These WYRK acoustic shows, held every so often at UB’s Center for the Arts, routinely bring out the best in contemporary country artists. They tend to be about the music, and not much else.
This was certainly the case on Thursday, as a sold-out CFA welcomed a trio of country performers from three different generations in a laid-back, acoustic, no-frills environment. Led by Craig Morgan, the senior statesman of the bunch, the show also included road-tested quartet Parmalee and emerging talent and veteran of “The Voice,” Cassadee Pope.
A chilled-out, “pass the guitar, tell a story and sing a song” vibe pervaded the evening, as all three artists – the full contingent of Parmalee, and Morgan and Pope backed by their bands – took the stage together and stayed together for the full 90-minute-plus show.
Without all of the bells and whistles, rock show lighting, massive video screens, and various glitzy paraphernalia that permeate at modern country shows in the arena and outdoor “environment,” one was left with a more intimate view of the performers. In this setting, the songs are what really matter, with the charisma displayed in each performer’s storytelling ability coming a distant second. Perhaps surprisingly, all three fared very well in the unplugged environment.
Fittingly, Morgan kicked things off, as he and his band – two acoustic guitarists and a percussionist who wacked a Cajon (essentially a tuned wooden box) rather expertly throughout the gig – tore into the foot-stomping statement of country values that is “International Harvester.” Morgan is a high baritone whose upper reaches hit tenor territory, and he was singing well right out of the gate, but even more impressive was the instrumental dexterity displayed by his musicians, who are quite likely Nashville session musicians not given to making mistakes nor offering sloppy performances.
The evening followed a “one song each” format, and Pope followed Morgan throughout the evening, leading off with “I Wish I Could Break Your Heart,” the first of several tunes that displayed her pop smarts and agile singing voice in equal measure. Pope was backed by a pair of guitarists who were both excellent players, but she had no percussionist, so by definition, her set was the most relaxed and intimate. This allowed us to concentrate on her greatest asset – the siren call that earned her top honors during season two of television’s “The Voice.” (She was picked by Blake Shelton for his team during the contest.)
Parmalee was next in the round robin, and right away, the band – brothers Matt and Scott Thomas, with their cousin Barry Knox and childhood friend Josh McSwain – displayed rock ’n’ roll roots. The only outfit on the stage Thursday boasting both percussion and bass, Parmalee had an advantage in the rhythm propulsion department, and they used that advantage all night long, beginning with opening party anthem “Musta Had A Good Time,” which the band dedicated to Buffalo, citing the wild time they’d had here on their last visit as the reason.
Part of the reason for the success of Thursday’s show can be posited to the clear and ever-present differences among the three performers, who each represented a different facet of modern country. Morgan was the most closely aligned with classic country, the best lyricist, and the most down-home, patriotic, and innocuous; Pope was the uber-talented newbie, with a killer voice, and the most tenuous connection to country music – her songs were essentially smart pop tunes with a mild southern accent. Parmalee was the party band of the bunch, the group whose songs were uniformly about drinking, girls, or drinking with girls, and also the only musicians on stage with a table for their drinks, which were routinely replenished by roadies who seemed to be there solely for that purpose.
Everyone delivered on Thursday, and the final word went to veteran Morgan, whose highly emotional, deeply felt, and stirringly sung “Wake Up Loving You” closed the set as the crowd sang along.