NEW YORK CITY -- Gauging the progress of Lady Antebellum's career by catching them each time they play New York City is a little like looking in on a skyscraper construction site every time another 15 floors are added to the building.
In the space of just four short years, they've gone from "showcase" gigs at cozy supper club Joe's Pub to the roughly 3,000-capacity Beacon Theater to the legendary home of the Rockettes, storied show-biz mecca Radio City Music Hall.
Of course, the fuel for this accelerated evolution has been the trio's string of No. 1 albums and singles and their endless accumulation of awards from every conceivable organization. But even though they're headlining huge arenas and amphitheaters during their seemingly never-ending Own the Night tour, they were plainly proud to be launching the latest leg with back-to-back Radio City shows on Thursday and Friday (May 3-4), accompanied by tour cohorts Thompson Square and Darius Rucker.
After Thursday's concert began with a short set by Thompson Square, Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Rucker's magisterial rumble filled the hall, and when he seamlessly shifted from his band's blockbuster "Hold My Hand" to his most recent solo country No. 1, "This," it was clear the hit-making ways of his Hootie days are not behind him. Rucker's cover of the Hank Williams Jr. classic "Family Tradition" definitively set aside any lingering questions about his country bona fides, if any doubts even exist this far into the Nashville chapter of the South Carolinian's success.
Lady Antebellum kicked their set off with a bang via their most recent No. 1 song, "We Owned the Night," as the song's surging, anthemic feel moved the crowd instantly to its feet. The grinding riffs of "Stars Tonight" followed, offering an early reminder of the group's soft spot for classic rock, while the Southern-rock tinge of the twin guitar leads that closed the predominantly pop-flavored "Our Kind of Love" -- a chart-topper from 2010's Need You Now -- suggested a little bit of Allman Brothers Band in Georgia boys Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood's musical upbringing.
Hillary Scott was the first to voice Lady A's excitement about their Radio City debut, posing a question about how a band knows when they've really made it -- and quickly answering herself by shouting out, "Radio City! We made it!"
During the driving rocker "Love This Pain" -- fueled by Haywood's hard-hitting Telecaster guitar licks -- Kelley took the first step in a physical takeover of the hallowed space that would continue throughout the evening, running out to the stage right balcony during the song's breakdown to sing a snatch of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic."
In due course, Kelley was back onstage, shouting, "Let's light this place up like a disco ball," simultaneously foreshadowing the lyrics of the next song and inviting the audience to strike up their cell phone lights. Thus illuminated, Lady Antebellum ended the hard charge of their opening salvo of songs by launching into their latest single, the ballad "Dancing Away With My Heart."
They savored the romantic mood for another moment with "Wanted You More," a heart-on-sleeve duet for Kelley and Scott, before Haywood's chugging mandolin and the band's stomping beat pumped the energy level back up with the sunny country-pop of "Perfect Day." The crowd required no invitation to start chanting along with the song's closing "na-na-na" refrain.
Kelley introduced "Love Don't Live Here" by announcing the heartland rocker as "our very first single on country radio," just in case Haywood's gritty guitar riffs at the opening weren't emblematic enough. Touching once more on the Dixie rock strain in Lady A's DNA, it wasn't tough to envision some alternate universe in which the song provided a 21st century comeback hit for '80s Southern rockers 38 Special.
No longer content with storming the balconies, Kelley ran out into the orchestra seats, perching himself precariously atop a chair and holding a lady's hand for ballast while singing. Haywood soon followed suit by taking to the balcony himself, wireless guitar in hand, to fire off a few more licks. Returning to the stage afterwards, Kelley called out gratefully to his balance aide, "Thank you for making sure I didn't kill myself, sweetheart."
Kelley reiterated that this show marked the fulfillment of a dream for Lady Antebellum as the trio took a sentimental turn towards the power ballad "Just a Kiss," the first No. 1 single from Own the Night. He then commanded the spotlight on another Need You Now hit, "Hello World." The quietest moment of the set came when Kelley brought the whole place to a hush, kneeling down at the front of the stage to croon a key verse in the ballad before the band came pounding back in for a huge, dramatic coda.
Explaining why 2012 has been such a period of flux for Lady Antebellum, Scott told the crowd, "Two-thirds of this band are newlyweds," with Kelley going on to explain the recent pause in the Own the Night tour by adding, "We had to take a break for Dave to get married." Haywood was wed on April 14, while Scott got married to Lady A drummer Chris Tyrrell on Jan. 7.
Scott's husband climbed down from his drum riser for the group's stripped-down, acoustic take on "American Honey," another No. 1 single from Need You Now. While the band kept the groove going, Thompson Square's Keifer and Shawna Thompson were ushered back out onstage for a segue into the Allman Brothers Band's 1970 chestnut "Midnight Rider" (that Southern rock influence again). In short order, Rucker returned to the stage to lead the whole ensemble -- not to mention the audience -- in the Doobie Brothers' 1974 smash "Black Water."
After their guests had taken their leave, Lady Antebellum worked their way up to the most theatrical moment of the show with Kelley and Scott rushing to balconies on opposite sides of the hall to sing "I Run to You" across the room to each other. Taking their place onstage once more, the pair harmonized together on another classic-rock staple, Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," with Haywood's guitar churning out the song's signature blues-rock riffs. Lady A closed out with a rocker of their own composition, "Lookin' for a Good Time," keeping things charged up with the good-time tune from their debut album and ending with an all-guns-blazing guitar blowout.
A long, moody intro preceded the group's encore, and screams of delight erupted from the audience when the piano began to tease the chorus licks of "Need You Now," the trio's biggest-selling single to date. But somehow, as Scott and Kelley gave voice to the tale of late night loneliness and romantic desperation, the song transcended its subject. The outpouring of energy and enthusiasm from the crowd enveloped Radio City and ended the evening on a note of unconditional love ping-ponging back and forth between Lady Antebellum and their audience.