Mark Wills

Live at Billy Bob's Texas

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One of several castaways from the moribund "hat act" scene of mid-'90s Nashville to find himself on this small country indie label, Mark Wills starts his post majors career with a no-frills live album that perhaps unintentionally shows exactly what went wrong with mainstream country music at the end of the millennium. There's more audible enthusiasm in Wills' vocals in the first minute of the wry opener "And the Crowd Goes Wild" than there was on the entire album of the same name that was Wills' Mercury swan song. Similarly, the arrangements are fundamentally the same as they were on Wills' earlier albums, with lots of rocking rhythm guitar lines underneath the twangy country leads, but unlike the pristine separation of the ultra-clean studio records, there are some rough edges. (The drummer's not playing to a click track, either, which helps a ton right there.) Wills is an affable Everyman of a singer with a little Alan Jackson in his vocal style, and his songs rarely rise above "catchy and hummable," so he was never going to be a country superstar on the Garth Brooks level, but this thoroughly enjoyable live record shows that he's a much more entertaining act than his previous albums had revealed. That's not his fault; it's the fault of the label folks who tend to stifle their artists into cookie-cutter conformity.

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