Concert review: Jason Aldean at the Schottenstein Center

Andy Downing
Country music star Jason Aldean kept the audience pumped up Thursday night at Value City Arena. Aldean was onstage Oct. 1 in Las Vegas when gunfire rained down on concert-goers from a nearby hotel, resulting in the deaths of 58 people and injuring hundreds. [Andrea Noall]

Jason Aldean revealed himself as a master of understatement during his concert at a crowded Schottenstein Center on Thursday. “The last couple weeks for us have been a little crazy,” he said, which is certainly one way to put it.

On Oct. 1, the Georgia-born country singer was onstage performing at the outdoor Route 91 festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, when a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 and wounding more than 500. The following week, Aldean played a defiant version of Tom Petty's “I Won't Back Down” on “Saturday Night Live” in tribute to the victims, and five days later he resumed his tour with a concert in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during which he delivered a five-minute monologue calling for increased national unity and reminding attendees of the importance of living free of fear.

Another week on, Aldean sounded ready to leave the tragedy in the rearview, giving a significantly truncated speech.“We want to get back to doing what we love to do and what we do best,” he said, “and that's play our songs for you.”

For more than 90 minutes, Aldean, backed by a sturdy, five-piece band, did just that, ping-ponging between muscled ballads and more uptempo, guitar-driven numbers that had as much in common with '80s hard rock as country. This cross-pollination further revealed itself in the musician's wardrobe selection — he paired a cowboy hat with a Van Halen concert T-shirt — and in songs like “Johnny Cash,” which included lines about listening to the Man in Black on the radio but sounded more musically indebted to Whitesnake.

Indeed, the only concern Aldean expressed in his time onstage was his (thankfully unfounded) fear that, performing in a college town, the venue might not sell beer. Additional fears might have been further eased by traditional arena security checks, which required each concertgoer to pass through a metal detector. (A venue spokesperson could not reveal if the tour had additional security procedures in place.)

Regardless of Aldean's understandable desire to place himself at some remove from recent events, the tragedy lent additional gravity to songs like “The Only Way I Know,” which was written as a straightforward love song between two people but took on a more universal feel here. “In a world where love is found and lost so easily,” he sang, “I'm so thankful I share my life with you.” This gratitude spilled over into Aldean's early onstage behavior. He spent a bulk of the first two songs shaking hands with and offering high-fives to the fans lining the stage, and one got the sense that he would have happily continued until he reached everyone in the arena, had time allowed for it.

In a way, it's ironic that Aldean is now so closely linked with Vegas, since so many of his songs focused on overlooked, underpopulated towns rather than bustling city centers. The musician kicked things off with “They Don't Know,” a balled-fist defense of small-town life. “They think it's a middle-of-nowhere place where we take it slow,” he sang. “Aw, but they don't know.”

Later, Aldean celebrated overlooked America on “Fly Over States,” on which he offered a full-throated rebuttal to a couple of airline passengers overheard dissing the heartland during a cross-country flight. (One small point of contention: Aldean starts his comeback singing, “They never drove through Indiana,” which is a pretty weak opening argument when you consider that driving through Indiana sucks.)

Musically, Aldean's songs nodded to generations of rock. “Texas Was You” rode a riff that shared ample DNA with the Who's “Baba O'Riley”; the band teased a few bars of Santana's “Smooth” leading into “When She Says Baby”; and “Fly Over States” built on a guitar chime reminiscent of Coldplay's “Yellow.”

Other songs, such as “Burnin' It Down,” flirted less successfully with light electronica, the muted textures conjuring more of a gentle candle flicker than towering conflagration, and even the normally forceful Aldean singing with all the authority of a balloon leaking air.

Better were straightforward ballads like “Night Train” and especially “Any Ol' Barstool,” a sharply penned breakup tale where the narrator tried to convince others around him that he was doing just fine even as he ordered “a little more Jack in my Coke now,” tottered on his bar stool and bragged of being able to fully stretch out in his king-sized bed, at least on those nights he makes it there. Sometimes, the song suggested, it's necessary to plow onward and project strength until those all-too-real hurts are little more than a distant memory.