Except for the fact that Alan Jackson went on third, instead of closing the show, there were no real surprises at the CMA Music Festival’s Friday night (June 10) concert at the Coliseum in Nashville. It was essentially a precisely timed and meticulously produced showcase of the artists’ greatest hits.
The large and tenacious audience roared over everyone onstage but awarded none of them its heart. It had apparently been conditioned neither to expect nor demand encores at the festival’s evening concerts. The crowd greeted Rascal Flatts, who did close the evening, with rapturous applause. Yet hundreds began streaming out of the stadium before the trio was halfway through its set.
A light rain was peppering the stands when Craig Morgan kicked off the show promptly at 8 p.m. The precipitation lasted until around 8:40 p.m., just as Jackson was finishing his intro, “Gone Country.” Morgan and Josh Gracin, who had the concert’s second slot, did four songs each.
There’s no doubt that Morgan has neutralized the curse of being on an independent record label. The crowd sang along enthusiastically with such of his hits as “Almost Home” and “That’s What I Love About Sunday.” When he walked off the stage and up to the barriers that held the crowd back, hundreds pressed forward to greet him.
Gracin was similarly received when he made his bow with “I Want to Live.” He worked hard for his applause. He told the audience he had just been notified the day before that his self-titled debut album had been certified gold. He instructed the fans to cheer every time he sang the phrase “turn it up” in his song of the same name. They did, with robotic regularity.
Starting with the ever-popular “Gone Country,” Jackson came on to thunderous applause. He was the first to bring the audience to its feet, and he kept it there for the duration of his eight-song set. As he does so effectively in his own shows, Jackson employed a host of videos to set and hold the mood of his songs, particularly “Remember When” and “Chattahoochee.” His “Five O’Clock Somewhere” cranked up the partying mood. He said his farewell with “Where I Come From.”
The clash between traditional and modern country music could hardly have been more apparent when SHeDAISY followed Jackson to the stage. Their percussion-driven, beat-oriented ditties made lyrics — to the degree one could hear them at all — seem off the point. However, the fact that the three Osborn sisters are eye-poppingly gorgeous contributed substantially to one’s musical openness. They began with the airy “Passenger Seat” and wrapped up with the even breezier “Good Together (Bucket and Chicken).”
Blake Shelton was the picture of casual country as he sauntered into the spotlight while the crowd’s ears were still ringing from SHeDAISY’s sonic assault. He said his hello with “Good Old Boy, Bad Old Boyfriend,” a selection from his current album, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill. Indeed, all of his songs for the evening — save “Old Red,” his closing tune — were from that album. “Some Beach” caused the greatest commotion, rivaling Jackson’s “Five O’Clock” in inciting the fans to sway and pop their fingers.
Travis Tritt, who — like Jackson — is from country music’s fabled Class of ’89, was up next. Trim, grinning and affable, he seemed very much like the charismatic kid of 16 years ago. He greeted the phalanx of zealots with “Put Some Drive in Your Country,” the admonition that has served him so well. Then it was on to the more recent “Honky Tonk History” and the flashback of “I’m Gonna Be Somebody.” He talked about his three children as he slowed down the proceedings and sat on a stool to sing “I See Me.” Tritt made his triumphant exit with “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”
Sara Evans, the evening’s penultimate attraction, boxed her set like a movie, with opening and closing credits playing on the huge video screens beside and above the stage. Wearing a short-sleeved, black, cleavage-baring top and blue jeans, Evans appeared to be having the time of her life as she bounced from “Perfect,” her opening number, through such other goodtime musings as “I Keep Looking,” “Suds in the Bucket” and “Real Fine Place to Start.” She bowed out with the song that elevated her to superstardom, “Born to Fly.”
The crowd started roaring even before Rascal Flatts’ name was announced, and for a while it looked like some spontaneity would break out. As it turned out, though, the trio did only five songs and was safely off the stage before the designated closing time of 11:30 p.m. Flatts had much of the crowd bopping feverishly to their first song, “Here’s to You.”
But by the time they got to “Fast Cars and Freedom,” their third selection, massive clusters were moving toward the exits in an apparent effort to escape the paralyzing traffic jams around the stadium. None of this slowed the group down, however. Lead singer Gary LeVox was systematically reducing himself to a puddle of sweat as he strode back and forth across the stage and then down to the front of the crowd to touch hands, all without missing a beat. By the time he grooved into “Bless the Broken Road,” the audience was hemorrhaging. Still, thousands of faithful stood and screamed until the last note of Flatt’s last number, “These Days.”
As fireworks capped the evening, hardly anyone seemed to notice.