After blasting the hip-hop-styled pop smashes "Old Town Road" and "I Like It" over the sound system, country superstar Thomas Rhett bounded onto the Xcel Energy Center stage Saturday night sporting a faded ZZ Top T-shirt, Red Wing work boots and a backward ball cap.
Then for the next 1 ¾ hours, the force behind 13 No. 1 country songs wore his Bruno Mars influences on his proverbial sleeve.
In other words, this was not Rhett's father's country. That was abundantly clear because his father, 1990s country star Rhett Akins, opened the evening with some old-school country that may have had similar subjects to his son's songs — they love their trucks — but Akins' tunes sounded a whole lot twangier.
Well, Dad never did headline a sold-out hockey arena with 15,000 young women singing along to nearly every song.
Rhett, 29, has a commanding hold on female fans with his mixture of romantic pop ballads and breezy R&B-lite, with about as much country sensibilities in subject matter as hip-hop influences in his vocal cadence. Throw in his dude-next-door personality and highly active but not hyperactive stage manner, and you wonder why Rhett isn't a finalist for entertainer of the year for 2019's CMA Awards.
Maybe it's because his breathless performance Saturday seemed a little too rushed and his y'all-free patter too pat. Do we really believe that the X is his favorite venue and Minneapolis-St. Paul his favorite market?
Rhett didn't seem sincere until he stood on a satellite stage at the end of a long runway and offered a new song he'd written the night before with his father. The singer apologized up front if he forgot a lyric or became too overcome with emotion. Then, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, he delivered "Things Dads Do," a sweet litany about how life changes when you become a dad and all the little joys and vicissitudes that come with it. The gentle ballad was much more impressive than another unreleased Rhett song, the unadulterated hip-hop "Put It on Ice," that a DJ played during intermission.
One of the things dads do, which Rhett neglected to mention in song, is bring the beer to their superstar sons midconcert. During "Beer Can't Fix," an island-flavored number from Rhett's fourth and current album "Center Point Road," he was joined by opening acts Dustin Lynch (in a Minnesota Wild jersey) and Russell Dickerson, which instantly kicked the party into full gear. Midsong, Akins came charging down the runway toting a small cooler full of beer — and the foursome hoisted their cans and harmonized in a splendid meeting of old and new schools of country music.
To keep the party vibe going, Rhett's band slid into some James Brown funk, and the Nashville star did a funky little dance before rapping the crowd-thrilling, horn-spiked "Vacation." He then took a quick detour into the piano ode to rejection, "Marry Me," one of his biggest hits, and declared "Die a Happy Man," a celebratory stroll with a soulful undercurrent.
The festiveness continued on the bouncy "Unforgettable," during which Rhett ran through a shower of metallic confetti on the runway. The Georgia native with an undistinctive, accent-free voice wrapped it up with "T-Shirt," an unabashed tip of the ball cap to that ball-cap wearing, soul-pop-hip-hop superstar, Bruno Mars.
In his opening set, the enthusiastic, deep-voiced Dickerson, 32, sporting Timberland boots, demonstrated his love of hip-hop, pop-soul and dance music, mashing up his own dance-happy "MGNO" with Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." And he had the female fans swooning to his No. 1 country ballad "Yours," which has become a favorite song at weddings.
Lynch, 34, sporting a Johnny Cash T-shirt plus cowboy hat and boots, seemed to be cut from a more conventional modern-country cloth. Sort of a Kenny Chesney wannabe, Lynch covered pivotal songs from his life — "Chattahoochee," "Something Like That," "What Was I Thinkin' " and "Somebody Like You" — that were more memorable than his own hits.
In his too-brief 20-minute set, Akins, 49, proved he could score his own winners in the '90s ("That Ain't My Truck," "Don't Get Me Started") as well as write contemporary triumphs ("Dirt on My Boots" for Jon Pardi and "Kiss My Country Ass" and "Boys 'Round Here" for Blake Shelton).
Akins' son, like father, seems destined for a long career.