There’s just something about Kevin Costner that makes people seem to want to root for him.
Prior to Costner’s performance with his country rock band Modern West at Northern Lights Friday night, I was hard pressed as to what this quality is. Usually, actors- and actresses-turned-musicians inspire more derision than interest — they’re spoiled famous people who are picking up instruments just because they can. Not so with Costner — everyone I told about the show prior to it would laugh, but they’d also be curious, and not morbidly curious either. There was genuine interest there. Who knew there were so many “Waterworld” fans?
But that’s not it at all. Costner and the six members of his band put in the legwork Friday night, playing for one of the biggest audiences at Northern Lights in a while. And while there was nothing really eye-opening about the set, most of it managed to be pleasantly surprising thanks to Costner’s palpable joy at being in a dingy rock club, playing with a dingy country rock band. Sure, some of the crowd may have just been there because they were star struck, and they probably left star struck as well — but they at least left with the tunes in their heads.
Again, nothing the band played was reinventing the wheel. Set opener “Red River” got by on attitude and a great guitar hook, with Costner bleating out the song’s lyrics in his familiar deadpan. He doesn’t have a great voice (his lack of accents in his past movie roles hinted at that), but there was just enough grit in it to work for these songs, and just enough charm in the songs for them to work on this audience.
What really made the show was the top-notch playing from the band, particularly fiddler Bobby Yang, who out-rock-starred Costner with his acrobatic playing on “Long Hot Night.” Up next, “Moon So High” gave lead guitarist Teddy Morgan a chance to tear up some stage, and he obliged with a veritable compendium of bluesy licks.
Costner’s tribute to the military (a requirement these days for country bands), “Hero” was perhaps the most effective thing the band played in its 90 minute set. Over a dark, vaguely unsettling melody, Costner delivered the song’s condemnation of war with gusto — much different than what the usual modern country band would offer up.
A preponderance of ballads weighed the band down during the middle of the set, although some of these worked as well. “Let Me Be the One,” featuring vocals from opening act Sara Beck, got the crowd’s attention, as did the almost traditional-sounding “How Deep the Water.”
Throughout the evening, Costner told stories behind the songs, though the crowd noise drowned him out half the time. The band’s last show had been at a sit-down theater and the set list still seemed designed for that and not a sweaty nightclub like Northern Lights. But the band righted itself before it was all over, ending with a trio of rockers that got the crowd moving again. Best of these was the bluesy anthem “Hey Man,” which begged for a chant-along (and very nearly got one).
Beck opened the show solo with a mercifully short set. She’s a great singer, as evidenced on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which was the best thing she played all night. The rest of her set was given over to originals that all kind of sounded the same, and were about the same thing. The audience didn’t seem to mind, and Beck was able to coast up until Costner and company took the stage.