Chris Stapleton delivers rugged Southern rock without the badass posturing at Xcel

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Chris Stapleton performs at the 2017 iHeartRadio Music Festival Day 1 held at T-Mobile Arena on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Las Vegas. Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP

Chris Stapleton is a uniter, not a divider.

Just hours before the 39-year-old Kentucky singer and guitarist led a rowdy yet rapt crowd of country fans in jeans and cowboy plaid through a two-hour singalong at the Xcel on Saturday night, he’d been wooing public radio listeners down the street at the Fitzgerald for a taping of A Prairie Home Companion.

So let’s retire that “unlikely country star” tag that’s consistently prefixed Stapleton’s name ever since he scooted up to number one with Traveller in 2015. It was likely as hell that some manly traditionalist would eventually break out as a reaction to party-time pop country. We just thought he’d be more of an asshole.

But Stapleton, a husky, soft-spoken guy with shaggy hair, bushy beard, and cowboy (not trucker) hat, is compulsively likable. And his soulful, bluesy Southern rock is pretty much a lingua franca for white music fans, which means he can draw in Americana connoisseurs who get fidgety when Nashville flaunts its commercial aspirations as well as mainstream country listeners who’ve outgrown callow pickup lines about pickup trucks.

Stapleton stood at the apex of a power trio anchored by drummer Derek Mixon and bassist J.T. Cure, whose melodic lines often doubled as a second lead guitar without shirking their rhythmic duties. The three men were gathered close at the front of the stage to project intimacy, while a metallic quarter of a dome, its colors shifting throughout the night, stretched up to a point above and behind them, and a smoke machine intermittently smothered them. The ah-fuck-it party-starter “Might As Well Get Stoned” (which would be followed a few songs later by the even more desperate and no less 420-friendly “Them Stems”) led into the brusquely brokenhearted “Nobody to Blame” to make Stapleton’s m.o. plenty clear: Barrel through misery and regret with three-chord abandon.

Of course, this was a week of loss and memorials, and Stapleton downshifted early in his set to dedicate his thoughtfully pious “Broken Halos” to the families of the Las Vegas shooting victims. He then mourned the late Tom Petty, with whom he toured three times, saying “I lost a hero this week” and delivering a straightforward take on “Learning to Fly.” (That was the third Petty tribute of the night: Openers Brent Cobb and Margo Price had played solid versions of “American Girl” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” respectively.)

Stapleton’s selling point, you’ll hear a lot, is that he’s refreshingly free of pop bullshit, which makes a fan of pop bullshit like myself suspicious—it’s weird to love music for what it isn’t. But fortunately among the manure Stapleton refuses to shovel is that badass posturing most trad paragons of country manhood go in for, which surfaced in this set only on “Outlaw State of Mind” and maybe “Death Row,” a simmering blues. And in a live setting, Stapleton’s undersung pop gifts really crackle—a longtime Music Row toiler with his name on hits by Kenny Chesney, George Strait, and Darius Rucker, the guy can write a damn hook.

Granted he’s often just a workmanlike lyricist, rarely spinning a song off a clever conceit and at his best at his most plainspoken, but his choruses are the real deal, so sturdy and massive that Max Martin would show up at the CMAs in a Stetson to put his name on them. They’re meant to be sung en masse, while buzzed. The title track to Traveller may just read like just another ramblin’ man’s existential confession, but with thousands of voices singing harmony the solid craft comes through.

A chunky rhythm guitarist and an ace riff-wrangler, Stapleton also has a choppy solo style that’s a grounded alternative to the soaring twin-guitar fireworks of traditional Southern rock, though his spotlight guitar moment on the blues number “I Was Wrong” revealed his melodic limitations after a few choruses. In fact, his best solo moment was a pure rhythm attack on “Second One to Know,” where rather than doggedly stomp across the fretboard he instead hyper-strummed some chords high up on the neck with the speed and ferocity of a chopper blade.

Then there’s that voice, more Springsteen than Allman when you listen up, except the twang comes natural and he effortlessly rockets up to the high notes that Bruce strains gamely to approximate. (With its guitar chug and disco-rock backbeat, “Parachute” is his “Cover Me.”) Stapleton does abuse the privilege of that powerful instrument, though. On quieter numbers like “Whiskey and You” and “Either Way,” he connected fully and subtly with the lyrics, but often his warm midrange brushes against his verses without digging in deeper to endow a phrase with an unexpected meaning, and he’s sometimes more overanxious than a soul man should be to reach the climax. (We’ve all been there, big fella.)

But that's all a matter of taste—there's no questioning the effectiveness of Stapleton's performance. "Tennessee Whiskey" was his inevitable set closer, and before he got down to business he belted out some unexpectedly hilarious band introductions—Mixon, we learned in a soulful burst, “doesn’t like tomatoes/ But he’s OK with tomato-based products.” Stapleton is singing his signature tune better than ever, with more warmth, more humor, more patience, and less showboating than either on disc or in his career-boosting CMA performance, even pulling off those Sam Cooke loop-de-loops with a grace that's eluded most white mimics. But what still stands out most for me is how a few slight adjustments to the architecture of the original Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove composition turned a fine country song into a neo-soul showstopper. Chris Stapleton is a guy who knows what's he's doing, who knows what works, and who knows that what he's doing works.

A note on the opener: Like the headliner, Margo Price will also become an Xcel/Prairie Home Companion crossover artist later this month. Fronting a six-piece band that had a traditional country sound but still made room for a theremin solo, Price dipped into her 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, as well as its terrific upcoming successor, All American Made, and she seemed as comfortable in the big room as she did at a much smaller Turf Club show last year.

Setlist
Might as Well Get Stoned
Nobody to Blame
Broken Halos
Learning to Fly (Tom Petty cover)
Midnight Train to Memphis (The SteelDrivers cover)
Them Stems
Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind
Was It 26
I Was Wrong
Whiskey and You
Parachute
Outlaw State of Mind
Death Row
Tuesday’s Gone (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)/The Devil Named Music
Traveller
Fire Away
Second One to Know
Tennessee Whiskey (David Allan Coe/George Jones cover)

Encore
Either Way
Sometimes I Cry


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