CLEARWATER — It's tough to tell the hard truth after such an apple-cheeked earnest show, but here you go: Lady Antebellum is a so-so trio with one out-of-sight singer, a contemporary country confection that just happens to have an unlikely blues singer as its star.
In other words, Charles Kelley, despite looking like a geology TA at USF, is the reason Tuesday was the last time you'll see Nashville's Lady A play a venue as intimate as Ruth Eckerd Hall with its sold-out, sing-along crowd of 2,180.
Kelley & Co. could have packed 15,000 (easy) into the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. But this is the group's first headlining tour, so best to take it slow, work on the onstage moves, get comfy with the throngs. After two platinum albums and an endless string of No. 1 hits — all of which were uncorked during their loud, likable, if slightly pandering, 90-minute set — it's nothing but arenas and amps after this.
Because despite my slight cantankery, these guys-and-a-girl are big and getting bigger. Kelley is a phenomenal singer, his lower range akin to a soul-kissed burn; there's a reason he was the first voice you heard, on opener I Run to You, performed as the three sat casually on steps.
Kelley's partner in harmony, the gorgeous Hillary Scott, looked killer in dominatrix boots and thigh-squeezin' jeans. But her voice is an average instrument at best, made clear during a reading of Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me. Lady A's third member, Dave Haywood, is the instrumentalist, a talented-enough chap who nevertheless looks a bit lost, as if he fell out of an '80s band from New Zealand.
Okay, I've no doubt ticked people off, so let me toss out hugs and kisses: Lady A loves to perform. And if all the forced Clearwater shout-outs were a bit much, these three believe in what they're singing; their energy is infectious. Backed by a five-piece band, Lady A gave every song full-voiced attention, from the cliche party cut Stars Tonight to the genuinely moving ballad When You Got a Good Thing.
Much of Lady A's material doesn't challenge Kelley's range at all. And there's a chance not even he realizes how good he can be. Instead of opting for, say, an Otis Redding tune or even a George Strait weeper, he picked Tom Petty's Free Fallin' as his solo song; hey, that's a classic cut, but it demanded nothing of his voice.
Still, toward the end of the show, he had a few chances to unleash those pipes, especially on the truly great Love Don't Live Here. And after a goofy but good-spirited take on John Mellencamp's R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Lady A encored with huge smash Need You Now. Haywood played a tingly piano intro, Scott made 'em swoon with her opening seduction and Kelley eventually answered as the randy, besotted paramour.
He'll be a great solo artist some day, but for now, he's just fine stealing the show in one of the biggest bands on the planet.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.