Category Archives: Concert Reviews

Concert Review: George Strait and Martina McBride

GeorgeStraitConcertPicThis review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.

It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.

And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.

History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.

Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.

McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.

But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.

If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing

his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.

“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.

He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.

Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.

Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.

“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.

The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.

The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.

When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.

Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.

And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.

Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.

Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.

In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.

George Strait’s set list:

“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Drinkin’ Man”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Arkansas Dave”
“Jackson”
“Golden Ring”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“The Chair”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Troubadour”
“Unwound”

Encore:
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”

 

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Concert Review: Carrie Underwood with Hunter Hayes

Carrie Underwood with Hunter Hayes
The Blown Away Tour
Prudential Center
Newark, NJ
December 1, 2012

There’s a desirable sweet spot in every big performer’s career where they finally have a large number of hits to fill out a two-hour show, a compelling enough current album to sustain audience interest between the hits, and the appropriate level of earned confidence to take some bold risks in staging and presentation.

Carrie Underwood just hit that sweet spot.  Her Blown Away Tour hit Newark on Saturday, playing to an arena packed with fans of all ages.  It’s an arena show, too, filled with pyrotechnics and

special effects and a backing band that shook the cheap seats on the more rocking numbers.  Opening with “Good Girl”, Underwood tore through an opening section which included a healthy mix of hits from all four of her studio albums.

But the show didn’t hit its stride until the second section, when she surprised the audience with the appearance of a choir from local elementary school P.S. 22.   They supported her in a touching rendition of “So Small” that lived up to its name, stripping the bombast from the studio recording and letting the lyric shine over the sweet harmonies that only bewilderingly talented tots can produce in unison.    The arena felt as intimate as a sitting room as she sang “Temporary Home”, which seemed to have her on the verge of tears by the third verse.

After a few more hits, the show peaked with an ingenious third act that had Underwood floating above the audience on a moving platform.   Why was it ingenious?  It solved a few arena show dilemmas at once, keeping the entire audience riveted while the artist sang unfamiliar album cuts.   At the point of the set list usually designed for bathroom breaks, Underwood had the entire arena on their feet, cheekily waving to and interacting with the audience members all around her, and even those directly under her.  These are the benefits of a clear plexiglass floor, you see.

At times, the staging was a bit too ambitious.  The video screens that were used so effectively for visual songs like “Two Black Cadillacs” were a glaring distraction for much of the show, with random patterns that looked more like late nineties Windows screen savers than anything else.  Transitional interludes featured some interesting animation, but it was interrupted by glamour shots of Underwood, as if they were afraid we’d forget about her while she was changing costumes backstage.   But the opening and closing projections centered around “Blown Away” were executed brilliantly, among the best I’ve seen in an arena show.

Vocally, Underwood was nearly flawless, never missing a note but occasionally losing her breath while she enthusiastically engaged the audience.  At times, she seemed a little overwhelmed by her band, most notably during a painfully loud cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”  When the arrangements were slower or simpler, with her voice accompanied by only a handful of instruments, she sounded better than I’ve ever heard a powerhouse vocalist sound in concert.

When you combine her precision with the very few liberties the band took with the studio arrangements, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an actual studio recording.  She really is that good.  She somehow elevated the fan favorite “I Know You Won’t” to staggering new heights, and that’s a song that seemed superhuman even as a studio recording.  I repeat, she really is that good.  But most impressive was when she revisited older tracks like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Wasted”, and actually improved on them, showing how much she has grown in interpretive skill and vocal nuance since the beginning of her career.

Those hits from the first album, along with the pre-encore closer “Before He Cheats”, where absolutely the biggest crowd-pleasers, giving anecdotal evidence to the theory that Underwood’s greatest competition has been herself.  Those early hits have overshadowed everything she’s done since, successful as she’s been.  But I discovered something when she closed the show with “Blown Away.”  The audience roared at the opening notes, after having been teased mercilessly with clips from the video all night.   There was more energy and excitement during that performance than at any other moment.  It’s her first career record in years.

Underwood was classy and thoroughly charming throughout.  That light shines through even when her material’s at its darkest.   It was a minor annoyance for me that I was surrounded by tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings that stood for the whole show and sang along with far too many songs.   But seeing a whole row of those tweens in Carrie Underwood t-shirts, clearly at their first big concert and hanging on every word that their idol sang, I was struck with a deep appreciation for this artist.   I’ve always been grateful that she respected the genre’s traditions and institutions, but I’m always worried about preserving the genre’s past.  She’s also securing its future, as perhaps the only artist in country music history who can pack an arena that is equal parts tween, young adult, and the rest of us.  In that sense, she just might be the most significant country artist of her time, in addition to being the flat-out best singer.

I missed the first couple of songs by opening act Hunter Hayes, but judging by the piercing adolescent screams that permeated the arena, he won’t be an opening act for much longer.  I must say that he’s remarkably talented.  I expected the country arrangements and the solid vocals, but his prowess with both the guitar and the piano took me by surprise.  He’s somewhere between Keith Urban without the gravitas and Gary LeVox without the nasal drip.   Hopefully, he’ll keep honing his songwriting skills and his audience will stick around as he develops.  He’s got more promise than most of his contemporaries.

Carrie Underwood Set list:

Good Girl
Undo It
Wasted
I Told You So
Two Black Cadillacs
Last Name
So Small (with P.S. 22 Student Choir)
Temporary Home
Jesus, Take the Wheel
Cowboy Casanova
Get Out of This Town
Nobody Ever Told You
Thank God for Hometowns
Crazy Dreams
Do You Think About Me
One Way Ticket
Flat on the Floor
Leave Love Alone (with Hunter Hayes)
Sweet Emotion
Remind Me (with Brad Paisley via Video Screen)
Cupid’s Got a Shotgun
Before He Cheats
I Know You Won’t
Blown Away

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Concert Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan

Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Grits & Glamour Tour
Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center
Bowling Green, Kentucky
October 13, 2012

This past Saturday night, I had the immense pleasure of seeing two favorite artists of mine – contemporary country legends Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan – perform live in concert at the newly completed Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The SKyPAC is a beautifully decorated 1800-seat venue with excellent acoustics, thus providing an ideal atmosphere for Tillis and Morgan’s fantastic Grits & Glamour show.

