TAMPA, Fla. -- Regardless of whether or not you like their music, you have to give Rascal Flatts credit for taking a different approach to country music stage shows. The trio traveled to Tampa on Saturday night (June 3) on their Me and My Gang tour, bringing together hit songs, comedy schtick, an odd assembly of cover tunes and an amphitheater of excitable fans. And if you're performing at amphitheaters in the first place, you're clearly doing something right.
The first five minutes of their set kicked off with more special effects than you might find in most other performers' finales, with glowing turquoise LCD screens, sparkling purple lights and golden pyrotechnics illuminating the stage to the tune of "Where You Are." (Their stage design this time out is top-notch.) So how do you keep up that momentum? Another hit helps -- in this case, "Love You Out Loud."
Then what? How about asking the audience about a dozen times if they feel hot? Or telling Tampa they have a lot of "fine-ass women"? Or maybe riffing on teenagers' obsessions with text messaging? Or perhaps rigging the microphones so your voice sounds like an evil robot? Or you could tell the audience, at length, about the time you fell asleep at a Bryan Adams concert and got half of your face sunburned?
"And that's what hurts the most," added Gary LeVox at the end of his narrative, naturally leading into "What Hurts the Most." But in between all of that chitchat in the beginning of the show, LeVox only sang two songs. You almost have to wonder if he's on a secret voice rest.
If all is well, however, there has to be a better solution to perk up the middle of the set than letting Jay DeMarcus take on "Hotel California" -- or Joe Don Rooney tackle "Summer of '69" -- with LeVox nowhere in sight. And when LeVox is on stage, he often sticks the microphone toward the fans for a singalong -- which is fine once in a while, but nobody paid the ticket price to hear an audience sing. To be fair, at the end of the night, LeVox knocked out all the big hits, sounding particularly strong on "These Days." All things considered, it still would have been nice to hear him sing more.
Nevertheless, Rascal Flatts are doing what works for them, whether it's an acoustic mini-set in the middle of the shed (curiously covering of "Sweet Home Alabama") or showing their high-quality music videos on a huge screen while they sing along. Consider this: Rascal Flatts sold more concert tickets than any other country artist outside of Kenny Chesney last year. Plus, their album, Feels Like Today, was country's top-selling album of 2005.
As a touring act, Rascal Flatts are worth seeing in concert because their approach to country music is certainly unlike anything that anybody else in Nashville is doing. And it's always great to see artists shaking hands and interacting with fans from the stage, no matter how popular they are.
By now, Rascal Flatts are used to the big stages, although Gary Allan -- the middle act on this tour -- may be more comfortable in the nightclubs and honky-tonks. Still, he undeniably sounds great in the big shed, and he's probably the most underrated country singer we've got right now, especially on hits like "Songs About Rain," "Life Ain't Always Beautiful" and "Best I Ever Had."
Earlier in the set, he introduced a new song, "I'd Rather Be Lonely Without You," by saying he wrote it when he was really pissed off. He's a man of few words on stage, so when he talks, you listen. It's one of those close-to-the-bone country songs that doesn't shy away from anger, but doesn't come off as whiny either. Here's hoping it'll show up on his next album.
Allan played for only 40 minutes, thus forcing him to cut out several of his early hits, but new duo, the Wreckers, got about half that amount. They started promptly at 8 p.m., working through the highlights of their just-released debut, Stand Still, Look Pretty. "Only crazy people fall in love with me," they announced in the lyrics of their first song, easily the most traditional country-sounding selection on the album.
The Wreckers' first single, "Leave the Pieces," is already making waves at country radio. And because their harmonies and arrangements strive to blend pop with country (one of the Wreckers is radio-friendly Michelle Branch; the other her best friend, Jessica Harp), they seem perfectly suited to Rascal Flatts' gang.