The best way to make the music of Rascal Flatts work in a performance setting is to make it move. Fast. Streamline the sucker. Otherwise the celebratory electric charm that is the key to its appeal simply vanishes.
Last night, the enormously bankable Nashville country-pop trio of Gary LeVox, Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus cashed in on that strategy with a 1 ¾ hour Rupp Arena concert that moved with the might of a freight train. There were a few intermittent stops along the way that briefly derailed the pace before the crowd of 8,000. But for the most part, Rascal Flatts operated with a repertoire that emphasized its cheeriest, most efficiently emotive songs and a stage design that greatly helped contain the show’s drive.
First, a few words about the latter. The show operated from a stage that used a series of Jumbotron-like video screens that closed around the group like gates. Needless to say the screens lit up like Christmas trees with imagery that shifted from the great outdoors at autumn to the heart of Las Vegas.
In front of this massively lit bulb of a performance space were two runways that ran parallel to the stage instead of out into the audience. The spaces between the runways were used as audience pits that helped bolster the stage energy even more. Among the fans cheering Rascal Flatts on from the stage left pit was Central Kentucky actress and singer Laura Bell Bundy.
From there, the trio employed an arsenal of party-strategic songs – including the show-opening, neo-rap flavored Bob That Head that opened out into Prayin’ for Daylight, the fiddle-savvy pop tune that established the band on country radio almost exactly 10 years ago.
The hits flowed generously after that. The title tune to 2004’s Feels Like Today album epitomized the concert’s immaculate sound mix (especially in its wildly alert keyboard sounds) while the title songs from 2006’s Me and My Gang and 2009’s Unstoppable eased the festivities from the broadly rockish to the keenly anthemic.
As mentioned, the action did break during a few prolonged, comically intended interludes by DeMarcus that were true tempo killers. One, in particular, had the bassist/keyboardist juggle half baked gospel riffs with a cover of Journey’s Open Arms. These were the kinds of gaps that have made past Rascal Flatts shows at Rupp drag.
Luckily, one break compensated – a brief time out when LeVox handed the microphone over to an audience member who made a very public (but ultimately inaudible) marriage proposal to his girlfriend before the group tore into the cheesy Vegas-inspired romance of Why Wait.
Georgia singer Luke Bryan preceded the trio with a 50 minute set that felt the need to sell its sense of country credibility with the opening songs Country Man and What Country Is. Perhaps that was necessary. Bryan’s music revealed several references to ‘60s pop (like the Walk Away Renee-style heartbreak that fueled Someone Else Callin’ You Baby). And, yes, there was that odd detour from All My Friends Say into an antiseptic cover of Metallica’s Enter Sandman.
Show opener Chris Young was probably the most authentically country sounding act of the night. He sang with a crisp, meaty Tennessee tenor that neatly wrapped around the otherwise contemporary sway of That Makes Me, the new I Can Take It From Here and Gettin’ You Home.
A curious sidenote to all of this pageantry: country legend Charlie Louvin died on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, in a modern country arena show that sported Journey and Metallica covers, his passing seemed immaterial.