I incessantly subject my two youngest children to my love of country music. Granted, they are a captive audience. Granted, they can’t reach the dials on the car radio and are forbidden to touch my stereo at home. But unlike my older boys, they genuinely seem interested in the genre, and we have wonderful times singing together as we drive home after a long day. Our favorite group is Rascal Flatts, although, admittedly, our three-part harmony when trying to sing power ballads like “What Hurts the Most” is, well, unharmonic. Needles to say, the boys were very impressed that I had the chance to go see the band during their Thaw Out tour, which played at the Times Union Center last week.
Wow, what a show. The set itself was a marvel, with three doors high above and staircases descending to the stage itself. Rascal Flatts being a trio, it figured that they—Gary LeVox (lead singer), Jay DeMarcus (bass, keyboards, vocals), and Joe Don Rooney (guitar and vocals)—would each come down a separate staircase, but what was surprising was their Blue Man Group-style attack on a troika of drums. Then the band swooped into a rocking version of “Why Wait,” before kicking it into higher gear with songs like “Summer Nights.”
Rascal Flatts have had 11 No. 1 hits in their career, and I’m pretty sure they shared each one with a packed house of adoring fans who often sang along. This can be annoying, but not here, especially when the audience sang along to “Bless the Broken Road,” turning the Marcus Hummon classic into a collective triumph of love over loss. The resulting group sing of “My Wish,” which ESPN fans will recognize, echoed with inspiration. Even with the throngs of people, LeVox’s distinctive and powerful voice was first and foremost.
This was a show in which musicality and production values shared equal time with sheer goodwill and bantering with the audience. They performed literally on the lip of the stage, shaking hands and high fiving. Brad Paisley has said on more than one occasion that country fans are the best and most loyal, and I’d defy anybody in attendance Thursday night to question that sentiment. The fans loved their Rascal Flatts; the band respected the people who buy their records and shelled out money for tickets. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was the one-two punch of encores: “I Won’t Let Go” had people simultaneously tearing up and holding their heads high, and “Not the Leaving Kind” featured a parade of servicemen and women striding down those staircases to stand at attention at the front of the audience.
Opener Hunter Hayes, a mere teenager whose big hit “Storm Warning” is No. 15 on the Billboard country chart, was personable and demonstrated versatile guitar skills. Then it was this year’s comeback kid, Sara Evans, looking slinky in tight jeans and heels, whose powerhouse vocals delivered strong performances of older hits like “Perfect” before showing her subtler side with the Rod Stewart remake of “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” Evans chatted up the crowd before delving into her megahit “I Get a Little Bit Stronger.” Then, during the Rascal Flatts portion of the show, she showed up to take on the Natasha Bedenfield part in the soaring jilted-lover song “Easy.” All in all, it was an outstanding night for country, both the music and its fans.