Buffalo isn’t Nashville, but it is country.
Country concerts here are jammed, often selling out.
Country station WYRK is consistently riding high in the ratings.
Blake Shelton knows that. He’s part of it; he profits from it.
So when he gazed into the distance Saturday night at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center and feigned surprise at the packed crowd, it was a little, well, surprising.
Let’s set the scene: As the show started at 7 p.m. with opening duo Dan & Shay, the crowd trickled in through a stormy downpour. It was a mucky, sloshy mess. Especially for fans camped on the lawn rather than under the amphitheater.
By the time Shelton took the stage just over two hours later, the seats and lawn were packed.
That, too, is country, including in Buffalo.
So it seemed a bit cliche when Shelton remarked, “There’s a crapload of people! I thought with all this rain, there wouldn’t be a lot of people here and this would be a laid-back show. I’m nervous now.”
Obviously he was joking. That’s fine. But a few minutes later, when Shelton started talking about his record label executives calling him to warn that New York crowds might not be so open to hearing him talk about “country things” like drinking (a frequent topic of Blake banter), he slipped from silly to scripted.
(Unless it’s true, in which case someone in a suit is hopelessly out of touch.)
Not surprisingly, the crowd still reacted. Shelton talked about drinking, they raised their cups. On the backdrop video screen, he pretended to send a tweet to sponsors who might be offended by his chatter to introduce “Kiss My Country Ass,” and the fans chanted the song title.
When Shelton called the fans hillbillies as a lead-in to “Hillbilly Bone,” they cheered to the compliment.
It must be said, the crowd was happy, and singing along. But the whole thing felt as if everyone was fulfilling a role: Shelton, his 6-foot-5 frame fitted in a red button-down and blue jeans, as the down-home country star; the crowd, in boots and cowboy hats and many fresh off a day of tailgating, playing the part of dutiful fans.
Star asks for cheers, fans oblige.
It was good, mainly because Shelton’s music is proven and popular and the star and his seven-piece backup band have a tight presentation.
But that’s also the problem: Save for a few moments, it was too tight. There was virtually no individualized crowd interaction, and little storytelling to reveal the inspiration behind the songs.
When Shelton said, “I’m feeling the connection,” it felt hollow.
But there were exceptions, especially when Shelton pulled up a stool and acoustic guitar. He talked about his role as a judge on NBC’s “The Voice,” and brought forward Gwen Sebastian, a former member of Team Blake on the reality show and now part of Shelton’s band. They sang a touching duet, “My Eyes,” which was then outdone by Shelton’s solo acoustic performance of “Over You,” a song he wrote with his wife, Miranda Lambert, about his late brother.
On those, the connection was deep. For everything else, it was just fun.
That’s OK; country IS fun. But it can be more. Which will be important, too, for Shelton’s top opener, The Band Perry. When fellow opener Neal McCoy, introduced the sibling act (Kimberly and brothers Neil and Reid), who have been gaining country and Top 40 heat for the last few years, he said, “This may be one of the last times they’re playing for someone else.”
Which put the question in my mind: Are the Perrys finally ready to break out as headliners?
Possibly so, judging by their 11-song, 50-minute set. They have a touch of music that truly touches the crowd, chiefly their hit ballad “If I Die Young,” which was sung with passion by the audience.
Another winner was “I’m a Keeper,” which the Perrys prefaced with personal confessions: Kimberly being told years ago at 13 that she wasn’t pretty; Reid that his shaggy hair doesn’t fit the country image; and Neil that the mandolin isn’t manly.
“I put the MAN in mandolin,” he said.
Fun? Yes. Deep? No, and not everything need be.
But Shelton probing deeper during his nearly two-hour set would have made the show more than musical.
It would have made it memorable.