Jason Aldean, in a moment of understatement Thursday night at Champions Square, noted that the last few weeks “have been a little rough.” To say the least.
Aldean was onstage at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 when a gunman fired on the crowd from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel. The country star fled for his life as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history claimed 58 lives.
Six days later, Aldean opened “Saturday Night Live” with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” The song served dual purposes, as both a statement of resolve and a tribute to Petty, who had died earlier in the week.
Aldean canceled several concerts in the shooting’s aftermath. He returned to the stage Oct. 12 at an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Thursday’s sold-out Champions Square concert was his seventh overall since Vegas, but the first in an outdoor setting. That the Champions Square stage sits in the shadow of the high-rise Hyatt Hotel made for an eerie parallel with the festival site in Las Vegas.
But if Aldean and his bandmates were the least bit uneasy, their swagger didn’t show it.
The set list included “When She Says Baby,” the song that was cut short by the gunfire in Las Vegas. It occupied the seventh slot in the set, between “Any Ol’ Barstool” and “Crazy Town,” just as it has throughout his They Don't Know Tour.
Aldean’s brand of contemporary country is more Guns ’N’ Roses than George Strait. His two guitarists churned out brash power chords that often emanated from a Les Paul guitar, the preferred ax of GNR’s Slash. His drummer bashed away, arms flailing and face distorted. The contributions of the band's pedal steel guitarist were essentially inaudible.
All the “country” is contained in Aldean’s nasal Georgia twang and the lyrics. He cast himself as the country tough-guy in a cowboy hat pulled low, a Guns ’N’ Roses T-shirt and distressed jeans. He wasn’t about talking or dancing onstage, he declared early on; he’d come to play. To that end, he cranked out 22 songs in 90 minutes.
Substitute a different singer and nearly every one of them would work on classic rock radio. The guitar prelude to “Take a Little Ride” could have been lifted from an AC/DC outtake. In “The Only Way I Know,” he sang of going “straight ahead, never turn ’round/Don’t back up, don’t back down" in what amounted to a blue-collar “I Won’t Back Down.”
Aldean performed his faithful take on the Petty classic midway through the show. Proceeds from Spotify sales of his recording of “I Won’t Back Down” benefit the Vegas victims.
For all the bluster of “Tattoo on This Town,” “Night Train,” “Hicktown” and “Burnin’ It Down,” an ode to Jack Daniels-fueled bedroom calisthenics, the capacity crowd of more than 7,000 did not catch fire to the degree Aldean wanted. He chastised the audience for acting “like y'all are watching a movie. You’re at a concert!”
Video for the subsequent “Lights Come On,” a celebration of the concert experience written by his buddies in Florida Georgia Line, demonstrated how he believed they should behave. He rapped his way through “Dirt Road Anthem” — rapping is not his calling — before concluding with “My Kinda Party.”
In the encore, he returned once again to what happened in Vegas, and his coming to terms with it.
“It’s been a crazy few weeks for us,” he said. “The first place we thought we’d be the most nervous was onstage. But the place we’re the most comfortable is being onstage playing songs for you.”
He continued, “I’ll be damned if anyone is going to make me scared of being up here doing what I love.”
With that, he and the band revved up “Big Green Tractor,” another of his big, bold, hard-rock country anthems. After a final romp through “She’s Country,” Aldean made a show of messily chugging a can of beer, crushing it as foam cascaded down his chin.
He seemed perfectly comfortable.