and Thompson Square back out for short covers of songs like the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” (You weren’t really expecting them to cover traditional country, were you?) And we enjoyed their encore performance of the terrific heartbreaker “Need You Now.”
Former rock star Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish fame has recycled his musical career as a just-plain-fun solo act. Country radio tends, after all, to be very friendly to both past pop-rock performers like himself and rock-star wannabes like Sugarland (ugh) – often at the expense of the more traditional sound.
But don’t get us wrong. We’re not quibbling a bit with Rucker. In fact, we love him. His energy and showmanship — along with his powerful, flexible voice — delight from beginning to end. And it was left up to him to actually bring a bit of country to this country concert. His cover of the Hank Williams Jr. classic “Family Tradition” was certainly a highlight of the show, just like it was when he was previously in concert here with Brad Paisley. Ditto his version of the Steve Miller Band’s huge hit “The Joker.”
But he also shined on the tunes that have brought him his most success on the country charts – “It Won’t Be Like This for Long,” “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright” – and that, um, not-so-country classic, “Purple Rain.”
Husband and wife Keifer and Shawna Thompson of Thompson Square, the opening act, brought their own unique look and their version of a rock-infused sound. Fresh off winning Duo of the Year in the recent Academy of Country Music awards, he was sporting his trademark newsboy cap while she stood out in a little black tutu skirt. They also push the envelope a bit with loud, edgy numbers that at times tend to overshadow the lyrics. Their “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” is a great song that – along with tunes like “I Got You” and “Getaway Car” – like it or not seems to epitomize what passes for mainstream country these days.