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‘Nashville’ stars are fine musicians, too

It was the perfect moment, just a touch of quiet between songs, when a woman stood and yelled, “I love you, Deacon! You are the rugged terrain!”

Charles Esten – the slender, dark-haired, denim-clad man she was calling “Deacon” – keeled over with a broad grin. He wasn’t the only one. The capacity crowd inside the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts broke into laughter.

“Darlin’,” Esten said, dropping that “g” for a nice Nashville touch, “I have a red face against my white shirt.”

And he was clearly loving it.

Esten, who plays the guitarist Deacon Claybourne on the ABC musical drama “Nashville,” was in town for a Saturday night concert with his castmate Clare Bowen, who plays Deacon’s niece Scarlett O’Connor. The draw of those characters and the show, which is in its fourth season, is clearly what compelled people to buy tickets.

But they weren’t going to get Deacon or Scarlett. This wasn’t “Nashville Live.” They were getting Chip (Esten’s preferred derivative of Charles) and Clare. The audience was happy with what they got – and what they got was quite good.

Good musically, and good in the greater sense too.

The two-hour show began with a 12-song set by Bowen, 31, a native of Australia. She wore a long, flowy red skirt and a sparkly white and silver sleeveless top, with a matching headband that circled her recently shortened blond hair. Bowen cut her long locks last fall in honor of people who are fighting cancer. She battled the disease as a little girl, and her younger brother Tim is waging that fight now. In fact, even as Bowen performed onstage in Buffalo, Tim was in an emergency room in Australia.

After she shared that with the audience, Bowen performed a song written by her brother, “Learn to Love Again.” It was one of several love songs she sang, and she has the ideal presence for it – lively, lovely eyes, an unassuming smile, and a strong voice rooted in her Australian musical theater background.

That passion is a trait Bowen shares with her character, Scarlett, whose music comes from a deep well of personal conflict that is balanced, as she gets older, by stronger relationships. Bowen’s real-life fiance, the Nashville musician Brandon Young, tours, writes and plays with her. He was in Buffalo, too, and joined his bride-to-be onstage for several songs.

The most touching: Their rendition of “Run Away with Me,” a song Bowen and Young wrote together. They locked eyes through the full song, never wavering, until the last note, when Bowen’s lips curved into a giddy smile.

Backing up both Esten and Bowen was the Nashville-based band Sixwire. Esten met the band early in the first season of “Nashville,” and has played and written with the members since. His hour-plus set was energetic from the start, at times kinetic, thumping, plucky and soulful. Prior to “Nashville,” Esten, 50, has spent most of his career acting in character roles and comedy shows (most notably “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”). But his first role out of college was playing Buddy Holly in a London stage musical, and before that, he was in a rock band while studying at William and Mary.

In concert, Esten’s musical stage beginnings are more apparent even than they are on “Nashville.” On television, he plays a backup musician. But onstage, he can truly play the star – a role he fits snugly. In a set that blended songs from Nashville with an array of his original compositions, Esten worked the crowd hard. He points. He locks eyes. He spins his guitar around his back, leaving the “Deacon” on his strap clearly visible across his chest, rolls up his white sleeves and works the microphone.

Esten, and Bowen as well, treaded into the audience, climbing up one set of stairs, dancing with the audience and then heading back down the other side toward the stage. He even weaved in a key music-star multi-task, taking a selfie while singing.

He knows his role – his real-life role – and Bowen does too. Their “Nashville” stardom filled the seats. Their job was to fill the audience’s ears, and it was a job they did well. When the show ended, their work did not. Afterward, Esten and Bowen spent another hour in the lobby, meeting with every fan who came to see Deacon and Scarlett, but instead got Chip and Clare – a trade-off that pleased.

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