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Joe Nichols works hard

House of Blues, Boston, September 19, 2013

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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What's a guy like Joe Nichols gotta do to get a hit in this genre? Well, maybe put out something on the fun side like his current single Sunny and 75, which is going up the charts, but when it comes to a concert, that could pose a bit of a problem.

It has nothing to do with the fact that Nichols remains a fine crooner when he ventures onto the traditional side of the country map. But when he veers more towards what passes for country these days, it seems a bit more out of his comfort zone, and that proved somewhat nettlesome following two artists who went to the Jason Aldean School of Country.

Nichols is about to release a new album, "Crickets," next month on a new label (Red Bow, which interestingly enough is the sister label of Aldean's Broken Bow). Nichols has a history of scoring well on the more traditional and crooning side of country. Yet, in this concert of Country Strikes Out ALS ( a fundraiser for former Boston College outfielder Pete Frates), he worked hard to win the crowd over.

He was very effective at both with such songs as the fun - he has that side of him as well in his music without being a novelty singer with Let's Get Drunk & Fight and a big hit for him, the ballad The Impossible.

Nichols has a full blown big sounding baritone that has always worked wonders. There's a lot of resonance and clarity in his delivery. Playing four songs from "Crickets," the clarion call came through in his take on Merle Haggard's Footlights where the emphasis was on the singing amidst spare instrumentation. Songs like She Always Smokes When Drinks segueing into Keith Whitley's When You Say Nothing At All hit the mark. And you had to give Nichols credit for doing what he likes particularly when the crowd seemed blasé.

That was until he it into Sunny and 75, a more upbeat, rocking song, which won back the audience.

But Nichols' vocals got drowned out by his backing band a number of times during the 78-minute show. The problem was that Nichols needs to decide what kind of artist he wants to be. Going the easy route - these days - would entail rocking out more.

Not only did the beauty of his vocals get lost during those points of the show, but he also wouldn't be all that unique. Nichols soared near the end of the regular set with perhaps his most traditional song, Brokenheartsville before ending with Gimme That Girl.

For Nichols, who doled out a fun, bouncy What's a Guy Gotta Do, he would best be served both in concert and in recording on going the route that got him where he is.

Chase Rice may not be all that big a name - he doesn't even have an album out yet (that's coming in a few weeks) - but anyone who listens to country absolutely has heard him numerous times. That's because he was one of the writers of the Florida Georgia Line super megahit Cruise.

Rice came across as a likable enough performer. He has the requisite energy and enthusiasm. What he doesn't have is a particularly engaging vocal delivery. Adequate, but not much more than that.

The former college football player was squarely in the Aldean camp. There wasn't a whole lot of country in his music.

The same could be said for Sam Hunt, who wrote the Kenny Chesney hit Come Over and Cop Car on Keith Urban's brand new "Fuse" CD. Except that both in music and motion, Hunt veered more towards the hip hop school of country. His robot-like hand movements indicated that along with his vocal delivery.

And like Rice, he wasn't particularly big on anything that vaguely resembled country as we once knew it. Having a drum tape going instead of the real deal may have contributed to that.

The cause was definitely right on this night in tribute to fighting ALS. And the music generally was also. It just depended how you like your country.