It’s bad enough to pay full-meal prices for a soda at a concert, but when even the show’s headliner is selling you something, you know you’re being manipulated. Before the popular country artists Lady Antebellum took the stage at Ak-Chin Pavillon on Saturday night, the trio consisting of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood were hawking everything from bedding to home mortgages on the giant video screens at the venue.
Musicians have been endorsing products for years. Michael Jackson burned his hair in a Pepsi commercial. The Who and Led Zeppelin loan their catalogues to car companies. Bob Dylan has appeared in lingerie commercials, and Justin Timberlake wrote a McDonald’s jingle. We have yet to see any Victoria’s Secret push-up bras at Dylan’s merch table or Big Macs at a Timberlake show, but Lady Antebellum’s interior design line was on full display in a van outside the ticket booth. The commercial talks about authenticity, tradition, and values so you know the band isn’t just selling you a duvet. They’re selling a dream version of America. When they took the stage to the song “Long Stretch of Love,” it seemed like you were watching pitchmen pandering to Arizona’s red state values, not performers who want to put on a good show.
If you’re sensitive to advertising, it was a struggle to shake that image of three artists selling themselves out for bed sheets. Hearing the trio singing about drinking Crown to forget an ex-lover during “Hey Bartender,” it was clear you were at a country show, but the stage had a rock sensibility complete with a laser light show and slick graphics that lit up the HDTV screens behind the band.
The number “Just A Kiss,” a
duet between Scott and Kelley, rang false. With her husband playing drums in the background, Scott obviously isn’t going to plant one on her bandmate, but they could’ve sold it a little by making some eye contact. There is a long list of artists who’ve sung romantic songs without being actually together: Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisan. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The band can sell home furnishings, but they can’t sell the emotions they’re trying to express.
Throughout the show, Kelley played the role of slick ladies’ man who steals the audience’s heart and alcohol. He grabbed their cellphones to snap selfies with them, but forgot the name of his lead guitarist Jason “Slim” Gambill, who sported Pippi Longstocking-style braids. Both men were obviously embarrassed by the gaffe but all was forgiven when Kelley’s vocals brought the house down during an acoustic version of “Hello World,” which was performed on a smaller stage in the middle of the audience along with a touching cover of the Ed Sheeran hit “Thinking Out Loud.”
The authenticity the band talks about finally came across as Scott belted out a charming cover of Shania Twain’s “Any Man Of Mine.” As she sang about shimmying and shaking, she smiled, looked at the camera and a laughed a bit. She is obviously influenced by the ’90s crossover artist. Scott’s performance and winning personality is the reason the group resonates so strongly with listeners, even to those outside the heartland. She is Lady A’s greatest asset and undoubtedly why Madison Avenue has used the band for endorsements.
Since Steven Tyler is going country, why can’t country artists rock? The finale became raucous as Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt, who was dressed like a hillbilly Vanilla Ice, joined the band for “Walk This Way.” Hayes played the role of Joe Perry with admirable success. After the band ended on the party song “Looking For A Good Time,” the crowd chanted the title of the band’s biggest hit. They played the title track from their latest album 747 first, then finally sang their crossover hit "Need You Now” as the CGI raindrops fell behind them. “We Owned The Night” capped off the evening in stunning fashion. It was a well-produced effort with limited commercial interruption.
Last Night: Lady Antebellum with Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt at Ak-Chin Pavilion
The Crowd: Leather, lace, and frayed denim
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Random Notebook Dump: “As soon as I walked inside, I felt like I had stepped onto the set of the Footloose remake.”
Overheard in the Crowd: “Hunter Hayes' biceps are impressive, but the hour he spent on stage would have been better spent cleaning my bathroom than listening to his incessant chatter.”
Personal Bias: Lady Antebellum is one of the few country bands that by sheer popularity and the sincerity of “Need You Now” managed to meet my ears and admiration.