concert reviews

Little Mischief From Rascal Flatts: Country-Pop Trio Plays It Safe at Nissan With Idealistic Love Songs
Rascal Flatts at Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, VA, Saturday 26 July 2008

Rascal Flatts' sold-out show at Nissan Pavilion on Saturday night held to the same mantra that has made the group so successful over its eight-year recording career: stick to the middle of the road and don't ruffle any feathers. The trio started out as a country group, but its sound has evolved to a country-pop hybrid designed not to alienate fans of either genre. Its last three albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and it has been selected as the Country Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year every year from 2003 through 2007.

One way to have such broad appeal: stick to love songs. The Rascals' 90-minute set was full of 'em. There were the I-want-to-fall-in-love-with-you songs ("Take Me There"), the you're-the-best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me songs ("Bless the Broken Road," "Love You Out Loud"), and the we're-not-together-but-I-still-love-you songs ("These Days," "My Wish"). They painted an idealistic portrait of love, for sure, but they also avoided all the negative moments that just bring people down.

(Even their non-love songs were upbeat and positive: "Me and My Gang" celebrated camaraderie and road trips, while "Stand" spoke of resilience, its easily quotable nature underscored by the 19-year-old girl standing in front of the stage with the song's lyrics tattooed on her back.)

Beyond lyrics, the key to a great love song is having a great voice to sing it. Gary LeVox's nasal croon isn't "great" in the traditional sense, but it had just the right tone to pull off those mushy lyrics without sounding too sappy. (He certainly doesn't suffer from excessive modesty: his stage name translates to "Gary the Voice.") LeVox's strength is his control over his upper register: He glided effortlessly over the vocal trills on "Take Me There" and pulled off his fair share of crowd-pleasing sustained notes.

The trio's vocals are uneven, which wouldn't have mattered if guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bassist Jay DeMarcus had just stuck to providing harmonies. Instead, each sang lead on a song ("I'm Movin' On" and "Skin," respectively). That trade-off may have been to prove that the group is an equal trio, but it had the opposite effect: Their voices were pleasant enough but could not offer LeVox's distinctive sound. He just sounded that much better when he returned to the stage.

Even when they weren't performing, they played it safe. Between songs, they steered far clear of any controversial topics, and the only marginally questionable moment involved DeMarcus's observations about the skimpy attire of female members of the audience. (The only women on stage were a few scantily clad dancers backlit behind a screen, their curvy silhouettes bouncing in rhythm to the music.)

Rascal Flatts' music is a bit short on risks but long on sales and fans, leaving the band little incentive ever to change: It certainly could be a long fall from the top.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 28 July 2008; Section C
.: Selected discography: Still Feels Good (Rascal Flatts, 2007); Me & My Gang (Rascal Flatts, 2006); Feels Like Today (Rascal Flatts, 2004); Melt (Rascal Flatts, 2002); Rascal Flatts (Rascal Flatts, 2000).