Kelsea Ballerini at the Santa Barbara Bowl, June 16, 2023 | Photo: Carl Perry

Bursting onto the stage with a mixture of sunshine and sass, the contagious exuberance of country pop singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini is hard to resist. The 29-year-old performer from Knoxville, TN, has been writing songs and performing since she was a young child, and her ease and enjoyment on stage was palpable from the moment she danced into the Santa Barbara Bowl on June 16, her shimmery bright-yellow minidress and boots the perfect punctuation marks to her high-energy performance. 

The first part of her catchy set included “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” (check out the hilariously kitschy video here), “The Little Things,” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” all of which gave me serious Taylor Swift vibes.

Ballerini has been quoted crediting Swift for introducing her to country music, and many of her lyrics, along with the high-pitched screams in the audience, indicate she’s definitely another girls’ girl, giving violinist Caitlin Evanson (who has also played with Swift) her time to shine with a lovely solo. That was performed while Ballerini changed into a sparkly red mini and matching boots (her second of four cute costume changes) to perform another rollercoaster song of the heart, “Love Is a Cowboy.” That was followed by her 2020 hit “Half of My Hometown” (the recording featured fellow Knoxville native Kenny Chesney), an ode to growing up in a small town and reflecting on it once you’ve been out in the big world for a while. 

Kelsea Ballerini at the Santa Barbara Bowl, June 16, 2023 | Photo: Carl Perry

One of my favorite segments, and certainly one of the most unique in these parts, was Ballerini dancing up into the audience with a saucy rendition of “You’re Drunk, Go Home,” and then jumping onto what she dubbed “the B Stage” (a small platform near the soundboard), to sing “Hole in the Bottle,” a classic song about nursing heartbreak with drinking, followed by Ballerini taking a shot of tequila with a very excited woman she chose out of the audience. 

You don’t see that every night at the Bowl.

Another definite highlight of the evening was one of the quieter moments: the sweet, reflective, and beautiful song “Better Version,” performed (apparently for the first time in concert) as a duet with FLETCHER, a talented and charismatic singer-songwriter and close friend of Ballerini’s who is currently touring with “Meet Her at the Bar,” designed to raise awareness and money for queer spaces. Look up her music — I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s now on my playlist. 

That slower pace didn’t last long, as Ballerini launched into an energetic and entertaining last stretch with “Weather,” “Peter Pan,” “I Guess They Call It Fallin’,” “Penthouse,” “Miss Me More,” and her trademark finale, “I’m Doing My Best.” 

Her best was pretty damn good.


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