Like few other genres, modern country music knows that cultivating its new acts is as important as nurturing its stars.
Friday night at Starlight Theatre, more than 5,000 fans got some of both during the annual Yallapalooza festival.
The openers were the Swon Brothers, an Oklahoma duo who finished fourth during the 2013 season of “The Voice,” a reality TV singing competition. They are new to the country world. Their self-titled major-label debut is to be released in October, but their single, “Later On,” already fits in seamlessly with much of what’s on country radio.
The Cadillac Three followed. A trio from Nashville with one full-length album, they play a fusion of hard Southern rock and rowdy modern country and make a lot of racket doing it. Jaren Johnston is their lead vocalist and he sings with a hard drawl. Their songs typically extol the Southern, rural lifestyle and the habits that go with it, as evidenced in songs like “I’m Rockin’,” “White Lightning” (which bore a Kings of Leon vibe), “Party Like You” and “The South,” which closed the set.
Between acts, Tony Martinez, a traditional country performer from Phoenix, entertained the crowd with solo-acoustic covers, like Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and some of his own songs.
Next up was the Eli Young Band, a quartet from Texas. The band wasn’t the headliner but the crowd responded as if it were. The band’s music is a mix of rock, roots rock and country, a sound that at times can resemble Bruce Springsteen’s more than Waylon Jennings’. It’s all riff-happy and melodic, derivative but catchy.
Mike Eli, the band’s lead vocalist, likes to stoke the crowd and remind it to have a good time. He hoisted a shot or two during a one-hour set that included favorites like “Drunk Last Night” (a recurring theme this evening), “Always the Love Songs,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which included a few bars of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” and “Crazy Girl,” the band’s best-selling single. “Skeletons,” “Dust,” “Prayer for the Road” and “Guinevere” were also on the set list.
The headliner was Jake Owen, who has spent his share of time opening for megastars like Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. He’s not at their level yet, but he’s poised to be. Owens is a buff, strapping guy with shoulder-length black hair and a neon smile. He may be a beach boy from the east coast of Florida, but to mainstream country fans, he might as well be just another good ol’ boy who likes beer, women and pickup trucks.
Just before Owen and his band took the stage, the PA played “Welcome to the Jungle,” then some surf music, a prelude to what was behind the curtain. The stage was designed with Owen’s hometown in mind: like a pier on a beach with a tiki bar off to the side.
They opened with “Days of Gold,” a song written by Johnston and his bandmate, Neil Mason, and the title track to Owen’s latest album. From there, Owen took the crowd on a tour of his hit singles. “Beachin” (co-written by Johnston),” “Yee Haw” and “Alone With You” came early and brought most fans out of their seats.
Owen showed off his guitar skills throughout the set. Johnston joined him during an interlude in which Owen strummed a guitar and sang a few songs, including a cover of Alan Jackson’s “Chatahooche.” The sing-along on that was one of the loudest of the night. He dropped in another cover: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” by Brooks and Dunn.
Before “Pass A Beer,” he brought on stage a woman who was celebrating her 21st birthday, led the crowd in “Happy Birthday” and invited her to hang in the tiki bar. Toward the end of that song, he dropped in the chorus to Sublime’s “What I Got.”
He closed the 90-minute set with “What We Ain’t Got,” his latest single, and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” his first No. 1 hit and most successful. That one’s about heading down a country road toward a river with pretty girls and cold beer — the topics du jour in country these days, no matter how established you are.
JAKE OWEN SET LIST
Days of Gold; Anywhere With You; Beachin’; Yee Haw; Alone With You; Summer Jam; Pass A Beer/What I Got; Don’t Think I Can’t Love You; Chattahoochee; Boot Scootin’ Boogie; Life of the Party; The One That Got Away; Eight Second Ride; What We Ain’t Got; Barefoot Blue Jean Night.