Steven Tyler sure wanted people to think that Sunday night’s concert at the Citi Wang Theatre would find him in a country mood. His Nashville-based backup group, the Loving Mary Band, features members who’ve written hits for the likes of Carrie Underwood. His stage set prominently featured a sign for the “Windy Hollow Jamboree.” His preshow music included songs from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Dwight Yoakam, and (more than once) Johnny Cash. After his second song, the singer declared, “What a good way to start the country show!”
But the song to which he was referring was “Cryin’,” played as the same lurching Muscle Shoals soul it’s been since Aerosmith first recorded it nearly 25 years ago, albeit with mandolin and fiddle lurking in the background. And expectations were set clearly when he opened with a straightforward rendition of “Sweet Emotion.” With the exception of “Janie’s Got a Gun,” which wasn’t countrified so much as simply made more atmospheric, Tyler wasn’t interested in recasting familiar material in a different style.
Part of that may have had to do with Tyler’s singing. His voice had a tenuous grasp on whatever song he was singing, but his voice has always had a tenuous grasp on whatever song he was singing, and the fact that the tenuous grasp hasn’t really slipped in all these years remains astonishing. But if Tyler was still belting out songs with relative ease that should be well beyond his capability by now, his vocals proved a liability for the genre to which he was paying lip service. “My Own Worst Enemy” wouldn’t have been quite so maudlin if it had been sold by someone with a clearer country voice, just as the otherwise solid “Only Heaven” would have soared without Tyler’s raggedness. Similarly, it wasn’t difficult to hear the country song nestled within “What It Takes,” but Tyler never had his band draw it out.
Still, the song may be the best one Aerosmith ever wrote, and the Loving Mary Band played the hell out of it. That was a recurring theme, with the band sounding tight but huge on “Piece of My Heart,” capturing the heavy, foreboding descent of “Dream On” and nailing the hard, cockeyed slink of “We’re All Somebody From Somewhere.” With Sarah Tomek’s rock-solid and deceptively wide-ranging drums anchoring the group, the Loving Mary Band was versatile and tougher than it really needed to be.
It was even able to pull off country, at least when it was actually called upon to do so. “It Ain’t Easy” was more like whiskey-soaked classic rock than a Nashville weeper, but it captured much the same ache, and “Jaded” with mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar was essentially early Wilco. Best of all was “Love Is Your Name”; with Tomek pounding out a heart-lifting thump, it actually had the roll of modern country music, and it drowned in the band’s harmonizing. Despite being the catalyzing element, Tyler was the least important piece of it.
STEVEN TYLER AND THE LOVING MARY BAND
At Citi Wang Theatre, Sept. 4Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.