Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden

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Last night we finally saw Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden (MSG). I have written a number of times about the company that owns MSG (and also Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theater). That company is a subsidiary of Cablevision. They run their concerts like clockwork, and I think that is extremely customer friendly.

Actually, The Beacon Theater is an exception. Both MSG and Radio City are like on-time trains. The Beacon is more relaxed (in the bad sense), and often starts the shows pretty late.

Last night started at exactly 8pm (as announced), with Kellie Pickler. We were far enough away that I couldn’t appreciate her beauty. Her voice is good, and the songs are good enough. That said, given the lousy acoustics of MSG, there was nothing special about her performance, or her group’s. I was impressed that many of the people in our section sang along to every word of her songs, so the draw last night wasn’t exclusively Rascal Flatts.

She performed eight songs, for 36 minutes, and was definitely a hit with the crowd.

After a 24 minute break, the lights went off at exactly 9pm.

Like I said above, we were extremely far from the stage. In fact, exactly opposite the stage. For all I know, we were in the exact same seats that we were in for the Kenny Chesney show. Smack in the middle of the floor, there was a large round stage with the words Rascal Flatts on it. Before Kellie came on, Lois conjectured that perhaps Rascal Flatts would perform there. I was sure she was wrong, because there was no access to that area.

It wasn’t used during Kellie’s performance, and we both noted that the people sitting at the seats on the floor behind that structure seemed like they got ripped off, since seeing over it to the real stage appeared to be obstructed.

After the lights went off at 9pm, we started to hear the music without seeing the band yet. When the lights came on (to the crowd’s frenzy), the three guys in Rascal Flatts (RF) were emerging (rising) from the circular center stage. The rest of the band (five other musicians) were on the main stage. The crowd went nuts, and suddenly, our seats weren’t so bad. The previously awful seats on the floor, were now front-row good.

They sang one song in that configuration, and toward the end of the number, a very large bridge came down from the ceiling, connecting the circular center stage with the main stage. They each walked (one at a time) over the bridge, while continuing the song, and ended it on the main stage. Holy moly, it was amazing! Then the bridge went up, and they covered the center stage again, and all was back to normal.

Here’s a shot of them after the center stage was up and lit. You can see the bridge clearly behind the stage. Click the photo to enlarge it:

Opening Number from Rascal Flatts at MSG

They are absolutely amazing performers, and the symbiosis with the crowd is at least as good as it is with Kenny Chesney’s shows (which are legendary). As I’ve said before (and even earlier in this post), the acoustics at MSG are horrible. Every single note on the bass guitar literally shakes the floor and the seat you’re sitting in. Guitar solos are piercing (not in the good sense).

None of that mattered last night. If you were there to hear music, in silence, it would be disappointing (though I doubt that RF is capable of disappointing!). But, I would describe last night (as did they) as more of an amazing party, than an acoustical event where you come just to hear the music. For this kind of show, you come to be part of the music. Lois described it as an old-time revival meeting.

Gary LeVox (the lead singer) has an absolutely incredible voice. We’ve known that, but it’s also powerful enough to be able to overcome the horrible acoustics, reasonably well. In other words, he was absolutely amazing last night.

That said, he was particularly sensitive to the fact that the crowd wanted to sing every single word of every single song along with him. He began most songs singing relatively softly, in order to let you hear the crowd pretty clearly. Then, as the song built momentum, he would raise his volume and show you what makes him so special.

All three of them have wonderful personalities and interacted with the crowd in delightful ways. After a bunch of amazing numbers, the bridge came down again. At the time, all three RF guys were on the main stage. But, when the circular stage came up, there was a drummer with a drum set on it. Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus went across the bridge to join the drummer. When the light faded on the main stage, Gary LeVox was left on the other side.

Jay DeMarcus normally plays bass, but on the center stage, he played an electric piano, extremely well. The three guys (Jay, Joe and the drummer) played two or three numbers, that were much mellower, but excellent nonetheless. Then the bridge came back down, and Gary joined them. They played a bunch of numbers. The center stage rotated very slowly (in both directions!), so that everyone could see every one of them, from every angle.

Here’s a shot of the three of them plus the drummer, playing a set on center stage (click to see a larger photo):

Rascal Flatts plus Drummer on Center Stage

Then the bridge came down again, and the three of them went back to the main stage. They continued doing smash hit after smash hit. Other than chatting occasionally to the crowd, there were almost no breaks between songs. When they finally said goodnight, they had played for 94 minutes. The lights stayed off, so we knew they would be coming back for an encore (how could they not?).

Here’s a shot of the entire stage. You can see that they had giant screens where they showed videos, stills, colors, etc. If you look closely on the top left quadrant, you can make out the bridge that’s hanging in the air (at least the steps on either end), and on the bottom of the black blob on the left, are a person’s legs hanging down. I believe he’s the bridge operator. Again, click to enlarge:

Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden

Immediately after they started the last song of the evening (the last one before the encore, that is), 10 Marines in full dress uniform marched on to the stage, and stood in a line behind the band. The crowd started to clap loudly even before Gary encouraged them to, at which point essentially the entire crowd stood up and gave a giant ovation to the Marines, who saluted back. I can’t begin to tell you how unusual it is in NYC, and I don’t know if it’s more Country Music Fans in this case, or respect for the choice that Rascal Flatts made, but it was heartwarming nonetheless.

When the lights came back on, Gary was alone rising from the center stage again, but you could hear one or two instruments on the main stage, which was still dark. He started singing one of their signature tunes, Here’s To You (which I predicted to Lois they would do for the encore). When the song began to build, the bridge came back down, the lights came on the main stage, and he crossed over (slowly, singing to all the people on either side of the bridge along the way).

After that, they played another number. The crowd stood for the entire encore (many people stood for the entire concert, but thankfully, no one who was immediately in front of us in our section).

When we left, Lois said that it was the greatest concert she’d ever been to. I totally understand her enthusiasm, but disagree on the terminology only. As far as concerts go, it’s going to be really hard for me to ever agree that any show at MSG will even come close to hearing someone like Girlyman play an intimate club like Joe’s Pub. That’s not just a gratuitous plug for Girlyman, but a contrast to listening to a concert rather than participating in a party.

It was an awesome night, period, regardless of the acoustics.

Now I have to explain just how magical a night it was for Lois. I’ve written often about The Wailin’ Jennys. We’ve seen them twice live, and like Girlyman, their concerts were both better than the Rascal Flatts one (in my opinion, with the caveats about terminology mentioned above). We’re seeing them again on April 8th at Joe’s Pub (we haven’t seen them there yet), and I literally am on pins and needles with excitement, looking forward to that night.

To continue, Lois really fell in love with them the second time we saw them live, at Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville, VA. Joe’s Pub will be almost as intimate, so we know we’re going to love it. Since then, without a doubt, she plays the Jennys on the iPod in the car, more than any other artist. Still, she plays many others as well.

The one unfailing truth though has been that as we get to within 10 minutes of our house in Westchester, for at least two months now, 100% of the time, Lois always plays Heaven When We’re Home. It captures the spirit we both feel about coming home to our house, which we don’t get to spend as much time in as we’d like.

This morning, we drove back from the city to the house. She played Rascal Flatts songs the entire way, up until we hit the driveway, when she turned off the iPod. I was stunned, no kidding. Clearly, she had RF on the brain, and the Jenny’s couldn’t get through! 😉