The Grits & Glamour tour is all about the fans, and all about great music.  No unnecessary gimmicks, bells, or whistles – just Tillis and Morgan singing their hearts out, joined by a small four-piece band.  Both ladies were in fine voice, boasting some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, as they performed together backed by fiddle, bass, guitar, and keyboard.  Such simplicity created a warm, laid-back, almost familial environment as Tillis and Morgan treated the eager crowd to a selection of best-loved tunes, all the while cutting up like one would expect from a couple of longtime girlfriends, and sharing often-humorous personal anecdotes – such as Tillis’ account of being mistaken for Patty Loveless at a Waffle House, by a fan from Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Google it – It’s a real place)

The bulk of the concert set list consisted of

a selection of well-known hits from both artists, finished off with covers of classic songs that are close to their hearts, as well as some more recent cuts.  The two opened the show with a lovely duet version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”  From that point onward, they alternated between performing Morgan’s hits and Tillis’ hits, beginning with Morgan’s “Watch Me” (performed in a fierce fiddle-laden arrangement quite different from the relative slickness of the 1992 hit version) and Tillis’ “Shake the Sugar Tree.”  Obviously, both ladies have had more than enough hits to fill up an entire set list (Tillis has had 13 Top 10 country hits; Morgan has had 14), but Tillis and Morgan did a fine job covering the main highlights of their careers, such that virtually any audience member could enjoy the thrill of hearing something familiar.  Though the hits dominated the set list, Tillis and Morgan also performed standout cuts from each of their most recent albums.  Tillis performed “Train Without a Whistle” from her 2007 career-best effort Rhinestoned, while Morgan gave a heartrending performance of “How Does It Feel” from 2010’s I Walk Alone

A major facet of what makes Grits & Glamour such a broadly enjoyable show is the way its two headliners simply exude genuine love for great country music new and old.  They commented on the increased scarcity of “real” country music in modern times, but Tillis nonetheless assured the audience that “We got it all – fiddles, steel guitar, mandolins – and we ain’t ever lettin’ go of it!”  Both ladies shared a common experience of growing up with the musical heritage of a famous parent – an experience they recollected with fond enthusiasm - being the daughters of singer-songwriter legend Mel Tillis, and of late Opry star George Morgan, respectively.   One of the night’s most memorable moments was a heartfelt tribute to Tillis and Morgan’s famous fathers, as they eased into a medley of George Morgan’s 1949 signature “Candy Kisses” and Mel Tillis’ classic composition “Burning Memories,” a hit first for Ray Price in 1964, and then for Mel Tillis himself in 1977.  In addition, the ladies also lovingly covered classics such as Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

As the show neared its end, Tillis and Morgan were met with the loudest applause of the night as they treated the audience to performances of their respective signature classics – Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and Morgan’s “Something In Red.”  They then rose to their feet for an inspired performance of gospel song “Jesus On the Line.”  After an encore, they returned to the stage to perform brief snippets of Morgan’s 1993 number one “What Part of No” and Tillis’ 1990 debut hit “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”  Then came one of the biggest highlights of the evening as the two closed out the show by tearing into the rousing up-tempo number “I Know What You Did Last Night” – a new song which is to appear on Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s forthcoming Grits & Glamour duets record.  After the show ended, Tillis and Morgan headed out to the atrium to sign autographs for a crowd of enthusiastic concertgoers.

Needless to say, the Grits & Glamour concert experience was more than enough to whet one’s appetite for the ladies’ soon-to-be-completed duet effort.  The unique chemistry shared between the two outstanding talents was on full display throughout the evening.  If you have the opportunity to catch any of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s future shows on the Grits & Glamour tour, you will be in for a real country music treat.

Set list:

“Both Sides Now”
“Watch Me”
“Shake the Sugar Tree”
“Except for Monday”
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
“A Picture of Me (Without You)”
“Train Without a Whistle”
Medley:  “Candy Kisses”/ “Burning Memories”
“The End of the World”
“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”
“How Does It Feel”
“Spilled Perfume”
“King of the Road”
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
“Something In Red”
“Jesus On the Line”

Encore:

“What Part of No”
“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”
“I Know What You Did Last Night”

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Concert Review: Martina McBride and Trace Adkins

By Guest Contributor Cory DeStein.

Over the river and through the snow to the ‘Shine All Night Tour’ we go…On this particular Saturday night a friend and I traveled through the snow and ice to attend the Martina McBride and Trace Adkins tour stop at the Peterson Event Center, here in Pittsburgh.  This is the third time I have been fortunate enough to experience a Martina tour, along with the ‘Timeless’ and ‘Waking Up Laughing’ tour, and like those performances the country diva did not fail to deliver.

In front of a black back drop Trace kicked off the show, much to the delight of fan club section nestled quite noticeably to the right of the stage, rose onto the stage with his opening number “I Got My Game On” one of the many novelty songs he charmed the audience with throughout his one hour set.

Trace has one hell of a powerful voice, but he sadly didn’t go out of his way to show it throughout the show. He rather focused more on hits like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “Hot Mama,” “Swing,” and “Rough and Ready” along with other similar tunes.  Towards the end of his set, he introduced his recently crowned ACM Song of the Year, “You’re Gonna Miss This.”

Just in case fans had forgotten the true potential he returned to the stage to entertain the enthusiastic crowd with “Muddy Water” and “Higher Ground” joined by a 7 member gospel choir for his encore. The 6 ft something cowboy exited the stage handing his Stetson hat to a young  fan in the front.

