Old Dominion Brought the Joys of Arena Rock to St. Louis — And St. Louis Was There for It

Old Dominion is a country band, we’re told. The band’s stop at Enterprise Center on Saturday night also told us that the country music industrial machine has pulled off a marketing revolution by cornering the diehard classic-rock market. That’s quite a coup, as legions of aging rock fans have migrated to contemporary country for the timeless appeal of the big drums, guitar solos, anthemic chants, hedonistic lyrics, giant choruses and shiny production values that have sold out arenas for the last 60 years.

On Saturday night, Old Dominion epitomized the wholesale metamorphosis of modern country music into arena rock that has left only the slightest tokens of anything traditionally “country” in the music at all. For example, before playing “Song For Another Time” — a song that name-checks rock- and pop-radio classics like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Dancing on the Ceiling” and “Paradise City” — the sound of an old-fashioned radio dial searching through static and catching familiar rock snippets poured out of the arena speakers. When strains of the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” guitar intro broke through, the crowd roared. 

So Old Dominion, a genial Nashville quintet of terrific musicians and songwriters, puts the emphasis on guitars and keys, rather than on fiddles and pedal steels, thereby typifying modern country’s slick rock edge, an element of which is old-fashioned guitar shredding. Indeed, modern country radio is the last bastion in pop music of the persecuted guitar solo, and the worn-black frets on lead guitarist Bard Tursi’s beat-to-hell pale-blue Stratocaster tell the story. This tour’s sound engineers give everything an immaculate sonic sheen, and these catchy middle-of-every-road songs went down as easy as that third 25-ounce Busch Light. 

“Welcome to the No Bad Vibes Tour!” lead singer Matthew Ramsey said at the outset. “That means that whatever it is that’s stressing you out don’t belong in here with us tonight! You leave that shit outside tonight! Because we’re here to spread some joy!” The band made good on that pledge, playing 22 songs sugared and salted to perfection for mainstream palates, blending yacht-pop grooves, heartthrob countrypolitan and neon funk-lite all couched in feel-good platitudes. 

The band opened with the carpe diem ditty “Make It Sweet,” which features a “life is short” refrain. Next, “No Hard Feelings, ” which Ramsey playfully garnished with a little handheld glockenspiel, made even heartbreak sound happy. Ramsey asked everyone to sing along to “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” adding, “Somebody in every crowd needs to hear this. Are you all ready to do a little bit of good tonight?”

After St. Louis, the band, like good boys, heads into a 10-day break for Thanksgiving, so Ramsey declared, “Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Let’s just call it. We’ve got nothing to do but kind of blow it out tonight!” Ramsey is that kind of crowd pleaser, spending most of his time out on a T-shaped runway stage in the middle of the audience, and at age 46, the frontman is steeped in arena-rock gestures — dividing the crowd for a Paul Stanley-style this-side-vs.-that-side cheer-off, for instance — but he specializes in close-range interactions with fans. 

The fans come prepared. Guitar-pick trading is apparently a thing at Old Dominion shows, the first time I remember fans handing picks to the band rather than the other way around. During “Memory Lane,” a fan handed Ramsey a street sign to match. Fans brought hotel key cards to hold aloft during “Hotel Key”; Ramsey collected a handful from ladies down front. Someone even brought in a makeshift beer pong game complete with ping pong balls and Solo cups glued to a poster board. “This could take all night!” Ramsey warned. (He missed twice before giving up.) 

Following the Springsteen-inspired trend of fans bringing in homemade song-request signs, the place was littered with them, at times irksomely so, as with the guy down front who held his sign shamelessly high in the air nonstop for an hour. His strategy didn’t even work. The band ended up picking “Be With Me” from 2017’s Happy Endings, which had been requested by a little girl who sang along faithfully, captured on the overhead video screens, and “Different About You,” from this year’s Memory Lane, chosen based on a sign decorated with the Starburst candies referenced in the song. 

Other highlights were the drunk-dial ditty “Break Up With Him,” the band’s first big smash, “Midnight Mess Around” on which bassist Geoff Spring laid down a godly groove and “I Should Have Married You” laced with shimmering acoustic guitars. The Osmond Brother-resembling Tursi is a pro’s pro as a player, tearing off a soulful, flangey solo on “Written in the Sand,” bending notes to atomically pitched perfection on “Can’t Get You,” the night’s hardest rocker, and opening “One Man Band” with the song’s distinctive, gorgeously played pattern. 

The main set ended with “Save It For a Rainy Day,” a song that Ramsey and Tursi wrote for Kenny Chesney — Tursi sang the second verse on Saturday — and “My Heart Is a Bar,” one of Old Dominion’s best, as the video backdrop turned the room into the No Bad Vibes Bar at closing time. 

During the encore, a hedonistic “Hawaii” was followed by a segue of “Rock and Roll Part 2” by convicted child sex offender Gary Glitter (note to the band: drop that one) that gave way to the affable lope of “I Was on a Boat That Day.” Midway though that finale, Ramsey again talked turkey, telling us that this Thanksgiving he’s most thankful for fans like those here in St. Louis. “When our family’s bugging the shit of us, we want to return to this feeling right here,” he joked. And, sure enough, all the way through to the song’s final “hey hey hey,” there wasn’t a bad vibe anywhere to be found.

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