in performance: lady antebellum, hunter hayes and sam hunt

lady antebellum singers hillary scott, charles kelley performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

lady antebellum singers hillary scott, charles kelley and dave haywood performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

For all the laser effects, video projections and furlong-sized lighting grids that made Lady Antebellum’s stage performance last night at Rupp Arena, at least in appearance, reminiscent more of Pink Floyd than one of the hottest country acts in the country, charm and audience rapport surfaced in something almost ridiculously simple.

Half way through a 90 minute set, the Lady A troika of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood strolled out to a small stage at the other end of the Rupp floor, leaving their highly electric band and a small city of lighting and stage artillery to go it alone. With Haywood on acoustic guitar providing the only accompaniment, the group offered a brisk, unadorned trio of songs that covered, in roughly 12 minutes, considerable stylistic turf.

It started with One Great Mystery, a fine non-single track from Lady A’s most recent platinum album, 747, that allowed Scott to roar with subtle, studied authority. Then Kelley initiated a leisurely cover of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud that offered a bow to the kind of contemporary inspiration this country troupe is aligned to. The mini-set wrapped up with Dancin’ Away with My Heart, a massive 2011 hit for the group that last night balanced a requisite level of country sentimentality with an inviting and conversational vocal flow.

The rest of the show was fine, sporting a suitably energized and rockish flair that – unlike much of preceding sets by the young hitmakers Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt – still maintained at least a suggestion of country sensibility, from the mash-up of meaty guitar riffs, hip hop vocal phrasing and electric country propulsion that drove Freestyle to the anthemic power ballad sway of American Honey.

But after hearing Lady A jettison all the frills – and sound more genuinely emotive in the process – one had to wonder if the rock star production values that are now standard operating procedure for arena country shows aren’t becoming a touch passé. For the headliner, the bright lights seemed a little dim compared to the brilliance of its acoustic intimacy.

hunter hayes during his opening set at rupp.

hunter hayes during his opening set at rupp.

Hayes offered a set of pure summery pop and relentless physicality during an unusually lengthy (about 65 minute) opening set. An accomplished instrumentalist (he performed last night on piano, guitar and mandolin) and vocalist with a cordial, though somewhat nasally tone, the newly 24 year old singer (his birthday was Wednesday) revealed an obvious love of stage performance. Sure the lip service during Invisible, well intentioned as it seemed, bordered on pandering. But the rich pop drive of Somebody’s Heartbreak, Storm Warning and the show-closing I Want Crazy offered a very honest performance thrill for the generous number of female 20-somethings within the crowd of 7,500. (Hayes later returned to play mandolin on Compass with Lady A.)

Hunt’s initial 30 minute set offered similar stamina. But his heavy reliance on sampled sounds and canned accompaniment was a disappointment, as were the fairly pedestrian vocal turns that made their way out of the mix. His 2014 hit Take Your Time remained an artful blend of R&B and country crooning. But House Party and the show-opening Raised On It were by-the-numbers Nashville pop-rockers that sounded uncomfortably weighty with all the processed sound. (Hunt also cameoed late in Lady A’s set during a lumbering cover of the Aerosmith staple Walk This Way, a set choice that was not complimentary to either act.)

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