Nashville or Virginia? Wouldn't hitmaking country band Old Dominion choose its home base or its origin state to celebrate the release of its fourth album? Nope, the reigning three-time Country Music Association vocal group of the year headed to the heartland.
After entertaining Friday in Des Moines, Old Dominion settled into Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake Saturday for the first of two sold-out nights. It was an up-beat, eminently likable "underplay" in a 2,100-seat theater by a prominent band that has headlined the much, much larger Minnesota State Fair grandstand and Winstock festival.
Old D showcased five songs from "Time, Tequila and Therapy" (which was released Friday) as well as its seven No. 1 country hits and a special Minnesota bonus — "I Can't," the group's collaboration with Caitlyn Smith, the Cannon Falls-reared singer. A hard-earned declaration about moving on, the song is actually Smith's current single featuring Old Dominion. The surprise guest brought verve and emotional fire, sparking Old D lead singer Matthew Ramsey to match her demonstrative passion.
Old Dominion is a different kind of country band — a songwriter's band. In concert, the quintet emphasizes songs over musicianship and showmanship. To be sure, the ever-smiley Ramsey breezed through the audience early in the evening and played a glittery silver guitar at one point, and Brad Tursi offered some tasty passages on electric and acoustic guitar. But Old Dominion lacked the musicality and depth of Zac Brown Band, the slick stagecraft and sweet harmonies of Rascal Flatts, and the virtuosity and humor of Old Crow Medicine Show.
For 90 minutes on Saturday, this felt like a two-man band. Old D – four beards and a blond dude – did not turn the spotlight on any of the other three musicians. Even when Ramsey made a fuss about keyboardist/guitarist Trevor Rosen, the blond dude, playing accordion on the summer smash "I Was on a Boat That Day," the accordion was barely audible in the sound mix. And when Ramsey introduced his bandmates at show's end, he announced only their first names as if these musicians were as familiar as John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Now in their 40s, the various individuals in Old Dominion headed to Nashville a couple of decades ago to make it as songwriters. Rosen helped write the Band Perry's "Better Dig Two" and Blake Shelton's "Sangria" while Ramsey co-penned Sam Hunt's "Make You Miss Me" and Kenny Chesney's "Save It for a Rainy Day."
One part beach, one part hip-hop and one part pop with hooks galore, Old Dominion's relentlessly cheery music is well-crafted modern country geared for the radio. The songs toss around some cliches ("candle in the wind," "jack of all trades master of none") and an occasional cringe-worthy lyric ("happy as a ukulele" in the new "Hawaii") but inevitably triumph with a catchy refrain.
The best lyric was the ballad-y "My Heart Is a Bar," a sobering metaphor with the punchline "and I'm closing it down." Other highlights were the sunny romantic road tune "One Man Band," the new "Don't Forget Me" with its dense, full sound, and "I Can't," spurred by Smith's potent Brenda Lee-like voice.
The breezy 19-song set begged for more ballads and more variety. Old D rocked out on "Can't Get You" with Tursi's aggressive guitar and on Chesney's spirited "Save It for a Rainy Day" with Ramsey truly owning it. However, the beguiling casualness — from the musicians' off-the-retail-rack outfits to the relaxed beachy vibe of the music — had an undeniable appeal on a heartland Saturday night.