At first glance, the pairing of Nashville group Florida Georgia Line with St. Louis rapper Nelly at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday night seemed like an unlikely one.
Florida Georgia Line are the current kings of “bro country,” a questionable modern trend featuring country pop heavy on rural pickup-truck driving, flag waving, beer drinking themes.
Nelly’s biggest hits were urban hip-hop and R&B tracks that landed over 15 years ago, most notably “Country Grammar” and “Hot in Herre.”
But the pairing of hip-hop with country music is no longer a strange one for audiences used to groups like Florida Georgia Line that sprinkle their country music with rock and rap influences. And Nelly remixed Florida Georgia Line’s debut single, “Cruise,” in 2013, helping it become the best-selling country song in the digital era.
So the merging of hip-hop and country seemed nearly complete when the lights went down at 9:30 p.m. in front of a packed SPAC amphitheater and lawn for Florida Georgia Line’s “The Smooth Tour,” presented by the group’s own brand of whiskey, Old Camp.
As they launched into a series of tunes that celebrated partying and country ways — “Anything Goes,” “It’z Just What We Do,” “Round Here” and “Smile” — the group’s main appeal was in the dynamism and amiability of the two front men, Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard.
The bearded Kelley — dressed in white jeans, a batik vest and an Outback hat — and his bandmate Hubbard — with a backwards baseball hat, white tank top and ripped blue jeans — knew how to work the crowd and transmit their infectious energy to the audience.
That made up, somewhat, for the fact that many of the songs — “Confession,” new single “Smooth,” “Dig Your Roots” — just weren’t very good: way less catchy than they should have been, with few hooks and vocals sung in the same, flattish range.
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The pair met through a college worship group, and their spiritual side came through when Hubbard sat down at a piano to play “H.O.L.Y,” the lead single from their third and latest album, “Dig Your Roots.” The song is part Christian theme, part love letter to the duo’s wives, who were shown on the stage’s video screens in home-movie-type clips of the couples getting married and cavorting on safari, at the beach, in hot tubs.
A song later, Kelley and Hubbard were chugging from their signature whiskey on stage and singing a catchier, hedonistic party-time tune, “Sun Daze,” with opener Chris Lane. They finished the set with a brand-new tune about drinking and with an older tune about drinking, “This Is How We Roll.” Set-closer “Get Your Shine On” was a fan favorite, lit up by audience member cell phones. Then Nelly joined the guys for an encore that featured his biggest hit, “Hot in Herre,” which was the catchiest and most enjoyable song of the night.
Nelly stayed for a group-singalong of Florida Georgia Line’s smash hit “Cruise” before fans started streaming for the jam-packed parking lots.
Nelly was backed by a DJ, two vocalists, and a pair of female dancers for an opening set that included his classic tune “Country Grammar,” a beat-box driven take on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” “Die a Happy Man,” and guest vocals by a young female fan pulled from the audience to duet with the rapper on “Dilemma.”