GREENVILLE, S.C. — Over the last few years, Rascal Flatts have proven to be consistent ticket-sellers in country music, and you would have had to look pretty far up in the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., to find any empty rows on Thursday night (Jan. 22). The South Carolina show was their third tour stop so far in 2009. The support act on this final leg of the Bob That Head tour is Jessica Simpson, who got the crowd’s attention immediately with a rather revealing wardrobe choice.
However, after nine years of consistent touring, Rascal Flatts have found a formula that works for them — meaningful songs (usually), lots of special effects and overwhelming gratitude toward the fans. Lead singer Gary LeVox rarely walked the thrusts on the sides of the stage without bending over and shaking hands with the audience. Meanwhile, guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bassist Jay DeMarcus spent as much time at the far-reaching corners of the catwalk as they did on the main stage.
In other words, you probably wouldn’t want front-row seats on this particular tour. There’s a pit area immediately in front of the main stage, and it’s fully encapsulated by catwalks. The guys move around constantly, so if you’re in the “best” seats, you’ll spend the night either watching the big screens or looking over your shoulder. At one point, after photographing Rooney with my telephoto lens in the middle of the pit, I turned around to find DeMarcus about five inches from me. I hope he didn’t see me flinch. (No offense, Jay. I was just really surprised, that’s all.)
Since my previous Flatts show, they have finally reduced the relentless local references in their stage patter, such as “How y’all doin’ South Carolina?” and “Are you ready to party, South Carolina?” That dearth has been supplemented by extensive thank-yous for the fans, which is far more sincere. At one point, DeMarcus told the crowd that he knew that economic conditions right now aren’t ideal, and that if they didn’t show up, he’d be unemployed — a tried-and-true maxim in country music.
DeMarcus also spent about 10 minutes telling jokes and practicing a stand-up comedy routine. Later on, alone on stage, Rooney strummed a few lines of “Prayin’ for Daylight” and “I’m Movin’ On” without really delving into the songs, although he does have a nice voice. In my opinion, the group still struggles with keeping up the momentum of an arena show, usually allowing only two or three songs to go by before chatting some more (and more and more). But when they’re on a streak of hit songs, they’re unstoppable.
Yes, I went there — Unstoppable. After all, that’s the name of their new album, coming out on April 7. This was also the first time I’ve been to a concert when the band announces there’s a new single coming to radio — and then they don’t actually perform it.
Of course, plenty of other familiar favorites were squeezed into the set list, such as “Still Feels Good,” “Life Is a Highway,” “Stand,” “Love You Out Loud,” “These Days,” “My Wish,” “Take Me There,” “Fast Cars and Freedom” and “What Hurts the Most.” More than once, they’d begin a song quietly, and I’d think, “Oh, an acoustic version …” until about the end of the second verse, when all the lights would come on, the guitars would crank up to 11 and the crowd would roar its approval.
So if they’re selling tickets, have tons of hits and the fans like them, why did they get overlooked in the entertainer category this year for the CMA Awards? One argument I’ve often heard is that they don’t translate well on TV. However, for you non-believers out there, they can definitely pull off the live show. So if you like their songs but are unsure if they’re on solid ground in concert, they definitely are. Other industry grumbles involve the type of singles they’ve released lately, such as “Me and My Gang” and “Bob That Head.” In a city of brilliant songwriters, those tunes may not be the best representation of the talent in Nashville, where most CMA voters reside. Yet, people across the nation are singing along, and that goes a long way.
Personally, I think the reason for the snub is because Rascal Flatts aren’t all that original in their presentation. Over the last six years, I’ve heard that same stage banter from Brad Paisley (about how every member of the band is from whatever town they’re playing in), seen that same square stage from the Dixie Chicks‘ tour and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill‘s Soul 2 Soul tour and sat through the same patriotic finale from Brooks & Dunn. Rascal Flatts have unquestionably earned their group of the year awards, but if they want to go one level up, they’ll have to think of something new. And the dancing girls on the caged stairwell behind them don’t count, guys. Sorry.
On the flip side, Rascal Flatts have never cared what critics think, and that’s not their crowd anyway. Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any artist express their genuine gratitude more often to their audience, and if you’ve come to see a big show, even if you’re waaay in the back, they deliver.
Earlier in the night, Simpson belted it out for about 35 minutes, and surprisingly, she didn’t idly chat for nearly as long as the guys in Rascal Flatts. The ladies around me were singing along with “Come on Over” and “With You,” but the guys were distracted for some reason (or maybe two). I’m pleased to report that Simpson has gained confidence since the last time I saw her perform. She’s also promoting a new single, “Pray Out Loud.” And if anybody likes it loud, it’s Rascal Flatts’ fans.