Sandy • Aided by an electrifying opening set from the under-rated Jake Owen as well as one of the best backing bands in any genre, Jason Aldean delivered a solid, entertaining country-rock set Saturday night with a potent emphasis on the rock part of that tandem.
Two years ago at the Maverik Center, the 36-year-old Georgian seemed a little flat, but that might have been because expectations were so high after roping multiple high-profile awards from the myriad country music associations. Saturday, Aldean was more animated (with his surprisingly high-pitched talking voice) and connected more with the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium, which appeared to be far from sold-out, but still healthily loud. Two years ago, Aldean was statuesque; Saturday, he moved around more in his denim shirt and jeans in the thankfully mild temperatures.
But Aldean’s appeal is not tied to gimmicks. Like Bob Dylan, who performs this coming week at Usana Amphitheatre, the key to Aldean’s success as a live act is not because he is a gregarious butt-kisser, but because the song is king. Aldean sings with conviction, and his believability — even though he no longer pens his own songs — comes through. Like Dylan, he won’t high kick onstage and act like a clown who is forcing it. But the songs will kick you in the gut, and his stage design was simple; aside from eight impressive rotating hi-res screens up in the rafters, the stage was lined with a phalanx of amps — for music first and only.
A big reason for that is because of Aldean’s long-time road band, most of whom have been with him since day on, Aldean told the audience. Any singer, from James Taylor to Ozzy Osbourne (with apologies to Zakk Wylde), would be lucky to have the dynamic quintet of Rich Redmond, Tully Kennedy, Kurt Allison, Jay Jackson and Jack Sizemore by their side, with the band able to navigate the terrain of Aldean’s slower numbers (such as “The Truth,” while unleashing clean-sounding fire and crunch during Aldean’s bread-and-butter rock songs (such as “She’s Country” and “My Kinda Party”).
The only quibbles I had with Aldean’s set was that the microphone on his catwalk never seemed to work properly, always muffling his voice. And I never like the integration of recorded music with live music, so I was unimpressed with the videotaped appearance of Kelly Clarkson during their duet of “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” She even waved to the audience, which irritated me. And, because it was a stadium show, folks in the cheaper seats were only able see ants onstage. Worst of all, Aldean’s concert was less than 90 minutes long — an egregious offense during a stadium show.
Though Owen’s opening set was about as country as a Dubai high-rise, he still showed an infectious enthusiasm that elevated his drinking party songs setting the stage for Aldean. It was the first time I have ever seen a keytar at a country show, and rather than act embarrassed by the 1980s relic, the 31-year-old, long-haired Florida native gleefully led his band through a raucous cover of Van Halen’s “Jump.” Better yet, Owen dared to mess around with his best-known hit, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” by inserting the theme song of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” into the middle of the song. It doesn’t seem like that would have worked — the subject matter of the two songs couldn’t be more different — but Owen willed it into one of the highlights of the entire evening.