Although I was entertained during his set, filled with one liners, and music video clips, I can’t say that I would see Adkins as a headliner in concert. He has much better material than what he sang that night, and never ventured off the beaten path of radio favorites. I would have been just as happy sitting at home watching him on CMT, than venturing out for the live experience. The live excitement was missing.

After a quick bathroom break and a check on the weather, we were back at our center stage row 13th row seats for the main attraction. A techno remix of some of Martina’s biggest hits began to spin. In front of a white sheer scrim a group of young girls, including all three McBride children danced and launched t-shirts and glow sticks into the crowd.

The girls exited the stage just as a techno remix of “Ride”  played and a slowly growing disco ball began growing in the distance. For a moment I felt I may have been at Cher’s farewell show with remixes and color effects. Martina’s seven member band rose from the stage and as the disco ball gained its full size Martina appeared launching into “Ride.”

Without losing momentum they leapt into hits such as “When God-Fearing Women” “Happy Girl” and her first number one,  “Wild Angels”. The four time CMA Female Vocalist’s voice is just as flawless in concert as on record, if not better.  McBride went into one of her oldest hits with “My Baby Loves Me”  straight into her newest “Wrong Baby Wrong” a upbeat tune on good friends and wine.

Martina took a moment to highlight her 7 piece band, with their rendition of “Lean On Me” complete with vocal highlights from the band mates.

For a quick trip back to Timeless,  Martina and her highly talented band mates gathered center stage for a stunning rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It through the Night” followed by her inspiring “Anyway”.

Martina never let the excitement fail with note after note nailed, and the special effects rolling. A highlight of the evening was following the solo of McBride’s new fiddle player on the far left wing of the stage,  on the white scrim that had covered the set a city scene was displayed under the stars.

With the steel guitar in the background the moon rose over the city scene dancing across the sky to the left, as the moon set on the city, McBride rose from the stage sitting in a neon blue crescent moon while serenading the heartbreaking “Concrete Angel.”

The moon flew across the audience and right over my head, reaching a second stage directly behind my seats. Fans rushed the stage for a brief front row seat as Martina introduced an album track that she loves, but claims probably won’t be a single: “I’m Trying.” In classic McBride fashion, she dropped to her knees for the climax of the tale of an alcoholic man and the unrelenting love of his wife. From her mini stage she sang a combined mix of “Loves the Only House” and “Blessed.”

She exited the stage belting out “This Ones For the Girls” as she met with many of the fans on her way back to the stage through the aisles of the venue.

Once back at the main stage and after another album cut “You’re Not Leaving Me”  it was time for what the power house was truly known for, hitting notes that few artists dare tackle. Switching out “Where Would You Be” for a rare treat and one of my personal favorites “Whatever You Say.”

With plenty of fluids and and just pure talent Martina reminded every member of the audience what she can do with “Broken Wing” The final note rang out for what felt like an eternity and the crowd went wild. She couldn’t leave the city without the one that took her to all new levels.

“Independence Day” was delivered with full blown emotion and McBride’s now signature mic stand throw she brought down the house. With all the excitement and the feeling of my heart beating out of my chest, I was ready to drag her out for a encore myself when finally reappeared  with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” complete with a Ben Roethlisberger jersey, a nice touch for any Pittsburgh show.

When all was said and done, and I was walking back to my car I gained an immense appreciation for what I saw put on. The concert was completely over the top and spared no expense, it was something id expect for a artist at the peak of their fame to put on, but Martina and her band still pulls out all the stops and  gives it everything they got for what I truly believe is for the fans. I highly recommend you experience for yourself if they ‘Shine’ their way into your city, and look forward to my next chance.

Trace’s Set List

“I Got My Game On”
“Swing”
“Songs About Me”
“Hillbilly Rich”
“Marry for Money”
“What’s the Big Deal?”
“Chrome”
“Rough and Ready”
“You’re Gonna Miss This”
“Hot Mama”
“Ladies Love Country Boys”
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”
ENCORE: “Muddy Water” and “Higher Ground”

Martina’s Set List

“Ride”
“When God Fearin’ Women Get The Blues”
“Happy Girl”
“Wild Angels”
“The Way That I Am”
“Wrong Baby Wrong”
“Lean on Me”
“Help Me Make it Through The Night”
“Anyway”
“Concrete Angel”
“Love’s the Only House/Blessed”
“I’m Trying”
“This One’s For The Girls”
“You’re Not Leaving Me”
“Whatever You Say”
“Broken Wing”
“Independence Day”
ENCORE: “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Summer of ’69″

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Patty Loveless, Stone Mountain Arts Center (Brownfield, Maine)

patty_lovelessThe following is a guest contribution from frequent commenter and devoted Patty Loveless fan, Stephen Fales, who is better known to Country Universe readers as Steve from Boston.

Country Universe is a site where timeless artists like Patty Loveless are not merely acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated. So when Leeann invited me to review my favorite artist’s Brownfield Maine concert as a guest contributor, I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much Leeann, Kevin and Country Universe for giving me this opportunity. And Leeann and Bill, it was a joy and an honor to join you folks for dinner and watch the concert with you. You both made this already memorable concert experience even more unforgettable for me, along with patty-loveless.net associates Nicole, Richard and Patti, and the following day Bob and Barbara, Kevin. And also, Marcia Ramirez from Patty’s band. Many, many thanks to all.

Patty Loveless at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield Maine

July 3, 2009

Nestled in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, Brownfield Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center is a beautiful and intimate 200 seat converted barn turned listening room. It has a warm and rustic ambiance, and a very helpful staff. The wood beam framed building makes for a rich acoustical setting, almost like a giant, wooden resonator box. It is a hard place to find out there in the Maine wilderness, but well worth the effort, especially to enjoy artists and legends like Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Think of it as a quest.

