A rejuvenated Steven Tyler took center stage Thursday night at the Melrose Ballroom in Long Island City, Queens, draped in his signature hippie-pirate couture. The intimate set that followed showcased the direction of the Aerosmith frontman’s forthcoming solo country album as part of the Country Music Association Songwriters Series and Public Television program Front and Center.
When the 67-year-old rocker moved to Nashville last January, the city’s musical pulse enchanted him. “It was like living in Bethlehem with the star over it,” he said from the stage. In typical Nashville fashion — or at least what is typical on Nashville, the television series — Tyler was brought to the historic Bluebird Cafe where he met Lindsey Lee and Eric Paslay, the young writers of “Love Is Your Name.” When Tyler heard the song, he phoned Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta and said: “I think we’ve got something here.”
Tyler was right. Released in May, the galloping, Mumford-esque ballad debuted on the Hot Country Songs chart at Number 27 and made Billboard’s Hot 100 at Number 75 — the first time Tyler has cracked the latter chart since 2011’s “(It) Feels So Good.” “They wrote a good song and the rest is history,” Tyler said of Lee and Paslay, who joined him in singing it at last night’s show. More than once, Lee helped Tyler from running out of steam on some sharp high notes.
Seeing Tyler in an unplugged-and-seated environment is a little jarring. His signature stage mannerisms — the left-wrist curl, the microphone leapfrog — are there, but fitted to a smaller space. His voice, however, was not. Tyler sang, spoke and played harmonica at full volume straight through the two-hour show.
Surrounding Tyler was his gypsy-tribe backing band, Loving Mary. Singer-guitarist Suzie McNeil was the Joe Perry of the evening. She played everything from acoustic guitar, harmonica, maracas and piano to the cowbell (on “Walk This Way,” naturally).
On the other side of the semicircle, Aerosmith collaborator Marti Frederiksen played acoustic and steel guitar. He reminisced with Tyler about their first interaction working on “Something’s Gotta Give” in the late Nineties (“That’s a real ass-kicker,” said Tyler) and co-writing Number One hit “Jaded.”
The set revolved around Aerosmith stadium-pleasers like “What It Takes,” “Cryin'” and “Livin’ on the Edge” — safe choices for new country instrumentation that also wouldn’t offend purists. Admittedly, “Sweet Emotion” was tough to appreciate without Tom Hamilton’s groovy bass solo.
Other songs like “Pink” actually sounded better with an acoustic, banjo-accented treatment. A smoky minor-key rendition of “Janie’s Got a Gun” got a standing ovation.
The night’s biggest surprise was when Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt jumped onstage with Tyler to perform “More Than Words,” the beloved (and recently parodied) 1991 ballad. Bettencourt lauded Aerosmith as a huge influence.
Tyler also tried to game the night’s repertoire. When the teleprompter was cued up for “Dream On,” Tyler sang the opening verses to Aerosmith’s on-the-road ballad “Home Tonight” from Rocks — which he dedicated to his daughters Mia and Chelsea, and grandson Milo, who were seated at a front-row table and singing along.
Tyler left the finale for a family member in spirit, his musical matriarch, Janis Joplin. “I knew if I was going to do a solo record, I had to have one of her songs on it,” he said after rambling through a soulful rendition of “Mercedes Benz.”
Joplin made a lasting impression on Tyler as a teenager. When he snuck into one of her New York City shows 50 years ago, he left with a whole new identity. The strut, the scarves, the Southern Comfort: “She’s the reason,” he said.
Loving Mary, Bettencourt, and Lee and Paslay became Tyler’s makeshift holding company last night. They jammed together on an electrifying cover of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” and in doing so, helped forge Tyler’s next musical identity that’s already begun to take shape in impressive ways.
“What It Takes”
“Love Is Your Name”
“Livin’ on the Edge”
“Janie’s Got a Gun”
“More Than Words” (Extreme cover)
“Walk This Way”
“Home Tonight” (intro)
“Mercedes Benz” (Janis Joplin cover)
“Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin cover)