Saturday night was my third attempt to see Chris Stapleton live. Cross-country moves and illness precluded me for years previously, so it only made sense that when I finally made it to a concert, it didn’t go off as planned. We stood there in the dark silence wondering if the show would in fact, go on.
The Mast Stage at Forecastle was packed at 10 p.m. on Saturday, full of fans, most of whom had been on their feet all day in the 95-degree weather, ready for their Kentucky-born headliner. They’d waded through the sea of body glitter and indiscriminate smoke smells, successfully avoided a crop-top related wardrobe malfunction, and managed to not join the growing number of those passing out and being carried away by event staff. When a tech crew member came to the microphone around 10:20 p.m. to say they were having ongoing technical difficulties, he was met with less-than-sympathetic jeers from the crowd.
There were a few deserters as the delay grew longer, but the majority stuck it out. Many uttered phrases to the effect of, they knew if the show would finally start, we would be in for a treat. I had no experience to base this on, maybe my insistence to stay was more out of stubbornness than anything else. But when 10:40 finally rolled around the band made its way on the stage, it was clear almost immediately it was worth the wait, all of it.
Stapleton’s presence filled up a relatively dressed-down stage immediately. He opened with Midnight Train to Memphis, a song which appeared on his most recent album, Scenes from A Room Vol. 2, but was originally a song he did with the SteelDrivers in 2008. The original version was a little more up-tempo and banjo-laden, fitting for the bluegrass feel of the group at that time. It’s reboot a decade later is slowed down, deliberate and rock-forward. The first three guitar strums were all the crowd needed to be fully on board.
After a rousing rendition of Them Stems, off From A Room Vol .1, Stapleton lit into Nobody to Blame, the breakout single from his debut album, Traveller. If you discerned his voice from the sea of people singing every word and every inflection, you’d hear that Chris Stapleton’s voice is possibly better in person than on a record. A realization that would wash over me several times during the 90-minute set, this is a live voice I’m hearing in front of me. Every beautiful dulcet tone and powerful scream was coming from at me live and in person, no computer, no theatrics, just pure, raw talent.
In the days of overly studio-produced music, we can grow accustomed to expecting less when we go to see an act live. It’s nothing against the artists, they’re still extremely talented performers. But sometimes a mixer can make a voice do something it normally can’t. Stapleton reminds us not give in to the showboating and tricks, nor to lower our expectations, because raw talent and goodness are out there. That bluesy soulful voice millions found undeniable on the radio, pours out of him effortlessly onto the crowd. No matter how many bells and whistles an engineer can add onto a track in a studio, you can’t replace the seductive, raw delivery of an earnest song from a once-in-his-generation artist.
Each song topped the previous in its performance quality, equal parts polish and grit. Stapleton followed up Nobody to Blame up with the first two tracks off From A Room Vol. 2, Millionaire and Hard Livin’. The grooves were undeniable, and he had the crowd chugging along with his momentum. All leading up to the beautiful moment where he slammed on the brakes and played a gorgeous, pared down version of Fire Away. The painfully true song about love through mental illness was an instant favorite when it came out on Traveller in 2015. But on this hot July night years later, after five sing-a-longs and choruses of cheers, the crowd fell silent. A response to the lowered lights and obviously more reserved tone on stage, to be sure. But more than that, a reverence for this voice, this song, this moment. The first verse went by virtually uninterrupted by outside noise before the chorus was sung by all. In those quiet moments of just a man and his guitar, Stapleton was at his purest country music man.
Here’s the thing though, he could pick the tempo up straight away and do Might as Well Get Stoned and have the place rocking. Every head was nodding, toe tapping, and the crowd back on its feet in an instant (and some standing near us were really on board with this particular tune’s message).
The ebb and flow from raucous to reserved went on all night. Next up he played Was It 26, a song from Traveller that’s all soul and no show. A simple, slow ode to growing old, when Stapleton sings those two years run together like whiskey over ice on the album version, it’s an image of earnest recollection. To hear that executed in person raised the hair up on your arms and was sure to make subsequent listenings even more powerful.
The second half of the setlist had many of the same themes, the earnest storytelling prevailed thanks to the perfect vehicle, Stapleton’s voice. He defended his guitar chops, shredding on Outlaw State of Mind and Second One to Know. Each time he had the crowd rocking, he’d slow it down with a song like Whiskey & You or I Was Wrong and have them right where he wanted them.
Chris Stapleton is a performer who knows exactly what he’s doing all of the time. It’s never off the rails or out of his hands, he knows. He went so far as to ad-lib sing his way through the band intros, making jokes and hitting notes at the same time, delighting the crowd. Every member of the band being from Kentucky only served to enhance the staggering greatness of the night.
He closed the show out with fan-favorites Parachute and Tennessee Whiskey, both were enjoyable renditions which matched and sometimes exceeded their album counterparts. The crowd which had endured the gauntlet to get there could leave more than satisfied.
Some shows you go to because you know you’ll have a good time dancing with your friends. Some shows you go to because you want to hear someone play the heck out of a piano or a guitar. Even more still, you go so you can belt your heart out to songs you’ve loved for years or decades. While any of these might be true for Chris Stapleton, that’s not why you go. You go to a Chris Stapleton show for the soul, and you don’t leave disappointed.
Forecastle 7/14/2018 setlist:
Midnight Train to Memphis
Nobody to Blame
Might as Well Get Stoned
Was it 26
Outlaw State of Mind
Whiskey & You
Second One to Know
I Was Wrong
The Devil Named Music