CEDAR RAPIDS — If Katy Perry and Taylor Swift had a love child, it would be Kelsea Ballerini.
This country pop princess rolls angsty relationship anthems into candy-colored wrappings that had a sold-out crowd of kids, tweens, teens and adults screaming and dancing Friday night at the U.S. Cellular Center. Afterward, I watched two young women sing and dance their way through the skywalk en route to their car.
At age 15, a gutsy Ballerini packed up her guitar and her talent, leaving her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., for the promise of Nashville. She had a few little items on her “dream list”: hear one of her songs on country radio, play the Grand Ole Opry stage and headline an arena tour.
Ten years later: done, done and done.
“I nearly lost my mind,” she said, the first time she heard one of her songs as she drove around Nashville. On April 17, she became the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry. “That’s the coolest thing that can happen to a country music artist,” she told her screaming fans.
As for headlining an arena tour: “You didn’t just come here — you sold the place out,” she exclaimed. “If you hear just one thing out of my mouth tonight, let it be ‘thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!’”
She has spent the past decade learning well. Not only has she honed her craft into two Top 10 country albums and four No. 1 country singles, she’s also expertly mastered the fine art of staging a concert.
I’ve seen plenty of first-time headliners look like scared rabbits or deer in the headlights as they stared into the great unknown. Not this prima Ballerini. She was en pointe for 90 minutes, pulling out all the stops for a top-flight entertainment extravaganza. She wore cool clothes, danced under a red-hot light show and brought a killer band along for the ride.
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But besides all the talent, glitter and glamour, she’s just so nice to her fans. Not only does she sing to every corner of the arena — one guy behind me in line quipped that his tickets came with oxygen masks — she crouches down time after time to get up close with the fans lining the stage.
She even leapt onto the floor to work the entire aisle between the floor and riser seats. One young teen I saw snapping a selfie with the artist looked like she was going to lose her mind as she savored the moment. I’m sure she and plenty of others like her didn’t sleep a wink that night.
Even with just two albums under her belt — her 2015 debut, “The First Time,” and her 2017 sophomore release, “Unapologetically" — she has plenty of hits to cast a 90-minute spell over the sing-along, dance-along throng, right up to her final beats of “Legends” and “Peter Pan,” showering fans with Tinkerbell confetti fairy dust.
But first, she strutted out all sparkly in a red mini coat dress and thigh-high red boots to the tune of “Miss Me More.” Bathed in high-tech theatrics on several screens within a huge video screen, lights swept across the stage as her bouncy power-pop energy bathed the crowd.
“I thought I’d miss you when it ended ... But I miss me more,” she sang, reflecting that butterfly emergence felt when a toxic relationship ends.
Her biting lyrics hit their target, piercing the heart and soul time after time, from “XO” (“you’re still in love with your ex, oh) to “Fun and Games” (“It’s all fun and it’s all games ‘til someone doesn’t wanna play, play, ay”) and “Love Me Like You Mean It.”
I enjoyed her sweet revenge song, “High School” (“He hates that he said goodbye, she went on with her life / He’s still driving the same old back roads / Wondering when he got so old”) and “In Between,” her ode to growing up, with one foot in each world.
That’s an apt analogy for Ballerini at this point in her career. Like Taylor Swift, she’s cutting her teeth in country, but she’s also on the verge of leaping into crossover territory. From the roar of the Cedar Rapids crowd, it sounds like her fans will leap right with her.
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Brett Young was the perfect pairing in the opening slot, sandwiched between newcomer Brandon Ratcliff and Ballerini. Ratcliff will be finding a bigger audience, thanks to this tour, but Young already is making waves, judging from the screaming, swaying and singing of the concert crowd.
He offers the male perspective on relationships, with an hour full of such open-heart reflections as “Catch” about a girl reeling him in; “1-2-3- Mississippi” about remembering to breathe during that roller coaster ride of falling too fast; on up to the breakup ballad, “Mercy.”
Like Ballerini, this Anaheim, Calif., native blurs the lines between country and pop, and could easily find fans on both sides of that musical Mason-Dixon Line.
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