Whitney Pastorek
March 12, 2007 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Greetings from the fine town of Houston, Texas, PopWatchers, where I am currently holed up in my parents’ guest room and getting ready to hit the rodeo with my mom (more on that tomorrow). Later this week, I’m borrowing the family Saturn to drive up to Austin for South by Southwest, where I’ll be blogging regularly, just for you — think Sundance, but drunker more music-oriented.

But last weekend, an elaborate series of events took me to Las Vegas and plopped me down in the middle of an event that even my country-loving, native-Texan brain could barely comprehend: Rascal Flatts and their “Me and My Gang” Tour. During NASCAR weekend. In Vegas. It was like the All-Star game for white folk, and I was there, PopWatchers, nearly trembling with excitement over this perfect confluence of events.

Anyone out there ever been to a Rascal Flatts concert? Show of hands, please. Okay, I’m gonna ask you, then:

Um… did you like it? I really, really did not. Now, I like some of their songs okay, and “What Hurts the Most” a lot — I figure they’re basically the Nickelback of country music, right? — but what I watched this weekend was inexcusable, friends. As I try to explain that here, I hope those of you who just raised your hands will keep open hearts and minds and then use the comment section to try and educate me in your ways. Because I’ve never seen a worse show in my entire life.

addCredit(“Rascal Flatts: Robb D. Cohen / Retna”)

Now, I was raised in the era of Garth Brooks, so seeing artists trying to turn country music into a spectacle is nothing new for me. I don’t mind the occasional flashpot or crazed leap from a ramp, and I am even willing to embrace headset mikes on burly men as a necessary evil. So when I saw the massive spaceship of a set sprawled out before me at the Mandalay Bay events center, I assumed I’d be witnessing that Garth Brooksian sort of showmanship.

The show opened with a well-received set by up-and-comer Jason Aldean (he’s the reason I was in town; watch the magazine for more, country fans!), who slapped on his tight Levis and curled-brim cowboy hat and performed energetic versions of his biggest hits: “Amarillo Sky,” “Hicktown,” “Why,” and new single “Johnny Cash.” He and his carefully coiffed band also blazed through two faithful Guns n’ Roses covers, setting a tone that would be repeated throughout the night: Just because we’re country doesn’t mean we can’t RAWK.

But while Aldean’s band chose to RAWK via a rippin’ rendition of “Paradise City,” Rascal Flatts showed up and immediately demonstrated that RAWKing to them meant “KISS concert.” This stuff started from the very beginning of the show: The lights went out! The Flatts appeared, silhouetted behind a smoky curtain as a robotic voice counted down from five! A big boom! The curtain vanishes! And… there they are! Eeeeeeeeeeee! From there, it was two hours of video screens and shooting sparks and flashy lighting and confetti cannons and a metal gondola that carried them from one end of the venue to the other. (Believe me, PopWatchers: When I came back from getting another beverage to see the three Flatts boys in a steel cage, hovering above the heads of the squealing people, I just about walked out right then and there.)

Once I got over my fit of the giggles, I tried to focus on the music, but so many things were making it hard. First, the sound was horrible, and the vocals were so muddy I couldn’t understand a word lead singer Gary LeVox (pictured) was saying. I later learned he was sick as a dog, so they may have tweaked the levels to cover this, but from out in the house, it just came across as badness. Of course, if you know every word and are singing along at the top of your lungs, you tend not to notice that sort of thing.  On the songs where I knew the words — “What Hurts the Most,” the lovely harmonies of “Broken Road,” “Stand,” “These Days,” and that infernal cover of “Life is a Highway” — I found my toes tapping along, while being simultaneously horrified at what was happening before me.

Over the course of the show, I’d estimate that 95 percent of my consciousness was occupied trying to keep my corneas from burning to death on the 8 billion video screens that made up the set. Not that there’s anything new about running nature footage behind your stage while you play — the Dixie Chicks were doing that back on the Fly tour — but these screens were so high-def and so cheesy I couldn’t tear myself away. It’s as if they hired whoever shoots the footage for karaoke videos and gave them an unlimited budget, or spent too much time down at the Peppermill. (Inside joke for you Vegas lovers there.)

And when the screens weren’t showing us a waterfall or a beautiful woman dancing on a beach, they were showing us… Rascal Flatts’ own videos! That’s right: On at least three occasions, the band played a song in perfect sync with what gets shown on CMT, making me wonder why these people paid hundreds of dollars to be there when they could have stayed home and watched CMT in their pajamas, and gotten the same performance. I don’t know about you, but I like to hear a little musicianship in my live shows. Otherwise, it’s like someone pushed play on a really big CD, and then charged me $9 for beer.

On top of that, they forced me to sit through: A drum battle; covers of “Summer of ’69,” “Jesse’s Girl,” and “Hotel California” (causing me to wonder if it shouldn’t be called the “Me and My First Guitar Lesson” Tour); something called “Joe Don Time”; an appearance by Uncle Kracker, who sang all of “Drift Away,” almost on key; and a long reenactment of a girl on the phone planning to come to the RF show and talking to her boyfriend, performed by bassist Jay DeMarcus.

But what finally sold me on the fact that this particular emperor has no clothes was watching Gary perform. I understand that Mr. LeVox (not his real last name) was sick. But I also understand that the show must go on. Instead, what I saw him doing was strolling around the stage at a speed so slow I generally reserve it for museums. They’d built him a sort of half-Bono ramp that extended out into the floor crowd (hmm… isn’t Bono’s fake last name Vox, too?), and he’d stroll down to the end of the left side of that and shake some hands, turn, wander back over to the right side, shake some hands. During “My Wish,” he pulled a suspiciously pretty little girl out of the crowd (hmm… doesn’t Bono sometimes pull girls out of the crowd, too?), and the two of them strolled down the left side of the ramp and shook some hands, then strolled over to the other side and shook some hands. Sometimes Gary would hold the mic “out” to the crowd to encourage them to sing; he indicated this by cocking his wrist and sort of drooping the microphone towards the audience. I don’t believe I saw him run once. I did, however, see him sit down. It was like watching sound check. It was insulting.

Garth Brooks, it should be said, would never have settled for that sort of behavior.

I’m gonna stop now, because I’m just making myself angry again. So I’m opening things up to you, PopWatchers: What am I missing? Are we all so starved for entertainment that we’re willing to watch an average band put on a mediocre performance with cliched special effects, and call it amazing? I know the people in the stands were having fun — they never did stop squealing — and a very drunk casino manager next to me said this was the best concert they’d ever had in that venue, better than Madonna. I almost choked to death on my $9 beer at that point.

At the end of the show, Rascal Flatts climbed back up to the top of their spaceship stage and disappeared behind a booming cloud of smoke. It reminded me less of Garth Brooks and more of the Wicked Witch of the West, and I am now wondering if the title of their previous album (Melt) was more symbolic than anyone knew. Should I meet Rascal Flatts in the future, I may try to pour a little water on them, just to see — because if what I saw Saturday night is the best they’re planning to do with their massive fame and devoted fan base, I don’t think they deserve any of it. Let’s give it to someone who’s willing to at least pretend like they care. Because trust me: The fans really, really do. And that’s not something anyone should take lightly, or for granted.

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