It's unusual for the cavernous Verizon Wireless Theater to take on the feel of an intimate venue. When Aaron Lewis took the stage Thursday night for a solo acoustic set, though, the concert hall's confines seemed to shrink down to the size of a welcoming roadhouse rather than a repurposed convention center.
Lewis may have risen to fame fronting the metal act Staind, but his solo show is bombast-free. Marshall stacks and cymbal racks were nowhere to be found. Instead, the singer sat on a stool near the edge of the stage, flanked only by a selection of open guitar cases.
It was a set-up seemingly better suited to the stage nook at a local dive than a Live Nation theater. The only rock-star trapping Lewis allowed himself was the endless stream of cigarettes that he smoked between songs.
"What can I say," the singer chuckled as he lit up another. "It's a stage prop."
The lack of scenery only served to draw the audience in as Lewis opened with a cut from his forthcoming 2012 full-length. The crowd was a mix of Anglo and Hispanic thirtysomethings, mostly couples, sipping on tallboys and whooping it up as the tattooed troubadour worked out his country bonafides in front of honest-to-God Texans.
It's only natural to be skeptical of a metal vocalist still trying to break in his first pair of cowboy boots, but Thursday's crowd was happy to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt.
Sideman Ben Kitterman accompanied the singer on the pedal steel and Dobro, adding sonic depth and a Nashville shimmer to Lewis' spare acoustic strumming. On songs like "Red, White & Blue" and "Country Boy," though, Lewis strayed a bit too far into country cliché. Lyrics like "I love my country, I love my guns" sounded more like a rock-star parody of a blue-collar shitkicker than the real deal.
On more personal tunes, though, his stabs at country worked. Songs like "Massachusetts" and "The Story Never Ends" extolled the joys of coming off the road to home, family and belonging that have helped buoy the genre for generations. These were the themes that resonated most deeply with the crowd, silencing the whooping and hollering as the womenfolk cuddled their sweeties.
"Aint it good to know that no matter where you go, this town has got your back when you're gone," Lewis sang.
For the most part, it was a loose, informal set punctuated by laughter and small talk. Well removed from his band's angsty image, the singer kept things light, fun and even a bit silly with an acoustic version of Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time." The audience ate it up.
Lewis encouraged interaction from the crowd by acknowledging and responding to the song requests and encouragement shouted his way. He redirected one request from ladies in the audience that he remove his shirt to his portly sideman instead.
One of the biggest whoops of the night came when up when some weekday wage-earner out in the dark screamed, "How 'bout those Texans?!"
The back and forth with the audience made Lewis feel more like the part-time picker at the dive up the street than a multiplatinum-selling metal vocalist.
After an hour and a half of country songs and cover tunes, Lewis sent 'em home happy by playing the Staind radio smashes "Outside" and "It's Been a While" back-to-back, both featuring some nifty picking from Kitterman. These two were the night's big sing-alongs.
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The set closed with "Country Boy," his two-year-old Nashville single, which received a nice response despite its burlesque pastiche of Red State sentiment.
As a solo artist, Aaron Lewis may not fit neatly into the modern country box, but slap an acoustic guitar in his hands and he can keep thousands entertained for 90 minutes with no backup band and no opening act. He's got the voice and the songwriting chops to come up with the smash crossover single he's looking for sooner or later.
Until then, he sure seems comfortable up there, somehow shrinking packed theaters down to the size of neighborhood bars. If that upcoming album of his breaks, it could be interesting to see how small he can get the Pavilion next.
Personal Bias: First show we've seen sitting down at Verizon. The Crowd: Paired off. Overheard in the Crowd: "If he plays 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,' I'm leaving." Random Notebook Dump: Acoustic guitar + pedal steel = Instant country!