Hunter Hayes at Reliant Stadium, 03/15/2014

That's Hunter Hayes on the right
That's Hunter Hayes on the right
Photos courtesy of Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

According to Billboard, in a little less than two months Hunter Hayes will attempt to break the Guinness world record for most concerts played within a 24-hour period. On May 9 and 10, he will play one gig about every three hours on a ten-city itinerary going from Good Morning America to a 5 a.m. show the next morning at Philadelphia's Trocadero.

If Hayes shows up with even half the energy he had at his RodeoHouston debut Saturday, playing before an impressive crowd of 73,768 people, he should break the record easily and have enough energy left over for a brunch gig in Atlantic City. The 23-year-old entertainer came on like a walking can of Red Bull, even breaking Jake Owen's unofficial rodeo record for earliest time heading into the crowd -- Hayes wasn't even done with his opener, "Wild Card" before he was running across the dirt.

He had good reason to be beside himself. Hayes grew up not terribly far from Houston in Breaux Bridge, La., and sounded both awestruck and humbled when he told the crowd, "this has been our dream for a long time."

Hayes, who won the CMA's Best New Artist award in 2012, started his career at age five and is said to play as many as thirtysomething instruments at this point. (That's what flashed on the Reliant scoreboard, anyway.) He mostly stuck to guitar Saturday, with a sprinkling of piano on 2012 No. 1 hit "Wanted," but acquitted himself so well on that instrument he could probably hold his own with the previous night's entertainer, Keith Urban. In fact, Urban is one of the "heroes" Hayes mentioned from the stage, and the Australian's influence was particularly strong on "Love Made Me" and "I Want Crazy" -- loping country-rockers roomy enough for Hayes to flash some real six-string fireworks.

Hunter Hayes at Reliant Stadium, 03/15/2014

All ten songs in Hayes' set Saturday were beyond poppy; the most country moment of the whole show may have been the two-step pulse of "Wild Card" that seemed to hint at his Cajun roots. He and his band worked up good heads of (tattoo-free) arena-rock bluster on both "More Than I Should" and "Light Me Up," and his Jason Mraz collaboration, "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me," was so Gulf-breezy it called out for a drink with an umbrella in it. And the way the everyone turned on their phone lights during "Wanted" and "Invisible" creating a lovely firefly effect in the stadium, would have melted even the stingiest cynic's heart. The screams during "I Want Crazy" were loud enough to penetrate the press-box glass, so you know the crowd ate it up like the cotton candy it was.

Unfortunately, Hayes has a bit of a tin ear when it comes to lyrics; all too often, his lines that don't feel cliched just feel awkward. Here's just one example from "Storm Warning," one of his early hits from all the way back in 2011, goes like this: "Ain't it funny how it feels when you're burnin' your wheels/ Somewhere between goin' and gone." Not awful, maybe, but that line could be in a thousand other country songs, and probably has been. Fine melody, toe-tapping tune, but a lyrical misfire -- a pattern that repeated a number of times Saturday.

Review continues on the next page.


Hunter Hayes at Reliant Stadium, 03/15/2014

Hayes has an issue with his love songs, too, namely that his are a little bit too chaste to be plausible in the 21st century, even for his braces-and-PSAT demographic. This is in no way intended to sound cruel, but it's hard to buy a song called "Somebody's Heartbreak" if the singer sounds like his has never been broken, and barely even been bruised. (Catchy though the song may be.) To his credit, one song that both rang true and had a spark of originality was his recent hit, the anti-bullying anthem "Invisible." Just for comparison's sake, here's its opening line: "Crowded hallways are the loneliest places." It's also one of his newer songs, which is definitely encouraging.

When several other pop and country stars his age were auditioning for TV shows like Nashville Star and American Idol, Hayes was already playing shows all over this part of the country; he moved to Nashville at age 18 and signed to a major label straightaway. Rascal Flatts had already recorded one of his songs, "Play," before his own album even came out. A life in music is all he's ever known, and he's had enough success already that there's little reason for him to ever want a life outside it.

No one is asking Hayes to be Hank Williams, or even Hank Williams Jr. Of course not. But the critic right here has a hard time imagining Hayes succeeding over the long term unless he gets some serious help with his lyrics. The alternative is that neither Hayes, his fans nor his patrons in Nashville don't see any problem with his spouting such generic material. They could even see it as an asset, which is a much more serious problem altogether.

But let's not think about that right now. Hayes is still plenty young, and looks younger. Maybe he should take some time off to go to college or otherwise see the world outside his tour bus. It might do his writing a world of good.

Personal Bias: Crochety old man.

The Crowd: Well within Hayes' demographic wheelhouse. Lots of families.

Overheard In the Crowd: "I've got an extra ticket in my purse."

Random Notebook Dump: The only writing on the bassist's T-shirt was the number 867-5309, which was awesome.


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