Now that Old Dominion are a chart-topping band, it can be easy to forget that its members were once just a group of individual songwriters trying to navigate Nashville’s music industry, playing tiny bars and hoping their songs would catch the right ears. Last night, they made a triumphant return to one of those formative bars and played their forthcoming album Happy Endings in its entirety, not as struggling musicians but as one of Nashville’s savviest songwriting collectives.
“If you have any questions, raise your hand,” said singer Matthew Ramsey before the band’s first song, “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart.” That was hardly an exaggeration, as the stage of Blue Bar in Midtown couldn’t have been much more than 10 yards from the bar lining the back of the building, an expanse that was densely packed with fans and industry VIPs trying not to sweat on one another. This dive bar tour stop, presented by Bud Light, was the site of a standing Wednesday gig for Old Dominion’s members and the place where they assumed their moniker.
That background as songwriters hasn’t always served Old Dominion incredibly well as live performers. On larger stages, they’ve looked a little uncertain, as if they were glued to their respective spaces onstage and wary of coming across as too eager. That was hardly a concern on the compact stage at Blue Bar, where keyboardist/guitarist Trevor Rosen was mostly obscured from the crowd by a stack of speakers hauled in for their performance. Still, in spite of their limited room, they seemed more comfortable in their role as entertainers, engaging the crowd and recounting the origins of their new songs.
Happy Endings, which arrives August 24th, builds on the group’s solid debut Meat & Candy with 12 new songs that showcase the group’s confidence with incorporating pop and rock touches into easily digestible, radio-friendly modern country. The album’s bright and buoyant opening track “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart” is currently inside the Country Airplay Top 10 and was a crowd sing-along from first chorus. But even the previously unreleased tracks, such as the shimmering “Be With Me,” provoked cheers from the crowd, as if they’d heard them played at other live shows or sought out YouTube clips from other concerts. As further evidence, numerous attendees held cellphones aloft to capture video of the performances, in clear defiance of signs forbidding any kind of recording that were posted on every wall.
That part of the band’s existence shouldn’t be ignored, either, because they’re not the kind of act that relies solely on a heavy promotion budget and the whims of passive radio listening. Their first Number One, “Break Up With Him,” was a hit on SiriusXM well before it was adopted by terrestrial stations, quickly converting listeners to fans and mobilizing them to buy concert tickets.
The new songs seem to have a canny understanding of what fans will want – big hooks and clever wordplay, along with lyrical reference points that don’t feel moored to a time before smartphones. The productions are a shade bolder and crib liberally (in some cases) from current R&B and pop, but never presented the band with something they couldn’t capably re-create live at Blue Bar. Singer Ramsey’s not the rangiest vocalist, but his round, warm tone in combination with the band’s hooks worked for maximum effect. The closest they came to sounding like a straight-up rock band was on “So You Go” and “A Girl Is a Gun,” which departed from the norm by cranking up the distortion and letting lead guitarist Brad Tursi cut loose for a solo. More often it was closer to the omnivorous Maroon 5 model of pop songcraft, letting the guitars work in service of the song – not dominate it.
Before playing a few of their hits from Meat & Candy, Old Dominion ended their main set with “Can’t Get You,” a rowdy number about bad decisions and disappointment that also closes Happy Endings. Breaking with convention, the album version is actually a live recording, raw and full of crowd noise to accompany Ramsey’s rapid-fire musings. Given the devotion of fans who attend their shows and learn their songs before the albums even come out, it’s hard not to view its inclusion as a grateful acknowledgement of their symbiotic relationship.