Review: Lady Antebellum comfy, convincing in first headlining Staples Center show
Lady Antebellum is arguably the most successful and certainly the most honored group from a trend I like to think of as the Happy Macs – that ongoing proliferation of co-ed, kinda-country acts who have all the appearances of Fleetwood Mac's incestuous creativity, and plenty of their harmonic smoothness, but none of the actual inter-band heartbreak and drama.
There are a slew of 'em these days: Sugarland, family outfit the Band Perry, husband-and-wife duos Thompson Square (currently one of Lady A's opening acts) and Steel Magnolia (though that pair has yet to get hitched), plus that double-dose of wedded bliss, the two couples who comprise Little Big Town. Heck, even the folkier Civil Wars, a male/female duo who are (gasp!) married to other people, still fits the bill.
But Lady Antebellum, which shined brightly Tuesday night at a sold-out Staples Center in its first headlining arena performance in Southern California, is positively the Mac-iest of the Happy Macs in both spirit and sound.
They barely sound country; you'd never know they were from Nashville if they didn't mention it. Were it not for Hillary Scott's high, reedy flourishes, very much akin to Dolly Parton's or Alison Krauss' flutters, you'd be hard-pressed to detect the faintest hint of Southern hospitality in their music.
With each passing album – including last September's super polished "Own the Night," which in February nabbed them another Grammy, their seventh – the trio's style veers deeper into '80s terrain, evoking not just Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in their MTV heyday but also Pat Benatar (note the big rock boom of "Stars Tonight," with riffage straight out of Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart"), the glossy power ballads of Chicago and the Heartland vibe of John Mellencamp and Bon Jovi (see "Love Is Pain").
Granted, that streamlining crossover has been going on since long before Darius Rucker, another opening act Tuesday night, set aside Hootie & the Blowfish to gamble on a country career. (He won big: the response he got at Staples was so resounding, he may be the main attraction here soon.) Lady Antebellum is simply a sharply crafted byproduct of the de-countrifying effects of Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban a half-dozen years ago, and Shania Twain's sassy synth-driven stuff before that.
All the same, Lady Antebellum's easily enjoyed brand of pop/rock shifts the trend so far into an undefinable mainstream, it's almost an insult to more genuine articles like Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley to call it country. No wonder it was so hard to find anyone wearing a cowboy hat at Staples.
Yet what audiences are responding to is the same palpable energy that earlier generations romanticized about Fleetwood Mac. Back in the day, when Buckingham would sing "you can go your own way" or Nicks would lament "players only love you when they're playing," you could detect the very real anger and self-inflicted sorrow that fueled those lines.
When Scott and her more powerful vocal counterpart, Charles Kelley, sing "it's a quarter after 1, I'm a little drunk and I need you now," you're keenly aware of the play-acting at work, no matter how much you might relate to the sentiment. When you watch Kelley (the Chris Martin of country) and Scott inch closer and closer at the end of "Just a Kiss," until they seem to collapse into a big wet smooch as the lights dim, you can't help remind yourself that Scott's new husband, Chris Tyrell, is watching the whole thing unfold from his drum riser.
Lady Antebellum's developing greatness at this game, however, is that they convey such borrowed feeling so convincingly. That's the country part: presenting finely detailed character sketches about the people to whom you're singing, not cutting a vein open so fans can watch you bleed.
Chipper ditties like "Stars Tonight" and "Our Kind of Love" are cleanly produced plastic that, much like sassed-up first hit "Love Don't Live Here" or the gently edgy album cut "Love Is Pain," satisfyingly work their way toward kickin' finishes worthy of Keith Urban. But there's a relatable yearning in Lady A's lovelorn material, much of it written by the trio themselves, including overshadowed but crucial multi-instrumentalist and harmony vocalist Dave Haywood.
When Kelley brought the volume down for a commanding rendition of "Hello World" – an effective piece centered on childbirth that impressively doesn't lapse into syrupy mawkishness – he was nearly as compelling as when Nettles stuns crowds with "Stay" at Sugarland shows. (The whooshing surge that comes at the end, like Coldplay racing against "Clocks," also adds a forceful climax most country groups are too timid to dare.)
Despite their rampant fame, Lady Antebellum is still a long way from peaking creatively, which I suspect suits them fine, lest they fizzle out by 2015 and stay locked in their era. Likewise, their first major arena production is a solid (if sometimes obvious) staging that seemed to connect smashingly with admirers while also indicating how much more these three are capable of achieving on stage.
It's a strong start, a victory lap they've earned. ("This room holds so many memories for us," Scott recalled of Staples Center. "We got to open for Keith Urban in this room ... and two years ago we won five Grammys in this room.") But there's a lastingly great group behind the gloss that's only beginning to peek through cracks in the veneer. Hope it fully emerges someday.
I missed Thompson Square's short set – only got to see that duo re-enter midway into Lady A's performance, so Shawna Thompson could make sultry alongside Scott on the first verse of the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider," before Rucker stepped out again and joined in a take on the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water." (Lady A had also been tackling Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" but they cut it this night to instead have OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder guest star on his own hit, "Good Life.")
But Rucker, now 45, is a total pro, his transformation from mildly forgotten '90s novelty into a bona fide award-winning country star a breakthrough worth cheering. He exudes such grateful joy when he performs now: He used to look lumpy and tired years ago, but these days he's lean and lanky and more energetically soulful than ever.
Hootie standbys like "Only Wanna Be with You" and "Hold My Hand" went down as winningly as they did when 60,000 roared for them at Stagecoach a couple years ago. Yet none of the overt sops to Go Country's core audience – redneck ditties like "Family Tradition" and "The Craziest Thing" or barroom romances like those in "Come Back Song" and that gem "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" – felt like a pose, nor did his very credible closing cover of Prince's "Purple Rain." He's just got the hearty pipes to pull it all off.
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