Take two good-looking, talented guys, a pretty girl with honeyed vocals and a batch of polished country-pop.
Hard to go wrong there, isn’t it?
That’s the formula that has launched Lady Antebellum from middling country trio to Grammy-hog superstars in just four years and it’s a recipe that sold out the Gwinnett Center Arena Friday night.
The threesome of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood are so successful because of the sum of their parts. Scott’s sweet voice nicely complements Kelley’s nasal twang, and while Haywood is a tremendous talent who easily bops from guitar to mandolin to guitar, he’s also the shy type who might have otherwise toiled as a Nashville studio musician if not for Lady
Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Those Nashville players and songwriters are some of the best in music.
But instead, Haywood and Co. are bestowed with arenas full of fawning fans, shelves of awards – they scored five Grammys last year and one in February – and the type of luxury perks that come with having the fifth-highest grossing tour of last week, taking in more than a half-million per gig.
That kind of success also requires tireless commitment, and at Friday’s show, Kelley dripped with it, whether slapping hands and autographing signs for fans or strutting down the thermometer-shaped catwalk with a playful swagger.
The Gwinnett date was a homecoming of sorts for Kelley and Haywood, both Georgia bred and graduates of UGA.
After “Our Kind of Love,” which featured some tribal-like drumming from Scott’s husband, Chris Tyrrell, Kelley plopped a UGA baseball cap on Haywood’s head, prompting a roar from the crowd (earlier in the show, a Georgia Tech logo flashed on screen during Darius Rucker’s set, which received a different reaction).
Scott, meanwhile, reminded the guys of the days when the band performed at smaller venues such as Eddie’s Attic and Wild Bill’s. Don’t expect to see them back there anytime soon.
While it took Scott about halfway through the 90-minute show to look comfortable, or at least as if she wasn’t merely going through the motions – though who could blame her, really, since this leg of the tour has been chugging along since January – Kelley took command of the stage.
“I want to see some cell phones and lighters in the air,” he directed for “Dancin’ Away With My Heart” (side note, that ratio was about 3,000 cell phones to one lighter) and injected real passion into “Wanted You More.”
Haywood took a brief spin in the spotlight to introduce “Just a Kiss,” one of the band’s six No. 1 hits, before playing piano on the song, then later ripped out an amped-up guitar solo at the end of “Love Don’t Live Here.”
Considering that Lady A and their five-piece band have been on the road since last fall, the concert was a tight, slick affair and the band’s inoffensive songs filtered cleanly throughout the arena.
A highlight came when the power trio, as well as the rest of the band, hoofed it to the end of the catwalk to roll through “American Honey,” then brought openers Thompson Square and Rucker back out for fun, upright-bass-heavy covers of “Midnight Rambler” and “Black Water.”
Rucker even detoured from the set list to throw in his own “Let Her Cry” before the band slipped back in for “I Run to You.”
There is nothing groundbreaking about Lady A, but their appeal as a trio is understandable – just ask 13,000 hoarse fans today.
Rucker’s opening set shouldn’t go without mention, though, because the former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman produced a well-crafted hour-long performance that pulled from his two country albums, his ‘90s frat-rock days and a catalog of covers.
Looking slim in jeans, cowboy boots and a baseball cap, the gravel-voiced singer and a six-piece band including mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel guitar, sounded robust throughout the set.
He brought his three kids out for a brief hello before the ballad, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” and rollicked through “Only Wanna Be with You” as if it were 1995 again. And then suddenly it was 1974 and Rucker was happily crooning Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (we might have a new addition to the covers list).
While his country songs hit the requisite themes – whiskey and heartbreak in “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” sweet tea and politeness in “Southern State of Mind” – Rucker never came across as disingenuous.
As if to prove that his country roots run deep, he also performed Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” telling the crowd that Hootie & the Blowfish played it regularly, starting with their first tour in 1986.
So this isn’t new terrain for Rucker, which was apparent in his completely comfortable and cool performance.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene