Phil Vassar brings energy to the Swiftel Center

Kara Christensen

Kara Christensen

Country stars Phil Vassar and Carolyn Dawn Johnson used to spend their nights in Phil’s Nashville club — Hard Day’s Night – where he performed and she tended bar and waited tables.

Not so today.

Last Friday, the two friends brought their traveling Club Paradise tour, which was originally scheduled for Oct. 19 of last year, to the newly re-christened Swiftel Center.

The two singer/songwriters played to a not-so-full arena in the former Brookings Area Multiplex, following regional country band White Creek, whose members hail from White, South Dakota.

About 2,000 people attended the first event to be held under the Swiftel moniker, falling well short of the Center’s 5,000 capacity.

Nevertheless, those present were glad for an excuse to drink and dance, and they enjoyed the show.

By the time family man Phil bounded onto stage, sporting trendy faded jeans and matching jacket, an energetic buzz filled the air. Over-priced alcohol and Vassar’s heavy radio play certainly contributed to the excitement. Cowboy hats and baseball caps dotted the crowd in equal numbers, and ages ranged from six to sixty.

In a concert that included cover songs from AC/DC, Billy Joel and Queen, Phil Vassar and his band jammed to a cheering audience who stood, swayed and waved back. A few saluted Phil with a beer bottle or American flag.

Surprisingly, the cover songs excited the crowd as much as Phil’s popular self-penned tunes, “This is God,” “American Child,” “Just Another Day in Paradise,” and “That’s When I Love You.”

Accompanied by a rock guitarist and a fiddle player who’d satisfy any Dixie Chicks fan, Phil darted around the stage, stopping occasionally to jump onto his piano.

The crowd loved it.

“It’s like aerobics for me,” said a casually-clad Phil in an pre-concert interview.

Last year he won Top New Male Vocalist at the 37th annual Academy of Country Music Awards after a string of top ten hits.

Success followed 13 years of Nashville living and watching other artists turn his songs into hits.

When it comes to songwriting and music in general, he doesn’t worry about sounding like his contemporaries or appealing to all country music fans.

As soon as everyone sounds alike, you have problems, he said.

“For me, it’s all about the song,” he said. “You sort of write songs, and you hope for the best.”

Warming the stage for Phil Friday night, the Canadian-born Carolyn sang her heart out, her clear voice ranging from emotional ballads to soprano feel-good melodies.

While appreciative, the crowd was not attentive.

For an hour, the arena turned into a coffee shop.

When Carolyn launched into her better known tunes, “Complicated” and “I Don’t Want You to Go,” at the end of her set, the distracted audience got to its feet, as if to say,

“Hey, I’ve heard this before.”

To her credit, she remained upbeat and genuine.

“Phil Vassar was definitely a favorite, but I think the crowd liked both of them,” Lucas Radke, 21, of Slayton, Minn., said.

“I would go to just see her, too.”

SDSU student Kristen Pederson, 19, said both singers were excellent, but she, too, noticed more excitement for Phil Vassar.

“He really worked the crowd,” she said.

“I think they responded more to him just because it was his performance.”

#1.887483:4216755027.jpg:phil.jpg:Phil Vassar brought his family-friendly act to the Swiftel Center (formerly the Brookings Multiplex) last Friday.: