Big and Rich – the low-down, countrified, electrified, rappin,’ and rockin’ act that defies conventional Nashville categorization – hit the Big Fresno Fair on Friday night and had the crowd standing from beginning to end.
John Rich asked at the beginning how many people had seen them before. About half raised their hands.
By the end of a crisp, never-a-dull-moment, 90-minute show that covered the Big and Rich hit list, as well as an eclectic sampling of rap, Johnny Cash, Queen, Chumbawamba and who knows who else, the boys and their bandmates had converted 97 percent of the newbies.
Big Kenny and John Rich are a lot to absorb. Many of their songs feature the big-bottom syncopation of rap. But they write and perform traditional sentimental ballads like their current hit, “Lovin’ Lately,” which features country superstar Tim McGraw, and their only No. 1 hit, the lovely “Lost in the Moment.”
They are rockers, too. Rich took the stage – Gibson Flying V electric guitar in hand, “In God We Trust” on its neck – in his trademark black cowboy hat, black and red embroidered jacket, and blue jeans. Beneath the jacket: a Rolling Stones t-shirt. Big Kenny was born a rocker and has the flair of a glam rocker. Many songs feature traditional rock-and-roll guitar riffs.
A great things about Big and Rich is that you never know what to expect. Yes, they play their hits. Crowds want to hear “Wild West Show,” “Comin' to Your City” and more.
But their love of music and respect for other musicians seemingly has no boundaries. Friday night, Rich pulled Eric Haines, a one-man band, clown, juggler and comedian, off the fairground and put him on stage. Haines, his body covered in instruments, proceed to perform Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” to a combination of laughter and appreciation.
Then there’s this: Big Kenny and John Rich honor a local military veteran at every show. The veteran is brought up and asked to talk about his or her service and then offered a shot of Royal Crown whiskey. The veteran is seated at the Big and Rich bar behind the band it plays “8th of November,” a song inspired by Niles Harris, who survived a Vietnam battle that killed 49 U.S. paratroopers and wounded many more.
This celebration of service and freedom was best summed up by Big Kenny: “It’s about a lot of people working hard to make the good times go down.”
The good times did prevail, as the crowd answered Rich’s invitation to “party up,” and the band delivered with “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy). Then the appearance of Cowboy Troy took things even higher with “hick-hop” songs like “I Play Chicken with the Train.”
Big and Rich are celebrated in Nashville for their songwriting, which has propelled hits for McGraw, Faith Hill, Jason Aldean and Gretchen Wilson. But they also are an anecdote for the overproduced, formulaic, many-songs-sound-the-same work coming out of Nashville.
They are more than a Friday or Saturday night tear-the-house-down act. They are an everyday of the week act. One that fuses country, rap, rock and novelty –plus love of country – into a good time without requiring a colossal stage, special effects and high ticket prices.
May they ride their horses for many years to come.