Jason Aldean did everything he could to play the role of tough guy Saturday night at Rupp Arena. In fact, during a miniscule pause that let the singer catch his breath after a show-opening one-two punch of Hicktown and My Kinda Party, the Georgia singer seemed to adopt the gruffest speaking voice he could muster and warned the sold-out crowd of 18,500 that it "better start drinking."
Sorry, Jason — no sale. The hitmaker possessed way too much unadorned congeniality — in other words, stage appeal — to come across as a bruiser. That held true for Aldean's singing, too. Despite the heavily contemporary sway of the concert's presentation, and of his music overall, he revealed a very natural sense of vocal phrasing. That proved especially flattering for songs like The Truth, on which Aldean summoned a mountain tenor reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam. Ditto for more electric jaunts such as Amarillo Sky and Fly Over States, on which the conversational turns in his singing turned delicately desperate.
Perhaps Aldean felt inclined to man-up to the music given everything that led to his set. The evening opened with ultra-modern sets by Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr, acts that teamed for a sellout show of their own a year ago at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
Containing Florida Georgia Line to a 45-minute set meant singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley had to streamline their performance a bit. But such economy suited FGL well. Without the extraneous small talk and posturing, the duo plowed through hip-hop-flavored hits such as It'z Just What We Do, This is How We Roll and the show-closing career-making hit Cruise.
Of course, one can argue until sunup about FGL's reliance on drum loops, pseudo-rapping and Saturday night's distracting practice of timing nearly all nine songs to music videos that played on a huge screen behind the band. The whole design seemed a bit fraudulent to be called country music. Then again, there was no way to discount the youthful drive that Hubbard and Kelley conjured and how readily the crowd took to it.
Farr went for the looped grooves, too. And the tough guy image. And the party posse feel. But he came off as a fairly uninvolving singer with a perhaps understandable stylistic identity crisis. Hits like Whiskey in My Water and A Guy Walks into a Bar, and to a lesser extent, the oddly solemn Redneck Crazy played well to the audience. Overall, though, there was little to distinguish Farr from a dozen other country-pop stylists on the airwaves.
The build-up to Aldean's set also was peppered by an onstage DJ who spinned short-attention-span snippets of classics by such country greats as AC/DC, Journey and Def Leppard. No wonder the star of the show felt as if he had to play rock star for a bit, even when hammering out the electric verses to his hero worship hit Johnny Cash.
Oh, yes. Did we mention the six — count 'em, six — tiers of lights that served as a backdrop during Aldean's set? All that mammoth artillery couldn't help but make the singer seem miniaturized for much of the night. That tended to dwarf innocent hits like Big Green Tractor, too. It had to have been difficult appearing country humble when your stage resembled a summer home for Kiss.