"Whatever makes you country, you're welcomed here tonight," host Luke Bryan declared Wednesday night at the annual Country Music Association Awards.
This year's CMAs reflected the kind of diversity, equity and inclusion sensibilities that are sweeping the nation. Not only did the ceremonies feature several Black performers — from country music and outside the genre — but Jimmie Allen, a Black singer, won for top new artist and the Brothers Osborne, featuring the first out gay Nashville artist signed to a major label, grabbed vocal duo of the year (for the fourth time), and T.J. Osborne kissed his boyfriend live on national network prime-time TV. That's a first for country music, for sure.
Thereafter, life was a whirlwind, to hear T.J. tell it. Soon after grabbing their trophies and making an emotional speech, the Brothers Osborne performed a song on the CMAs and then spent two hours backstage doing "boring interviews." But, apparently, they didn't get to truly celebrate.
"This is where we party," T.J. Osborne announced Friday night at the Armory in Minneapolis.
No one is going to accuse the Brothers Osborne of being party animals at the Armory. In concert, they were solid, with quality songs delivered by T.J.'s distinctive baritone and punctuated with John Osborne's gritty, bluesy guitar. However, it wasn't until the final two numbers in their 17-song set that it felt like the Osbornes belonged in a 8,000-capacity venue.
T.J., 37, is a compelling deep-voiced singer (though not as deep as Josh Turner). His conviction was palpable on two affirming songs — "Younger Me," a brand new tune about how being uncomfortable as a kid helped make him what he is today, and "Not for Everyone," an anthem that says it's OK to be different. John, 39, contributed vocal harmonies, though not in a gorgeous Everly brotherly way.
The 90-minute performance felt too reserved, too scripted. Things loosened up on a sit-down-on-a-couch acoustic segment partly because T.J. forgot a lyric he wrote to "Weed, Whiskey and Willie" and had to stop and start again. That somehow got the singer out of auto pilot. For a change of pace, John handled lead vocals on a standout rendition of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," complete with a bass-voiced final "cry" and some fancy acoustic guitar picking and a full band acoustic jam.
Speaking of messing up, the Brothers Osborne misstepped on a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" by having opening acts Tennille Townes and Travis Denning take the first two verses. Talk about underwhelming.
The Maryland-reared Brothers Osborne have the goods to command a large room. They have the material such as the ZZ Top-like "Skeletons" and the buoyant boogie "All Night," which they saved for the encore. It was an exciting made-for-Halloween treat as the brothers and their five musicians frolicked in outfits covered in day-glow paint (under black lights) along with two 15-foot-tall skeleton puppets.
More action and more guitar would have enlivened the show. John's intoxicating slide guitar passage was the perfect chaser to "Rum," the duo's almost beachy hit. Probably the most compelling musical moments came when John exchanged guitar licks with the band's organist Dane Farnsworth during "It's Not My Fault," a driving Southern rocker that felt like a rally cry.
As a guitarist, John Osborne has more fire than Keith Urban and more aggressiveness than Brad Paisley. But those country stars are singers who can shred, and he's part of brother act, a talented duo that needs some seasoning before they can graduate to the next level.