Luke Bryan w/ Josh Thompson, Lee Brice, and Matt Mason
Friday, September 16
Better than: Having to go out to PNC Bank Arts Center, where these all-star country shows usually take place.
In a town where the “but country” that finishes the trusty declaration of openmindedness “I listen to everything” is almost implied, a New York Times feature is usually enough to shift, if not create entirely, the discourse around any Nashville artist. Which is probably why Luke Bryan—the center of a Labor Day weekend piece about country singers ditching the 10-gallon hat, and the hyper-masculine attitude that comes with it—has become, among the few people I know who knew his name, “the hat guy.”
However, the crowd at Terminal 5, almost completely assembled a good two hours before Bryan would take the stage, didn’t seem too hung up on the headliner’s sartorial choices and remained remarkably excited for opener Lee Brice, whose low placement on Friday’s bill belies the excellence of his debut, Love Like Crazy; its title track was one of the biggest country songs of 2010, breaking the record for most weeks on the Billboard country singles chart. So naturally, Brice closed with a scaled-down rendition of the tune that put him on the map before turning the stage over to Josh Thompson.
Thompson joins Brice and Bryan in the shirking the 10-gallon, and just as Bryan occasionally moderates this move by appropriating hip-hop’s masculine swagger (as on “Country Girl (Shake it for Me)” or by outright asserting his rural, XY roots (as on “Country Man”), Thompson wears his hair in, yes, a ponytail, but also proclaims his love for three Johns (Wayne, Cash, and Deere, respectively) in a way that’s about as masculine as you can get without ripping the sleeves off your flannel shirt while your buddies slap your abs and biceps. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what the dudes in front of me happened to be doing as I took these notes. (These dudes seemed to prefer Brice, as did I, but they no problem getting down to that Johns song, “Way Out Here.”)
When Bryan arrived on stage, he appeared above all else happy to be there, playing little guitar so that he could have more freedom to run, jump, and dance. And though he’s no Hayley Williams, no one faulted him these energetic displays. Catching his breath before “Drunk on You,” he laughed off the endearingly clumsy skateboard accident he suffered on his last trip to New York, when he and some buddies bought a few and tried to ride them through Central Park: “A redneck on a skateboard, how ’bout that?”
Bryan’s 2009 single “Do I” seemed as if it might provide the singer with another chance to rest, but by the time I had written the song’s two-word title in my notebook, he was already walking away from the piano behind which he initially sat. In fact, “Do I” only began the set-closing run of songs that would turn out to be the night’s most lively segment. “I Don’t Want This Night to End” followed, suggesting that Bryan had at least a song or two left to play. Those songs turned out to be, respectively, “All My Friends Say” and “Rain is a Good Thing,” the former interrupted by brief detour though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the latter punctuated by a massive thunder-and-lighting lights display.
For an encore, Bryan brought out the aforementioned “Country Girl (Shake it for Me),” but rather than moderating his baseball cap move away from outlaw masculinity, the tune provided a chance for Bryan to really mess with expectations. Disappointed by the lack of males backing that azz up, Bryan goofily shook his own before singing lines from Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” His band, however, had other ideas, launching into Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time.” (I imagine that Brice, who on “Picture of Me” sings of “finding his soul in rock ‘n’ roll” and had offered a few face-to-face dueling guitar solos earlier in the night, was backstage having a ball.) But before the song could finish, the band took another left turn, ending up in the middle of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and though Bryan might have confused the bridge’s “revenge/friends” rhyme, he still gets some serious points for trying.
Critical bias: Hatless.
Overheard: “Who’s this song by?” from multiple men who knew those rah rah rah-rah-rahs from somewhere.
Random notebook dump: Today in custom mic stands: Luke Bryan’s contained a base that if held up to the light would form a deer shadow puppet.
Someone Else Calling You Baby
What Country Is
Drunk on You
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
Drinkin’ Beer and Wasting’ Bullets
If You Ain’t Here to Party
We Rode in Trucks
I Don’t Want This Night to End
All My Friends Say (with Enter Sandman interlude)
Rain in a Good Thing
Country Girl (Shake it for Me)
Nothin’ But a Good Time (Poison cover)
Bad Romance (Lady Gaga cover)