American contempo-country juggernaut Lady Antebellum is easily one of Nashville’s biggest exports. Since its inception in 2006, the trio — comprised of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood — has wracked up fistfuls of Grammy Awards and blockbuster chart-topping singles.
This, despite being roundly blasted by critics for being "aggressively bland," as one writer so vividly put it. The main problem with the studio versions of Lady A tunes lies in their production: they’re buffed to a sheen at the expense of, well, personality. And while there’s nothing to actively hate about them, there’s nothing to really love about them, either. It’s more like, "well, that was pleasant and didn’t totally offend me. I wouldn’t necessarily change the station if this came on the radio." Frustratingly, Lady Antebellum often blends in when it could stand out. This band is more talented than many of its mid-tempo, mild-mannered, money-makers let on. (Encouragingly, the trio’s latest chart-topper, 2013’s Golden, is a step in the right direction. Less glossy, more risky, we likey.)
But live? Lady Antebellum is anything but bland. The band stretched its legs and let loose for 8,000 adoring fans at the MTS Centre on a snowy Wednesday night.
Taking a small stage near the soundboard at 20 minutes after 9 p.m. to a roar of approval, the threesome kicked things off with a one-two punch from the new record: the hook-heavy, Lumineers-indebted Compass — a showpiece for Lady A’s dulcet harmonies — and the rocking Better Off (Now That You’re Gone), which they took the mainstage for. Our Kind of Love, off 2010’s Need You Now, came next and seamlessly integrated the chorus from Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. That memorable moment was followed up with some forgettable ones later in the set, namely Just a Kiss and the cloyingly sunny Perfect Day.
Lady Antebellum gives the people what they want, and played hits from all over its catalogue, including an amped up rendition of its very first single, Love Don’t Live Here and the pretty, down-home American Honey — which had some healthy accompaniment from the audience.
Still, it was the songs from Golden that shone the brightest. The Scott-sung It Ain’t Pretty — a surprisingly beautiful ballad about a bad night at the bar — may well be Lady A’s strongest song lyrically, and it was easily among the night’s standouts. The funk-inflected Downtown was another highlight. It’s clear the band feels energized by the new record, which translated to other songs; the band’s first No. 1 single, I Run To You, sounded renewed.
Lady Antebellum has been known to throw a few covers into the mix. The band brought its openers — Kacey Musgraves and Kip Moore — for a fun, Opry-style version of Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. After closing the main set with the athemic We Owned The Night, the band returned to the stage for an encore with its own well-covered super-hit, Need You Now. The show closed with a high-energy take on Avicii’s folk-meets-EDM smash Wake Me Up.
It’s a bit telling that Lady Antebellum elected to close its show with someone else’s single, despite having a pile of its own. But if Golden is any indication, Lady A will write its own Wake Me Up yet.
Touring with Lady A is the much buzzed-about Kacey Musgraves, who recently took home Grammys for best country song and best country album for her major-label debut, 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park. (Her name should have been the one on the ticket.)
Many critics have weirdly positioned the Texan rising star as a sort of anti-Taylor Swift — because she has dark hair? — but the two are completely different songwriters. While Musgraves’ tunes are every bit as catchy as Swift’s, they skew edgier, funnier. Musgraves is like the Jennifer Lawrence of country music: laid-back and effortlessly cool — her cover of TLC’s hit No Scrubs was on point. From set opener The Trailer Song, to the bluesy stomp of Blowin’ Smoke and the single Follow Your Arrow, there’s a refreshing directness to her lyrics.
In straight-ahead, unadorned performances absent of vocal acrobatics, her songs eschewed arena spectacle — but she often looked uncomfortable on such a big stage. Still, her set was about well-written songs, beautifully sung. Her performance of the Grammy-winning Merry Go ’Round, a stunning ballad that paints an incisive picture of small-town live — "We get bored, so, we get married/Just like dust, we settle in this town" — was particularly striking. We’ll hear from this fresh face again in August, when she opens for Katy Perry.
After Musgraves, Georgia native Kip Moore — who, along with his band, arrived at the MTS Centre 10 minutes before he went on due to weather and customs delays — turned in a set of brawny, bro-friendly country rockers about beer, trucks and pretty girls, underscored by Moore’s raw, ragged vocal timbre. While it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, it did get the beers in the air. And when Moore slowed things down for the Valentine of a ballad Hey Pretty Girl — which gave way into a cover of Stand By Me — it sounded like Justin Bieber concert up in there.