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Sunny Sweeney, Josh Kelley play different faces of country

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, November 17, 2010

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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On the face of it, Sunny Sweeney and Josh Kelley share very little musically. Sweeney hails from the honky tonk school and knows a thing or two about twang and big voices. Kelley was a bit of a heartthrob earlier in his career when he was more pop and singer/songwriter oriented. Now, he is forging ahead with a country bent.

But what they do have in common - besides current singles getting some airplay - is that they are looking to get their country careers in gear.

Based on their individual performances in a different format for them - both were acoustic and with a very stripped down sound - they both acquitted themselves.

For the country traditionalist, Sweeney would be the answer. The Texas singer released an indie CD, "Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame" back in 2006, which was picked up and released by Big Machine in 2007. Sweeney's career has not progressed all that much since then. Until now.

She has a single From a Table Away on the charts and is gaining some traction from that. The song is atypical for her. She toned down the twang, and it's far more of a mainstream song than the rest of her set.

But Sweeney played several songs from an expected upcoming CD. Sweeney is a fine, honky tonk singer. She puts her stamp on the songs and has good vocal chops, evidenced form the start with Drink Myself Single.

Sweeney's brand of country was not feel good, glossy material. Not with songs like that, Everyone Else Can Kiss My Ass and You Don't Know Your Husband Like I Do. At one point, the attractive Sweeney turned her back to the crowd a bit, showing off her rear. As for the latter song, Sweeney said, "This is the sequel" to From a Table Away.

With two fellow musicians on acoustic guitars and backing vocals, Sweeney was entirely comfortable on the stage, doling out humorous lines. She covered Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues (it was the second song, way too early for a cover), asking if anyone had family members in prison. None in the crowd claimed the honor, but Sweeney did, saying the song was dedicated to her cousins in jail and her uncle in a Texas prison.

Sweeney played nothing from "Heartbreaker's" cd, which is too bad because she has a lot of great songs.

About the biggest compliment that Sweeney could receive was that at 27 minutes, that was more than a tad short of being satisfactory.

Kelley had a career going as a singer/songwriter and hits with Amazing and Only You before deciding that country may be his calling. He is slated to release a CD in 2011 and has a single, Georgia Clay, gaining some airplay.

Based on his 45-minute stint, Kelley is part of the crowd that is only vaguely country. Don't expect to hear any twang from him. He sings well and has no trouble putting a song across. That was never more apparent than on the softer Naleigh Moon, a song about his daughter who he and wife, actress Katherine Heigl, adopted from South Korea two years ago. Kelley told the crowd how he "used to be selfish and self-absorbed...but I'm not that like that any more."

Kelley, accompanied only by a much shorter bassist, also scored with probably the most country sounding song of the set, the catchy Raining Whiskey. "That's for my mother in law," joked the affable Kelley. "She drinks with me."

He closed with a tender song not on the new CD, Cowboy Love Song. It was about being away from home and looking up at the stars at night and thinking of loved ones. Kelly showed adeptness with the quieter songs.

No one would ever accuse Kelley of being overly country, but in this day and age, he'll do.

Sweeney and Kelley offered very different views on what is country these days, and both stated their cases well.