“We’re Rascal Flatts. Surprise, everybody.”
That was the greeting bassist Jay DeMarcus gave an eager Lexington Opera House crowd on Wednesday, ending speculation as to who the unannounced headliner of this second installment of WBUL-FM’s Secret Sessions concert series would be. In one of the more novel promotions involving local country performances, the show was announced just over a week ago and quickly sold out without the top billed act’s name being revealed.
A vocal trio with two decades worth of pop-directed country hits to its credit, Rascal Flatts played along with all the hijinks by playing a very loose – at times, downright sloppy – hour-long show free of arena-level production excess. The group still performed with the vigor of an act accustomed to larger rooms, though, pumping relatively recent hits like “I Like the Sound of That” with ample radio rock drive while using more ballad-leaning fare such as “My Wish” as a vehicle for a mass sing-a-long. The latter was so accessible that lead singer Gary LeVox termed the exercise “Rascal Flatts karaoke.”
This isn’t a scholarly ensemble by any means. While one could appreciate the various audience-friendly attributes of what DeMarcus, LeVox and guitarist Joe Don Rooney were offering, the disheveled, disconnected pace of the show got to be a bit much. In fact, some hefty stage horseplay turned one of the group’s most overtly sentimental hits, “Bless the Broken Road” into a near parody of itself.
At times, one couldn’t tell if Rascal Flatts members were enjoying the relaxed intimacy of the Opera House setting or if they were just blowing the show off altogether. There were moments of earnest focus, like the lightly iced romanticism the trio provided to “Back to Life,” one of the very few tunes to unearth a trace of actual country sentiment under all the pop-rock crust. Ditto for the hit cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” that surrendered freely to rock ‘n’ roll as the show drew to a close.
But during a cover Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (which highlighted the kind of country roots this concert operated from), DeMarcus stopped the show to remark how the audience gave greater reaction to the tune than it did to any of Rascal Flatts’ own hits. But even the sense of playful disgust seemed choreographed.
Ultimately, though, the audience seemed to have a blast. Some of that was likely a reflection of the very brisk business being conducted in the lobby bar. Mostly, though, what was at work was a sense of anticipation being rewarded. The crowd would have likely taken a shine to whatever headliner was offered. What they got, though, seemed to genuinely thrill patrons up through the Opera House’s second balcony.
Texas singer Abby Anderson prefaced Rascal Flatts with a 40-minute set high on pop-fortified cheer, as evidenced by the perky kiss-off tune “I’m Good” and the coaxing of the audience to sing with her on an suitably sunny take on the Whitney Houston hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (reflecting another curious country muse).
The Lebanon-based sister duo Magnolia Vale opened with a set comprised mostly of good-natured covers of hits popularized by Dwight Yoakam, Miranda Lambert and The Judds
Three more Secret Sessions shows are heading to the Opera House in coming weeks – performances with announced headliners Justin Moore (on Sept. 22) and Kane Brown (Sept. 26) as well as another outing where the featured artist’s identity will stay under wraps until showtime (Oct. 1). Aside from a few single seats for the Moore concert, all of the shows are sold out.