What singer has benefited more from being a TV talent judge/coach than Blake Shelton? Paula Abdul became a celebrity again but not a singing star, Jennifer Lopez scored one big hit but that was it, and Adam Levine jump-started Maroon 5. But Shelton, a rising country act, used NBC’s “The Voice” as a springboard to becoming not only a household name but also the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year in 2012.
Frankly, his performance last year at the Minnesota State Fair suggested that he deserved to be named entertainer of the year as much as Christian Ponder should be declared the best quarterback in the NFL. But Shelton’s concert Thursday at sold-out Xcel Energy Center left no doubt that this is a new season and he should be a serious contender for country music’s — best charmer or best bro. Aw heck, both.
This 37-year-old Oklahoman with broad shoulders and a three-day beard was the perfect combination of small-town aw-shucks and Hollywood slickness. He talked about drinking, hunting, fishing, dogs, death (his brother’s), drinking, boobies and more drinking. He came across like your best bro with whom you love go to the game, the lake and the bar. And the way he laid it on as thick as giblet gravy seasoned with oodles of humor and silliness, you were certain that this dude could sell a case of beer to a teetotaler and convince her to give it away to all his pals. (He actually tried to fix up two strangers in the front row.)
Charmer indeed. But when it comes to entertainer of the year, well, he can’t rock it like Jason Aldean, can’t shake it like Luke Bryan, can’t sing it like George Strait and can’t stage it like Taylor Swift. In fact, Shelton’s staging was rather underwhelming by arena spectacle standards — just three ersatz farm silos (he entered from the middle one) and a triangular video screen behind them.
Nonetheless, he can entertain. The newly minted TV star, whose initials are BS — and he’s darn good at BSing — was as booze-loving as a honky-tonk Dean Martin, as charmingly romantic as a redneck Michael Bublé and as spirited and spunky as a back-roads Billy Joel. In his 110 minutes, Shelton actually sang more songs that were medium tempo or slower but he managed to hold the crowd with his endless pro-hillbilly chatter (“NBC tries to think outside the box. They’ll figure it out: This country wants country music!”) and top-shelf salutes to booze (“Drink On It” was a slow-dance).
He tried to pump up the volume with the Big & Rich-like stomp “Hillbilly Bone” and Kenny Loggins’ bouncy “Footloose” but up-tempo isn’t his strong suit. He had the 13,000 fans swooning to his sensitive side, especially the two solo acoustic ballads “Over You,” about the death of his brother, and his first hit, “Austin,” about still pining for her.
One thing the most successful coach on “The Voice” (he’s mentored three champions) hasn’t figured out is how to put together the right team for an arena. His opening acts — newcomer Jana Kramer and Easton Corbin, whose hits were so three years ago that he filled his set with covers of Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and Alabama — were unexpectedly underwhelming.
However, the coach was savvy enough to bring out his unadvertised MVP, this summer’s “Voice” champ Danielle Bradbery, to sing her new single “Heart of Dixie.” And this was one moment when you truly believed Blake’s bull: “This right here is the next big superstar in country music.”
Now that’s the way to build an entertainer-of-the-year campaign.