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Live review: Lady Antebellum at the Nokia Theatre

October 31, 2010 |  6:18 pm

Lady antebellum
Just before the pop-country trio Lady Antebellum played a bluegrass-y take on its single “Something ’Bout a Woman” at the Nokia Theatre on Saturday, singer Hillary Scott had a small complaint. The arty-scruffy multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood was introducing his bandmates and complimented Scott on her sartorial choices. “She’s got the best shoes in all of country music,” Haywood bragged. “Hillary, what are you wearing tonight?”

“Fendi,” she replied, a bit sheepishly. “But I wish they were more comfortable.”

Lady Antebellum is exactly the kind of well-groomed contempo-country act that would both name-check high-end Italian boots onstage but try to be modest about it by saying its feet hurt. (Merle Haggard would probably think Fendi is some kind of bottom-shelf bourbon.)

But the band has had little trouble fitting into much else in the music world — glimmering, earnest singles like “Need You Now” and “I Run to You” have mainstream country radio on lockdown and made its album “Need You Now” a crossover pop success.

Its wide popularity makes a lot of sense — excepting the Civil War reference in its name and the measured Georgia accents of singers Haywood and Charles Kelley, its country signifiers slip by practically unnoticed. You could give the lockstep harmonies and major-key choruses to any band from Tom Petty to Kings of Leon and not cede much genre ground.

But what makes Lady Antebellum work beyond fashion savvy is the sense that the trio functions so well as a band — its vocal personalities make for a pretty engaging group charisma. The cocky, chiseled-jaw Kelley sells the hooks on rock-driven stompers like the breakthrough single “Love Don’t Live Here,” but he’s tempered by Scott’s close-harmony sweetness. Separately, they’d be “Idol”-competent but unremarkable vocalists, but together with Haywood’s nice-guy arrangements they can carry a strong melody into the rarefied air of an inevitable hit.

A minimalist, near a cappella take on “I Run to You” opened the set before a backdrop of rural Live Oaks, proving they can deconstruct a song for heightened vocal drama. But they soon followed up with the Who-ish “Stars Tonight,” a kind of snide but not unwarranted tune about how much fun it is to play in Lady Antebellum. “Love This Pain” evoked the pull of a bad-for-you lover but would have been more compelling had Scott and Kelley detailed the specifics of a how a flighty woman and inaccessible man might drive you nuts.

That’s the main problem with Lady Antebellum — for being so long on hooks and looks, it’s missing the thing that makes country music stick to your ribs: the unexpected image or the turn of sly wit that makes a song feel wise and learned. “Hello World” tries to find this in close-up pastoral pictures of churches and children but comes off as obvious. Scott had a vocally powerful solo take on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” but the song felt painful only by proxy. George Jones was a tall drink of water in jeans and a Stetson too, but you knew he’d seen the underside of a barstool in his day.

That’s what makes the single “Need You Now” unique in the Lady Antebellum catalog. A wan four-note piano melody starts the midtempo number where Kelley and Scott trade desperate drunk dials. But it works because of its particulars — it’s exactly a quarter after one, they’re pounding whiskey and staring at bedroom doors waiting for someone to show up and make this all stop. That’s a sentiment anyone from Drake to Alan Jackson could hoist a shot glass in sympathy with.

Great songs use an effortless melody to make difficult feelings seem universal and true. While Lady Antebellum deserves every pair of Fendi boots in its considerable arsenal, it might be surprised how good it’d still look with a few nicks and scuffs. It might even feel more comfortable too.

-- August Brown

Photo: Lady Antebellum members Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, center, and Dave Haywood perform at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.