Orlando Calling review: Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Blake Shelton bring rock, country and roots to Day 2 at the Citrus Bowl

14

November

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(For a review of Day 1 of Orlando Calling, including the Killers, Raconteurs and Pixies, click here.)

Wasn’t Bob Seger supposed to come to Tampa? You all remember this, right? He announced a fall headlining tour, and Tampa was on the initial list. We would have sworn he’d book a date at the St. Pete Times Forum right around the time of Orlando Calling.

Instead, the weekend came and passed, and Seger’s headlining gig at Orlando Calling will remain his only show in Florida. And fans of the aging songwriter, who’s been loath to tour in recent years, were more than willing to travel from around the state for a chance to see their Michigan Man in action.

Was that the reason Sunday’s Orlando Calling crowd seemed significantly healthier – if a lot older – than Saturday’s? Maybe it was the warmer weather; maybe it was the lineup of roots, country and classic rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever the reason, the field of the Citrus Bowl began to resemble a NASCAR infield on Day 2 of Orlando Calling, as fans laid out blankets and camped in front of the Main Stage.

Seger and his Silver Bullet Band were fitting headliners for a day like this.

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If Springsteen is the working man’s bard, Seger is the guy singing for the schlubs who just got laid off. Wearing a shaggy white beard, Seger did everything he could to keep the crowd going after two long days of music. The 66-year-old worked as hard as a man half his age – he had to reach for a sweatband just two songs into the set – switching from the mic to a piano or guitar, depending on the song. When he didn’t have an instrument, he raised his arms into a V (for victory?) as often as he could manage.

Seger’s set was appropriately career-spanning, with plenty of his biggest FM-dial hits crammed into a 90-minute set – Night Moves, Against The Wind, the pulsating heart-racer that is Hollywood Nights. Travelin’ Man showcased the way Seger has with words (“These are the memories that made me a wealthy soul…”) that often gets lost in his chugga-chugga heartland hustle. And when that back-alley sax signaled the intro to Turn The Page, the stadium filled with chills. (Though as audience members, should we feel guilty about enjoying a song about the difficulty of being a rock star? Discuss.)

It was still early in the evening when Seger delivered the money shot everyone at Orlando Calling was hoping for: A duet with Kid Rock. Calling him “my best friend in rock ‘n’ roll,” Seger brought out Rock – who bowed at Seger’s feet – to sing Real Mean Bottle, their Vince Gill-penned collab from 2006's Face The Promise.

“I like that old-timey Kid Rock ‘n’ roll!” the younger artist yelled when the song was done. So did the audience, by the sound of it.

This, it turns out, is what Orlando Calling needed, and what Orlando needed from it – no glitz, no glam, just a chance to reminisce about the days of old. Soothes the soul, don't it?

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*****

Seger was preceded by three bona-fide country A-listers – well, that’s if you want to call Kid Rock “country.” That’s where his heart seems to lie these days.

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And yet when he emerged for his full Main Stage set, Kid Rock had the good sense not to go country too soon. Instead, he kicked it old school with the dynamic stripper-rock hit Devil Without A Cause. Porkpie drooped low across his lids, the erstwhile Bob Ritchie leaped and strutted across the stage for fans that had been waiting on the front row since the doors opened.

If there was a better frontman at Orlando Calling, I didn’t see him. Rock has put together a stellar group, the Twisted Brown Trucker Band, who are just as capable of rocking Cowboy and So Hott as they are All Summer Long. I Got One For Ya was funky enough to merit play in Cheech and Chong’s van.

Knowing that Kid Rock has been edging toward the country world puts his early hits in perspective, and hearing them in 2011, with the Twisted Brown Trucker behind him, is a lot different from hearing them in 1999. All this time, they were flavored with funk, southern rock, grunge and blues. It works when you put Cowboy next to Purple Sky in your setlist. The numbers add up.

Overall, Kid Rock -- and we mean this in a nice way -- is a walking chunk of id, a greasy, skunky dirtbag who prefers strippers to models and Jim Beam to Patron. He’s the sort of guy you’d want at every party you’ll attend for the rest of your life. Except maybe your daughter’s Sweet Sixteen.

The only problem with Kid Rock’s set was that it bumped up against Dwight Yoakam’s. And Yoakam’s been on my list for years, so I split.

