The Grandma’s Marathon pre-race concert headliner didn’t “Rock the Big Top” Friday night.
No, this year the Big Top went country.
Nashville songwriter Phil Vassar turned in a crowd-pleasing set of country hits he either penned for other artists or charted in his own right over the last two decades. The 90-minute, 17-song performance was a refreshing change from the noisy rock pablum that typically roars out of the temporary Canal Park venue some 10 hours before race time.
“Is anybody running in this thing?” asked Vassar, before he even sang a note. “I like this: Drink a lot of beer tonight and run 26 miles tomorrow. You’re my heroes.”
A crowd of about 300 people - clearly down from last year’s Sugar Ray show - cheered Vassar and his four-piece band throughout the night and sang along with just about all the songs, including a few unexpected covers.
Performing at a stand-up piano painted with a city skyline, Vassar played solid, mid-tempo country songs that ring with nostalgia or breezy innocence. His sound is steeped in Bruce Hornsby rather than Bruce Springsteen, an influence for many male pop-country acts today.
Vassar and his band opened with the rocking “Carlene,” his first Top 10 hit from 1999, and the working man’s anthem “In A Real Love,” which landed at Np. 1 in 2004. The Jo Dee Messina No. 1 hit “Bye, Bye,” a Vassar co-write, followed and saw the singer high-fiving front-row audience members.
“This is the first day of summer, can’t you tell?” said Vassar between songs. He was clearly chilled by the Lake Superior breeze. “It’s cool when it’s 10 degrees on the first day of summer, don’t you think?”
The band then knocked off a trio of bouncy summer themed songs. “I’ll Take That As A Yes (The Hot Tub Song)” featured a soprano sax solo from band sparkplug Pattie Cossentino. A Top 10 hit from 2001, “Six Pack Summer,” was paired with “Summer Nights,” a delightful cover song from the “Grease” motion picture soundtrack.
Vassar changed the mood singing two melancholy selections: “My Next 30 Years,” a hit for Tim McGraw, and “Good Ole Days,” which ended with a sweet a cappella line. He dedicated the ballad “Last Day of My Life” to a couple in the crowd: “Pretend like I’m playing it at your wedding right now,” he said.
Wearing black-rimmed glasses and his blonde hair short, Vassar looks a lot like comedian Jim Gaffigan if Gaffigan cut Hot Pockets out of his diet. In fact, Vassar, 55, looks fit enough to run a marathon.
“Are you ready to run 26.2 miles? We’re doing 300 miles tonight,” he joked. The band is scheduled to play at a casino in Northwood, Iowa Saturday night.
After threatening to play “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Vassar wisely chose to cover an even bigger Minnesota legend: Prince. The group performed a lovely version of “Purple Rain” as cellphones recorded it all in the crowd.
Vassar has written 10 songs that have topped the country charts and 27 have landed in the top 40. The performance wound down with three more of his originals: “Just Another Day in Paradise,” “Little Red Rodeo,” a hit for Collin Raye, and another Messina hit, “I’m Alright,” which earned the biggest roar of the night.
But while the Vassar “Hitsteria” tour is celebrating 20 years of hit songwriting, the night ended with a cover of a Billy Joel song. The backing band left the stage as Vassar strapped on a harmonica and performed “Piano Man” solo with the audience singing the final chorus.