Review: WQYK Guitar Pull showcases a stripped-down Charles Kelley, Lee Brice, more at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater
WQYK-99.5 couldn’t have picked a better time for its first-ever Guitar Pull concert.
Two weeks after Sasquachian singer Chris Stapleton shocked and swept the CMAs, potentially heralding a new era of respect for the humble singer-songwriter, six big-time Nashville acts brought their acoustic guitars to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg for an all-night round-robin songfest. Lyrics, laughter and liquor flowed freely as fans were treated to 3-1/2 hours of stripped-down sing-alongs from Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, Lee Brice, Hunter Hayes, Eric Paslay, Jerrod Niemann and Maddie and Tae.
It was the sort of scene might associate with Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, hugely successful singers and songwriters swapping licks and lines on stage all night, and throwing in more than two dozen big hits to boot. It’s certainly not the sort of scene one normally finds in St. Petersburg on a Wednesday night — which is probably why it sold out well in advance.
As the night’s ostensible headliner, the rakish and silver-tongued Kelley was in the center of the action, oozing charm to the back rows and slinging praise for his stagemates all night. While he nodded to his on-a-break Lady A with their old standby Run To You (“I feel a little naked without my compadres,” he said), the reason for his appearance was his forthcoming solo album, of which fans got two tastes — the moving Southern Accents and the traditional folk-kissed The Driver.
But it was as a silver-tongued raconteur and commentator that Kelley stood out the most. Admitting at one point he was “obnoxiously talkative,” he shared stories about writing with an ADD-addled Luke Bryan and ad-libbed a little song about Paslay: “Eric, you feel the best / when I lay down on your chest.”
Hayes, who spent months on the road with Lady Antebellum this year, was a frequent target, with Kelley prodding him to show off his swollen biceps.
“Hunter Hayes is stronger than me, and I’m twice his size,” Kelley said.
When Hayes tried to lead the crowd in a stirring version of Wanted, Kelley purred a Barry White-like ad-lib: (“I wanna make you feel wanted, baby”) that broke up both the crowd and the song.
“I ruined a moment, didn’t I?” he said sheepishly.
As a grinning Hayes later retorted: “Thank you for letting us be part of your round.”
But while Kelley talked a good game, it was Brice and Paslay who stole the show at every turn. The bearish, bellowing Brice, in particular, commanded the crowd not just with his massive and tear-jerking hits, I Drive Your Truck and I Don’t Dance, but with hits he wrote for others (Eli Young Band’s Crazy Girl). Same for Paslay, who raised the roof on the Mellencampian Friday Night, and got huge ovations for She Don’t Love You and another Eli Young Band song, Even If It Breaks Your Heart.
Both Brice and Paslay utterly slayed the night’s final round, in which each artist was asked to play a cover. Brice challenged the crowd to follow him into a crushing, campfire-intimate take on Johnny Paycheck’s Old Violin, and they did, in awed silence. Paslay threw down a version of U2’s With or Without You that had the entire stage strumming and plucking along, and left even Kelley almost speechless.
“You need to record that,” he told Paslay. “Was anybody recording that?”
(The other covers, for the record: Kelley did Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, Hayes did Walk the Moon’s Shut Up and Dance, Maddie and Tae did Justin Timberlake’s Mirrors, and Niemann closed the show with Alabama’s rambunctious Mountain Music.)
Hayes, an irrepressible sparkplug of overcaffeinated guitar wizardry, couldn’t help but get up when he sang, especially when trotting out a looping pedal, a la Ed Sheeran, to accompany himself on Storm Warning and I Want Crazy. The wryly funny Niemann kept things light with One More Drinkin’ Song and Lover, Lover; but dug deep for the emotive What Do You Want.
And Maddie and Tae were the perfect young act to kick off a bill like this, None of the artists on stage traffic much in the bro-country objectification they skewer in their feminist hit Girl in a Country Song. In fact, when they got to the line “shakin’ my moneymaker ain’t never made me a dime,” it was Paslay, at the urging of Kelley (of course), who begrudgingly got up to shake his own moneymaker to the crowd.
The mood in the house, as is often the case with country music, was no doubt enlivened by booze, as most of the singers sipped on beers sent up from fans and whatever they’d brought from backstage. (The underage Maddie and Tae and squeaky-clean Hayes stuck to water and coffee.)
And if the drinks helped with the feeling of cameraderie, so be it. All night, the singers complimented each other on their work. Madison “Maddie” Marlow thanked Paslay for writing Even If It Breaks Your Heart, a song that inspired her to keep going when she first moved to Nashville. Kelley called Maddie and Tae’s Shut Up and Fish “one of the best country songs” on the radio. And Brice’s pained, vulnerable I Drive Your Truck, Niemann was the first to stand up and applaud, and Kelley was the first to sling praise.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence,” he said, “but you and Chris Stapleton intimidate me as a singer.”
That inspired Marlow to hop to her feet to show off her Chris Stapleton T-shirt. At that moment, the only thing missing from this songwriters’ showcase was Stapleton himself.
If the Guitar Pull becomes an annual event, he'd be a great fit next year.
— Jay Cridlin