“It’s so awesome to be home, baby,” Eddie Montgomery shouted five songs into a fun and suitably scrappy-sounding performance Friday night at Manchester Music Hall.
But the show was far from a mere homecoming. This was the first Montgomery Gentry outing on Lexington turf without co-frontman and Lexington native Troy Gentry, who died 11 months ago in a helicopter crash. So while the sizeable audience knew what to expect musically, it was really anyone’s guess as to how this homegrown outfit, one that got its start in local clubs two decades ago and before that as band brethren to Eddie’s elder sibling John Michael Montgomery, would sound with one of its chieftains gone.
That’s a query last night’s show couldn’t entirely answer. The immediate state of affairs relating to a Gentry-less Montgomery Gentry, though, seemed quite hopeful.
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Montgomery has always been a jubilant performer, serving as much as a cheerleading foil to his now-departed partner as he has as a frontman and singer. The latter attributes came front-and-center last night near the onset of the performance with “Lonely and Gone,” a song that reached back to Montgomery Gentry’s 1999 debut album, “Tattoos & Scars.” The tune let Montgomery’s loose, smoky tenor free against a modestly churchy, mid-tempo backdrop. It was perhaps the most concise and expressive vocal showing Montgomery would present all evening. The song also offered a somewhat reserved contrast to the more electric, Southern rock-rooted flair that powered such anthemic works as the swing-savvy “All Night Long” and especially the dark and sobering “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.”
But these were all shades of the Montgomery we knew — a musical spirit that, thankfully, doesn’t appear to have been impaired by the loss of his onstage partner. That Montgomery’s performance gusto was still roaring proudly was easily the more encouraging aspect of the concert.
The bigger question sat with how Montgomery Gentry was going to deal with the bulk of tunes Gentry sang or shared lead on. To that end, several members of the six-member Montgomery Gentry band (half of which were guitarists) stepped in to handle the high end harmonies on the show-opening “Where I Come From” and especially the tireless party piece “Hell Yeah.”
Especially telling was a reworked version of “Roll With Me,” a power ballad and longtime Gentry concert showpiece from 2008’s “Back When I Knew It All.” Last night, keyboardist Eddie Kilgallon took over vocal duties in a faithful performance that didn’t get built up as a tribute but stood as one all the same.
That was the most overt adjustment to the repertoire. Most of the 90 minute set integrated band members more gently — a verse or chorus here, a harmony line there. The rest relied on Montgomery’s high spirits, from the reminiscences he gave of his Central Kentucky friends before launching the group’s biggest hit, “My Town,” late in the evening to his crowd instruction on the tipsy chorus to “Drink Along Song,” one of two tunes pulled from the “Here’s to You” album, which was completed only days before Gentry’s tragic crash.
So the big takeaway from last night’s show was that Montgomery Gentry, for now, seems to be fine with one engine running and an able support staff taking on extra duties. What the future holds is a tough call. This is group that was built as a partnership with two different but oddly complimentary personalities sharing leadership duties equally.
There was enough of Gentry’s spirit on hand last night to rekindle that balance onstage. How this will play out should Montgomery choose to carry the band name on for another album with his singular persona running the show sets up an altogether different dilemma.
For now, though, there is ample reason to celebrate Montgomery Gentry as a still vital and entertaining performance entity. Even if one of the guests of honor was unavoidably absent last night — save for his signature white acoustic guitar standing at the back of the stage — it was inspiring just to have everyone else home again.