To most readers of this site, pop country is probably not the preferred genre of music. It’s probably on the same level as vapid top 40 music to many.
However, in West Lafayette, Ind., and Purdue University campus, it’s still a pretty big draw.
About 3,700 enthusiastically hooted and hollered for the “Hell on Wheels Tour,” which starred Brantley Gilbert, Uncle Kracker, Greg Bates and Brian Davis. Thursday night inside Purdue’s Elliott Hall of Music. Not nearly a sellout in terms of sales, the crowd’s energy more than filled the cavernous room. Purdue was the first stop for the tour.
Most in attendance would not have Hank Williams on their iTunes. It’s a sure bet Buck Owens would be a mystery to the very young, mostly female crowd. Gram Parsons was not played over the sound system in between sets. It was a lot of Journey, sadly.
Booked by the Purdue Student Concert Committee, the show had that slick, Nashville production feel but the volume was cranked higher than your average pop country concert. This is the first country show of any style where I needed earplugs. My ears are ringing as I type this. And these ears have been on the business end of thousands of rock, metal and punk shows where volume is always in the red.
This bombastic show was headlined by Gilbert Brantley, a young singer-songwriter who penned most of country superstar Jason Aldean’s hits. Brantley promoted a country-rock sound, heavy on the rock. Brantley’s set was way more rocking and interesting than 90 percent of current “rock” bands on the radio. The Trains, Maroon 5′s and Coldplays could learn something from this set, even if it would be considered country.
Some odd notes: Brantley’s band started with a weak, almost sacrilegious rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle.” It will be interesting, however, if the intro was only used tonight to pay homage to Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin’s old stomping grounds. Brantley’s drummer sported a mohawk. About the most unpunk thing you can do is have a mohawk in a pop country band.
Brantley’s opener was a mixed bag to say the least. Uncle Kracker was the most recognizable name to casual country fans. He has a few hits/hit covers about 10 years ago and the husky singer is still getting mileage from “Follow Me” and his rendition of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.” His nonchalant stage presence was fairly engaging and Kracker still has some star power to the music hungry Purdue crowd.
Odd notes: Kracker closed with a song he claimed he “wrote.” “All Summer Long” consisted of a bunch of lazy rhymes over Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” riff and a bridge over “Sweet Home Alabama.” I would not brag about writing such a composition. The comment made my blood boil. The song is close to “Butterfly” by Crazy Town and “Summer Girls” by LFO as one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.
Second was Greg Bates. A young, twerpish singer-songwriter who was the least engaging out of the four acts. He closed with a tune that just hit the charts called “Did It for the Girl.” Would this ho-hum effort be just the start for the 24-year-old out of Nashville? It can only go up from there.
Odd notes: Bates was backed by a pretty decent band. The bass player, who looked like a bloated Will Lee from David Letterman’s band, was quite enthusiastic and sang good harmony with Bates. Was the older gent Bates’ dad? Or was he the real songwriter behind the tunes? Just a couple amusing thought during an overall boring performance.
Poor Brian Davis batted lead-off before the show’s scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time. However, his was the set of the night. With just an acoustic guitar, good vocals and tremendous energy and presence, Davis got the crowd plenty warm by himself. Only Ben Folds did a better job in terms of solo musicians — without a band — in the intimidating space that is Elliott Hall. The crowd was still filing in but he received great applause and many in the crowd stood to show their respect. I was most impressed with Davis. He had guts and good songs.
Over the years, I’ve put the Student Concert Committee to task for their bookings. They are the only entity in this area that can book whatever it wants. Cost is usually not an issue. They got Lady Gaga at the prime of her popularity in 2010. Two years later, though, SCC has lost all of that momentum. It died with the horrible, idiotic booking of DJ Avicii last spring in Elliott Hall. A house DJ in a 6,000 *seat* auditorium. No dance-floor. And the tickets were $30+ for students. The turnout was abysmal for Elliott standards; only about 2,000 showed. It was a joke.
The “Hell on Wheels Tour” was a positive step out of the hole that the Avicii booking created. Whether pop country is your thing or not, going back to live musicians and songwriters that actually sing and engage the crowd was the right call for SCC.