Chuck Wicks @ Claremont Opera House 19 March 2009

wicksCountry is music’s last meritocracy, a genre where, as John Mellencamp wrote recently in Huffington Post, “stars [come] from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth Brooks.”

Or think Chuck Wicks, who thrilled a sold-out Claremont Opera House last Thursday with a blend of heart-tugging ballads and straight up rockers.  The lanky singer-songwriter rose through the ranks on Nashville’s Music Row, parking cars while he honed his skills next to some of country’s best writer, all the while awaiting his chance to make his first record.

Thursday night, Wicks played most of that debut disc (“Starting Now”), a few well-chosen (and crowd pleasing) covers, and some promising new songs.

At the outset, however, the challenge of shifting gears from “Dancing With the Stars” to music showed.  While he got reacquainted with band mates he hadn’t seen in a few weeks, the show’s opening song, “All I Ever Wanted,” didn’t hit on all cylinders.

But it was smooth sailing from there, as Wicks found his groove on a churning breakup song (“The Easy Part”) and the uplifting “If We Loved.”

By the night’s first ballad – “Man of the House,” dancing was the last thing on Wicks’ mind.  However, he did oblige the crowd with a with a solo salsa figure eight.  His hip swaying delighted  several screaming fans.

Introducing a new song, the bawdy “Better on the Floor,” Wicks slyly encouraged the audience to sing along, or “come on down to the front and dance.”  This precipitated a stage rush that had a few Opera House board members covering their eyes.

No one else minded, though, and the mostly female throng at the foot of the stage fed Wicks’ energy on the rocking “Leave Me Alone” and a surprising cover of Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.”

A solo acoustic mini-set featured the new “You Won’t Let Me,” written with girlfriend and dancing partner Julianne Hough, and the soulful “Mine All Mine.”

Wicks’ five-piece band rejoined him for back-to-back covers of Brad Paisley’s “Wrapped Around” and Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man.”  The singer took time out to thank Paisley for his support, noting that the singer brought Wicks on his 2008 tour, and wrote early letters on his behalf to country radio stations.

After that tribute, Wicks pleased the crowd by played his biggest hit.   The choice of a Paisley cover fueled speculation about Wicks’ future with his dancer girlfriend, and his introduction to his biggest hit to date added to it.

“I don’t know nothing about stealing Cinderella,” he said, “but I’m trying,” – a subtle reference to the 20-year old Hough.  He followed with a power ballad, “What If You Stay,” and closed the night with back to back rockers – “I Feel a Good Time Comin’ On” and “She’s Gonna Hurt Somebody.”

Wicks’ humility matches his resume.  He was late for a pre-show meet and greet because “my mama taught me to never go out in public without a cleanly pressed shirt.”  It was pretty clear who held the iron.

Flying a redeye out of LA the night before didn’t deter Wicks from wading into a crowd of post-show fans at his merchandise table.  If this kind of fan-centric energy were more common in John Mellencamp’s circle, the business might be in better shape.

The show’s success was a testament to the efforts of local radio station KIXX-FM.  Their morning team of Traci and Paul was instrumental in spotting Wicks’ talent well before his dancing prowess was known,

Manager/promoter Jim Roach booked the rising country star right on the cusp of fame.  As good as the music was Thursday, without such behind the scenes magic, the show never would have happened.

It’ was also clear from the sold-out show that country music is a strong area draw.  More shows like this one are just what the Opera House needs.

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