With the kickoff date of their Las Vegas residency looming, the members of Rascal Flatts — Gary LeVox, Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus — have been holing up in an East Nashville rehearsal space, working their way through a custom-built show that highlights the group’s hits and harmonies.
“As you’ve noticed, we’ve got some new players in the band this year,” says LeVox, gesturing toward Flatts’ expanded lineup of road musicians. It’s a Thursday afternoon, and the guys have been rehearsing all day long, pulling older songs like “Mayberry” out of semi-retirement and dressing up some of their familiar concert staples with different arrangements. It’s loud inside the room, whose sprawling size could just as easily accommodate an airplane as a seven-piece country band. Rascal Flatts’ gear is strewn across the place, though — including three individual sets of all-white tom drums and cymbals, lined up in a way that recalls the Blue Man Group’s own performances in Vegas — and once a handful of journalists and radio broadcasters file into the space to watch the band play two songs, things start to feel more cozy.
Although the Vegas gigs are scheduled to begin on February 25th, Rascal Flatts haven’t begun working with set pieces or lighting cues. Part of the reasoning is circumstantial. The band’s lighting director recently underwent a triple bypass, so the guys are giving him some extra time to recover. Even so, DeMarcus explains that the stage design isn’t a big concern this time around. Shows like Cirque du Soleil might be Las Vegas’s bread and butter, but inside the Joint — the Hard Rock Hotel’s 4,000-capacity club that’ll house Flatts’ residency through May 14th, downsizing their usual crowd by as much as 75 percent — the audiences want to focus on the music, not the production.
Fortunately, the music is sounding pretty good these days. Rascal Flatts enjoyed the longest break of their career last year, celebrating the end of their summer-long Rewind Tour with two months of well-deserved R&R. It was worth it. The guys look refreshed and revitalized as they charge through live versions of “Me and My Gang” and latest single “Riot” during rehearsal, backed by a band that now includes players like Andy Wood, a second-place medalist in the World Champion Mandolin Contest. During a guitar breakdown in the first song, LeVox even demands that the audience members scattered across the room — including execs from the trio’s record label, Big Machine — clap along.
“The only time I’ve been to the Joint was to see Jeff Beck, about five years ago,” Rooney says after the short performance, during a round-robin interview with journalists. “I love the intimate setting. We all three do. It’s something we haven’t gotten to do in awhile.”
In terms of seating capacity, the Joint isn’t too different from, say, the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where Shania Twain recently wrapped up a two-year residency in December 2014. (Reba McEntire will launch her own run of Colosseum shows this summer, sharing the stage with Brooks & Dunn.) However, while Twain’s sold-out shows included costume changes, live animals and special scents pumped through the venue’s air vents, the Flatts shows will highlight — not disguise — the Joint’s casual, scaled-back vibe. DeMarcus talks about “an all-hits show” that adapts the band’s stadium gigs to a much smaller room. LeVox agrees, adding, “We’re bringing more musically than we are visually, and just letting the music do the work.”
After the Vegas stint wraps up, the guys will launch a more traditional tour this summer, hitting the road on May 29th — one week before the 15th anniversary of their debut album’s release. Looking back on a decade and a half of hit songs, DeMarcus says the the band is lucky to have so many singles in their arsenal, even if it sometimes limits their ability to change up the setlist night after night.
“It’s sort of a blessing and a curse to have so many songs people expect to hear,” he explains. “It kind of limits what you’re able to do with your live show… [And] while it does, 50 shows in, get old singing ‘God Bless the Freakin’ Broken Road,’ I’m so happy that we have that song to do, and I’m so thrilled that people care enough to wanna pay money to see us sing it every year.”