A prodigious honker of tonk, Yoakam doesn’t tour as much as he should, but you’d never know it watching his whip-smart band. Guitarist Eddie Perez handled the lion’s share of Yoakam’s twangy rockabilly riffage, even switching from electric to mandolin mid-solo at one point. He was a dervish. Bands just don’t get much tighter than this.

As for Yoakam? With his brim low and visage stoic – no one goes from mumble to yodel quite like Dwight – his unique brand of cowboy bebop was on full display, especially when that skintight denim started to swivel, and the crowd began to holler. I swear at one point a line dance broke out in the crowd.

Yoakam’s style is so unique that if you’ve heard of his songs, you’ve kind of heard them all. But until you’ve heard that one song, you haven’t really lived. The setting may not have been as intimate as a tiny bar in Texas, but those who ducked out of Kid Rock – like me – surely didn’t regret it.

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*****

Basking in the glow of his recent CMA Male Entertainer of the Year win, Main Stager Blake Shelton was the biggest Nashville name at Orlando Calling.

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And “Male Entertainer” is certainly a good way to describe Shelton, a pot-stirring master of ceremonies with a prodigious gift of gab. Perhaps showing what he’s learned on The Voice, the immensely likeable Shelton told stories about his family during a familiar medley of covers – Play That Funky Music, Centerfold and My Prerogative. We were hoping for a Miranda Lambert cameo (and we would have settled for a Cee Lo Green cameo), but no dice.

Maybe next year. The audience dug Shelton’s sly, silly originals more than anything; Hillbilly Bone got the crowd moving as much as anything the Killers did on Saturday. As country ballads go, God Gave Me You sticks pretty close to the mainstream formula, but it’s done so well that it’ll be a wedding-dance staple across the South for years to come. And of course, the ladies in the house swooned when he eased into Honey Bee.

As Shelton sings in Hillbilly Bone, when his music kicks in, you can’t help but go yee-haw.

*****

Aside from the Ettes and the PixiesKim Deal, women got the short shift on the biggest stages on Day 1 of Orlando Calling. That changed Sunday, when a trio of rockin’ ladies picked up their guitars and hit the stage.

Eschewing all things Taylor and Miranda for something more Dolly and Loretta, Elizabeth Cook played a stripped down set with just a guitarist and a stand-up bass. But her songs mixed traditional country and rockabilly with salty stories of her Florida upbringing, such as how she used to accompany her daddy while he ran moonshine for the mafia.

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Cook covered a couple of songs by Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, plus a rollicking rockabilly gospel hymn, but her subject matter went well beyond the traditional – like the sultry, funky El Camino, in which she sings about letting herself get picked up by a “funky-ass” 1972 junker. “I must be high as a kite on diesel fumes,” she wailed.

Pop singer-songwriter Michelle Branch made a bold play by performing an acoustic set, just her and another guitarist.

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And she didn’t shy from her pop-star past, opening with her two biggest radio hits, Everywhere and Are You Happy Now.

With her undeniably girly voice, Branch may have seemed like a strange addition to Orlando Calling’s country day (although she did spend time in a country duo, the Wreckers), but her unadorned approach suited the setting. Stripping the songs of their saccharine let her songs and guitar shine in ways we haven’t heard before – none more so than The Game Of Love, her Grammy-winning duet with the overbearing Santana.

She offered the crowd a new song, For Dear Life, a catchy, Taylor Swiftian number, saying it would be on her new album, whenever her label deemed it fit for release. (The acoustic set was also due in part to Branch’s feud with her label – no label support means no band and no crew. Branch kept having trouble tuning her guitar, and had to stop several times to try to fix it herself.)

Faring a little better at the solo game was Brandi Carlile, who’s in the midst of her first solo acoustic tour.

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The Seattle singer-songwriter has a cult following, and plenty of her fans were in the audience singing and stomping along.

Her voice was mesmerizing, warm and textured yet as versatile as Muse’s Matt Bellamy. The way Carlile stomped, strutted and sang lovely songs like the plaintive Follow, you just know she’d have been a star in 1995.

Instead, she just turned 30 – a fact that inspired one of her newest tunes, a dark, rootsy country track called Raise Hell. Calling it “my favorite song I’ve ever written,” Carlile sang: “I’ll be singing like an angel until I’m six feet deep.” Good. Still plenty of time for her to get more famous.

