LOCKPORT – When Kellie Pickler takes the stage, she lights up the room. Even if that “room” happens to be a massive municipal parking lot tucked behind the library in the heart of downtown Lockport.
Pickler, the former American Idol and Dancing with the Stars contestant, is incredibly adept at conveying a sense of down-home, Southern girl charm to thousands of people at a time, as Friday’s Lockport gig, part of the yearly Labatt Blue Canal Concert Series, made plain. She’s both “girl next door” and sex symbol, a sort of PG-13 modern day diva whose heart belongs to classic country music.
And classic country music, with a dash of Southern rock, seemed to be what the close-to-capacity crowd in Lockport was thirsting for. Well, that, and the offerings of series sponsor Labatt Blue.
Pickler, who finished in sixth place during season five of American Idol, but went on to take top honors in last season’s Dancing with the Stars, wears her influences proudly on her sleeve. During Friday’s show, she chatted amiably with the crowd at several points during the evening, addressing us with a twang as “Y’all,” and telling stories of growing up in Carolina with her grandparents, whose taste in music ran to both flavors – country and western.
Pickler said that her earliest musical memories involve Tammy Wynette, and she proved as much with her own “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and the raucous, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” romp, “Stop Cheatin’ On Me.”
“No one lived the stories in country music quite like Tammy Wynette did,” Pickler laughed, and then played “White Lightnin’,” a tune by Wynette’s husband, the notoriously alcoholic but unfailingly brilliant George Jones. Perhaps surprisingly, given modern country’s unwillingness to acknowledge its own history pre-Garth Brooks, the majority of the wide age range crowd seemed to know who both Wynette and Jones were.
Pickler is not a flawless singer – her voice is strong, but her pitch varied at times during Friday’s show. This might be a factor during a “beauty contest” like American Idol, but in the thick of an honest-to-goodness country music concert like this one, lack of perfection made Pickler seem human, and thus, much easier to bond with. The singer – and her band of top-notch Nashville musicians, all of whom practice a seemingly effortless (if abbreviated and probably not at all improvised) form of virtuosity – breathed fire into the more upbeat tunes, particularly “Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” the irreverent swipe at Nashville’s early closing times for gin joints that is “Unlock That Honky Tonk,” and of course, the joyful and bawdy “Red High Heels.”
Opening sets from Western New York’s Ransomville and Rochester’s Tommy Brunett Band were well-received by the crowd, which was a massive throng even early on in the evening. Ransomville, fronted by vocalist Rob Bilson, performed a stirring hybrid of country and rock bolstered by strong harmony vocals and the eloquent twin guitar attacks of pickers Rob Burgio and John Rosini. In addition to songs culled from its recent Cowboy Troy-produced “Living Is For Everyone” release, the group punctuated its energetic set with convincing covers of Queen tunes, and a set-closing take on Journey’s evergreen “Don’t Stop Believing.”
The Tommy Brunett Band brought considerable charisma to its set of rockabilly, old-school country, and punk-laced Americana. Fronted by the disarmingly charming Brunett on vocals and guitar, the band was aided considerably throughout its set by guitarist Mike Gladstone, who offered a virtual clinic in chicken picking’ and roots rock stylings. Brunett worked the crowd masterfully, getting them to sing along with his “I Like Beer” – seems like a no-brainer, huh? – and a sturdy take on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”