Fix-a-Flatts: Gary LeVox (left) and Joe Don Rooney take to the stage as part of the Rascal Flatts' State Fair Performance. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
This year the pandering went high-tech with bassist/piano player Jay DeMarcus videotaping the audience and lead guitarist Joe Don Rooney
promising a gift to everyone present who sent him a text message. There
was also a state-of-the-art video display that featured a silo-shaped
center screen flanked by two flat screens that projected lovely scenery
and mood effects. Behind the silo, three women were seen in silhouette,
perched on a spiral stairway, dancing to the music.
Oh yeah, there was music. Flatts played
their hits, careening through the hip-hoppish “Me And My Gang,” the
melancholy “These Days” and the steamy “I Melt” to the introspective
“Bless the Broken Road,” the latter a fine song of mature love
co-written by Jeff Hanna, whose Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had played Chevrolet Court a week earlier.
The fact that trio from Ohio packed the
grandstand is testament to the strong popular following of their brand
of crossover pop-country, particularly with young women. They would
benefit from nurturing that demographic, to assure that as the tween
girls graduate from another of this year’s top State Fair attractions,
the Jonas Brothers, Rascal Flatts is their next logical favorite band.
Some of those kids were at the show trying to get the performers’
attention by wearing hand-lettered T-shirts. One said, “Take me to the
front row, I’m 18 today,” while several others read “Please Marry Me.”
You have to wonder if they may change their minds with a closer look at
these guys, who are all well past 30.
If Flatts wants to appeal to a more
mature crowd, it would be a good idea to get the multitalented Rooney
more lead vocals, as his singing of “I’m Moving On,” backed only by
guitar and piano, was one of the evening’s best moments. His
long-haired good looks, combined with his instrumental prowess brings
to mind a State Fair visit two years ago by Keith Urban. His voice is
strong and more genuine than that of lead singer Gary LeVox’s contrived wailing.
LeVox did, however, provide a charming
highlight in plucking from the crowd a grade-school-age girl who made
the most of her moment in the spotlight by waving and singing
confidently. These guys would do well to spend a little more time
showing humility and heartfelt gratitude instead of the pre-scripted
references to every audience as “The best fans in the world.” But maybe
they are the most loyal fans to continue coming out in large numbers
every time this lightly talented triumvirate visits the grandstand.
Taylor Swift, who went on before
Rascal Flatts, has everything a new artist needs to succeed in today’s
country music world. She’s gorgeous, young, charming, energetic and she
writes simple, easily memorized songs to which other young girls can
Her singing even seems to be improving,
although that’s barely relevant to her status as combination idol and
homegirl to the swarms of kids who screamed for her and sang along on
her songs. As proof that she’s one of them, the 18-year-old small-town
girl from Pennsylvania performed, “Our Song,” a number she told fans
she wrote for a high school talent contest. She didn’t say whether she
Swift’s act is all about image including
the fancy instruments played by her punked-out six-member band that
featured a female violinist (you couldn’t really call her a fiddler)
with flaming red hair wearing hot pants, a Rod Stewart look-alike lead
guitarist with a fur scarf around his neck, an androgynous rhythm
guitar player and a fedora-wearing drummer who looked like he escaped
from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Swift herself wore a glittering silver dress
and black boots, her rippled blond tresses flowing freely.
She had plenty of moves, too, frequently
bouncing up and down to the beat and a couple of times skipping across
the stage. She also likes to stand and soak in the roar of the crowd.
The teen star proudly points out she writes her own songs, mostly
wistful, adolescent, stream-of-consciousness poetry set to cute
The music was generally lightweight,
although there was a highlight or two, including a pretty acoustic
version of her first hit, “Tim McGraw.” But when she introduced a drab
new song called “Change” from her upcoming CD, her singing was even
flatter than usual and her breathless delivery lacked passion.
One amusing sidelight was a banjo solo
by a band member who wasn’t introduced. He did a great job on Flatt and
Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” although it’s unlikely that more
than a handful of the fans who knew all of Swift’s hits could have
named that bluegrass classic.