*****

A couple of genuine guitar legends took the stage Sunday.

First was Del McCoury, a bluegrass icon who cut a dashing portrait in a dapper suit and the genteel bearing – and white hair – of a televangelist.

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Standing on a patch of the Main Stage small enough to fit in the back of a pickup, McCoury did his best to turn the Citrus Bowl into a front porch, even taking requests for songs like Henry Walker and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. The quintet, which also included his sons Ronnie and Rob, closed with a lickety-split bluegrass jam White House Blues, with McCoury shining and sparkling on acoustic guitar.

But no one does it better than Buddy Guy, the iconic Chicago bluesman with the filthy mind and even filthier licks, who came onstage at sundown.

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Opening with Nobody Understands Me Like My Guitar, Guy turned his axe into a screaming mess, forcing it to yelp, howl, squelch and squeal like a stuck hog. It was amazing to see Guy for the first time one night after watching Jack White do the same thing with the Raconteurs; their reckless, crazy-eyes style definitely shares a little DNA.

When the crowd’s responses to his calls weren’t to his liking, he wasn’t afraid to let them know it, F-bombs included. “I played this same song in India three weeks ago,” he said during Hoochie Coochie Man. “And guess what? They didn’t f--- it up like you did!”

But the songs were mere setpieces for Guy’s wild, caution-to-the-wind solos. It was a rousing, unpredictable and even hilarious set. God, it hurt leaving Guy early to go catch Blake Shelton.

As an avowed jam-band atheist, I don’t have much insightful to say about Warren Haynes, but he was there, too, and his soulful Georgia rock and R&B was pretty good.

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*****

Saturday’s big cancellation was ?uestlove of the Roots. On Sunday, it was alt-country rockers Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, who dropped because their van and all their gear was stolen in Texas. Yeah, that'd about do it.

The unintended beneficiary of Isbell’s dropout was The Apache Relay, a Nashville sextet scheduled for the same timeslot one stage over.

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With a trio of guitars, plus a fiddle and mandolin, they ripped through a half-hour of passionate, spacious Southern rock and soul with Arcade Fire-like intensity. State Trooper was a dirty, bluesy call and response about hiding from the law. Their sound was too big for the space of the FreeCreditReport.com tent, like My Morning Jacket with elements of Tom Petty and The Clash. No doubt they sold a couple copies of their album, American Nomad, on this day.

Another younger artist who likely siphoned some of Isbell’s fans was the David Mayfield Parade, one of the day’s first big draws.

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Looking (and mugging) like Zach Galifianakis, the band’s namesake frontman mixed Southern Gothic swing with randy bar blues and raucous, hilarious stage banter. Mayfield hooped, hollered, danced, screamed without a mic and collapsed to the stage with his legs wrapped around his guitar. It’s too bad Vaudeville isn’t still around; these guys were tailor-made for it. But someone should start a campaign to get them to the Grand Old Opry stage.

*****

The local band on my agenda Sunday was the only group from the Tampa Bay area: Bradenton’s Have Gun, Will Travel.

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One of the region’s most popular groups (and a former tbt* Ultimate Local Artist), HGWT were a perfect fit for Orlando Calling’s “country” day, with a wistful yet rollicking Americana sound that’s earned play on NPR.

They had a tough draw; Los Lonely Boys were playing at the nearby FreeCreditScore.com Stage, and they drew a huge crowd. But HGWT acquitted themselves admirably, with a short set that drew heavily from their new album, Mergers & Acquisitions. Driving Southern-rock songs like 13 Miles to Empty and Freightliner recalled everyone from John Denver to Calexico.

In introducing the band’s best-known song, Blessing and a Curse, singer Matt Burke said: “It’s a singalong at a festival, and you kind of have to participate, by order of the festival gods.” Sure enough, many did.

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Another great act out of Orlando worth watching: Piano-driven pop-rock actSavannah, whose soulful, radio-ready hooks call to mind The Fray or Gavin DeGraw.

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“Who saw the Killers last night?” asked singer-pianist James Major. “I bet it was awesome. I missed it. I was working at Outback, serving tables.”

Hopefully not for long.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 3:59am]

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