The sights and at least some of the sounds were different Friday night at Rupp Arena.
Oh, we're not talking about what transpired onstage. That was given over to country music, which has pretty much become an exclusive commodity as far as concert entertainment is concerned at the venue
No, the star of the evening, even above the nicely streamlined performance of headliner Jason Aldean, was the audience — all 18,000-plus members of it. Everywhere you looked there were people, and it was a glorious sight to behold.
That the massive turnout — the biggest at a Rupp concert in nearly six years — locked solidly in with Aldean's meat-and-potatoes electric country made the experience all the merrier. But in an economic climate that has gone from bad to only moderately better and a concert climate that has been, for the most part, disastrous, watching a young indie country act smoke all major name competitors at the box office (the attendance shot way past double what Rascal Flatts brought to Rupp in January) and earn such an easygoing and complete trust with an audience of this size was an honest thrill.
Explaining why such a no-frills artist as Aldean packed Rupp to the rafters Friday night isn't easy. His performance was pretty well devoid of production gimmicks and overly ornate staging. His onstage sound was created not by a battalion of players and singers, but by a tight and resourceful five-member band. And aside from a playful berating of a fan near the front of the stage for yacking away on a cell phone during the show, the singer kept the chat to a bare minimum and plowed through a set with his Big Green Tractor — the namesake means of industrial transport behind a massive 2009 Aldean hit that was dispensed with early into the 85-minute set — seemingly on overdrive.
For those craving Southern inflected, multi-guitar rockers, Aldean had an army of them, from the big beat charge of Johnny Cash to the '90s alt-pop flavor of Relentless to a grunge-driven revision of Hicktown. All three songs were played consecutively with an effective but unassuming drive near the end of the performance.
For those searching out the obvious pop references that accented Aldean's music, there were hearty covers of the Bryan Adams power ballad Heaven and, in curious contrast, an encore take on Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead of Alive.
But the most satisfying moments came when Aldean let his roots show by way of a pair of ballads performed back-to-back early in the program. Specifically, Why (Aldean's 2005 breakout hit) and The Truth were cleanly crafted songs that the singer injected with an almost devout sense of desperation that never dissolved into the sort of manufactured pathos that has become a standard operating device among contemporary country vocalists.
It was a telling moment in a concert that prided itself on understated integrity. Judging by the turnout, the less-is-more design paid off handsomely.
A pair of more erratic sets by Eric Church and the JaneDear girls opened the evening. Church's faith in high octane guitar crunch and Steve Earle-style narratives was initially intriguing but ultimately derivative of the source inspirations it so purposely mirrored. These Boots became a hoot, though, when Church held one of his boots in the air as a trophy, causing many audience patrons to do the same.
"I don't care," said a female at my right to her male companion in what became the audience quote of the night. "I'm not taking off my shoes for this guy."
The JaneDear girls came off as a lopsided vocal duo with similarly rockish overtones. Utah-born fiddler/mandolinist Susie Brown was a ball of puckish performance fire, especially on the set-opening Shotgun Girl. But Texan Danelle Leverett seemed tentative, like an artist playing an ill-fitting support role instead of commanding the set as a co-leader.