ST. PAUL, Minn. — How cold was it in St. Paul?
So cold that Florida Georgia Line didn’t even roll their windows down.
So cold that Jason Aldean told the 15,000 fans at sold-out Xcel Energy Center on Friday (Jan. 17) to take two blankets to sit outside and watch for the night train.
So cold that Aldean invited special guest Josh Groban to perform The Polar Express theme song on a 5-degree night.
OK, just kidding about Groban but not about the temperature in the city that this month will host the 128th annual St. Paul Winter Carnival — a mostly outdoor celebration for 12 days.
In St. Paul, Aldean took his Night Train tour from “Crazy Town” to “Hicktown” with stops in between in “Nothin’ Town,” “Fly Over States” and elsewhere during a 90-minute journey.
Despite the temperatures, Aldean wore his usual short-sleeve plaid Western shirt, shredded jeans and Georgia tough-guy scowl. He didn’t say much during the concert. He didn’t run around much (though he performed at microphones at different spots on the stage and on the T-shaped runway that extended into the crowd).
Aldean is just the strong, silent type. Except he likes his guitars loud — whether on a rocker like “Johnny Cash” (with Kurt Allison’s rip-roaring axe work) or a medium tempo tune like “Amarillo Sky” (with its psychedelic guitar passages). And Aldean likes his visuals big and bold.
There was a giant video screen backdrop and five screens suspended above the stage, plus a permanent screen on either side of the stage. The screens changed positions and combinations for almost every song. Sometimes there were close-ups of Aldean and that goatee that apparently is in the process of expanding into a full beard. Sometimes there were clips from his hit videos. And sometimes there were just cool visuals such as the X-ray-like shots of arms during “Tattoos on This Town” or shots of clouds from airplanes during “Fly Over States.”
Maybe the most impactful visual was Kelly Clarkson joining Aldean for their smash power ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” He was on one side of the stage and she on the other — as a hologram. This wasn’t like Carrie Underwood, standing three stories tall, joining Brad Paisley via hologram in concert. Clarkson was life-size, making many of the concertgoers wonder if she was actually in St. Paul.
The most fun visuals came during the band introductions when the screens displayed vintage photos of the musicians. For instance, guitarist Jack Sizemore, who has a shaven head, was depicted as a longhaired country boy. Aldean made funny comments with each photo — finally manifesting some of his personality. And he even poked fun at himself, showing his sweeping blond bangs and claiming he had the look long before Justin Bieber did. When the crowd booed, Aldean quickly countered, “Why y’all hating on the Biebs?”
At that point, Aldean tore into his flashback to “1994,” his playful hit that salutes Joe Diffie and uses the old rhythms of Kris Kross’ 1992 hip-hop hit “Jump” for the chorus of “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie.”
Of course, Aldean loves him some hip-hop as “The Only Way I Know” (featuring opening act Florida Georgia Line in the roles of Luke Bryan and Eric Church) and “Dirt Road Anthem” demonstrated as he headed into the home stretch. Aldean then rocked out on “She’s Country” with AC/DC undertones and the encore of “My Kinda Party” and “Hicktown.”
The big change for this just-started new leg of Aldean’s Night Train Tour was the addition of Florida Georgia Line. Talk about your great train mergers. Not only are FGL hotter than Beyoncé, but they put the energy in the Xcel Energy Center.
In a fast-paced 45 minutes, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley used the runway, the entire stage and every ingredient for country music in the now — trucks, beer, babes, dirt roads, chillin,’ partyin,’ simple catchy pop choruses and hip-hop cadences and raps.
Kelley (he’s from Florida) was the hype man in the sleeveless Garth Brooks T-shirt and tattered jeans. Hubbard (he’s from Georgia, of course) was the rapper/singer in black jeans, tank top and leather vest. Backed by a guitarist with a Mohawk and a drummer with a Pantera T-shirt, these party animals bounded around like hyper WWE stars, bumped fists triumphantly on the runway, and displayed some pretty cool images on the screen, including license plates from various states that spelled out the lyrics to “Round Here.”
Florida Georgia Line had the audience — crowded with teens and 20-somethings — getting about as excited as ever for an opening act. On the closing “Cruise,” the fans waved their hands in the air, hip-hop style, like they just didn’t care.
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of Prince: Inside the Purple Reign, Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time and Neil Diamond Is Forever: The Illustrated Story of the Man and His Music.