This beautiful mountain setting was a perfect match for Patty Loveless, the celebrated neo-traditional Country artist with the warmly expressive Appalachian alto. The Queen of Mountain Soul seemed right at home in the northernmost reaches of her domain, and seemed to absolutely love the venue.

Patty Loveless is a warmhearted and humble lady, she is a true artist with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth personality, the “anti-diva” as her drummer, Martin Parker, calls her. She takes the stage with very little fanfare, no high tech video introduction or ostentatious stagecraft, no bells, no whistles. She just quietly joins her band and begins to sing. It is all about the music with Loveless, and she lets the music speak for itself.

Still, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, but the magic emanated entirely from Patty’s empathetic heart and her crystalline Mountain-bred voice. She sings from a place even deeper than the heart, Patty Loveless sings from the very depths of her Appalachian soul. No smoke or mirrors needed, indeed, they would have been out of their league competing with such natural, God given talent. Patty Loveless sings without a net, and her performance on July 3rd, 2009 was inspired and virtually flawless.

Loveless is the prototypical Country artist. She has refined and perfected her inherent gifts through years of hard work and perseverance, and has become a living link to Country’s Golden age. The artistic (but not the chronological) scope of her work reaches all the way back to the works of the Carter family and Bill Monroe, and forward to the finest modern Country and Bluegrass artists. Folks like Jim Lauderdale who penned two of the 18 songs in Patty’s concert lineup. She is a master interpreter of their work, and a keeper of America’s rich Country and Bluegrass cultural heritage. Patty Loveless is herself, a national treasure.

All that’s good and great about Country music is embodied in the voice of Patty Loveless, and she brings it all to bear on her first rate, soul-nourishing material. Her mentors and musical heroes, her east Kentucky upbringing and authentic Coal-miner’s daughter heritage can be heard in the soulful Mountain timbre of each and every note that she sings.

Her amazing repertoire consists of songs that have been carefully selected over many years by Patty herself and her husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. And this they have done with little regard to what is trendy, and with every regard to what is timeless, or potentially so. Patty and Emory choose and write their material with a profound understanding and appreciation of the heritage and traditions of authentic Country and Bluegrass, a heritage she often speaks of with great reverence between her songs. And by following her heart in all of her musical choices, Patty Loveless connects deeply with the hearts of her listeners.

Loveless’ song lineup at SMAC was a mix of real, hard-core Country, and the finest contemporary Country. But the lack of any Mountain/Bluegrass songs that she could have included from her catalog kept this generous sampling from being truly representative of who she is as an artist. Still, a generous lineup of her always high-quality hit songs, and her featured Sleepless Nights mini-set of classic Country covers was fine compensation, and is the stuff of legend in the making.

Patty blazed into her set list with passion and precision, leaving her audience awestruck and breathless. In a very real and literal sense, this was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. At 52, Loveless is still very much an artist on an upward trajectory, and her voice just keeps getting even better with the years.

Some notable highlights: Her heart wrenching rendition of the Jim Lauderdale penned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, for which she won a Vocal Event of the Year award with the legendary George Jones. Loveless has collaborated with some of Country music’s absolute finest male singers, including Jones and Vince Gill, and for live performances she needs a strong male voice to fill the void on a few of those songs. Thankfully, she has found the perfect vocal partner in her band member, Garry Murray, who sang the tricky Jones harmony with feeling and finesse.

“Nothing But the Wheel” is the perfect Country song, by the perfect Country singer. It moves with a forlorn tempo, like the car the protagonist drives away from her heartbreak: ” And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel…and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me any-more then I’m holding on to nothing but the wheel.” With Patty Loveless at the wheel, it just doesn’t get any better or more Country.

Patty’s interpretation of the George Jones gem, “If My Heart Had Windows”, is a song of deep gratitude for love gone right, and she sings this slow lover’s waltz with a torch style intensity that warms the heart and burns to the soul.

Patty’s knockout rockabilly rendition of “Why Baby Why” kicks off her Sleepless Nights classics set with high octane energy…Patty describes it as “George Jones meets Tina Turner” But it’s all Patty Loveless…Patty is far too humble to admit this, but she very often surpasses her musical heroes with her own interpretations, and her version and performance here was no exception.

Ray Price’s original version of “Crazy Arms” was charming, but the Loveless version is nothing less than enchanting. It is pure music magic. Pete Finney begins and ends the song with a palpable sting from his expressive steel guitar, but it’s Loveless’ soulful and soaring vocal that really penetrates the heart. When Patty and Emory recorded their version “Crazy Arms” they slowed down the tempo from a moderate shuffle to a torchy ballad. This serves Patty very well in concert by giving her the opportunity to find and wring out every last drop of emotion hiding in the potential of the original.

Some inspired phrasing enables Patty to put great emotional emphasis on the lyric “crazy dream” as in “this ain’t no cra-zy dream I know that it’s real” whereas Price’s original stressed the first word “This” instead. This subtle yet dramatic difference is but one example of the interpretive genius of Patty Loveless.

The title song of Patty’s Grammy nominated classic country covers album, Sleepless Nights, features Vince Gill, and once again Garry Murray came through with flying colors. Vocally flying with Patty Loveless cannot be easy, “why did you go, why did you go? Don’t you know, dont you know? I need you”, But Murray keeps right up and they both soar to the heights. There was lightning in the area during this concert, and there was a single crackle that seemed to come from the amplifiers during this song. But Patty never missed a beat, and the whole song came off perfectly. Patty Loveless is a force of nature, and she positively electrifies her audience.

Lead guitarist Tom Britt took his opportunity to shine during an extended and exciting slide guitar introduction to another Lauderdale song, “Halfway Down” He wailed away like a true rock star, building anticipation before the familiar opening chords of this Loveless hit. Likewise, Patty kept the excitement going full boil throughout this rip-roaring Mountain Rock song.

