by Sam Wardle
Darius Rucker & Rascal Flatts
Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek, Raleigh
Sunday, August 1
When I was in high school, three guys I knew started a band. These guys were not cool: They wore socks with sandals and went to church about 17 times a week. Maybe one of them had smoked one cigarette, but I doubt it. They gave themselves a biblical name and proceeded to rock. Those of us laboring under the mistaken impression that we were much cooler were rather surprised when their band developed a huge local following. Girls flocked to their shows. I didn’t have shows.
Rascal Flatts is that band times 1,000. They’ve sold a bazillion records, but they’re not even living in the same time zone as “cool.” Their music lacks even a whiff of cynicism. They sound happy. Lead singer Gary LeVox (real name: Gary Wayne Vernon, which is not cool) reaches for the rafters with every single note of every saccharine ballad. Their 2006 chart-topper, “Me and My Gang," bears the notable distinction of making the Hell’s Angels sound lame. Even their endorsements aren’t cool: These Rascals have a line of clothing at JCPenney (advertised in a commercial before Sunday night’s show) and special menu items at Denny’s.
When I told people I was going to see Gary, Joe Don and the boys play at the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek in Raleigh on Sunday night, my polite friends forced a smile and said something like, “That’s not for me.” (In case you’re wondering, that’s code among music aficionados for, “I’m taking you off my speed dial and de-friending you on Facebook.”) Of course, it didn’t help my cause that Darius Rucker, Hootie himself, was opening up the show. Hootie and the Blowfish? Not cool. Solo reinvention as a pop country musician, especially after that Burger King commercial? No way.
As it turns out, one can put on a fantastic show without bearing even the faintest resemblance to James Dean. Rucker, whose music I can scarcely tolerate on record, proved that he may have learned a thing or two about performance from his days as a mid-’90s megastar. Rucker alternated between crowd-pleasing walks down Blowfish lane and performances of new material, pausing only to thank the crowd and country radio for accepting him as one of their own. It’s worth noting the racial subtext to that gratitude: Rucker was the only black man I saw out of the thousands in attendance.
Halfway through “Let Her Cry,” Rucker handed his baseball cap to a wheelchair-bound fan in the front row. You gotta like that. Sure, Rucker’s music lacks depth. But he managed, as a performer, to be both friendly and energetic. He gives the impression of being a spectacularly fun fishing buddy. Rucker closed his set with a stunning country cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” It wasn’t entirely clear if much of the crowd was familiar with the tune, but the rendition was so surprisingly inventive that it didn’t seem to matter.
Rascal Flatts took the stage in an explosion of smoke and sparks and launched into “Summer Nights,” an insidiously catchy country rock number. (FYI: “Summer Nights,” like many other Flatts hits, has product placements written into the lyrics.) It was impossible to stay seated. Even the roadies on break who’d taken up a few seats in my row were dancing.
Throughout the next hour, the high energy abated only once, when LeVox left the stage. I don’t know if his voice was tiring, or if band politics require that he relinquish the spotlight for a few minutes each night to his less entertaining bandmates, but he was missed. Guitarist Joe Don Rooney and multi-instrumentalist Jay DeMarcus engaged in some trite, obviously rehearsed banter about “front porch singing” before performing “Lean On Me” with the help of a sequined grand piano that lowered from the sky. Having witnessed the occasional authentic Southern front porch sing myself, I can assure you that it almost never involves a sequined grand piano lowered from the sky.
When LeVox returned, DeMarcus and Rooney, along with the five or so other rascals on stage, added great support. They were professional, on key and on time, but they couldn’t match LeVox’s vocal fireworks. LeVox’s voice is simply so good he can make a bad lyric sound inspirational. If the true test of a singer is how well he sounds in a massive arena, accompanied by a deafening wall of sound, LeVox passes. Sure, he sometimes got a little carried away with vocal improvisations, but, when having that much fun, it’s hard to mind.
His one misstep was the stab he took at covering the Beatles’ “Revolution” in the encore. If there was any doubt, Levox and Rascal Flatts proved once and for all that cool doesn’t suit them by attempting one of the coolest rock songs ever recorded. Luckily, they closed the show with another cover: the delightfully catchy, unrestrained Tom Cochrane single “Life is a Highway.” I’ll be humming it for days.