Listening rooms are largely a Nashville thing. So much so that many people in these parts may not even know exactly what a listening room is.
But a country music listening room – or an auditorium-sized version of it, at least – is exactly what was created Wednesday night with the WYRK Acoustic Show in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.
The two-hour concert featured stripped-down, strings-driven, sometimes raw versions of both hits and still-to-be-released songs by the featured artists: Justin Moore, Kristian Bush and Kelsea Ballerini. The result was a powerful, intimate evening; one that was nothing like the sometimes-raucous beer-fests you’ll find at a Darien Lake summer country concert.
To be clear, both settings fit the genre. Country can be rowdy. Country can be comforting. Both approaches connect with fans — one has them dancing on their feet; the other, listening calmly from their seats. For those of you who have seen the ABC drama “Nashville” (or have spent time in the actual city of Nashville), Wednesday’s show had the feel of the Bluebird Cafe, a storied real-life venue tucked away in a strip plaza where songwriters and artists play their work in the musical equivalent of a poetry reading.
“It’s nice to be able to sit with a guitar and play these songs as we wrote them,” Moore told the crowd.
His point was well taken: For northern city that’s as country-crazy as ours, shows like this are a treat. It’s serving a slice – well, three slices, actually –of Nashville in Buffalo.
Though Moore, Bush, Ballerini and their backup musicians (a strings player each, plus a percussionist for Ballerini) were on stage together for the full show, each delivered something distinct. Moore, 30, was positioned at center stage, his white cowboy hat popping out among the musicians who were otherwise outfitted in dark denim and earth-toned tops. (This was a glitz-free evening.)
With four No. 1 singles tucked beneath his rather large-buckled belt (OK, there was a little glitz), Moore was the headliner of the group. He nearly lured the crowd to its feet (something that doesn’t really happen in a theater setting, even for country concerts) with a soulful rendition of “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” prefacing the song with a story about his late grandfather, a Navy men, and dedicating it to the servicemen and women in the crowd.
Moore was center stage, but Bush, 45, was by far the most commercially accomplished musician. He’s half the country duo Sugarland, but is performing individually for the moment to promote his solo album, “Southern Gravity,” which drops April 7. Bush played his new music and Sugarland chart toppers, stopping for a moment to ponder what makes a song a hit.
“[Hits] are not about me – they’re about you,” he told the crowd before launching into “Baby Girl,”one of his Sugarland hits.
Bush spent plenty of time pumping up the third member of the show – and his taste is good. Ballerini whose debut album will be released this spring, wowed the crowd. The 21-year-old Knoxville, Tenn. native moved to Nashville at age 15, was working as a full-time songwriter by 19, then signed a deal for her first record, which will be released this spring: We’ll be hearing more of Ballerini, which is a good thing. Her bubbly stage presence – a touch of Taylor Swift, a little Julianne Hough – coupled with clever songwriting (check out “XO,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan”) made it clear: She has real star potential.
WYRK Acoustic Show with Justin Moore, Kristian Bush and Kelsea Ballerini
Wednesday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts