Local country station WYRK decided to mix things up a bit for its annual Taste of Country winter concert, requiring the artists to go unplugged.
It's a gimmick that will always be compelling on some level, asking artists to expose the skeletons of their songs, letting listeners decide if they're solid to the core or weaker without all the window dressing.
And on Wednesday night at Shea's Performing Arts Center, the tunes were mostly the former, as three Nashville artists played their hearts out with no drums or electric guitars to hide behind.
First up was Joanna Smith, a promising newcomer who dished out a well-rounded set of smart, spunky tunes. After an opening song about loving trucks – something that must be in every Nashville songwriter's contract by now – Smith scored big with the engagement-death-boogie of "Ring for Sale," as well as "Broken Dishes," a nifty story song about troubled diner owners stuffed with clever lines, including, "This time they burned more than the coffee."
Expressing her adoration of the venue in her chirpy Georgia drawl, Smith ingratiated herself about as quickly as an opening act can.
The ensuing act, Love and Theft, certainly came in with a bigger resume than Smith, but they could've used a smidgen of her wit. The duo of Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson is riding the wave of its first No. 1 hit – the pleasant-enough ode to good girls with bad streaks, "Angel Eyes."
The duo's set had the polish and confidence you'd expect from Nashville pros. But the stripped-down setting didn't do them many favors, especially during "Girls Look Hot in Trucks," a song begging for some kind of irony that they sang with baffling sincerity.
The duo harmonized very well, but when Liles took over, his preference for hard rock histrionics (e.g., he made words that end in "-tion" sound like "-shiawwwn!") jived strangely with the group's light country grooves.
The stars did align for Love and Theft toward the end, thanks to the propulsive minor-key riff of "Running Out of Air" that suited the vocal harmonies beautifully. And "Amen" boasted one of the best concepts of the night – skipping church in the name of love.
Then came the headliner, Jerrod Niemann, a gifted, wise-cracking Nashville vet who's perfect for this type of show.
Taking the stage with his ever-present backwards cap in place, he dove into a jokey ditty about his grandpa getting hit in the face with a baseball, followed by a Parrothead-baiting sing-along called "One More Drinking Song" and an earnest inspirational number called "Get On Up."
It was just the right mix of silliness and real emotion, the perfect microcosm of Niemann's charms. Then came a new one – a full-on, can-I-have-this-dance love song with the chorus, "Only God could love you more than I do." Like everything else he played, this came off honest.
After a loose, loyal cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and a warm-hearted beach, boats and brew tune called "It Don't Matter Anymore," Niemann was on a roll.
I guess when your songs are that good, going unplugged just feels like a different way to party.
WYRK Taste of Country Winter Acoustic Concert
Featuring Jerrod Niemann, Love & Theft and Joanna Smith on Wednesday evening in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.