St. Paul, Minn. — This was not going to be your everyday Rascal Flatts concert.
The first clue was the free glow sticks distributed Friday night (Jan. 21) when you entered sold-out Xcel Energy Center (with printed instructions to wave during “Bless the Broken Road” ). The second clue was all the cameras — including four on giant jibs (like cherry pickers) — stationed throughout the arena. The last clue was an elevator operator told me Rascal Flatts had been rehearsing here for three days.
Friday’s concert was being taped for an ABC television special to be broadcast on March 12. For the TV audience, Rascal Flatts wanted something a little extra, so they brought along unadvertised British pop star Natasha Bedingfield to duet with Gary LeVox on “Easy,” a track on the trio’s latest album, Nothing Like This. Not only did she perform it onstage during Friday’s concert, but she also sang a low-key version with RF in a fan-free suite at the Xcel Center that could get edited into the special — along with preconcert interview footage.
But I digress. Let’s get back to what Rascal Flatts did in public on Friday — a frigid stop on the recently-reignited Nothing Like This tour, which started last year but ended before the new album was released in November.
As always, LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney opened with a bang — flash pots, flames on video screens and an animatedÂ crumbling wall on a screen. Oh, the song was “Bob That Head.”
In the next 1 3/4 hours, Rascal Flatts did seven of their 12 No. 1 triumphs, a bunch of classic rock covers and three selections from Nothing Like This, including the current single “I Won’t Let Go,” a stately ballad with a “Bridge Over Troubled Water” piano undercurrent as if played by Elton John.
As always, Rascal Flatts delivered high-tech visuals on a multi-dimensional stage. There were ramps and staircases and a T-shaped runway extending from the stage (with a couple of hundred lucky fans crammed into two mini-pits). There were two giant video walls — a permanent one at the back of the stage and then a moving one which could be divided into six separate panels. The screens featured everything from music video clips to spinning geometric shapes moving in sync with the music to live shots of the performers.
You didn’t need video close-ups to notice that the strikingly slimmer LeVox seemed looser and lighter on his feet than in Rascal Flatts’ four previous Xcel Center appearances. Rooney delivered hot guitar licks, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” Jimi Hendrix-style at the end of “Unstoppable.” Bass man DeMarcus distinguished himself on some piano turns and, per usual, asÂ the trio’s resident cutup.
At one point, he talked about the e-mails the band had received from disappointed fans. Slipping into a woman’s voice, he complained about the band not doing certain songs like “My Wish.” At least, Rascal Flatts have a sense of humor about themselves (though many fans might agree about some of the omissions from a set list that was peppered with classic rock karaoke).
DeMarcus, Rooney and LeVox let their hair down for a segment around the piano. They improvised a little church music and then cruised through snippets of the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” (what gorgeous harmonies) and Journey’s “Open Arms” (LeVox loves high-pitched songs on which he can soar). DeMarcus started Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” on piano, then stopped to poll the 12,000 fans to see which song they’d prefer: the Seger chestnut or option B (demonstrated by playing the piano intro to “Bless the Broken Road”).
Of course, “Broken Road” was the choice. The fans waved their glow sticks, and twirling pin-spotlights created the effect of several disco balls spinning at once. Can’t wait to see how this effect plays out on the TV special.
In addition to a ton of extra lights and several extra cameras (11 or 12 total), the TV staging did impact the concert. There was a moat between the singers and the people in the front row because a camera on a dolly was situated in front of the wide part of the runway.
Those technical aspects weren’t surprising, but the appearance of Bedingfield was. Best known for the U.S. pop hits “Unwritten” (2004) and “Pocketful of Sunshine” (2008), she was introduced by LeVox in the middle of “Easy.” They sang on the main stage and eventually, holding hands, sauntered onto the runway and matched each other vocal wail for vocal wail. They ended with a chaste hug.
“She sang the snow away,” LeVox declared afterward. “It’s melting.”
“Country is coming to a Rascal Flatts show when it’s 26 degrees below zero outside.”
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.