Country outlaws who play it a little bit safe
Published: March 29, 2012 11:33AM
Updated: March 29, 2012 11:33AM
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Jason Aldean

New York • Eric Church came out in a puff of smoke, alone, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, at the beginning of his sold-out concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom this month, singing “Country Music Jesus”: “We need a second coming worse than bad/Some long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash.”

Church’s whiskey-soaked gospel is not quite the same as the squeaky-clean traditionalist orthodoxy that grips much of Nashville, Tenn., these days, but it is orthodoxy nonetheless, a belief in the fundamental roughness of country music, even its transgressive potential.

And yet in spite of Church’s modest success — a couple of gold albums, a robust touring life — the masculinity crisis in mainstream country continues unabated, with soft rock becoming a more relevant touchstone for the genre than its ragged roots. That in turn made for a new archetype: the approachable outlaw, who wants to tweak the system from within but who puts little at risk.

Church tells one side of that story. A strong songwriter with a steady sneer, he has infiltrated gradually, and now that he’s leaning more and more on rallying cry songs — as seen on his thoroughly enjoyable, slightly dumbed-down 2011 album “Chief” (EMI Nashville) — his influence is growing, an alert and savvy singer-songwriter working from the bottom up.

Approaching the problem from the top down is Jason Aldean, who performed what was essentially a 1980s hard-rock show to a sold-out Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., on Saturday. Aldean is country’s newest arena star, a story notable for his signing to an independent label, Broken Bow Records. He’s also a romantic, unafraid of wide emotions, and a gentle vocal presence, even on his toughest songs.

But his songs are huge: Aldean prefers the anthemic and delivers wistful sentiments without shame. At this show he was spread wide topically, but not tonally. “Big Green Tractor” was an emphatic love song, and “Why” was emphatic about rescuing collapsed love. He sang “Don’t You Wanna Stay” with Lauren Alaina, one of his openers who has come a long way from shyly demurring from singing overly intimate songs on “American Idol” last year. The original version, featuring Kelly Clarkson, is one of his biggest hits.

He’s not a pure outlaw, by any means, but he’s been grandfathered in thanks to his first single, “Hicktown,” from 2005, when making a blowsy, gritty song about rural pride felt like an intervention, even if Aldean always appeared a little too clean for the work. “Hicktown” was his closer at this show, a rumbling end to a raucous night that ended with several bullets of country celebration: “My Kinda Party,” “She’s Country,” “Dirt Road Anthem.” His current hit, “Fly Over States,” was a celebration of the places disdained by the first-class passengers the song parodies — it’s his savviest take on the subject.

But Aldean sings these songs smoothly, just like his others. He’s a modest vocalist but still a strong one, without a signature tone to help him stand out. It wasn’t a surprise when, late in the show, he covered “Time Marches On” by Tracy Lawrence, calling that plainspoken singer “one of the biggest vocal influences on me.”

That song came at the end of a short run of songs mid-set alongside his main opening act, the frat-country crooner Luke Bryan, perennially in search of a good time, and one of the few country stars of the moment who make Aldean sound forceful. Earlier Bryan had closed his own set with “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” weaving Beyonce and Rihanna’s names into the song and calling a woman up to the stage for some shaking, her and her 2-year-old daughter.

The difference between Church and Aldean can be captured in their choice of openers. Bryan has a soft, often ineffectual touch, but he’s appealingly loose and charismatic. Church, on the other hand, chose Brantley Gilbert, who like Church is a songwriter as well, and also a deceptively sharp one, a fact obscured by the outright muscularity of the riffs that knock those words around.

Gilbert was a bruiser during his set, built like a nose tackle and dressed like a disco ranch hand, with aggressively shredded jeans. A sometimes artless singer, he was often strangling the words, which was a shame, because his two albums — originally released on the independent label Average Joes and reissued last year by the Valory Music Co., a division of Big Machine, also home to Taylor Swift — are grounded and impressively tuneful. Gilbert has strong instincts that can take him beyond power country into more vivid territory.

That’s something like the compromise Church has arrived at. But where Gilbert could slim down his songs a touch, Church has been building bulk, each of his albums more rugged than the one before it.

His show was intense and intoxicating, one chant-driven statement of purpose after the next. “How ‘Bout You” was top-notch base-rallying, and on “Drink in My Hand,” manna for a soused crowd, he was verily vibrating with energy. Church’s persona approaches louse, and veers toward sleaze without ever quite getting there. Even his love songs like “Love Your Love the Most” were delivered with belligerent edges. And “I’m Gettin’ Stoned,” a skeptical number about marriage, showed that he hasn’t totally lost the wry humor he displayed on one of his earliest singles, “Two Pink Lines,” from 2006.

Church doesn’t quite benefit from the hard stance-taking of modern country, but he’s learned to adapt. His encore covered all bases, “Smoke a Little Smoke” for the would-be outlaws “These Boots” for the traditionalists — dozens in the crowd held their boots (and sneakers) in the sky during it — and then his current single, “Springsteen,” maybe the most direct, vulnerable song of Church’s career. He sang it from behind a piano, and it soothed the rowdy crowd.