ATLANTA -- After a few months on the road, Rascal Flatts' energetic Flatts Fest tour visited Atlanta on Thursday evening (July 28). Yet the people there partied like it was a Saturday night. The band quickly connected with the crowd at Lakewood Amphitheatre, kept the banter to a minimum (mostly) and delivered an electric show full of special effects, big hits and a renewed sense of purpose. Sara Evans, Easton Corbin and Justin Moore warmed up the crowd, too -- although it was plenty warm being late July in Georgia.
A few songs in, Flatts member Jay DeMarcus told the crowd the band is happy to be back after a little break. As someone who's seen this band countless times in the past, I might add that the time off has served them well. They're back with a new album, new management, new label and new set list. Rather than retreading their radio hits, they have made it a point to truly entertain.
"Why Wait," the peppy 2010 single that signaled the second wave of their career, kicked off the show. Apparently there is a dress code on this tour, as everybody was wearing white pants. DeMarcus also had a white V-neck shirt with sparkly detailing. Joe Don Rooney wore a dapper vest, dress shirt and a bejeweled wallet chain while singer Gary LeVox rocked the rhinestone look with a glimmering Harley-Davidson T-shirt. Unlike some contemporary entertainers, they apparently hold true to one of the tried-and-true country rules: dress up for your audience.
It's a testament to their talent that the band can keep the momentum going from a light party anthem like "Summer Nights" right into a wedding song like "Bless the Broken Road" without stumbling. This breadth extends to the tour surroundings, as well. If you want to sing off-key, you can go to the karaoke stage on the plaza. If you want to get married, there's a wedding chapel, too. And for the longtime fans, a traveling Rascal Flatts museum is following them on tour.
My wish, to borrow a song title, would be for Rascal Flatts to play more of their early hits in concert. Even "Prayin' for Daylight" would be fun to hear. I thought they were about to dive into their first album about halfway through the show when they talked about their musical influences, citing Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard and Vince Gill. But then they ended up playing covers by Michael McDonald, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Wonder.
With her solid opening set behind her, Evans graciously returned to the stage -- wearing white pants and a black shirt to fit in with the gang -- for an emotional duet of "Easy." It was one of those gazing-in-your-eyes, raising-your-arms, singing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs performances that works so well on a big stage late at night.
This seems like an ideal time to emphasize that Rascal Flatts appeal to the older and younger generations of country listeners. I'd say 80 percent of the people in my area of the amphitheater were 40 and older. However, when I pulled into the parking lot across the street, hundreds of young drinkers were actively tailgating (if you can do that without an actual tailgate). The exasperated attendants were directing more kids than cars at that point.
Starting at 8 p.m., Evans condensed all of her biggest hits into a compelling and enjoyable set. She's back from a break, too, and proved that she's still got what it takes. She boasts an appealing warmth in her voice, yet she doesn't fear the high diva notes. Earlier in the night, Moore and Corbin got the party started, with Corbin's "Roll With It" serving as an apt theme song for an easygoing concert vibe (along with a brief rainstorm during his set).
Rascal Flatts' portion of the show moves at a fairly brisk pace, despite DeMarcus' unusual impersonations (Michael McDonald at Wendy's, Oprah Winfrey's private confessions) and an unexpected request to audience members to give themselves some applause. Still, I give them credit for always sharing the spotlight equally. Even though he's the lead vocalist, it's not like LeVox is front and center during the whole show. And because their music is so melodic, pretty much everybody is singing along. Whenever LeVox tipped his microphone (also decorated in black and white), you could hear every word being sung back.
On the final song, I was suddenly grabbed around the waist by a woman who was definitely a rascal (and certainly not flat). I really don't know where she came from. We were either swaying together, or I was simply propping her up as she leaned from side-to-side. Doesn't matter, I guess. At that point, I just put down the notebook and sang along, too.