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As the three members of Lady Antebellum left the stage before their encore at Staples Center on Tuesday, their backing band briefly capped “Looking for a Good Time” with a rip-roaring, Telecaster-style instrumental coda. It was notable for being the only 30 seconds of the group’s 85-minute set that any visiting foreigner unaware of our sometimes arbitrary genre distinctions would have immediately pegged as “country music” — which is not to say that Lady Antebellum don’t deserve their current perch atop the format/lifestyle. (Or nearly atop it; there’s still that other twang-meister, Taylor Swift, to contend with.)
Indeed, there’s a long-accepted Nashville tradition of “country that doesn’t really sound like ‘country’ — roll over, Charlie Rich, and tell Eddie Arnold the news — and as long as adult contemporary continually fails to become a genre with its own devoted fan base, awards, customs and countdowns, there’s no shame in country keeping the soft-rocking, Southern-bred Lady As of the world under its expansive wing.
“All of y’all look famous, to a Georgia boy like me!” Charles Kelley told the sold-out audience midset, sounding down-home for just a second. It didn’t feel too disingenuously folksy, even if Kelley had just seconds earlier reminded everyone they were revisiting the site of their own most stardom-establishing moment. “Two years ago, we won five Grammys in this room!” he added. They’ve been on such a successful tear that you have to forgive Kelley for forgetting it was just last year that they picked up quintuple Grammys, including all-genre record and song of the year trophies for “Need You Now,” arguably one of the best country or pop singles of the modern era.
If you really wanted to do some interesting math, consider that it’s only been four years since Lady Antebellum were playing The Mint (capacity: 200), over on Pico Boulevard (albeit a very-hard-to-get-into Mint, to which this reviewer, who listened from outside the club’s front door, can attest). Their meteoric rise to a mostly sold-out arena tour — where it’s only surprising their people didn’t book a second night at Staples — is largely due to a succession of great singles, but also great chemistry. Nashville had long frowned on bands or duos that dispersed the star power between two true front-people, but it’s one of those things that don’t work until they do, in a very big and lucrative way.
You’d have to look back to Brooks & Dunn for the last example of Music Row would-be solo acts coming together into a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts partnership. And just as Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks are now finding how tough a road it can be to hoe as solo acts, it’s tough to imagine Kelley and fellow frontperson Hillary Scott commanding a venue any larger than Club Nokia on their own. Sexy as they both are, he’s taller and skinnier than the young country hunks making it on their own right now, and she’s got a more womanly figure and is a little less of a natural grandstander than the genre’s other female stars. But put them together, and you can pretty much skip the Nokia Theatre middleman stage.
Amusingly, if you were sitting in the right spot on the Staples floor, you could see Scott’s groom of less than three months, drummer Scott Tyrell, situated right between Scott and Kelley as they sang to one another, as if chaperoning to make sure the chemistry in all those smoldering ballads remained faked. (The exultant look on Tyrell’s face as he pounded away made it seem like he’s not too concerned.)
Kelley and Scott are smart in creating visual dynamics that illustrate how they relate to each other, as well as to the trio’s third partner, guitarist and non-lead-singer Dave Haywood. They save the staring-into-each-other’s-eyes dramatizations for a few special occasions — like, obviously the climactic “Need You Now.” They pulled the same face-to-face gambit on “Wanted You More,” a ballad of unrequitedness from their third and latest album, Own the Night, gazing at each other longingly and accusatorily on a ramp in the middle of the audience … then turning their backs on each other to share their AC angst with opposite sides of the audience. Hayward, who’s usually out there striking poses and mixing it up with the other two, wisely hung back in the shadows for that one.
The Staples crowd skewed heavily toward the 25 to 40 demographic and was light on teenagers, though that’s not because the act’s material isn’t family-friendly. Lady A did include an ode to the possibility of a one-night-stand on their debut album, in the form of “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” which is still their set-closer. But they’ve shied away from anything remotely approaching lust since then (if you don’t count the drunk-dialing theme of “Need You Now”). Perhaps deliberately, but probably just ironically, “Lookin’ for a Good Time” was immediately preceded in the set by the recent single “Just a Kiss,” a veritable ode to chastity in the early stages of a relationship.
The only real dud the group laid on the crowd was “Stars Tonight,” a rocker from their sophomore album that was too transparently conceived as a “we need a more upbeat song for the set” kind of number. They’re ballad-reliant enough that they have to include just about every uptempo tune they’ve ever recorded to keep the energy from flagging (especially after they’ve gotten the audience riled during intermission with a video-screen dance contest that offers fans who do the wildest moves to LMFAO a chance to move up to the pit). While all three singles from their 2008 debut album were solid, fast numbers, all the songs they’ve put out to radio since then — the good ones, anyway — have been on the languid side. The challenge for their fourth effort will be to come up with a potential live rouser that’s as moving as “I Run to You” and not as break-out-the-lighters-cheezoid as “Stars Tonight.”
Best part of the show? Without question, a midset acoustic hootenanny that began with “American Honey,” their sweetest single, and then had opening acts Darius Rucker and Thompson Square returning to the stage to join them for The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” and The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” This part of the show could easily have gone on a few minutes or songs longer without anyone objecting, though it did get extended on this particular occasion by One Republic’s Ryan Tedder also coming out to join them on his own “Good Life.”
Lady Antebellum are six weeks into their American tour, a fairly epic trek that continues all the way through June 30 — including stops at Radio City Music Hall on May 3 and 4 — before moving on to Europe for the month of July.
We Owned the Night
Our Kind of Love
Love This Pain
Dancin’ Away With My Heart
Wanted You More
Love Don’t Live Here Anymore
Midnight Rider (with Thompson Square)
Black Water (with Darius Rucker and Thompson Square)
Good Life (with Ryan Tedder)
I Run to You
Just a Kiss
Lookin’ for a Good Time
Need You Now
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