The set closer was “Blame It on Your Heart”, perhaps Patty’s most performed song of all. She sings it with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the song fresh for singer and listener, every single time. Indeed, this is the way that she approaches every performance, embracing each and every note like it was her first and only chance to shine and share her gift. This Harlan Howard song is just plain fun and children seem to love it as well, as they try to sing the tongue-twister chorus. Loveless is artist and entertainer in equal measure. No other singer on the scene today balances the two quite as well as Patty Loveless does, with the exception perhaps of Dolly Parton.

Patty’s stage presence is confident as one would expect from a seasoned veteran, but also warm, easy going, and playful. She has a natural Country charisma and even her speaking voice, her relaxed east Kentucky drawl is music to the ears of her audience. The stories of her musical heroes, and her accounts of her formative years as a young artist under the tutelage of the late great Porter Wagoner, and her 21 year membership in the Grand Ole Opry, are informative and entertaining.

Her audience interaction is often full of surprises. Observing the intimacy of the venue, Patty commented how folks in the front rows were so close, and jokingly suggested they grab an instrument and come on up onstage. “But don’t grab me”, she quipped. “Although on second thought, that may be fun” Then she quickly added, “don’t mind me, I’m just a real cut up and a harmless flirt”.

When she mentioned her husband Emory Gordy Jr., she received some noticeable applause from the audience. Patty responded saying that it was good that Emory had some fans here as well, and “I see a young lady here with an Emory (University) shirt, How many concerts is this now, Nicole?” to which Patty’s (and Emory’s) most devoted fan replied “199″, and Patty said with a smile, “Wow, I owe you one, don’t I?” Patty also said something about how she was glad Nicole was such a huge Emory fan, then added: “but don’t forget now, he’s MY man”, which also brought laughter from the audience.

After “Blame” Patty introduced her incredible band. It is clear that all these folks are friends and fans of each other, and Loveless herself can often be seen warmly grinning, holding her heart and slowly shaking her head from side to side with enraptured appreciation during her band’s various instrumental interludes. And proficiency on multiple instruments almost seems to be a requirement in the Loveless band. Marcia, Deannie and Garry all play at least three instruments, and it seems most everyone is schooled on mandolin in a way reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s old Bluegrass string band. The stage, as wide as it was, could barely contain the scope of this incredible array of talent.

There are only a few criticisms for this otherwise flawless concert. The sound of the drums for the first few songs was much too loud, and competed for volume with Loveless’ strong vocals instead of supporting them. But that sonic imbalance was pretty well corrected by the sound techs before too long.

Also, Loveless seemed pitch perfect all throughout, with only one or two apparent missteps. Just enough to remind us that this is a gifted flesh and blood human being, and not some kind of angelic troubadour.

After the band introductions and some more friendly banter with her audience, Patty eased into her encore performance of the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart”. With sparse acoustic instrumentation and a little steel, it was almost a capella, and one could hear a pin drop between the notes. Patty’s version is chill-inducing perfection, tear producing and is especially potent live. And that evening her performance was especially transcendent, almost supernatural. I almost expected to see the ghost of Hank Williams take a seat and tip his hat to the finest female interpreter of his work, bar none. I would love to see what Loveless could do with ole Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The audience, and even her own band, was transfixed and mesmerized. Band members Marcia and Deannie especially, looked on with smiles of amazement.

With the completion of each song in the lineup, Loveless and her band received enthusiastic applause, which she greeted each time with sweet smiles and a grateful “God Bless You.” And at the end, she received thunderous standing ovations, and seemed genuinely humbled and overwhelmed. She gathered her band with her outstretched arms, and then they all graciously bowed a collective bow.

Patty Loveless is the most authentic voice in Country music today. Her fidelity to tradition, her creative blending of her own brand of mountain and country music, and her artistic integrity have rightly earned her the title of “Queen of Mountain Soul” from the great Ralph Stanley himself. And performances like her Brownfield concert on Friday, and albums like the exquisite Sleepless Nights demonstrate that she has earned the title “Queen of Country Soul” as well.

Patty’s long awaited follow up to her acclaimed 2001 classic Mountain Soul is scheduled for release on September 29th. Mountain Soul II has every essential ingredient to be yet another Loveless-Gordy masterpiece, and should enrich her already exceptional set list considerably. Just in time for the next leg of her tour starting this Fall.

As for a possible return to the Stone Mountain Arts Center? Word has it that Patty loved it so much, and felt so welcome by her gracious hosts Carol Noonan (folk singer and songwriter), and her husband, their staff and her appreciative fans, that she hopes to return twice a year.

Both on record and in concert, the music of Patty Loveless befriends the listener. She may sing “Soul of Constant Sorrow” on her Mountain Soul album, but the music of Patty Loveless is a source of great and constant joy, as well as inspiration, catharsis and consolation for all with attentive, listening hearts.

-Steve from Boston

For more information on Patty Loveless, visit

Patty-loveless.net,
Which is the most comprehensive and up-to-date Patty Loveless fan site.

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CMA Music Festival 2009: Memory Grab Bag

dsc000011I have to start with a disclaimer: I attended my first CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, as a fan –a crazy, passionate, kid-in-a-candy-store fan– and nothing more. So rather than offer you a full review of the festival, which I don’t think I can adequately do, I instead present you with a narrow but meaningful sampling of my favorite memories from the week.

Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley rock rain-soaked stadium until 2 a.m.

After a three-hour rain delay at LP Field Thursday night, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley played well into the morning to make up for the lost time. Despite the delay being somewhat poorly handled by management, an impressively large crowd of dedicated fans,  draped in ponchos and drenched in humidity, waited around until after midnight for the concert to resume.

