No one expects a country-music concert to be as over-the-top spectacular as the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. (Frankly, Taylor Swift’s show came close but it was confined to an arena and a slightly smaller budget and cast.) But no one ever expected to hear Lady Antebellum mentioned in the same sentence as the energetic spectacle.
No big country act has been as studiously middle-of-the-road as Lady A. But the Nashville trio has completely revamped its stage act to the extent that Friday’s concert at Target Center was a surprising triumph. It’s hard to remember the last country headliner that upgraded its presentation so impressively and dramatically from one arena tour to the next.
Not that Lady A’s performance Friday would give Swift, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley or anyone else much competition for the entertainer of the year trophy from any of the 900 country-music associations. But to go from a yawn to a wow is, like, WOW!
It wasn’t just a case of co-lead singer Charles Kelley drinking too much Red Bull, as he joked during the 90-minute concert. This trio — best known for the 2010 drunk-dial smash “Need You Now” that led to five Grammys — has made a concerted effort to add up-tempo tunes to the set list, including covers of rocker Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and Avicii’s dance-pop explosion “Wake Me Up.”
But, more importantly, Kelley, co-lead singer Hillary Scott and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood seemed refreshed and re-energized. Delaying the tour by two months (they were supposed to have been here in early December) because Scott had given birth to a girl turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one.
Despite this injection of new life, Lady A hasn’t really come up with stronger new material. Last year’s “Golden” album was a largely invisible collection of pop-country with a bit more up-tempo material and a taste of folk-rock; it didn’t earn nominations for Grammys or other awards. That could explain why Target Center was only half full — maybe 8,000 people — compared to a sellout crowd of 13,500 there in 2012 for Lady A.
“Compass,” the current single from “Golden,” opened Friday’s show, with the trio situated on a small stage at the back of the arena. With its mandolin and anthemic chorus, the song sounded like Mumford & Sons & Lady A. The ensuing “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” echoed Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and then the pop-rock boogie of “Our Kind of Love” ended with a snippet of Daft Punk’s dance-pop Grammy sensation, “Get Lucky.”
With all these references to rock and pop music, you might get the sense that Lady A isn’t very country — save for their Nashville addresses. That’s true. The closest the trio, backed by a twang-free quintet, came to acknowledging country traditions was “And the Radio Played,” a salute to their favorites including Willie Nelson, George Strait and Shania Twain.
Lady A did acknowledge Minneapolis by breaking into a spontaneous snippet of Prince’s “Kiss” and Kelley announcing he was going to sample a local whiskey — he then named 2 Gingers — after the show. Scott didn’t say anything about her pop roots but her outfits spoke volumes, with her series of black frocks (the first one decorated with sequined flowers) that seemed more Stevie Nicks than Wynonna Judd.
Of course, what’s sold as country music in 2014 comes in various flavors. Kacey Musgraves, who has the current No. 1 country album and just grabbed Grammys for best country album and song, opened the show with her witty, sweet-voiced country-folk ditties that discuss topics (like same-sex love and agnosticism) that are seldom heard on country radio. The other opening act, the raspy voiced Kip Moore, came across like Bruce Springsteen playing Bon Jovi for, well, rednecks.