NEW YORK CITY -- A gaggle of bottle blondes in tight jeans and autumn-chill-defying cutoffs stand outside New York's renowned rock venue Irving Plaza before Jason Aldean's Tuesday night (Nov. 2) show, belting out impromptu, a cappella versions of his hits "She's Country" and "Amarillo Sky" in between loud, lusty conversations about the relative romantic merits of their (absent) boyfriends.
Upon reaching the door, where security is patting down males and peeking into females' bags -- standard procedure for the club -- the women enthusiastically request a "full body search," as a staff member comments, "The real party animals always show up at the end of the line."
Entering the already-crowded club, it soon becomes apparent there is, in fact, a conspicuous abundance of dolled-up, unescorted young ladies, a phenomenon likely attributable to the, shall we say, extra-musical appeal of Aldean. But despite the inherent hunk factor, the 33-year-old Macon, Ga., native remains a man's man, and he draws the dudes, as well. They're out in force here, too, clinking their Budweiser tallboys together and letting out lupine howls as the curtain above the stage rises and the opening strains of Brooks & Dunn's "Hillbilly Deluxe" blare out of the sound system.
Dyed-in-the-wool country boy Aldean has chosen the unmistakably urban Irving Plaza to host the coming-out party for his latest album, My Kinda Party, on its release date. While the rest of the nation is locked in a fervid fight over political differences, Aldean's East Coast fans are busy celebrating their hero's brand new batch of songs.
Aldean takes the stage in blue jeans, cowboy hat and a short-sleeved, undeniably form-fitting flannel work shirt. A frenzied group of girls start pushing their way toward the front while the aforementioned dudes high-five each other to the surging riffs of the opening tune, "Crazy Town," whose blend of country twang and raw, hard-rocking riffs sets the tone for the evening. "Wide Open," the title track from Aldean's platinum 2009 album, keeps things rocking, and when Aldean and his five-piece band plow into the steady stomp of "Amarillo Sky," the crowd shows the depth of their devotion, singing along en masse to every single word, as they'd continue to do throughout the show.
The band brings the dynamic down for Aldean's first No. 1 hit, 2005's "Why," and his most recent chart-topper, Wide Open's "The Truth." Through it all, Aldean maintains a direct, no-frills delivery, putting every song straight across the plate with a minimum of fuss. Even the stage set -- or lack of one -- reflects Aldean's overarching "nothin' fancy" aesthetic.
Playing in such unusually intimate environs allows Aldean to take that approach a step farther.
"This is kinda takin' us back to the early days," he says. "It's been a while since we played a bar, so this is kinda bitchin'."
He makes a request for "six shots of something" for himself and his band -- "tequila, Jager bombs, whatever you've got" -- before informing the crowd they're about to hear some tunes from My Kinda Party, as a ripping guitar line leads into the album's opening cut, "Tattoos of This Town." "Dirt Road Anthem" follows, with Aldean alternating between singing and rapping -- yes, rapping -- even as the song's lyrics namecheck Nashville icon George Jones.
Speaking of classic country references, Aldean encapsulates the double-barreled nature of his sound by singing about "chillin' to some Skynyrd and some old Hank" on a barn-burning version of the new album's title track, a song exemplifying just how thoroughly hard-driving rock influences have been assimilated into contemporary country by this point (especially when Aldean's at the wheel).
Aldean digs into another side of his classic rock roots for an all-guns-blazing take on Bryan Adams' 1984 hit "Heaven," which he performed in his team-up with Adams on CMT Crossroads in June. Aldean and his band take a big bite out of the juicy power ballad, wringing every drop of drama without over-emoting -- a feat no rocker covering the tune would be likely to manage. When he launches into "Asphalt Cowboy," which he dedicates to his truck-driving grandfather, it becomes clear that Aldean, for all his rock 'n' roll leanings, is first and last a country singer, with a truth-telling Georgia twang as big as all outdoors.
But then it's time to put some bang in that twang, as a pounding-drum intro leads into Aldean's country-rocking 2007 hit, "Johnny Cash," and the crowd erupts with the arrival of each fist-pumping chorus. The title track from Aldean's Relentless jacks up the adrenaline level even more as the lead guitar cranks out some industrial-size hooks and the audience gets even more pumped up.
When the mood switches abruptly to the sensitive balladry of that same album's "Laughed Until We Cried," our dudes -- now several beers into the evening -- are gathered together for a group hug, swaying precariously back and forth. Aldean seems like he's responding to this very scenario when he asks the audience, "Y'all gettin' drunk yet?" before launching into the bone-crunching riffs of his No. 1 hit, "She's Country."
After unleashing a massive power chord, guitarist Jack Sizemore indulges in some fuzzed-out, Hendrix-like licks as a prelude to Aldean's first-ever single -- the redneck-pride rocker "Hicktown." Then, just before bidding goodbye to the sweat-soaked crowd, Aldean shouts, "I don't know how late this place stays open, but we'll probably be out there drinkin' with y'all in a few minutes."
Roof-rattling "Aldean, Aldean" chants quickly inspire an encore, an explosive one-two punch of Aldean's biggest hit to date, "Big Green Tractor," and a cover of Kid Rock's country-rapping signature song, "Cowboy," the latter offering a clue to Aldean's inspiration for cutting "Dirt Road Anthem" and coming off like LL Cool J with a Southern accent.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Aldean doesn't make a shtick out of the "rockin' country" thing. It's simply a natural expression of his musical makeup and the point country music has reached in its evolution. For all the fervor and in-your-face attitude of his performance, Aldean isn't the kind of guy to put on airs. Ending his triumphant, big-city album-release gig, the multiplatinum celebrity simply raises a foam-spurting beer can to the crowd and humbly lifts his hat high off his head before leaving the drained dudes and damsels to amble out under their own power as best they can.