NEW YORK CITY — With all the time Jason Aldean seems to be spending in New York City lately, local fans are likely to try sneaking his name onto the ballot for this year’s mayoral race.
On Tuesday (Feb. 26), he was at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater throwing down in an all-star guitar pull alongside legends like Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris during the All for the Hall fundraiser for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. And just four days later, he was about a half-mile south to perform for a sold-out house at his Madison Square Garden debut.
The arena’s capacity is roughly 18 times that of Irving Plaza, the New York club where Aldean appeared in November 2010 to celebrate the release of his My Kinda Party album. Between then and the October 2012 unveiling of the follow-up, Night Train, Aldean’s career exploded into a new level, moving him from country superstar status to the kind of crossover stardom his pan-genre approach has always seemed to warrant.
Saturday (March 2) was not only Aldean’s night to howl but his chance to show his newly-expanded New York audience exactly what they’d signed on for, and he embraced the opportunity, opening the show with guns ablaze. The one-two punch of his 2010 hit “Crazy Town” and the No. 1 Night Train single “Take a Little Ride” showed his fondness for blistering, ’80s-inspired hard-rock guitar riffs and stomp-along beats evoking the image of Def Leppard donning cowboy hats.
Digging into the My Kinda Party hit “Tattoos on This Town,” Aldean made it clear he knows how to work an arena, running to microphones stage left and right to pump up each end of the venue before returning to his center stage perch. He slowed things down for a tune from the new album, “When She Says Baby,” and pulled the beat back even further for the downcast ballad “The Truth” from 2009′s Wide Open.
The couples in the crowd began to sway to the No. 1 My Kinda Party single “Fly Over States” and then to Night Train‘s opening cut, “This Nothin’ Town.” It became increasingly easy to observe that, unlike many of his contemporaries whose fans are predominantly of a single gender, Aldean draws both the guys who’d like to have him for a drinking buddy and the girls who’d like to have him for something else, all of them awash in a sea of plaid shirts (Aldean’s signature shirt choice).
The balance tilted toward the rocking side again with “Johnny Cash,” as the song opened with a fret-scraping guitar sweep worthy of vintage Van Halen. When “Amarillo Sky” from Aldean’s self-titled debut gave way to the title track from the latest album, some of Aldean’s hypothetical drinking buddies in the crowd engaged in a bit of hearty bro-dancing without ever spilling a drop of their beers.
“This is the first time I ever stepped foot in Madison Square Garden,” Aldean informed the crowd, adjusting the rearview mirror in his mind’s eye as he explained he’d basically been on tour nonstop throughout his eight-year recording career and had spent years before that slogging it out in small Georgia clubs and bars.
The video screens above the stage then displayed a photo of a very young-looking Aldean as he launched into the new album’s “1994,” a snapshot of his youth that pays overt homage to the Joe Diffie hit from that time, “Honky Tonk Attitude.” The latter’s mix of classic country and raucous rock guitar obviously provided a blueprint for Aldean, whose own tune’s mix of banjo picking, crushing AC/DC-esque riffs and the Eminem-inspired refrain (“Will the real Joe Diffie please stand up”) display an even greater amount of syncretic skill.
An audible gasp arose from the crowd when a hologram of Kelly Clarkson appeared onstage to reprise her vocal role in the romantic power ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” another My Kinda Party No. 1 single. But it was Wide Open‘s “Big Green Tractor” (another chart-topper) and Night Train‘s hip-hop-tinged “The Only Way I Know” that got the flannel-clad females in the crowd moving. In fact, by the time the latter came around, they were veering dangerously close to lap dancing sans lap.
To close out the set, Aldean amped up the energy, first with his biggest hit to date, the country-rap amalgam “Dirt Road Anthem,” the song that put My Kinda Party (and Aldean’s career) over the top, and then with the searing, Southern-rock-turned-up-to-11 riffs of his huge 2008 hit, “She’s Country.”
Returning for a double-barreled encore, Aldean stoked the intensity of both the set and the crowd even further with “My Kinda Party,” which climaxed with a fret-burning lead guitar duel, and “Hicktown,” adding perspective to the latter with the introduction, “This is the one that started it all for us back in 2005. It’s been one hell of a ride these last eight years.”
P.S. Bonus fan points for commitment go to the Aldean aficionado seen striding out into the undeniably wintry New York night after the show with bare legs below her Daisy Dukes.