As with any rock star making a foray into country music, there's been a healthy amount of cynicism surrounding Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, his debut solo album We're All Somebody From Somewhere and his Out on a Limb Tour. But during a well-paced concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last night, Tyler made it clear he had no intention of being anything other than himself.
"I'm gonna keep rocking 'til I die," said a younger Tyler in a short video piece just before he took the stage, 68 years old and still slithering and striking like a king cobra.
That turned out to be true, as Tyler’s Out on a Limb show was roughly 75 percent rock & roll hits and 25 percent new country tunes, all backed by the righteously tight seven-piece band Loving Mary. His rocket-propelled vocals sounded even more powerful when paired with fiddle and steel guitar, but Tyler smartly stacked the deck for his fans, charging out of the gate with a pair of Aerosmith classics – "Sweet Emotion" and "Cryin'" – before addressing the sold-out crowd at his first-ever appearance in the Mother Church of Country Music.
"What a joy and a thrill and a privilege to be at the Ryman," Tyler said. "I know I speak for Loving Mary when I say what an honor it is that we get to rock your world tonight, and play some versions of country music as I see it. Thank you God for this town!"
Since his first appearances in Nashville – at revered listening room the Bluebird Café – Tyler has seemed genuine in his belief that country music has more of the rock & roll soul he fell in love with than rock itself does today. He repeated that assertion Wednesday night, saying his new music wasn't planned at all but was directly inspired by the musical atmosphere of Nashville.
"You're about to hear something you ain't never heard, and it's all because of this town," he raved. "I shit you not, it’s really because of the energy of this town. I'm just a country boy from southern New Hampshire. I came here and it was like, 'What? I'm home.'"
Styled to the hilt in Jack Sparrow chic – unruly hair, wispy mustache and knee-length patterned coat – Tyler looked very much the rock star, with the only crutch from decades of life on the road a pair of leopard-print sneakers. Tyler has famously bad feet, but you wouldn't know it from the way he prowled the stage, spurring on the band, flirting with girls in the front row and doing mic stand yoga, contorting his wiry frame like a paper clip. He also produced gritty, sky-high notes that would be hard to reach for a 25-year-old.
"We're All Somebody From Somewhere" gave the crowd its first taste of the new "country" tunes (sample lyric: "Cornbread? Damn, I love that shit"), followed closely by a medley of the Beatles' "I'm Down" and "Come Together." The grooving covers continued with a breathless tribute to Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," making it clear that the stories Tyler promised when the tour was announced were a journey through his musical history.
Tyler admitted that he ripped off Joplin's wardrobe style when he got started, and offered anecdotes about teaming up with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, but fans looking for an in-depth narrative should stick to Behind the Music. Out On a Limb was more about rocking (country style), and the mix of middle-aged couples and 20-somethings was just fine with that.
Many of Tyler's country collaborators were in the crowd, including Eric Paslay, co-writer of Tyler's first country single "Love Is Your Name," a modern romantic anthem that falls roughly in line with Aerosmith ballads like "Crazy" and "Cryin'." A ukulele appeared for the breezy, beachy "I Make My Own Sunshine," and "What It Takes," off Aerosmith's 1989 Pump, again reminded fans how closely connected classic rock and modern country really are.
The single "Red, White and You," on the other hand, was like a completely different language for Tyler, one of the few songs that didn't quite fit with his personality. "My Own Worst Enemy," the lead track from We’re All Somebody From Somewhere, fared better, a reflective co-write with the Warren Brothers about breaking one's own heart and featuring a gypsy-accordion bridge.
Tyler finished off the song seated at a pearl-white grand piano, and a massive cheer erupted as he segued into "Dream On." A drum circle, yet no less raunchy, rendition of "Walk This Way" followed.
Tyler returned for two encores: one an updated and far darker version of Aerosmith's stand against domestic abuse, "Janie's Got a Gun," and another with Tyler and band unplugging their instruments and gathering around two old-school radio microphones for "It Ain't Easy," the first song Tyler wrote upon landing in Music City. (Watch the performance above.)
By show's end, Tyler's love affair with the country format came off looking and sounding honest. Better than half of today's contemporary-country stars have been inspired by Tyler's style and onstage antics anyway – custom mic stands, anyone? But while he has a new album that's been purposely crafted for the genre, he's not really trying to reinvent himself, or delude himself into thinking that fans are coming out solely to hear his take on country.
Tyler is just doing what Tyler does, and that usually involves a few steps into the unknown.
"No great story started with salad," he joked earlier in the night. "You've gotta take risks."