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The excitement was building before the opening act even hit the stage in Nashville on Friday night. Backstage, prior to Rascal Flatts' first full concert in Nashville in three years, the trio's Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney were presented with an oversized stub commemorating sales of more than 7 million tickets in their touring history. Despite a room full of well-wishers eager to congratulate the group, the celebration was brief as the boys made their way to the stage of Bridgestone Arena.
Edens Edge kicked things off with songs from its debut album and some favorite country covers. Things got a little louder when Eli Young Band stepped up with a raucous set that included cuts from the group's more than 10-year, four-album history, highlighted by the hits "Crazy Girl," "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" and the band's newest single, "Say Goodnight."
From the sound of the packed house, one would have been forgiven for having thought Little Big Town was headlining the four-band bill. (And few would be surprised if LBT starts doing so as early as next year.) Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet glided through a powerful set list that, at times, prompted the vocal crowd to drown out the band. In fact, the reception was such that it was difficult to believe that Little Big Town had just scored its first No. 1 hit with "Pontoon." Paired with the group's breakout single, "Boondocks," LBT's closing one-two punch left Rascal Flatts with some pretty big shoes to fill.
When an act has been around for 12 years and has repeatedly topped the charts the way that Flatts has, there's a tendency to suspect the band might be tempted to phone it in onstage. Wrong. The trio and its elaborate stage show were in superb form. As their set kicked off, each of the three gentlemen was surrounded by a cylindrical curtain of lights, which, when raised, revealed Gary, Jay and Joe Don. Lighted cubes also dangled from the ceiling, changing colors and at times magnifying images on the rear wall.
Still, the light show never distracted from the set list, which was structured around hit after hit. Gary turned in powerhouse vocal performances of such up-tempo numbers as "Summer Nights," "Banjo" and "Fast Cars and Freedom," yet still sounded impeccable afterward when tackling more poignant songs such as "What Hurts the Most" and "Bless the Broken Road." And while he is unquestionably the lead singer of the group, Gary is clearly thrilled to welcome Jay and Joe Don to the mike for their own star turns.
But it was the welcoming gesture of Flatts as a whole that resulted in the highlight of the evening, as the band introduced members of their support acts for an all-star encore of Grand Funk Railroad's classic "American Band," making for a night of a thousand—or, perhaps, 7 million—stars.