An overcast opening night at Chevrolet Court brought a warm welcome for the first local performance in memory of country crooners Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. Following what Larry called the shortest introduction they’ve ever had, the trio really didn’t need to pander to the Aug. 25 audience by opening with “America the Beautiful” but they did. It was a practice they employed all night, invoking their passionate support of the military and referring frequently to their Christian beliefs.
With big brother Larry, bearded and sporting a bandana around his neck, leading the way, they launched a string of old favorites. His still-vibrant tenor climbed into falsetto on “Night Time Magic” leading into the flashy “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You)”, showing off their trademark Vegas style. In their prime, 1975 to 1988, they were considered a slick departure from mainstream country. But today their sound is almost quaint compared to the hard-rocking or pop-flavored material that dominates the current industry mainstream.
After all those years, you would think that they would know enough to let their soaring harmonies carry the show, but they actually twice started and stopped the evening’s fourth song, 1977’s “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” first so Larry could admonish the audience to “act like you’ve heard this song before” and then to take way too long hamming it up at the edge of the stage, posing for photos. They must be spending too much time playing in Branson, where rhinestone cowboys rule the theaters. Speaking of Rhinestone cowboys, Larry’s crystalline tenor often reminds of Glen Campbell.
Since brother Steve Gatlin plays bass to underscore Larry and Rudy Gatlin on guitar, the sibling trio, all wearing black blazers, had only two other musicians on stage, but what musicians they were. The formidable fills of longtime lead guitarist Steve Smith—called by Larry their “brother from another mother”—and the solid drumming of Robbie Skyler lent all the support needed for polished instrumental backing of a show that’s all about the vocals.
Most of Larry’s jokes sounded too canned, with obvious setups followed by predictable punch lines, although he invoked some laughs when, after making a subtle remark, he told audience members to “explain it to the folks from Buffalo.” The patter was best when Larry, who sure wasn’t shy about dropping the names of many famous friends, recounted the history of the family’s five decades in music. He expressed both gratitude and respect for the legends who helped them climb the ladder, from Elvis Presley, who recorded two of his songs, enabling him to buy a big house for himself and wife Janice, to Roger Miller, with whom he co-wrote songs. He even sang a few bars of a Gatlin song cut by Johnny Mathis. He most highly praised one of country music’s most legendary couples, recalling that he sang at June Carter’s funeral and carried Johnny Cash’s coffin.
Larry, a frequent guest on cable TV’s Fox News, didn’t mention his stint in the starring role of The Will Rogers Follies or his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse that led to his shocking revelation that he once used cocaine in the White House. Predictably, the chatter never approached the entertainment value of the brothers’ rendering of inspired covers of their famous songs, shining on the staggered opening verse of “Broken Lady.” That Grammy-winning gem concluded with Larry leading an audience sing-along that he praised, saying, ”Y’all were the best ever.” You had to wonder how any times he’s said that.
The new Chevy Court sound system performed flawlessly, providing the sharpness and clarity that are crucial in a country show, when the lyrics count. As the boys reached back to their gospel roots to croon a few verses a cappella, their voices drifted out in rich, splendid waves.
The strongest new song, “Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down,” was written by Larry on the back of a restaurant placemat after a conversation with his son about how country music goes through changes and there will never be another Cash. He confessed that it wasn’t until a few days later that he realized that he had “accidentally borrowed,” almost note for note, the tune of the Man In Black’s iconic “Big River.” Rather than rewrite, he secured the blessing of Cash’s son John Carter Cash and plunged ahead, playing up the clickclack guitar licks and raw vocal energy that epitomized Cash. It’s a riotous song in concert and another chance for Smith to solidify his standing as the fourth Gatlin Brother by sizzling on lead guitar.
After the show wrapped with a heavyhanded hymn recorded with Christian singer-songwriter Bill Gaither, it was remarkable to recall that after all the great old songs they played in over an hour on the Stan Colella Stage, there were still some Gatlin hits not covered. We could have done with fewer of the monologues and syrupy songs to make time for more of what everybody came to hear.
The Real McCoy
There was a lot of 315 love on Aug. 26 when alternative hip-hop group Gym Class Heroes visited Chevy Court. Lead singer Travie McCoy, a Geneva, N.Y. native, let the audience know that the performance was a homecoming as he shouted out to family and friends throughout the set, all of them reciprocating with yells to the stage. A group of teenage girls raised a poster of McCoy’s face that was as tall as them, letting it sway back and forth during the show.
The group’s appeal was apparent in the audience demographics, considerably full of teens who sang every lyric and shrieked, danced or clapped when McCoy beckoned. Only moments after he bounded onto the stage McCoy asked the crowd to stand up and jump up and down. At one point he directed everyone to stick one finger up in the air to block the sun before beginning the reggaetinged “Blinded By The Sun” off 2008’s The Quilt (Fueled By Ramen/Decaydence).
It was a high-energy showcase, fueled mostly by McCoy’s sprints back and forth on the stage that had his gray polka-dotted tank soaked with sweat. McCoy talked about the stories behind his songs; he wrote “Guilty as Charged” while in jail a few years ago after hitting a man who called him a racial slur at a 2008 concert. The song that broke the band in 2006, “Cupid’s Chokehold,” was received with all the expected excitement that the sweet, bouncing tune, with samples from Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America,” naturally garners. McCoy also dedicated the quick and tight “The Queen and I” to all his ex-girlfriends, undoubtedly including the girl-kissing, now-Russell Brand-loving Katy Perry.
The music, performed by guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, bassist Eric Roberts and drummer Matt McGinley, was solid throughout the gig, thanks to the addition of prerecorded samples that helped fill the produced sound of the band’s studio tracks. Still, the weight of the performance rested firmly on McCoy’s back. His unbridled confidence made his quirky, pierced, tattoo-covered appearance all the more lovable. And his animated facial expressions, beat-boxing, sincere exchanges with the audience and flawless flow pushed the performance along through tracks including “Cookie Jar” off of The Quilt and “Papercuts” from 2005’s The Papercut Chronicles (Fueled By Ramen/Decaydence) that had longtime fans audibly thrilled.
The show got awkward when McCoy asked everyone in the crowd to hug each other, but the lead-in connected with the song to follow. “Now that we’re all family,” McCoy shouted, “I’ve got a serious question: What would you do if you were a billionaire?” Bruno Mars’ recorded voice then filled the air as he led into the familiar hook of “Billionaire,” a song McCoy released independently of Gym Class Heroes in 2010.
The band closed the set with the first single from their latest album, The Papercut Chronicles II (Fueled By Ramen/Decaydence), “Stereo Hearts,” which features the vocals of Adam Levine of Maroon 5. Although the prerecorded vocal track didn’t sync up with the live music initially, the group got it together thanks to McCoy’s glue-like rapping that joined all the musical lines.
Once the last note rang out, the Gym Class Heroes tossed a few towels to the crowd and made their sweaty exit, although McCoy announced that he would be roaming the Fair following the show. McCoy especially seemed ready to wander the sites after commenting that, despite living in Geneva for 23 years of his life, this was his first time attending the 12-day event. Better late than never, McCoy, but we’ll let it slide this time…but only because you’re cute.
The crowd was young and skimpy at the Mohegan Sun Grandstand on Aug. 26 for Ne-Yo and Cee Lo Green, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in energy. Cee Lo came out like a lovable Buddha clad in head-to-toe white, joined by The Goodie Mob. He made it clear he had “The Voice” to be reckoned with as he sauntered from retro to wheezy in “Soul Food” and “Operation Heartbreak Hotel.”
Sampling from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the few classically tuned ears in the crowd perked up. And by the end of “Who’s That Peepin’ in My Window,” there weren’t many derrieres that weren’t stand ing, dancing or otherwise shakin’ their groove things.
Then a brigade of women in white came out, looking like Cee Lo’s angels. They strapped on guitars, dropped hot beats and unleashed a throbbing series of songs that brought together everything eardrums have ever loved about music. Between Cee Lo’s chiseled vibrato and the female guitarist’s oh-yes-I-did licks, the song “Crazy” left listeners on the edge of their seats. Cee Lo took advantage of this, coaxing them along one phrase at a time before closing with his rocket hit, “Forget You,” the censored version of “Fuck You.”
When Ne-Yo strode out in a fedora and broke into “Beautiful Monster,” he caught the crowd at a high point and carried them one step further with his slick dance moves. The ladies swooned to Ne-Yo’s slew of love songs and mama’s boy anecdotes. “Never go to bed mad,” he told the audience, although it sounded more like a promising invitation than a maternal tip before he slid into “Mad.”
Through “Sexy Love” and “Champagne,” the fans were all mesmerized, toasting their troubadour and swaying to his voice. Ne-Yo then pulled them in close with his hit “I Just Can’t Stop,” which, at that volume and intensity, put the radio version to shame. Living up to the song’s title, he carried on straight into his finisher, “Tonight.”
Despite the relatively low turnout, Ne-Yo and Cee Lo Green seemed to know that it’s not the size of the crowd that matters—it’s how you work it.
Always one to face a challenge headon, country boy Trace Adkins actually strode to center stage five minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start time for his Aug. 27 State Fair concert. No doubt the throng packed into Chevy Court was ready, from those who had been holding down a seat on the benches for hours (one Port Byron family was firmly planted at noon) to those wedged into the sea of people, angling for a look at the bandstand.
Adkins set the tone early, opening with “Whoop a Man’s Ass” before belting out the blue-collar anthem “Hillbilly Bone.” Clearly he was here to play up his tough cowboy image, straining his baritone range to reach deep for growly low notes. He looked the part, too, in a black T-shirt and leather hat, tilted forward over his eyebrows.
That did seem the way to play it, looking out over thousands of fans stretched beyond the streets on both sides and to the far end of the court. Maybe rowdy fit the venue, with many present holding a plastic cup of beer, ready to yee-haw at a moment’s notice. Adkins didn’t get into anything you’d call conversation until he’d sung seven songs, from the rollicking “Marry For Money” to the cautionary “Ladies Love Country Boys,” the audience shouting the lyric “turn it up” on cue and chanting “na na na na na” at the end.
True to the Louisiana native’s form, this show was more rock than country, both the steel guitar and fiddle getting supporting roles in arrangements dominated by screeching electric guitar. For many on hand, the presence of any particular instrument was detectable only by sound as sight of the stage was a precious commodity. The new practice of projecting the show on the WSYR-Channel 9 video screen in front of the Dairy Building proved a brilliant stroke as many fans watched the entire show there. For this concert, the Adkins team added a screen at the back of the stage, which improved the viewing as well.
The audio portion of the evening’s festivities was fine for the most part, but between songs, Adkins became surprisingly soft-spoken, making for some frustrating moments for those far away and unable to make out his mumbling monologues. It didn’t help when announcements from the Fair’s loudspeakers blared during the show, creating an unnecessary distraction.
While Adkins has adopted a practice common in contemporary country of leaning on dumbed-down lyrics to pass for good ol’ boy poetry, he is by no means limited to such drivel. Following the offbeat insights of “This Ain’t No Love Song,” with a gorgeous sparkler effect projected behind him, he played the redneck romantic on “Hot Mama,” a song he said his mother hates, confessing, “My old man’s got a copy, though. He likes it.”
The show’s pinnacle followed with the heartwarming tale of devotion to his young daughter, “Just Fishin’,” followed by his early hit “Every Light in the House,” a stirring appeal to a fading marriage. The latter number took full advantage of lilting fiddle solos, so often a country song’s heartstrings.
As the show glided toward the finish, Adkins launched into “Million Dollar View,” a song from his new Show Dog-Universal CD Proud To Be Here, that he said was meant to help him get away with being on the road more than his wife would like. “I wrote this one for you, honey,” he cajoled. For some reason, he played a cover of Ace’s 1974 pop hit “How Long Has This Been Going On,” not exactly a country classic, before removing his hat for what was apparently an emotional moment, that couldn’t really be heard by thousands in attendance. Given the setting, the big man’s familiar songs played best as the dialogue about the newer material, not to mention the actual lyrics, were often hard to discern. Fortunately, there were enough popular hits to carry the evening and make even the uncomfortable fans happy.
Dance fever: The Pointer Sisters got the Chevy Court slate of concerts started with a boogie bounce on Aug. 25. Grande dame Ruth Pointer gave out the sad news early (sister Anita couldn’t make it) but it was still a family affair, thanks to Ruth’s pitch-hitting daughter Issa, a plussize dynamo who delivered the vocal goods big time, and Ruth’s granddaughter Sadako Johnson, whose blonde hairstyle and rainbow facial makeup suggested the melting pot of pop, soul and disco where the longtime act’s musical roots reside. The show was short on chitchat and long on chartbusters, including the gospel-inflected “Neutron Dance,” “He’s So Shy,” the barely revived “Dare Me,” “Automatic” and many more, supplemented by a five-piece backup band that was often hotter than the sultry weather. Ever the doting mama, Ruth yelled to the crowd, “Y’all got water?”