in performance: thomas rhett/brett young/midland

Thomas Rhett. Photo by John Shearer.

Within the space of about 15 minutes last night at Rupp Arena, Thomas Rhett offered up two songs, both metaphorical nods to fashionable attire that, whether intentional or not, spoke to the stylistic preferences of his modern minded, but quite appealing performance.

The first was “T-Shirt,” a blast of hook-heavy pop largely devoid of country sentiment save for its almost requisite thematic promiscuity. The garment in question, of course, is admired most when it’s being worn by someone other than its owner.

The other was a pert cover of “Suit and Tie,” a tune that was also paraded at Rupp two weeks earlier by its originator, Justin Timberlake. Last night, though, it possessed a pop formality that served as a coda to the 2013 Rhett party piece “Make Me Wanna.”

It was an intriguing dichotomy. Rhett, donning a t-shirt onstage like the one detailed in the former tune while embracing a country-less pop exuberance the Timberlake song strived for.

A suit-and-tie guy in a t-shirt world – that was essentially the profile Rhett adopted for his Rupp debut.

One could dismiss such an identity crisis as the by-product of just another country crossover wannabe were it not for the fact that Rhett navigated the pop highways and boulevards of his music with such assuredness that it was hard not getting swept up in the fun, whether it was through the broad dance-pop assertions within “Gimme Some of That,” the summery bounce bolstering the title tune to his 2017 album “Life Changes” or the lighter and abundantly radio-savvy feel of “Star of the Show.”

Add to that an audience-friendly demeanor that seemed quite genuine and generous and you had a rather winning pop presentation, even if its design seemed more indicative of, say, Los Angeles, than Nashville.

Speaking of Southern California, that was the pre-Nashville homeland of Brett Young, who preceded Rhett at Rupp last night. He operated from the same stylistic plateau as the headliner, but appeared nowhere near as comfortable onstage. In fact, it’s a safe bet, judging by his often stiff and choreographed movements, Young is likely very new to this kind of performance setting.

That was underscored by the fact that the singer seemed most relaxed when he sat down to sing the hit ballads “Mercy” and “In Case You Didn’t Know.” The very youngish Rupp crowd of 11,000 (an impressive turnout for a “country” show on a Thursday night) didn’t mind, though, as they awarded Young with a kind of American Idol-level zeal.

In all honesty, the hit of the evening was opening act Midland, an Austin, Tx. trio (augmented by a guitarist and drummer) whose members dressed like they stepped out of 1971 and sounded like they stepped out of 1981.

A little bit retro, a little Lone Star honky tonk and largely unassuming in their presentation of tunes like “Check Cashin’ Country” (song title of the year there, folks) and “Burn Out,” Midland mainstays Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy made the most daring statement of the evening – that it was cool to actually sound like a country band.



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