Country duo Love and Theft performed on campus this past Thursday. | Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Brenna Swanston
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The clouds rolled in, the air cooled down and an open trailer, empty except for a collection of music equipment, stood waiting in front of Campus Market this past Thursday evening.

At 5:15 p.m., a trio of men entered the trailer and took their places behind a guitar, bass and drum kit. They settled quickly before kicking off a chord progression, exuding country vibes.

A man with facial scruff, a nose ring, a black leather jacket and an oversized belt buckle slid across the stage to stand front and center. His partner, sporting a grey v-neck, jeans and an acoustic guitar strapped around his torso, closely followed.

The duo was Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson, the men behind country group Love and Theft. Liles and Gunderson took to a pair of microphones and, in an eruption of vocal harmonies and country twang, officially launched into their set for the evening.

At the musicians’ feet stood a drove of Cal Poly students, many of whom donned their line dancing outfits a few hours early for the concert. Some front-row observers staked out their spots long before the concert began, while others, whose class-to-class commutes were interrupted by the temptation of live music, wandered in after the show’s start.

Most listeners, regardless of how they’d happened upon the show, danced and sang along for its duration. A space opened up behind the crowd for a group of line dancers.

After the duo’s second song, “If I’m Fallin’,” Liles welcomed the audience.

“Thanks for letting us play on your campus,” Liles said. “We’re called dropouts — we’re not proud of it, but at least we’re here.”

He introduced their next song, a new single titled “Night That You’ll Never Forget.” Its lyrics tell a story of a fun, drunken, “hard-to-remember” night out.

“See, I wish we were here, because we’d have a night like that,” Liles said after the song ended. “You all better have a night like that. There better be someone passed out with beer cans all over.”

Agricultural science sophomore Beth Boss said she appreciates Love and Theft’s lyrics because they relate well to college students. She was impressed with the show’s turnout, she said.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “If you ever want to get the whole (College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences) over to something, just bring a country music artist and you’ve got them.”

Having only listened to Love and Theft’s recorded music, Boss was pleased with the quality of the band’s live performance.

“It matches what you hear,” she said. “There’s nothing fake about it. There’s nothing altered about their CD compared to their live version, which is really nice.”

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The show progressed for approximately an hour and a half, consisting primarily of new songs from Love and Theft’s upcoming album, to be released this summer. The group also threw in occasional covers of music by Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers Band and The Doobie Brothers.

Gunderson said the band’s summer album will include “more drinking songs,” “more party songs” and will be overall more mature than its previous releases.

“We were just trying to have our music grow with us,” he said. “We’re excited about it. It’s the best music we’ve ever recorded.”

In the past, Disney Records prevented the duo from writing songs that represented their actual lives, Gunderson said. Now, the group wants its lyrics to be real.

“We didn’t really want to put out music that portrays us as something we’re not,” Gunderson said. “We wanted it to be real and about our lives, and I think we accomplished that.”

As the concert wound down, Liles announced its last song of the evening would be “Angel Eyes,” a weekly line dancing favorite at local club The Graduate. The crowd’s initial excited screams quickly settled into a chorus of voices, singing along to every word.

Love and Theft then rewarded its faithful audience with a couple encore songs before retiring behind the trailer for a meet and greet. Students assembled in a massive line to meet the musicians.

Students’ interactions with Liles and Gunderson included grilling the duo for failing to play line dancing regular “Girls Love to Shake It,” asking to give the men piggyback rides and throwing up sorority hand signs for a photo. Even a husky puppy waited its turn to say hello to the band.

Gunderson said he was pleasantly surprised by students’ reaction to the on-campus show.

“We had a blast,” he said. “It’s not every day you get to play a show outdoors at a university and that many people show up. We were pleased with the turnout. It’s a Thursday, so we were really surprised and everybody was really welcoming. We had a great time.”

Though Love and Theft plays at college campuses often, its shows are not usually smack dab in the middle of campus, as was the case with Cal Poly, Gunderson said. He enjoyed playing somewhere so central to the university.

Gunderson also appreciated performing in an agricultural area, he said.

“The smell of horse and cattle poop — we love that,” he said. “It brings us back to the country.”

Neither Liles nor Gunderson had spent time in San Luis Obispo before.

“It’s awesome here,” Gunderson said. “The drive was beautiful.”

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Liles said part of Love and Theft’s success is owed to Grammy-winning recording artist Taylor Swift.

“Taylor was the first person to bring us out on the road with her on a tour,” Liles said. “We’ll always be grateful to her for that.”

As if the tour itself wasn’t enough, Swift also wrote a song titled “Hey Stephen,” which she publicly admitted was about Liles.

“It was a really nice song, so I’m on the short list there,” Liles said. “And then she put my name in it and told everyone it was about me, so that was a really nice thing to do. Not many girls have done anything close to that for me.”

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