Editor's note: Watch Lee Brice's performances on CMT's Live in Nashville.
NEW YORK -- Lee Brice may be one of the hottest names in Nashville right now, with a hit debut album (2010's Love Like Crazy) under his belt and a No. 1 single ("A Woman Like You") already racked up in advance of his follow-up album's release, not to mention the hits he's written for other artists. But you'd never know it from his cozy, stripped-down CD release show Monday night (April 23) at Joe's Pub.
Released Tuesday (April 24), his new album, Hard 2 Love, finds the South Carolina singer-songwriter set to break through to the next level of stardom. But the night before the album's unveiling, he and his lead guitarist and keyboardist were crowding a postage stamp-size stage in New York City, delivering raw-boned arrangements of his songs with nothing but two acoustic guitars and a piano.
When Brice hit town last fall with CMT on Tour, along with Luke Bryan and Josh Thompson, he was in full-on rabble-rouser mode, fronting a loud-and-proud electric band and inciting the packed party crowd to a fever pitch. His Joe's Pub show, however, was the polar opposite.
As Brice took his seat -- yes, his seat -- onstage and mused aloud, "Now this is cool," he was obviously enjoying occupying the other side of the coin for a change.
"We're usually in rowdy-ass bars with college students running around with fake I.D.s," Brice explained, before kicking off with "Hard to Love," which will become his next single in a few weeks.
Not one to linger overlong in the romantic realm conjured by that song, he segued into the next by asking the audience, "How many crazy-ass women do we have in here?" The answer came quickly in the form of a handful of high-pitched screams. Thus fortified, he launched into a quick battle-of-the-sexes comedy routine that suggested a possible future for him in stand-up, before beginning "She Ain't Right," his 2007 chart debut.
Settling in after that opening salvo, Brice let the crowd know -- if it wasn't already obvious -- this was a different sort of show for him, and he'd be dipping into different material than usual, including a sampling of the new record.
"We're just gonna have some fun. We might mess up a little," he warned, allowing for the evening's adaptation to an all-acoustic format. Before digging into a new song, "See About a Girl," Brice let the audience in on the tune's back story, explaining how co-writer Kyle Jacobs would repeatedly disappear from writing sessions to "see about a girl" (now Jacobs' wife, Kellie Pickler), eventually prompting the eureka light to go on in Brice's head.
Even in the intimate environs of an unplugged, sit-down show, it was impossible for Brice to hide the fact that, like a number of his modern-day Nashville peers, he's got a little bit of Bruce Springsteen in him. And the way he tore into the peaks and valleys of Hard 2 Love's dramatic story song "That Way Again," it was tough to exorcise the image of the Boss belting out a bravura ballad like "Thunder Road."
"A Woman Like You" is the song that took Brice to the top of the charts late last year, a fact he acknowledged by saying, "This song got me to the starting point I've been trying for my whole life."
Its appeal was driven home even further when the audience started singing along en masse, not only on the choruses but right in sync with every twist and turn in the verses. But the show's set list wasn't limited to Brice's own recordings. His composition, "Crazy Girl," beat "A Woman Like You" to the No. 1 spot last year by several months in a version by the Eli Young Band. Brice evoked his "She Ain't Right" banter from earlier in the evening by observing, "I guess I've always had a thing for crazy women," before offering up his own take on the tune.
After an intense version of "Picture of Me," the minor-key, autobiographical opening song from his debut album ("Every word of this one's true," he asserted), Brice shared the story behind another new track, "I Drive Your Truck." He explained how it got its start when co-writer Connie Harrington heard a radio interview with the parents of a young soldier who'd been killed in combat, and Brice described growing teary when the song was first presented to him. Judging from his show-stopping delivery of the tune, he engendered some similar reactions among the Joe's Pub patrons.
Brice seamlessly shifted gears for the good-time tailgate tune "Parking Lot Party," a crowd-pleaser from the new album, before diving back into the emotional battlefield once more with another new song, "That's When You Know It's Over." Co-written by Jerrod Niemann, it analyzes the aftershock of a romantic apocalypse while simultaneously showing off some sophisticated melodic moves.
Closing the set with his 2009 single "Love Like Crazy," Brice poured on the power for the power ballad that must surely have been the first country hit ever to feature the name "Microsoft" in its lyric.
Returning to the stage for an encore, Brice finally acquiesced to the vociferous demands for his drinkers' anthem "Beer" that had been punctuating the entire evening. Expressing uncertainty that the song would work in this low-key, supper-club setting, he gamely galloped into it anyhow.
And when the crowd proved to be as up for it as Brice, shouting along in hardy unison, it was plain that all the emotional highs and lows of a Lee Brice show can come across in front of a riled-up roadhouse crowd or amid a sparsely appointed singer-songwriter setting with an equal amount of impact.