Imagine this: A sold-out country concert in a Twin Cities arena and not one song about pickup trucks, Daisy Dukes or red-dirt roads.
Even Chris Stapleton, the object of attraction, was surprised that 15,000 people packed Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night. He mentioned that he’d played at a local radio station and as an opening act here once, but this was his first “actual gig” in the Twin Cities.
“I didn’t know if anybody would show up,” he said in major understatement. “I’m always amazed by it.”
Shouldn’t be. Both of Stapleton’s albums have gone to No. 1 on the country chart (and No. 1 and 2 on the pop list), he’s won two Grammys and he’s collected enough awards at country hoedowns to fill a trophy case.
More importantly, Stapleton, 39, is the most refreshing — and respected — male singer to emerge in country since Eric Church. While Stapleton’s two albums show him to be an old-school songwriter with depth and soul, in concert he proved to be a more assertive and aggressive vocalist with a powerful presence.
A burly man in black with a ZZ Top starter beard and straw cowboy hat, Stapleton is not a physical performer, but he’s forceful. He knows how to make his voice roar, growl and even purr real nice and pretty when he wants to. If you want a comparison, think the great soul shouter Otis Redding, doing the kind of material associated with Merle Haggard, Ray Charles and ZZ Top.
Indeed, Stapleton demonstrated impressive stylistic range — he offered everything from stone country and Southern soul to hard rock and heavy blues. And he did covers of Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd and David Allan Coe.
His subjects could have been inspired by the Willie Nelson songbook: whiskey, weed and what went wrong — and right — in romance.
Stapleton was able to sell his songs in an unpretentious, no-frills kind of way. Performing on a stage set that was like half a dome, he created the impression that this was an intimate honky-tonk, gussied up with some mood lighting and a little stage fog (especially when he hit the chorus of “Might As Well Get Stoned”).
Fresh from performing three songs earlier in the evening on radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in downtown St. Paul, Stapleton came across as quite friendly. He was talkative, topical and timely. He dedicated “Broken Halos” to Las Vegas, he sent “Learning to Fly” out to the late Petty (for whom he opened three concerts this year), and he mentioned that this day was the anniversary of his father’s death, which inspired the song “Traveller,” the title track of his 2015 blockbuster debut disc.
Stapleton went out of his way to thank the arena security personnel, something you rarely hear from a star at a big-time concert. He introduced his two bandmates by singing rhymes about them, showing his humor, cleverness and affection.
Fans truly got to know Stapleton on Saturday. One thing they learned is that he’s one serious guitarist. He showed remarkable versatility.
He served soulful country blues on the shuffle “Them Stems,” Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque blues-rock on “I Was Wrong,” slashing rock and later U2-like chiming on “Parachute,” bent blues on “Death Row,” pure Jimmy Page-ian blues-rock on “The Devil Named Music,” pretty pop picking on “Traveller,” ramrod metal riffing on “Second One to Know,” pristine B.B. King licks on “Tennessee Whiskey” and gorgeous acoustic picking on “Either Way.”
The two-hour performance was marred slightly by drummer Derek Mixon, whose bass drum was too loud all night and whose playing was largely one-dimensional.
Don’t think Stapleton is an innocent newcomer to Nashville. The Kentucky native and Vanderbilt University engineering dropout has been writing hit songs for others for years. Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Darius Rucker have gone to No. 1 with Stapleton tunes, and artists from Adele to Luke Bryan have recorded his material. But he didn’t offer any of those songs on Saturday.
No, this night was about introducing Stapleton — the man, the music maker and the guitarist — to the Twin Cities. It was an unforgettable introduction.