"If you're from Texas, you probably drive a big-ass four-wheel-drive pickup truck."
That's not a generalization: It's how Jason Aldean introduced "Night Train" — his crossover hit that is all about making magic with that special someone (and "a fifth of 'Comfort") inside of said pickup — midway through his Friday-night headlining set at the NCAA's March Madness Music Festival. And the whoops of approval it received definitely proved that he knows his audience well.
Like the man himself, Aldean's songs are rough-edged and raucous, celebrating bad girls and brown liquor, shot through with a defiant, "Don't fence me in" spirit and beefed-up with guitars that rumble like John Deere engines. And he played a lot of those songs Friday, opening with the stomping, swaggering "Crazy Town," and rumbling through hits like "When She Says Baby," "Johnny Cash," "My Kinda Party," "Hicktown" and "The Only Way I Know How." Aldean sang them all with the brim of his Resistol pulled low over his eyes, smiling as his band charged through chords and pulled out solos that provided pro-wrestling pummel to the tunes. They even covered Kid Rock's "Cowboy."
But attitude is only part of the secret to his success; the other lies in Aldean's ability to sing the bejeezus out of a ballad, and he's scored with softer songs, too, like "Big Green Tractor" and "Don't You Wanna Stay," his chart-topping duet with Kelly Clarkson. He performed both on Friday, much to the delight of the couples in the crowd, who slow danced and sang along in unison.
While Aldean has struck a defiant stance for most of his career, rising stars the Eli Young Band have found success in recent years with a string of hits — "Crazy Girl," "Guinevere" — that take the opposite tack. Their songs are unapologetically universal and overwhelmingly earnest (their most recent smash, "Drunk Last Night," finds frontman Mike Eli apologizing for a drunk dial), so they made for an interesting early-evening counterpoint to Aldean's toe-the-line show.
Still, EYB were definitely in the mood to party. Songs like the muscled-up "10,000 Towns" (which featured Eli kinda-rapping about "Redneck hip-hop") and the rubbery bass of "Level" were proof of that. And they even threw in a couple of covers — Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Learning To Fly" — to help loosen the mood, but for a band that was formed less than 40 miles away, in Denton, this gig was about celebrating how far they've come, figuratively.
So Eli made several "follow your dreams" speeches and repeatedly mentioned that music had changed his life. And then he and his bandmates went out and did maximum outreach, working in big-hearted numbers like "On My Way" and "Always The Love Songs" into their set. Their themes are time-tested (love, infidelity, heartbreak), and their message was clear: this band could be you.