Had the audience been less jaded and the production more cohesive, the New Faces Show that concluded Country Radio Seminar Friday night (Feb. 24) at the Nashville Convention Center could have been a dazzling piece of entertainment.
Instead, the event just limped along, as it did last year, alternating between bright segments of music with tedious stretches of awards presentations. The awards were handed out to dozens of figures from local radio stations. To make this distraction even more annoying, each award recipient had to come forward to have his or her picture taken.
The original talent lineup called for five acts, but early on the day of the show, it was announced that the duo Thompson Square would not appear due to the death of Shawna Thompson's father.
Thus it fell to Hunter Hayes, Sunny Sweeney, David Nail and the Eli Young Band to represent the best new sounds in country music. And they did an admirable job of it, considering the show's structural limitations.
Nail, who came on last, gave the most dramatic performance of the evening, what with his somber, no-nonsense countenance and wall-shaking voice.
Dressed in a checked shirt, suit vest and jeans, Nail opened with the radio-oriented "The Sound of a Million Dreams," accompanied only by a piano and steel guitar.
"You guys are rock stars to me," he told the crowd, which was made up primarily of radio personnel. Nail, who charted his first single in 2002, made it clear he was grateful for having gotten a second chance to establish himself at radio.
With his full band joining in, he continued with "Red Light," his comeback single from 2009.
Then he moved on to "Let It Rain," his first No. 1 record from earlier this year.
"I'm pretty sure if it weren't for this song, I wouldn't be here," he declared.
Nail closed with the comparatively upbeat "Grandpa's Farm." Most of the crowd stood at the conclusion of his set. But it wasn't clear whether this gesture was in response to the quality of his performance or in relief that the three-hour event was finally over.
Those three hours included only 68 minutes of music.
The swaggering Sweeney, clad all in black, also turned in a strong set, beginning with a few lines from her taunting "You Don't Know Your Husband."
That theme of domestic discord rolled on with "Drink Myself Single," "From a Table Away" and "Staying's Worse Than Leaving."
Sweeney came close to engaging the crowd in a singalong with her blue-collar cry of freedom, "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass."
However, the audience of radio people who are used to being catered to by artists seemed tired after four days of conventioneering. So the response to Sweeney's entreaty to join in the fun was distinctly muted.
Sweeney closed with "Can't Let Go," the Lucinda Williams standard (which was also recorded later by Heidi Newfield).
Hayes acquitted himself like a younger Brad Paisley with a cluster of love songs that featured him playing acoustic and electric guitars and piano.
Looking muscular in a wine-colored T-shirt and jeans, the diminutive Hayes opened with "Somebody's Heartache" and the wistful "Everybody's Got Somebody but Me."
Then, seating himself at the piano, he did "Wanted" and wrapped it up with "Storm Warning."
The first act to perform was the Eli Young Band, whose set was introduced by a humorous video in which a pizza delivery man named "Eli Young" contends with the band for the right to use that name. (The band actually takes its name from members Mike Eli and James Young.)
Whether it meant to or not, the video pointed to the identity problem every band has when it has no distinctive physical look to set it apart. While it performed well onstage, the EYB looked like four individual musicians who just drifted together to play a few songs.
They began their set with "Always the Love Songs" and "When It Rains" and followed with their new single, "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." The band bowed out with their recent No. 1 single, "Crazy Girl."