Not only does Clint Black know how to play to the home folks - after being introduced by his daughter Lily, he said hello to Tomball, Spring, Pasadena and his hometown Katy (but where, Aftermath would like to know, was Friendswood?) upon taking the RodeoHouston stage Friday night - but he was responsible for what has to go down as hands down the oddest moment in this year's concert series, if not ever. Unless ZZ Top decides to do something like cover Flo Rida's "Right Round," Aftermath supposes, but that seems unlikely.
Near the end of his hour-long set, Black, still playing to the crowd, said something to the effect of "we listened to a lot of great country music growing up here, but we listened to a lot of great rock and roll, too." Then he yielded center stage to saxophonist Brian Austin and climbed behind the drums for a cover of Steely Dan's 1978 FM radio hit "Josie." Hearing any country star's band suddenly launch into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's MOR mover about a wanton woman who "prays like a Roman" would be weird - Austin's smoove-as-glass blowing did the original justice, though, and Black proved to be a decent if not spectacular timekeeper - but the the distinct whiff of manure in Reliant Stadium (the grand champion steers were chosen immediately before Black's performance) made it extra surreal.
Black is an alumnus of Nashville's fabled Class of '89, and his breakthrough hit "A Better Man" - which came second Friday, bolstered by longtime sideman and songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas' near-psychedelic lead guitar - actually put him at the head of the pack for a few months before Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson came along. He may lack the former's outsized personality and the latter's old-pair-of-boots charm - Black, currently appearing on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice (8 p.m. Sundays, Channel 2) is a bit too urbane to pull that off - but he's a better pure musician and songwriter than both of them. Combined, maybe.
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Besides his percussive talents, Black is a skilled harmonica player, which he established straightaway on the extended bluesy intro of opener "State of Mind." As a guitarist, he's no match for Nicholas (and no doubt knows it), but during the seated middle section of the set, he more than held his own as he, Nicholas and fiddler Dan Kelly flat-picked and sawed their way through a Dobro-embossed "Something That We Do" and the frisky, bluegrass-y "One More Payment," which is probably as close as the rodeo will ever get to the Old Quarter. It wasn't quite Townes Van Zandt, sure, but it was a long way from Toby Keith too.
Even so, Aftermath has always been most impressed by Black's lyrics. The opening couplet of "A Better Man" - "What do you say when it's over?/ I don't know if I should say anything at all" - encapsulates the song's theme of reluctantly moving on so perfectly the rest of the lyrics are almost unneccessary. And as delivered in Black's throaty tenor - which wavered from time to time Friday, but generally stayed on key - they are almost excruciatingly personal.
When he says he's leaving here a better man, he's inherently believeable, and it's obvious how much it hurts him to admit it. But he can be fun-loving, as in "Summer's a-Comin'," tongue-in-cheek honky-tonk ironic, as in "Killin' Time" ("drinkin' myself blind, thinkin' I won't see") or, on "Nothin' But the Taillights," vividly evocative: "That's about as lonely as the highway's ever been/ Back here with my thumb out in the wind."
Equal parts suave and salty, Friday Black came across as a grinning, congenial cross between Boz Scaggs and Merle Haggard. Not bad for a guy who's seen his share of icehouses (outlined in "Nothin's News," a tribute to his dad), married a Houston-born Hollywood actress - wife Lisa Hartman Black emerged for a "surprise" duet for "When I Said I Do," which was a little sappy but has to be one of the state's most popular first-dance wedding songs ever - and is unafraid to bust out the Steely Dan in front of a stadium full of hometown fans.