About 7,300 fans came out to Rupp Arena Friday night to see fast-rising “country artist” Brantley Gilbert.
The quotation marks around “country artist” might as well be a pair of devil-horned rock fists because Gilbert treated the enthusiastic crowd to hard rock and even shades of metal as he, his band and his bombastic stage show proved that the country genre can be stretched to new edges.
Almost every detail about Gilbert’s show reinforced his love of hard rock and his bad-ass image. An animated intro on a large LED wall showed him on a Harley riding to a soundtrack of Metallica and AC/DC. He soon rushed the stage in a cut-off T-shirt dressed almost entirely in black from ball cap to boots to perform Kick It In The Sticks and Hell on Wheels, manning a mic adorned with brass knuckles.
Later in his set, he treated the audience to a few big hits he wrote for country star Jason Aldean (Dirt Road Anthem and My Kinda Party), which sounded very different with Gilbert’s gritty rasp compared to Aldean’s clean twang.
In the 90-plus minute set, Gilbert’s rock side bookended a middle section that showed him as a tender-hearted tough guy - songs that were the closest resemblance to country.
Gilbert sang You Don’t Know Her Like I Do with a picture slideshow of him and his wife on their wedding day in the background, declaring her the most “important part of my life.” He sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar to sing a few stripped-down slower songs (one dedicated to his late grandfather), which was capped off by Gilbert handing the mic to a fan in the front row so he could surprise his girlfriend with a marriage proposal. He would later get back with the full band and dedicate his song One Hell of an Amen to those who have “fought the good fight,” either serving in the military or battling cancer.
He would soon return to full rock force, with the latter third featuring a “metalhead” section for his band to do brief covers of songs by Rage Against the Machine and Slipknot, a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Saturday Night Special and some of Gilbert’s biggest rock-dominated country songs, including Small Town Throwdown and the encore, the No. 1 country hit Bottoms Up.
Gilbert’s opening acts both leaned a bit more toward the country side of country-rock and had their own individual moments. Michael Ray’s poster-boy looks already won over the female crowd before he sang a single note in his brief set. While his pitch wavered more on the upbeat tunes than the ballads, he won over a large portion of the crowd with his No. 1 hit Kiss You In The Morning and his generous personality, snapping close to a dozen selfies with fans in the front row and bringing a teary-eyed girl on stage for a charming interaction.
The performer that arguably had the best combination of songs, swagger and showmanship was Canaan Smith. He got the crowd extra-revved up for the headliner during his 45-minute set, at times swigging a bottle of bourbon in salute to the Kentucky crowd, banging a drum along with his drummer and furiously waving an American flag at the end of one song that started an impromptu “U.S.A” chant. He looked and sounded more like a country artist than anyone who took the stage with songs like One of Those and his hits Love You Like That and Hole in the Bottle. But his unexpected cover of Goo Goo Dolls’ smash Iris proved to be an impressive vocal showcase for Smith and the highlight of the set, inspiring a sing-along that was the biggest of the night. Based on his performance, don’t be surprised if Smith comes back to Rupp in a few years with a few openers of his own.
Blake Hannon: email@example.com