in performance: brantley gilbert/aaron lewis/josh phillips

Brantley Gilbert performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

Within the first few bars of the show-opening “My Kinda Party,” Brantley Gilbert placed all of his performance cards squarely in view of the 5,550 fans he pulled into Rupp Arena last night.

On the upside, his stage demeanor seemed energetic, good natured and immensely audience friendly – especially the latter, as those he happily slapped hands with along a walkway that ran down the arena floor can attest to.

Also in the plus column was a knowing sense of the contemporary country market that has made Gilbert a significant star over the past decade. That meant an efficiently staged show with the usual Spinal Tap-ish pyrotechnics, video screens and, most of all, an impressively flexible band whose role in fleshing out the variety of styles that gradually unraveled during the 90 minute set – the hip-hop cool of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the metal-esque crunch of “It’s About to Get Dirty” and radio-friendly country-pop of “More Than Miles” – proved continually pivotal.

The takeaway from last night’s concert that was more disconcerting was how weak a vocalist Gilbert was. Maybe he was ill. Maybe it was spring allergies. But from the onset of the show, Gilbert’s singing was a coarse, internalized mumble. He would bark out occasional exclamations to trigger audience involvement, but there was little within initial electric party pieces like “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses” to suggest any kind of sustained vocal drive.

When the pace chilled and the volume settled for tunes like “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and brief acoustic revisions of “Them Boys” and “My Kind of Crazy,” a modest level of fluidity and detail was detectable in the singing. On more discernable crowd favorites, though – “Small Town Throwdown,” for instance – the audience took over some of the vocal load.

This may have indeed been his kind of party, but Gilbert’s surprisingly lax vocal command definitely took the fire out of the celebration.

That wasn’t the only curiosity to the evening. Preceding Gilbert was an hour-long, chain smoking set by Staind vocalist Aaron Lewis. That’s the right, the same Aaron Lewis who powered such post-grunge anthems as “Right Here” and “It’s Been Awhile,” both of which he played. But Lewis wasn’t as much of a fish-out-of-water artist last night as one might suppose. His country material often revealed serious honky tonk volition as well as subtle but determined narrative digs, all of which were on display in an industry swipe called “That Ain’t Country.” The set-opening “Country Boy,” on the other hand, was all dark, swampy contemplation akin to the late ‘70s records of Hank Williams, Jr.

Sure, there was requisite jingoistic plundering and pandering (Lewis began his set by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), but for the most part, there was an uncompromising solemnity and soulfulness to his performance that was quite arresting.

The evening began with a 20 minute solo acoustic set by North Carolina newcomer Josh Phillips. The singer racked up bonus points for playing without a band in an arena setting, but little was offered to distinguish his songs from the same thematic blather that permeates country radio today. When you have to turn your show-opening song – in this case, “Tonight Ain’t the Day” into a medley with a cover of “Highway to Hell,” you’re not exactly displaying unshakeable confidence in your work.

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