CHAPEL HILL — Within my first 10 minutes inside Carmichael Arena Saturday night, I saw a Blue Cup raised by a manicured man on stage and a smuggled Bud Light cracked open by a man in a cowboy hat beside me.
A vaguely recognizable song covered by some country twang pumped through the speakers, prompting the half-full arena to mumble along to words they used to hear on top-40 radio a couple years ago.
Ah yes, I must be at a bro-country concert.
And yes, bro-country is a real genre, quarterbacked by the likes of Florida-Georgia Line and tonight’s headliner, Chase Rice. It’s a sub-genre of country music, the kind that would make Johnny Cash roll over in his grave. The originally written songs are about drinking, hot girls, college and religious come-to-Jesus-moments sung by dudes in snapbacks with megawatt smiles, perfectly groomed stubble and gelled hair who spend a lot of time cruisin’ and crushin’ it down on some dirt roads.
I’ve been to a handful of country concerts — Brad Paisley, Sugarland, Little Big Town — but Saturday night was my first bro-country concert experience, and aside from a couple moments of hard eyerolls, it was a lot of fun. I don’t know that anything I saw was worth a $35 upper level general admission ticket, but for the $8 student ticket to Rice’s Back to College at UNC’s Spring Jubilee stop, I’d consider it to be a fun Saturday night pregame.*
*Alcohol wasn’t actually for sale at the event, which makes it a pretty sobering pre-bar activity. But more on that later.
The crowd was a sea of girls in cowboy boots and dresses and men in either khakis and button-downs or blue jeans and cowboy hats. It smelled faintly of old beer and sweat, a combination that must have been achieved by people who went straight from the spring football game in Kenan Stadium to the concert headlined by the former UNC linebacker (which qualifies this as loosely related to sports, therefore vaguely relevant on a sports website).
When I walked in, second-opener Chris Lane was a few songs into his set. Right now the self-proclaimed Carolina boy from Kernersville has a six-song EP out and one song, Fix that’s starting to build steam, checking in at No. 32 in iTunes top-100 country songs. I missed Lacy Cavalier, a 19-year-old newcomer who just put out her own EP.
Other than Fix, I didn’t recognize any of Lane’s original songs, but he was all about doing covers of hip hop and pop songs, apparently a staple of any good bro-country artist. I’ll admit that I loved when he covered old Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, but I nearly walked out of the venue when he tried to pull off a country-fied Whip/Nae Nae. There are songs that should never, ever be covered by a country artist and that’s at the top of the list.
Once Lane closed on Fix, we waited for about 30 minutes for Rice to come out. In the time it took to change the set and tune the instruments, the pit area, available only to current UNC students who purchased floor-specific tickets, went from 40 percent full to about 70 percent capacity. Floor tickets weren’t available to the general public and people who purchased lower level seating weren’t allowed to move down to fill in the empty space, leaving awkwardly empty space in prime seating (standing?) areas for Rice’s homecoming tour stop.
Rice brought a fun energy from the moment the curtain dropped, athletically bouncing and running around the stage throughout his whole performance. He sang songs about margaritas and guacamole — and in case you weren’t sure, he sure loves to drink, especially in Chapel Hill.
Remember when Miley Cyrus kept talking, joking and singing about how she was so 4/20 friendly during her MTV Video Music Awards hosting gig? We get it, you love weed.
Rice toed that line with constant drinking references, which probably would’ve gone over a lot better had Carmichael actually been able to sell beer. Instead, the crowd held up cups of pepsi and sprite when both Rice and Lane asked their fans to raise a glass. Not quite what they were going for, but good try, y’all.
Of course, there were a couple covers, highlighted by Rice’s take on fellow North Carolinian Eric Church’s Smoke and two Blink-182 covers
The best moment of the night was when Rice put on a custom No. 44 UNC basketball jersey, his last name stitched on the back, and sang his nostalgic North Carolina anthem, Carolina Can. With lines about faded blue denim on Franklin Street, He’s Not cups, and James Taylor, the song was obviously the crowd’s favorite singalong of the night.
From there, Rice kept the jersey on the rest of the night, slowing it down for his ballad Jack Daniels and Jesus before building the tempo up for a Ready Set Roll finale.
Rice performed nearly all of his hits, with one notable one absent from the set list. Rice released a new single, Whisper, Feb. 5, and it has nearly 5 million plays on Spotify. At No. 94, it’s Rice’s highest-ranked song on the iTunes Country chart. It seemed kind of odd that Rice didn’t come out for an encore performance to promote the new song.
After a set of nearly an hour and a half, Rice wrapped up around 11:15 — just in time to go crush a Blue Cup.