The mood Morgan Wallen established when he walked onstage Friday evening at Rupp Arena was unexpectedly subdued. Here was arguably the biggest country music sensation of 2021 playing alone at a keyboard, serving up a wistful ballad (“Sand in My Boots”) with almost conversational intimacy. The sold-out crowd of 13,000 bought into the chill immediately and instinctively by singing along.
Hey, this guy is a star. Where was the rock ‘n’ roll? Where was the Spinal Tap light show? Where was the pomp and electricity that always seem to be central to how modern country celebs approach live performance concerts?
All in good time, folks. As soon as Wallen’s Mr. Sensitive moment subsided, the keyboard vanished, a six-member band charged on and the previous whispery reserve gave way to a sonic cyclone. With the hip-hop flavored “Somethin’ Country” and beat-savvy “Up Down” off and running, Wallen got to play rock star. Here you had the pomp, the electricity and the Spinal Tap pyrotechnics in full glory.
Whew. For a moment there, it was if country music had actually turned country again. Still, for the better part of his one-and-three-quarter-hour performance – the first of a three-night run of sold-out Rupp dates – Wallen remained in a comfortable, mid-tempo mode, openly embracing a level of pop lyricism that has no doubt contributed to his rapid and sustained stardom.
“7 Summers,” for instance, breezed along with a light, melodic sway that would fit most any AM radio format while “Chasin’ You” slowed the groove, but not the bright, open pop feel. As a singer, Wallen is no Caruso, but his vocals were serviceable in the extreme in bringing this spacious sound to life.
Even when the temperament grew bolder, the show remained steady. Wallen’s hit cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” (one of the few tunes in the setlist the headliner didn’t write or co-write) and the smalltown anthem “Still Goin’ Down” may have headed down more bittersweet avenues thematically, but they still sounded right at home as part of the country-pop joyride Wallen took with the Rupp crowd. It was a journey enjoyed with the sun shining, the windows down and the spectre of more intrusive country gimmickry held at bay.
Morgan Wallen opening acts: Hardy, Ernest
Show openers Hardy (just Hardy) and Ernest (just Ernest) have been songwriting companions of Wallen for some time, so their placement on the Rupp bill revealed more of a personal investment on the part of the headliner than the usual triple-decker country show that strives to push outside up-and-comers as support acts. Hardy, in fact, also opened for Wallen’s last Lexington visit – a February 2019 outing at Manchester Music Hall. Hardy and Ernest returned for single-song cameos during the latter half of Wallen’s performance on Friday.
During his 45-minute set, Hardy seemed determined to come off as a modern country equal of Kid Rock. He proved a better singer and more physically engaging performer, but, like Rock, the endless bravado got old.
Though his music regularly employed pop-metal guitar crunch as a promotional tool, the singer seemed determined to stress his country credentials. The set opening “Rednecker” laid the machismo on pretty thick. “You might think that you’re redneck, but I’m rednecker than you,” he sang. Whatever you say, pal. The closing “Unapologetically Country as Hell” was as ridiculous as its title suggests - a shameless, crowd-baiting, chest-beating exercise the Rupp audience nonetheless took to openly.
Ernest was something quite different. Versed in hip-hop and other non-Nashville inspirations, he performed a loose, inviting 25-minute opening set with a novel power trio design: acoustic guitar (which he supplied), electric guitar and drums. No bass. No keyboards. No frills.
Like Wallen, pop references abounded, like the late ‘70s Fleetwood Mac accents that highlighted “Bottle’s ‘Bout Dead.” Following a solo acoustic medley of works he penned for and with others (including the early Wallen record “If I Knew Me”), he served up a genuine gem – a tune titled “American Rust” that placed a knack for everyman narratives, and an equally unspoiled 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 concept.
Who: Country music star Morgan Wallen performs two concerts
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4-5
Tickets: Sold out