Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley Steps Out On His Own In New York City

Charles Kelley
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Charles Kelley performs during Charles Kelley In Concert at Gramercy Theatre on December 1, 2015 in New York City.

Halfway through his show last night at the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan, Charles Kelley posed a question: “Do I look as naked up here as I feel without Dave and Hillary?”  Kelley hasn't been the lone attraction onstage since at least 2008, when Lady Antebellum, his trio with Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott, released its first album. As a solo performer, Kelley oscillated between celebrating the new and reassuring everyone that he hasn’t abandoned his old band. “Here come songs you never heard before!” he announced with vim. Later he added, “I’m going to play you some Lady A stuff, don’t worry.”

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Onstage and in the press, Kelley described his current solo jaunt -- a handful of dates in December and January -- as a necessary step for creative reinvigoration. Last night he dubbed the tour “a bit of discovery, a search to have fun, to get back to the basics.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, he used stronger language. “You get so used to screaming and everybody knowing all the songs,” he explained. “There’s something really fun about getting out of your comfort zone… I’m doing this to feed the soul.”

In Lady Antebellum, Kelley is most affecting when singing under strain, depicting someone sincerely hurting but refusing to crumble. His is the sound of masculinity under pressure; when Scott’s harmonies arrive, they seep down from above and encase him in reassuring armor. The result can be exquisitely pulpy. The group penned a song titled “Love This Pain” in 2010, and that serves as a solid career prescription -- a good rule of thumb for Lady Antebellum albums is the more angst the better.

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“Need You Now,” from 2010, remains the band’s crowning commercial achievement -- it vaulted off the country charts and spent more than a year on the Hot 100 (peaking at No. 2), setting an early high bar for country’s current wave of crossover success. But “Cold As Stone” (2011) might be Lady Antebellum’s finest moment. “She left town, early on a Friday,” Kelley sings. “Headed down to family in New Orleans.” You feel bad for the guy, but you settle in immediately, ready to relish the drama. The song mimics the flat drums and open vistas of Fleetwood Mac’s most tragic ballad, “Beautiful Child”; in the last 90 seconds, Kelley and Scott push things into Nicholas Sparks territory and send you reaching for the tissues -- it’s all storm, no quiet.  

As a solo artist, Kelley doesn’t deviate all that much from the Lady Antebellum playbook, as several of his new tunes evoked the same level of sweet torture. In one, he sang about someone’s mascara running as the bass player carved out space beneath him with the same gloomy persistence that underpins “Need You Now.” “Leaving Nashville” presented the grind to get a song cut in Music City as the ultimate addiction (it came with a dedication to Chris Stapleton, the songwriter who became a household name after his performance at the CMA Awards). Interestingly, the only solo song Kelley has actually released so far, “The Driver,” is his biggest break with the past; it channels the steroidal campfire folk -- rousing but hollow -- made popular three years ago by groups like Mumford & Sons.

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But the night wasn’t about abrupt direction changes: Kelley made sure to set the audience at ease. He sprinkled covers in between the newbies, sharing renditions of two Tom Petty tracks—most interestingly “Southern Accents,” an album cut from 1985—the Band’s “Ophelia,” and Darius Rucker’s “Homegrown Honey,” which Kelley helped write. He made sure to share an anecdote about receiving a supportive text from Scott before the show. And most effectively, of course, he played Lady Antebellum songs.