It was well worth the wait, as Bentley and Paisley delivered outstanding, high-energy performances and reminded me once again that there is legitimate, authentic talent in mainstream country music. In a fitting closing, Bentley joined Paisley on an extended version of his novelty hit “Alcohol,” during which the tourmates played on each other’s good-natured wit and kept the crowd on its feet until the last note.

Carrie Underwood soars on “Stand By Your Man”

In 2006, Carrie Underwood performed Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” on the Grand Ole Opry stage, surprising Idol skeptics with her spot-on rendition. Three years later, she reprised her performance for the first time at her 2009 fan club party, as requested by her fans. She sang it brilliantly, with graceful conviction and emphasis on the natural “cry” in her voice, reminiscent of the female country greats.

The icing on the cake was Underwood’s admission that she’d love to record “Stand By Your Man” on a country classics album one day, along with an earlier admission that she’d been thinking about recording an album of hymns – two items high on most fans’ wish lists. Considering the other songs on her fan club party set list ranged from a rousing, acoustic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to an impeccable “How Great Thou Art,” I think there are few limits to Underwood’s potential and depth as an artist, and I could not be more thrilled for her future in country music.

Tara falls in love with the Grand Ole Opry

I know, I know; it’s irrelevant to the festival, but the Opry was such an acutely special part of my Nashville experience that I just had to include it. I caught the Tuesday night show, featuring a wonderful mishmash of traditional and contemporary performances by artists such as the Charlie Daniels Band, Trace Adkins, Ricky Skaggs and Little Big Town.

But it was the entirety of the experience that really got to me: I was surprised to find that the Opry House itself, as a venue, is epic and intimate all at once, leaving you feeling like you’re experiencing something very grand that was crafted just for you. That personable quality, along with the Opry’s palpable energy and richly spiritual atmosphere, struck a particular chord inside me. Of all the live music venues I’ve been to, the Opry takes the cake.

The Judds reunion ends with an emotional “Love Can Build a Bridge”

I knew the rare mother-daughter reunion was going to be good when Naomi Judd joined Wynonna Judd on the LP Field stage sporting a hot pink, rhinestone-encrusted dress suit, and Wynonna turned to the audience, smirked and said: “some things never change.” And she was right, as the two masterfully charmed their way through a string of their 80s hits, ending with a poignant performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge.”

It’s a simple and incredibly sappy song, but it has timeless meaning, one that certainly wasn’t lost on the stadium crowd. The high point of the performance was the chilling chorus the entire audience sang a cappella, prompting Naomi to shed a few tears. You know ABC will never show a performance like that –one with social relevance but no 2009 pop culture relevance– on its three-hour special in August, but maybe that’s the kind of moment that isn’t meant to be broadcasted in living rooms across America.

The fans steal the show

Finally, for all its star power and talent, the CMA Music Festival really is fundamentally about the fans – the most passionate, tireless, supportive, ridiculously devoted people I’ve ever encountered, who blew me away with their spirit and unity. I’ve spent most of my life emotionally connecting to music and artists in ways that people around me don’t quite understand, so to be among thousands of fans who shared my exact sentiments was completely, overwhelmingly moving, and without a doubt the highlight of my week.

I met fans from all over the world, from Scotland to Canada to Australia, drawn to Nashville by good music and a chance to hang out with their favorite artists. To the CMA’s credit, the festival does an amazing job of fostering these reciprocal interactions between the fans and artists. I was skeptical about the festival actually feeling like a “thank you” to the fans, rather than a giant marketing effort, but I was quickly proven wrong by the genuine and even organic acts of the artists themselves.

The artists don’t have to participate in the charity events, much less sign autographs at them for hours, and they don’t have to hold fan club parties tailored to their fans’ interests. They don’t have to hug their fans or strike up conversations when they meet them at the convention center. Country artists don’t have to sincerely care about you in order to have successful careers (isn’t that evidenced by much of the entertainment industry?), but it seems most do.

And that’s why country music fans willingly continue to be the heart and soul of the industry. They request songs, buy albums, create street teams, spread positive messages, attend concerts, stream music videos, write to critics, rally around causes, camp out overnight on sidewalks, make T-shirts, support charities, vote for awards, write letters of encouragement…and the list goes on. They deserve respect and gratitude, and that, at its essence, is what the CMA Music Festival offers, in a way no other genre of music does.

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Stagecoach Music Festival: Day Two

stagecoach-poster-2009What a difference a day makes. With Day One’s mishaps still fresh in my mind, I set out for Day Two of the Stagecoach Festival with a renewed sense of purpose and new insight on the day’s upcoming adventure. Keeping in mind lessons learned on Day One, I grabbed a map from the front desk of my hotel, set out early, purchased a chair on sale for $8 at Target, bypassed the long line in front of the main entrance to the Festival, and located a too-good-to-be-true back entrance to the parking lot. Amazingly, within five minutes of arriving at the polo fields, I was on my way to the Mane Stage with my new chair and re-filled water bottle in hand. (Kudos to Stagecoach for being so eco-friendly!)

As soon as possible after depositing my chair and blanket between a large stack of hay bales and the largest speaker I could find, I split for the side stages. With fewer people on the grounds, I finally realized how big the Festival actually was—it was huge!  It had everything, from a CMT sing-a-long tent to a bucking bronco ride. It even had an abhorrent t-shirt tent full of homophobic and xenophobic t-shirts (an anomaly at an otherwise pretty classy event).  Thankfully, on Day Two I also discovered the heart of the Festival: the bands playing in the two large tents off to the side of the Mane stage. The crowds weren’t nearly as large—at the beginning of the day, the large airy tents were mostly empty—but the smattering of hay bales were packed, the audience enthusiastic and the artists often times more talented than their famous peers on the Mane stage.

