in performance: rascal flatts/jessica simpson

rascal flatts: gary levox, joe don rooney, jay demarcus

rascal flatts: gary levox, joe don rooney, jay demarcus

One of the defining sentiments of last night’s highly electrified Rascal Flatts performance at Rupp Arena was shared between two women at a concessions stand.

The show had just hit the mid-way point with the top-selling country-pop trio (augmented last night by four instrumentalists) delivering the cheery, motivational hit My Wish. Around the group was a stage adorned with huge screens of brilliant blues and incandescent whites flashing with the immediacy of a strobe light. In front of the singers were ramps that outlined the entire length of the arena floor with no less than four mini-stages (all of which flashed, of course) and runway-like lights that changed color with each tune. It was less like an arena stage and more like a pinball machine.

The women, apparently two of the tens of thousands without electricity this week in Lexington following a massive winter storm, seemed impressed but a bit bewildered by what they had just witnessed.

“Wish they would haul some of that juice over to our street,” one said to the other. “They’d light up the whole neighborhood.”

Of course, that’s essentially what Rascal Flatts did over the course of two hours, only the “neighborhood” remained within the Rupp walls. But singer Gary LeVox, guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bassist Jay DeMarcus certainly kept the chill at bay with bright, almost antiseptic strokes of rockish charm.

The title tune to the trio’s 2007 album Still Feel Good opened the proceedings by raising the roof in reverse. With a crack of fireworks, the three were lowered to audience level on a massive grid from the top of the stage. From there, the mood was as electric as the show’s look and sound.

The cover version of Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway had LeVox slapping hands and, at brief intervals, sharing the microphone with audience members along the stage floor’s many ramps. Similarly, the anthemic nature of the power ballads Every Day and Stand (performed back to back) were patterned so that LeVox’s vocals would dramatically cut off for arena worthy guitar solos by Rooney. None of this was exactly innovation in action, mind you, but it catered well to the performance’s festive feel.

The only real downside was the concert’s pacing. Boy, did the Flatts boys ever lay it on thick with the filler. Initially, you felt DeMarcus was on-the-ball and to-the-point in thanking fans for forking out roughly $70 for tickets in tough economic times. Then the between-song chat just turned into another incessant, audience-pandering diatribe. Similarly, Rooney briefly uncorked a pleasant acoustic sketch of Rascal Flatts’ breakthrough hit Prayin’ for Daylight but quickly followed with a sales pitch where he taught the audience to recite the release date of the group’s next album.

For a band capable of mounting such a visual and energetic show, Rascal Flatts sure knew how to let the air out of its own sails at times.

jessica simpson. photo by wayne maser.

jessica simpson. photo by wayne maser.

Opening the evening was the country incarnation of Jessica Simpson, a star defined mostly by her own media-driven celebrity status. Last night’s crowd was on to her, too. Though it received her 40 minute set respectfully and even enthusiastically, the reception that greeted DeMarcus when he acknowledged Simpson during Rascal Flatts’ show contained more than a few dissenting voices.

Simpson certainly came off as wanting to project an arena-sized performance persona. But there were simply too many obvious flaws in the set to take her country act seriously.

Opening with her dreadful 2005 Nashville hip-hop rewiring of These Boots Are Made For Walking, Simpson sang with an taffected twang and moved with hip swiveling maneuvers that bordered on camp.

Then there were the motivational speeches that seemed to greet each tune. She talked about her boyfriend (though not by name), her faith and about how the reference to the country girl in her 2003 pop hit With You was actually herself (you think?). Simpson also served Remembering That as a sort pep talk to women seeking escape from abusive relationships.

No disrespect intended on such a serious topic, but is the star of a long-demised reality series centered on a public marriage that ended in an even more public divorce really someone you would turn to for relationship advice?

And then there was perhaps the inevitable stumble: botched lyrics. Simpson forgot words twice during her single Come On Over, resulting in two false starts of the tune. She was eventually fed the correct lines by a backup singer.

Enough, already. Sure, Simpson has a capable enough voice to roar through epic fare like the Dolly Parton-penned Do You Know. But the singer needs to take a time out for a performance tune up, bone up on her own material and streamline this performance mess in the worst way.

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