It was a cold night in Music City and the masses were packed in tight on Friday night waiting for Ruston Kelly to take his victory lap, celebrating a wildly successful solo tour capped with the second of two sold out hometown headlining shows at the Basement East. After opener Katie Pruitt finishes her set we don’t have to wait long before Kelly and company stroll out to a more than welcoming crowd. Opening with “Cover My Tracks” a standout song from his 2018 Dying Star release he immediately has the crowd in the palm of his hand. I think it is one of the more introspective and poignant songs on the record and it is equally amazing in a live setting. “Blackout” follows and his tale of substance abuse gone awry accompanied by harmonica and inspired paired vocals (supplied by his sister) gifts the audience one of the evenings stellar moments. “Trying to Let Her” “has been cut three times by Kenny Chesney” and dropped three times so Kelly decided to record it himself for his own album. The song is slowly winding and beautiful, breaking up the theme of addiction for a moment. I especially liked the steel guitar (played wonderfully buy Ruston’s dad Tim “TK” Kelly) weaving in and out over the course of the song, giving it a haunting touch for good measure. “Black Magic” from the Halloween starts out with vocals and acoustic before the band kicks in strong with a propulsive back-beat pushing the song along. It also gives the crowd an opportunity to join in for the first of several sing along moments. “Faceplant” continues the audience participation theme but it doesn’t damper the vibe and you can tell Kelly is having a good time. Besides with lines like “it ain’t like I’m tricking on the corner for crack” how can you not get swept up in this tale of an epic screwup?
Another track from Halloween, the mournful “Hollywood”rips me apart every time I hear it. Not sure why is so impactful but it absolutely destroys me. “Dying Star” is as perfect a song as you will ever hear. The images conjured up of something so brilliant and yet destructive make for one of those songs that I think we can all identify with in some way. TK on steel guitar flavors the track and compliments Kelly’s pained vocal delivery.
“Hurricane in My Head” was one of my favorite moments of the evening. The crowd is eerily silent as he tunes, to the point Kelly gives them permission to talk. Once he finished and started playing, this song rocked out. The drums were pounding and his vocal delivery was very Westerbergian in nature, and whether that was a conscious or subconscious choice, I thought it was a nice touch. “700 Angels” brings together some excellent steel (TK really jams it out) with the band’s slow and deliberate pacing ending with Kelly’s vocals in a full bold sound.
“Big Brown Bus” a favorite from Dying Star features Kelly on piano. This is one of those songs that really shines when you have enough people in your band to let it stretch out and breathe, which Kelly does. Eight people brought this track to life and the big jam at the end with three guitars and steel rocking out would have been worth the price of admission alone. The audience was feeling it too and sang along with gusto. The opening chords of “Mockingbird” drew instant applause and “Jericho” shined on its own merits.
I loved that Kelly performed “Son of A Highway Daughter” solo with the vocal effect employed on the album before the band kicks in with a fury. It was a fantastic ending to a fantastic show.
But wait, it’s not over yet. Kelly comes out with an acoustic guitar and his dad on steel for the first song of a two song encore and to make it even better it is a new song titled “Brave”. To call it emotionally heartbreaking would not do it justice. It ponders how he will be remembered when he is gone and hope his mother will think of him as brave. I though the subject matter, with his all too real concern that due to his addiction his parents would outlive him was stunning and I half tear up writing about it. Finishing on this song would have been just fine with me but we had one more song as he motioned his band to the stage from the wings. Kelly said he had just gotten married and did not know he had an old warrant out for his arrest when he was pulled over and taken to jail so he wrote this song about the experience. That song was “Asshole” and I can imagine that most of it was born out of real-life situations. Like every song before it, “Asshole” is sung and played perfectly as the night comes to a close. I would have loved to have heard “1000 Graves” but that is such a small, insignificant thing that I almost feel petty for mentioning it.
People talk about Childers, Wall alongside Simpson and Isbell but I think you really need to include Kelly in the conversation because he’s just that damn talented. His songs focus on the real and the live experience is nothing short of excellent. He is heading out later this month opening for The Brothers Osborne before taking the opening slot in April with Patty Griffin with a few solo shows thrown in for good measure. I know there are quite a few artists out there competing for your concert dollar but trust me, make a point to catch him when he comes through your town, you’ll be glad you did.