My first act of the day on the Palomino Stage was James Intveld, an artist I had previously never heard of. As such, I did a slight double take when Intveld walked out on stage. With his slicked back hair, old-fashioned black suit with white piping and arm slung around the back of his guitar, my first thought was: Johnny Cash impersonator? He’s not. What he is, is a very talented artist with a strong voice and a broad range of styles. He moved easily between rockabilly, honkytonk and Southern California country rock. And with songs like “This Place Ain’t What It Used to Be,” “All the Way From Memphis” and “Cry Baby,” a song he wrote for Rosie Flores, Intveld was the perfect way to start the day.

duhksOn stage immediately after Intveld was The Duhks (pronounced “ducks”) from Winnepeg, Canada. Although I had previously not heard their music, I fell at least halfway in love with The Duhks halfway through their opening number, “Mighty Storm,” when fiddler Tania Elizabeth suddenly went into a fiddle breakdown. Seemingly in her own world half the time, swaying to the music, she was incredible. The only person more intriguing in The Duhks is lead singer Sarah Dugas. What a voice. Strong and bluesy, she carried the band across a multitude of languages and a fusion of musical styles. Unlike the traditional bluegrass coming from the Mustang Stage, The Duhks are impossible to classify as anything other than extremely talented. For a nearly an hour, I was entranced by their songs, which included “95 South,” “Fast Paced World,” “You Don’t See It” and “Les Blues De Cadien/Whole Lotta Love.”

Once again proving that country music knows few boundaries, Jerry Jeff Walker took to the Palomino Stage after The Duhks. He could not have been more different in appearance and style, but, in addition to the new fans that flocked to the stage to see him, many of the same folks who checked out the Duhks and Intveld stuck around to check him out. I didn’t catch Walker’s entire performance, but it’s clear the man is a legend, and his concerts a lot of fun. Essentially, a Jerry Jeff Walker concert is like hanging out in your favorite Irish pub. The entire audience not only knows the words, but they know their parts and when to chime in. As I walked out, I wasn’t sure who was doing more singing—the audience or Walker himself.

By the time I arrived back at my chair in front of the Mane Stage, the sun was high in the sky. While not quite as hot as Coachella last weekend, Day Two of Stagecoach was definitely a bit of a scorcher, and it was going to tak

e a lot of work by the Zac Brown Band to get the sunburned and slightly lethargic audience to its feet. Fortunately, the Zac Brown Band was up to the challenge. Equal parts college jam band and seasoned pros, the Zac Brown Band thoroughly entertained the audience from the opening “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to the closing “Chicken Fried,” which earned perhaps the biggest sing-a-long of the Festival. In between, ZBB threw in some Bob Marley (“One Love”) a lot of coconut-fried Kenny Cheesiness (“Toes,” “Where The Boat Leaves From”), and a healthy dose of feel good earnestness (“Free,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Whatever It is”). I don’t know if ZBB will ever make it big, but they can surely put on a fun show.

lady-antebellumLady Antebellum took to the stage next and picked up where the ZBB left off. I’ve never been a huge Lady A fan, but their catchy R&B flavored pop-rock tunes were ridiculously enjoyable on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood kept the audience rockin’ with a number of the songs from their self-titled debut album, including “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” Loves Lookin’ Good On You,” “Slow Down Sister,” and “I Run to You.”  Scott took the tentative lead on “Home is Where the Heart Is” and “All We’d Ever Need,” but it must be said that Kelly is the bona fide star of Lady A. In addition to a magnetic stage presence, his deep and raspy voice has soul and power. While Scott holds her own, her slightly off-key twang definitely sounds best when complementing Kelley. By the time Lady A closed their set with “Love Don’t Live Here,” I got the strange feeling that along with Miranda Lambert, they're going to show up the main attraction (Chesney) on tour this summer.

Rounding out my first Stagecoach Festival experience was Miranda Lambert.  Compared to Lady A, I had high expectations for Lambert, and, for the most part, she didn’t disappoint. Dressed in aviator sunglasses and tight blue jeans, Miss Thang kicked off her set with “Kerosene” and a lot of attitude.  Lambert continued with a nearly twang-free version of “Guilty in Here” and then picked up her acoustic guitar for “New Strings.”  Lambert killed her new single, “Dead Flowers,” but her trademark growl is growing increasingly more hard rock than country.  She continued growling through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Down,” before stepping back to Lindale and bringing out “Famous in a Small Town,” one of my all-time favorites.  A nice segment in the middle of the set featured “More Like Her,” “Me and Charlie Talkin'” and “Dry Town,” but the calm interlude didn't last.  

mirandaIn addition to “Dead Flowers,” Lambert introduced another song from her new album coming out in September, which she dedicated to “all the rockers” in the audience.  The lyrics were difficult to understand, but musically the dedication said it all.  Lambert also turned to “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” to supplement her own material, and tapped into her inner soul for rousing renditions of “Stay With Me” by the British rock group (featuring Rod Stewart), Faces, and “In the Midnight Hour”  by Wilson Pickett.  If Miranda's vocals, cover choices and first two songs are any indication, her next album is destined to be a straight up rocker.  I'm looking forward to the album regardless of its direction, but I have to admit that while not completely fair, I'm already feeling little nostalgic for the old Miranda.  We shall see.

Since I had to be in the office bright and early Monday morning, I didn't stick around to see Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney.  No big loss in my book, although I did gain a certain morbid curiousity about the former as the night wore on (especially to see how the throngs of non-cowboy boot wearin' fans that arrived soon before he took the stage mingled with the country folk). 

All in all, I had a fantastic time. Festivals are brutal, but they are a great way to take country music's temperature.  My only regrets of the festival were missing the Infamous Stringdusters, Poco and Jim Lauderdale. Maybe next year…

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Stagecoach Music Festival: Day One

stagecoach-poster-2009Live and learn. I did a lot of living and learning during my first day (ever) at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, California.

