The New Faces Show that closed the 2011 Country Radio Seminar Friday night (March 4) at the Nashville Convention Center was basically a tedious awards ceremony enlivened at intervals by bright musical performances from five rising stars.
It was not what New Faces was designed to achieve — that is to enable radio programmers to see how well starter recording acts can perform live.
Nonetheless, this year’s freshman class — Lee Brice, The Band Perry, Steel Magnolia, Josh Thompson and Jerrod Niemann — acquitted itself well. If none of the artists left an indelible impression on the audience, blame it on the stop-and-go circumstances under which they labored.
The awards were handed out between acts in 28 categories of five nominees each — not to artists, which might have made some thematic sense — but to radio and record company figures that many of the people in the audience had never heard of.
By the time the nominees’ names were read and the winners were brought forward to accept their awards and pose for photos, any emotional momentum the previous musical act might have built up had been utterly dissipated.
Missing from this year’s show was the reliably comic voice of Charlie Monk, whose acerbic routines could always be counted on to puncture the pomposity of radio and record company figures alike.
Brice, who opened the show, displayed a mighty, almost operatic voice on such songs as “Beautiful Every Time,” “Picture of Me” and his long-charting “Love Like Crazy.” He showed a subdued and more sensitive side when he dismissed his band from the stage and sat at the piano to play segments of “Still” and “More Than a Memory,” the hits he co-wrote for Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks, respectively.
The audience gave him a standing ovation (as it would for the other four acts). Each act played about 20 minutes.
Steel Magnolia — the duo of Joshua Scott Jones and Meghan Linsey — looked born to the stage, interacting throughout their set naturally rather than choreographically. They bowed with the infectious “Ooh La La” and breezed through “The Edge of Goodbye” and “Last Night Again.” But they earned the loudest applause with their gorgeous vocal harmonies on “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and their fierce back-and-forths on the Johnny Cash–June Carter standard, “Jackson.”
Opening with “Blame It on Waylon,” Thompson ran the emotional gamut from pensive (“Comin’ Around”) to smug and defensive (“Way Out Here” ). He told the crowd that “Comin’ Around” is from his forthcoming album. With its quiet reflection on how experience can cause one to embrace what he once scorned, the song has all the earmarks of a hit. Thompson also performed “Beer on the Table” and “Won’t Be Lonely Long.”
Kimberly Perry’s performances with her brothers Reid and Neil in The Band Perry brought to mind another lead vocalist who was really hitting her stride when she played the 2005 New Faces Show — Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, back when Sugarland was still a trio. Although Perry and Nettles are substantially different in vocal styles and physical approach, both are indisputably the stars of their bands.
The Band Perry’s set list began with “You Lie” and ranged through “Hip to My Heart,” “Independence” (leavened with a musical digression into Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”), “If I Die Young” and “Quittin’ You.” The musical versatility of the group and Kimberly Perry’s room-lighting incandescence made it the most exciting act of the evening.
A lot of people left the room before the last round of awards was presented, thereby denying themselves the considerable pleasure of witnessing Niemann’s closing set. Even when he’s not singing such crowd rousers as “One More Drinkin’ Song” and “Down in Mexico” — both of which he did here — Niemann exerts a magnetic presence.
Solidly built and sure of himself as he paced the stage, he simply did not allow the audience to ignore or look away from him. Those who remained to hear him sign off with “Lover, Lover” certainly had their patience rewarded.