Eli Young Band at Reliant Stadium, 3/5/2014

Eli Young Band Reliant Stadium March 5, 2014

Anyone who's ever wondered if the entertainers for the rodeo's annual Armed Forces Appreciation Day are chosen at random might have had a few of their questions answered Tuesday night. Show business is selfish almost by design, but the Eli Young Band understands the concept of being part of something greater than yourself better than most. That's what their songs are about.

Musically, the Denton-born quartet may have the DNA of matchbox twenty and the Wallflowers, but that is the currency of country radio these days. You can even trace it back a generation further, as the band themselves did by morphing "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" into Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly." And guess what 1985 John Mellencamp hit is a close cousin to "Small Town Kid"?

The important thing is that EYB is both clever and creative enough to sound familiar but not derivative. Current single "Dust" is a killer radio song, similarities to Keith Urban be damned. It's just high-energy, irony-free music whose effectiveness can be measured in decibels, as in the voices (largely female) singing along to the choruses of "Breaks Your Heart" and "Crazy Girl." That song may put the four members' kids through college by itself.

As sweet as all this comes off, they've got some real muscle too. "Level" would have been nice, but the new "Skeletons" opened the door on shared experiences of a different sort, the kind most people are not in a hurry to post on social media; and a cocky cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" let them indulge in some bar-band posing left over from the time they really were a bar band. They even shouted out the Jolly Fox, the Huntsville tavern and site of their 2006 live album that became a key step in their career.

After a couple of years of opening some of country music's biggest tours, there was little doubt Wednesday that EYB could command a stadium crown on their own -- especially here, when singer Mike Eli seemed to mention his Tomball upbringing every time he wasn't thanking those who serve their country. "Drunk Last Night," their most recent monster hit, has one of those choruses that is meant to be shouted at stadiums, even if the actual words are perhaps better suited for the bathroom mirror.

Review continues on the next page.

The de rigueur going-into-the-crowd moment came when three members posted up on three different spots on the stadium floor through most of "Dust," as Eli recorded some close-up serenading of a fan on his phone. They were smart enough to put the set's one real throwaway, "On My Way," right up top so they could work through any sound-system kinks and feel out the room. But two songs later, by "Always the Love Songs," they were at cruising speed and didn't look back.

The band had quite an opening act to follow, too. A team of soldiers from the U.S. Air Force's Special Operations Command lowered the flag (and themselves) hundreds of feet from the Reliant Stadium rafters, and an on-field presentation saluted recent Congressional Medal of Honor winner/Downtown Rodeo Parade grand marshal Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, who in October 2009 all but single-handedly turned back some 300 enemy fighters in Afghanistan. (Eli also brought out ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, subject of the book and film Lone Survivor, introducing him as an "old friend.")

In that context songs about arguments and memories and small-town life can seem pretty trivial, until you remember that country music is a small part of what our troops fight so hard to defend every day, as covered by that handy "American way of life" clause. Or maybe not so small.

Then it all makes sense.

Personal Bias: All-American boy.

The Crowd: So young. A few sections of the field level were completely occupied by men and women in uniform and their dates. Official attendance: 59,299.

Overheard In the Crowd: "No running, ladies!" or "Where are we exiting?"

Random Notebook Dump: Are our personal digital libraries all that will be left when we're dust?


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