Mood Morgan wallen established when he took the stage on Friday night at Rupp Arena was unexpectedly suffocated. It was arguably the biggest country music sensation of 2021 playing alone on the keyboard, serving up a melancholy ballad (“Sand in My Boots”) with almost conversational intimacy. The sold-out crowd of 13,000 people immediately and instinctively embraced the chill singing.
Hey, this guy is a star. Where was the rock ‘n’ roll? Where was the Spinal Tap light show? Where was the glitz and the electricity that still seem to be central to how modern country celebrities approach live concerts?
Later, friends. As soon as Wallen’s Mr. Sensitive moment subsided, the keyboard disappeared, a party of six charged, and the previous whispered supply gave way to a sonic cyclone. With hip-hop-flavored “Somethin ‘Country” and fast-paced “Up Down”, Wallen was able to play the role of rock star. Here you had the Spinal Tap pump, electricity and pyrotechnics in full glory.
Phew. For a while, it was if country music was back to country. Yet for most of his hour-and-three-quarter performance – the first in a three-night series of sold-out dates – Wallen remained in a comfortable mid-tempo mode, openly embracing a level of one. Pop lyricism which undoubtedly contributed to its rapid and sustained fame.
“7 Summers”, for example, featured a slight melodic sway that would suit most AM radio formats while “Chasin ‘You” slowed down the groove, but not the bright, open pop feel. As a singer, Wallen is no Caruso, but his voice has been extremely helpful in bringing that spacious sound to life.
Even as the temper grew bolder, the spectacle remained stable. Wallen’s hit cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” (one of the few tracks on the setlist that the headliner didn’t write or co-write) and the small town anthem ” Still Goin ‘Down’ may have taken more bittersweet avenues thematically, but they still sounded like home as part of the country-pop ride Wallen took with the Rupp crowd. It was an enjoyed trip with the sun shining, the windows down, and the specter of a more intrusive country gadget held at bay.
Opening act for Morgan Wallen: Hardy, Ernest
Show openers Hardy (just Hardy) and Ernest (just Ernest) have been Wallen’s writing companions for some time. which strives to push newcomers out as acts of support. Hardy, in fact, also opened for Wallen’s last visit to Lexington – a February 2019 outing at Manchester Concert Hall. Hardy and Ernest returned for one-song cameos during the second half of Wallen’s performance on Friday.
During his 45-minute set, Hardy seemed determined to present himself as a modern country equal to Kid Rock. He has proven to be a better singer and a more physically engaging performer, but, like rock, the endless bravado has aged.
Although his music regularly used pop-metal guitar crunch as a promotional tool, the singer seemed determined to emphasize his country credentials. The opening of the whole “Rednecker” laid down quite thick machismo. “You might think you’re a redneck, but I’m more redneck than you,” he sang. Whatever you say, mate. The closing “Unapologeically Country as Hell” was as ludicrous as the title suggests – a shameless, crowd-pulling, chest-hitting exercise that Rupp’s audience nonetheless took openly.
Ernest was something quite different. Well versed in hip-hop and other non-Nashville inspirations, he performed a loose and inviting 25-minute opening set with a new power trio design: acoustic guitar (which he provided), electric guitar and drums. No bass. No keyboards. No frills.
Like Wallen, pop references abounded, like the Fleetwood Mac accents of the late ’70s that underlined “Bottle’s’ Bout Dead.” After a solo acoustic mix of works he wrote for and with others (including Wallen’s debut album “If I Knew Me”), he served up a real gem – a tune titled “American Rust” which placed a knack for all-male storytelling, and an equally intact sense of storytelling with which to convey them, front and center. It was a song that sounded, of all things, like country music. What a design.
Who: Country music star Morgan Wallen gives two concerts
Or: Rupp Arena
When: 7:30 p.m. December 4-5