“Are we listening to country in New York?!” the evening’s host demanded, directing his faux-disbelief at the less-than-crowded room.
Yes, yes we were — and it wasn’t as improbable as it might seem. Kelsea Ballerini, country radio chart-topper and Taylor Swift-endorsee, has the kind of magnetism that draws New Yorkers out on a Thursday night (July 16). Less than a year after dropping her very first single, Ballerini had a nominally cosmopolitan crowd on their feet — not just dancing, but singing along to every last word.
The show kicked off with an appropriately twang-filled set from newcomer Levi Hummon, an earnest and effective songsmith who just happens to look like an extra from The O.C. — and smartly chooses to exploit that similarity by singing sweet songs about teenage love on Ferris wheels.
But the night was not meant to be about throwbacks — rather, it was about Ballerini’s uniquely Millennial take on modern country, evidenced from the moment she stepped onstage to an (inexplicable) trap remix of her hit single “Love Me Like You Mean It.” She kicked things off with a no-holds-barred rendition of “Yeah Boy,” and pretty much never looked back. Seeing her sing, and dance, and more or less make everyone in the room feel like her best friend (one of the many talents she shares with Swift), it became clear why producer Forest Glen Whitehead readily called her “a country Beyoncé” in a recent interview with Billboard. That kind of effortless charisma doesn’t come along everyday.
Armed with the requisite diva-in-training trappings (rhinestone mic and fiddled-with in-ear monitor), Ballerini sang, and sang, and sang. Her voice was strong and evocative, whether she was rocking out on “Xo” or serenading the crowd with the mournful “First Time” (“You don’t need him Kelsea!” a supportive audience member shouted while the singer lamented the song’s ne’er-do-well subject — girl power was one of the evening’s other important themes).
“You guys already know that song?” Ballerini asked the crowd after her epic “Siren,” incredulous. “What is happening?”
Ballerini’s set was smart — country cred came via covers of Rascal Flatts‘ “What Hurts The Most” and Martina McBride‘s “This One’s For the Girls,” while she appealed to her Millennial audience with a Britney/boy band mash-up (“Bootylicious” was in there) that spanned most the hits of the late ’90s.
“Judging by a lot of your ages, I think you’ll know these songs,” she told the crowd. The singer also revealed that “Stilettos,” her chin-up anthem, was inspired by a quote she saw on Pinterest — this is 2015, people.
“This is my first New York headlining show, and I’m never going to forget it,” Ballerini said after a raucous performance of “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Chances are, the audience won’t either.