First lesson: Don’t rely on MapQuest. I didn’t take the large black freeways on the map to the beautiful but bizarre desert retirement slash resort community that hosts Stagecoach. Or the smaller blue lines, or even the teensy red ones. I took the non-existent purple ones through the backcountry past unusual rock formations and the odd farmhouse. It was just me and the random tanker truck going mach negativo.

Second lesson: Show up early. The tanker truck and purple lines aside, I didn’t plan well. And any plans I did have were shot to h*** as soon as I arrived at the polo fields and, well, circled the fields at a crawl (which is a generous term) for nigh two hours before entering the parking lot. So, as I slowly watched the thermometer inch up towards 100 degrees on my dashboard, I kissed goodbye my plans for The Infamous Stringdusters and Lynn Anderson. I’m sorry, guys.

Third lesson: Don’t presume anything about country music fans. While I was very slowly making my way into the parking lot, I took notice of the cars around me. There was a BMW in front of me, a Porsche on my left and a Mercedes behind me. Hmmm…didn’t they hear that polo was cancelled this weekend? But no, the fancy cars were full of college kids, a large family and an old couple…all dressed in cowboy boots and hats and headed to the festival. I’d say welcome to country music, Southern California style: cowboy boots and Gucci purses, but that would cheapen the genuine spirit of those who attended the festival. While not precisely diverse, I doubt you will find a more overall wholesome group of people anywhere. You can only have organized chaos in a group this large with people like this.

Fourth lesson: Bring a chair. Who knew? As the only person not schlepping a chair around, I might as well have had “Stagecoach virgin” stamped on my forehead. The chair guarantees you a position among the sea of people somewhere in the proximate vicinity of the stage. Proximity to the stage being relevant, of course; as long as you can see the big screens, you’re fine.

Fifth lesson: Sit near a speaker. Darius Rucker and Little Big Town both suffered from poor sound (as compared to Brad Paisley, whom you could hear clearly from the parking lot). They come off as incredibly sweet people, but if they’re not going to sing or talk any louder, you definitely need a large speaker nearby. This was particularly tragic during Little Big Town’s set. While large venues may help this band garner new fans, they are a band made for intimate venues. The intricacies of their harmonies get lost in stadium sound.

Sixth lesson: Try to forget lessons one through five and just enjoy.

Darius Rucker was on stage as I arrived. He has a pleasant voice and a laid-back stage presence that goes down easy, even if neither is particularly spectacular. He comes off as a quasi-country Jack Johnson, although slightly more interesting. Like LBT, he might be worth checking out in a smaller venue. His biggest moment, ironically, came when he sang Hank William Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” He had everyone in line at the hamburger stand about a mile away from the stage singing along. I heard later on that Brad Paisley joined him on stage for that particular number. The crowd ate it up.

free traffic boom

ize-full wp-image-905″ title=”little-big-town-fl” src=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/little-big-town-fl.jpg” alt=”little-big-town-fl” width=”108″ height=”98″ />LBT took the stage singing “Good as Gone.” I was incredibly excited to see this group for the first time. Unfortunately, I feel as if I still haven’t heard them; properly, at least. However, I did hear enough to know that this isn’t the venue to fully appreciate them as a band. Despite having songs in their repertoire that rock, like “Good Lord Willing,” this isn’t a country-rock band built for conquering tens of thousands of people. And despite being beautiful singers, their harmonies don’t stand up well in the face of a brisk wind in an open setting. Still, what I did catch of their set, which included “Fine Line,” “I’m With the Band” and “A Little More You,” left me wanting more, even as I wondered during their closer, “Boondocks,” if they’re ever going to reach those heights again.

Reba McEntire took to the stage as the sun set over the desert, and as if rising for a queen, the sea of people took to their feet. Suddenly, it felt like I was at a concert, and a country one at that. With a killer band, vocals and stage presence, I have to admit that by the time Reba launched into “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I had forgiven Mapquest and forgotten the parking situation. The best and worst part about a Reba show, is that she has so many hits, that you are inevitably going to hear some of your favorites, and miss out on others. Perhaps recognizing this, part way through her set McEntire launched into a medley of hits, including “Somebody” and “Love Revival.”  Reba also played her new single, “Strange,” which didn’t sound out of place among her older material, including “Ring On Her Finger,” “I’m a Survivor” and “Fancy,” but didn’t rise to the same level either.

The thing about Reba, and to a certain extent Brad Paisley, the evening’s final performer, is that even if you knew nothing about country music, you would know they were among the genre’s stars. They both have that intangible “it” factor. What Reba has, that Paisley doesn’t have quite yet, however, is an extensive catalog. Therefore, if you’ve been to a Paisley concert in the past couple of years, you had already seen the show he put on at Stagecoach.  A Paisley concert is an extravaganza built for the mainstream radio consumer. With high-tech screens in the background, it’s chalk full of radio friendly sing-a-longs, from the cutesy “Online,” “Alcohol,” “Ticks” and “Celebrity,” to the heartfelt “Letter to Me” and “Waitin’ on a Woman.” With his guitar flung over his shoulder, Paisley throws himself into both styles with equal aplomb, but I came to the realization last night that I much prefer Paisley in heartfelt mode. He’s fun on the ditties, but truly shines when he slows it down.

As it was the last stop on Paisley’s recent “Paisley Party” tour, Paisley promised at the beginning of his set to break all the rules and play until the sun rose. Being not entirely sure if he was going to follow through on that promise, and recalling how long it took to get into the parking area, I left a little early. It truly didn’t matter. I heard the rest of the concert as I spent 45 minutes looking for my car and another hour or so exiting the parking facility. Like I said earlier, Paisley had excellent sound.

Live and learn. At some point near midnight as I was crawling out of the parking lot, tired, a little cranky, wishing I had brought a chair and had one of the RVs parked in the adjoining lot to crash in, I wondered if the entire day had been worth it. My immediate answer: Reba had been worth every second, and Paisley was icing on the cake.

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