It was a grandiose concept that almost worked, and it's definitely worth improving on: Friday night's attempt to turn the Baltimore Arena into the East Coast's largest country dance palace.
The foremost obstacle was that as many people, if not more, came merely to listen rather than move and groove to the four-hour-plus of (mostly) danceable music. The sounds were served up by The Kentucky Headhunters, Marty Stuart, Restless Heart and Pirates of the Mississippi -- four widely diverse acts, some of whose music proved eminently more danceable than others.
From the outset, the dance-hall concept was partly undone by the sheer size and darkness of the arena -- like trying to throw a hoedown in an airplane hangar.
The Kentucky Headhunters, an old-fashioned Southern blues-rock party band that somehow snuck through the back door with country radio, seemed to welcome the venue's move toward informality. Their blues-country double-shuffles ("Honky Tonk Walkin' ") and guitar-driven rock throbbers ("Just Ask for Lucy") consistently inspired extravagant bodily gyrations.
Marty Stuart, an immensely talented musician, a warmly extroverted performer and a man with a strong sense of country music history, also rose effortlessly to the occasion. Stuart's brand of contemporary honky-tonk and "hillbilly rock" seemed to get practically everybody on the dance floor -- if not to dance, then at least to gawk.
Besides fiery renditions of his own groove-oriented hits like "Tempted" and "Hillbilly Rock," and a spirited all-acoustic version of "The Whiskey Isn't Workin' " (which he originally recorded with Travis Tritt), Stuart also served up fine remakes of oldies by Merle Haggard and Johnny Horton.
Restless Heart is a tuneful and accomplished enough ensemble; they've milked the early-Eagles "mellow country-rock" tradition as sedulously as anyone. Yet their sound was a little too smooth, and their stagecraft a little too introspective, to inspire much two-stepping.
Pirates of the Mississippi, the perennial opening act, actually fulfilled the evening's requirements as well as anyone. Their music is very danceable, and very forgettable. Patrons could easily shuffle or talk their way right through their set without fear of having missed much.