Lady Antebellum : Birmingham Arena
Coming, as it did, at the end of a very busy gig schedule for Country music fans in the UK, there must have been a temptation to see these shows by Lady Antebellum as ‘just another show’ to attend, an obligation or a tick to cross off on the list. It’s testament to the line up and the band themselves then that this might well have been the best of all the October gigs I have been lucky enough to see over the past two weeks as the inaugural Country Music Week event clashed with a couple of tours by the likes of Lady A and Kip Moore.
The line-up of Brett Young, Kelsea Ballerini and Lady A was always going to be a strong one. Charles Kelley, one of Lady Antebellum’s co-singers described Young and Ballerini as being the ‘Ken and Barbie’ of Country music from the stage and later went on to label them as the ‘two most beautiful people in Country music’ and it’s certainly true that they are not deficient in the looks department but scratch beneath the surface and you will find talent in abundance.
Brett Young kicked off proceedings with a short four song set seated front and centre on astool. His gruff-edged, raspy voice suited the ‘song-writers’ style setting and he excelled on songs like ‘In Case You Didn’t Know’ and ‘Sleep Without You.’ Some nice banter and chatting with the crowd in between songs would have further endeared him to the sizeable proportion of people there who were previously unaware of his talents and whilst the decision to play a cover of ‘Hallelujah’ instead of one of his own songs was an odd one it would have gone down well with the uninitiated!
A short break followed before Kelsea took the stage in glittery hot pants and a leather jacket backed by a very glitzy promo video. Her vocals were strong as was her stage presence. I missed her when she played the one-off show in London earlier in the year so was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss had been about, particularly after the recent announcement that she will be on the bill at next year’s C2C Festival. Neither me, or my 14 year old daughter was disappointed, which gives you an indication of her demographic spanning appeal and potential career longevity. ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ opened her show, ‘Dibs’ was played with a panache that made the song seem a little less ditzy to these 46 year old years and ‘Stilettos’ saw Kelsea front and centre with an electric guitar in full rock-ballad mode! ‘XO’ was the first song that began to get people up on their feet and ‘Peter Pan’, her best and most accomplished song to date, was simply superb. Kelsea worked the stage like a young Carrie Underwood, appearing confident and yet vulnerable when the moment or the lyric dictated it. A true skill from a very talented performer. New songs were aired too – ‘Legends’ had a slightly slower, less poppier arrangement which suited it very well and ‘I Hate Love Songs’ was done with a style that reminded me of a young Taylor Swift, not that she’s particularly old now, but you know what I mean.
Ballerini is a force to be reckoned with at this point in her career – likeable, watchable and listenable – you can’t expect any more than that from a young performer with the world at her feet. It will be interesting watching her career as it expands and explodes over the course of the coming few years.
What can you write about Lady Antebellum that we don’t already know? A super-likeable band: honest, real and authentic. Well, the ‘You Look Good’ tour has seen them add ‘funny’ to that list as well, with all the promo vids and comedy clips from the bus with Charles in his bathrobe and Hillary giving Kelsea Ballerini tips on stage presence. Critics have levelled the terms ‘safe’, ‘middle of the road’ and ‘bland’ at them in the past but their live show is anything but that.
Charles patrols the stage like a circus ringmaster, sometimes sipping whiskey from his red solo cup, sometimes high fiving the horn section, sometimes goofing about but it is his voice that underpins everything the band do well. Hillary is more serious, more intense and possessed of a voice that soars when it is required to and oozes vulnerability and pain when the song demands it. Dave holds all the music together, a band leader, an understated presence, the engine room powering the band on through hit after hit after hit.
Opening with ‘Downtown’ seemed odd to me at first but I get it now – the horns got a chance to shine and the band were able to come out in a strong but steady manner. Whoever’s idea it was to bring the two man horn section out on the road this time round is a genius – it has really added something to both the visuals and the sound of the band and whilst horns are not strictly a ‘Country’ instrument they definitely have helped propel Lady Antebellum to the next level, performance wise.
The band seemed to believe that they had to apologise for playing songs from new album, ‘Heart Break’, so I don’t know what American crowds are like, but we have no problem with that on this side of the Atlantic, particularly not from such a strong album. ‘This City’, ‘Heart Break’, ‘Somebody Else’s Heart’, ‘Good Time to Be Alive’ and ‘You Look Good’ were all well received by the Birmingham ‘choir’ who sang every line in a way that clearly doesn’t happen in the States. ‘Hurt’ was particularly well done, with Dave on a piano next to Hillary and Charles on stools. Hillary’s vocals excelled, dripping in emotion and it was no surprise to me when she burst into tears at the end of the song, which to Charles’ obvious bemusement!
Of course, no Lady A show is complete without some of their back catalogue classics. ‘American Honey’, a song Hillary said was probably their most requested song at meet and greets was done expertly. ‘Dancin’ Away with my Heart’ the same. The double pairing of ‘Compass’ with ‘We Owned the Night’ worked really well with the former song bleeding into the latter as all the musicians competed for attention at the front of the stage.
The main set finished with the wham bam double shot of ‘Bartender’ and ‘Love Don’t Live Here’ – both songs bigger and better thanks to the presence of the horns.
An encore of ‘Need You Now’ (obviously) and then Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’ finished things off brilliantly. Hillary really goes full on intense during ‘Need You Now’ and acts out every line in her eyes. Charles had mentioned earlier in the show that she was ‘singing for three’ now and it might be a while before we see them back on UK shores so to be able to witness the band in full flight felt like a real privilege. This is no bland, middle of the road, Steve Wright, love songs band – this is a fun, talented and authentic group of musicians who can entertain, emote and enable an audience to have a damn good time. They are skilled performers who know just which buttons to press and when – and they deserve the ‘Album of the Year’ nomination from the CMA’s which came their way last month and watching shows like this it’s a wonder they aren’t up for ‘Entertainer of the Year’ as well. I left with a sore back and a smile on my face – you can’t ask for much more than that from any band.