Everything you need to know about the state of modern country music came from a perhaps unexpected source Thursday in a sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena for the first of two concerts headlined by mondo-platinum star Jason Aldean. Soon-to-be-as-big Jake Owen performed just before Aldean, and Thomas Rhett kicked off the evening's presentation. By all indications, Rhett, too, will be a star.
All three artists turned in solid and genuine sets, but, if fans are at all curious about the evolution of country music - and, presumably, the adulatory good-time folks in attendance Thursday were not remotely interested in theory - it was interesting to watch and listen to a fellow called DJ Silver.
Yes, perched behind his turntables and mixing board atop a riser stage left, DJ Silver provided musical entertainment between the bands' live sets. He suavely mixed and segued a variety of song segments from more than 40 years of country chart hits.
And yet, when it was time to amp up the crowd in the last minute or two before Owen and then Aldean took the stage, DJ Silver cranked the volume and played songs by … Journey. Van Halen. AC/DC. Def Leppard. Guns 'N Roses. Even "Josey" by the Outfield.
The audience predictably went nuts, the lights went out and it was time to, ah, rock. So to speak.
Rhett, Aldean and Owen are superior students who've learned a lot from Professor Garth Brooks, who was arguably the first Nashville major label star to have grown up with KISS along with George Strait, and who figured out it was wise not just to borrow the arena rock pyrotechnics and grandiose stage shows, but also the actual power-ballad, rock-anthem song structures. Basically, write a Journey weeper or an AC/DC stomper, add lyrics about tractors and summer babes who like cold beer, sing it in a distinct Southern drawl, and dose liberally with pedal steel or fiddle, and you get Jason Aldean and Jake Owen.
With Aldean's post-NASA vari-lights and sparkle-chrome risers and ramps, a runway and video screens - and a damned tight five-piece band - the star celebrated his birthday with an 80-minute set precisely calculated to feature older hits with material from his latest album, "Night Train."
Aldean's a pro. He genuinely seemed to be having a good time and, from the opening blast of "Crazy Town" through adhesive-strength tunes such as "Fly Over States," "Johnny Cash," "The Only Way I Know," "This Nothin' Town" and (a personal fave) "When She Says Baby," he delivered in finest headliner fashion.
Watch out for Jake Owen. Already on the cusp of his own starring mega-tours, Florida-native Owen - who looks interestingly like an "ABACAB"-era Mike Rutherford (complete with the baseball undersleeve jersey) - is a natural. With three hit albums of solid rockin' C&W under his belt and an easy curiosity about fusing the lyrical and rhythmic possibilities of hip-hop to his celebrations of the Jimmy Buffett/endless-summer lifestyle, Owen seems a shoo-in ascendant to Nashville royalty in this new age.