Luke Bryan Powers Through Illness at Nashville Concert: Review – Billboard
Written by GRB on 13/08/2023
Two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan brought a truckload of hits to a sold-out crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Saturday night (Aug. 12) as part of his 36-city Country On tour. The instant the lights went out, the cheers and screams went up, reaching the rafters as stage lights and smoke signaled the onstage arrival of one of the foremost country entertainers to emerge out of Nashville in the last 15 years.
This hip-shaker and hit-maker, who also manages to be one of country music’s most relatable “everyman” personas, dubbed the evening a “big ol’ Nashville honkytonk party,” as he launched with “Kick the Dust Up,” and packed many of his 26 No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay hits into a two-hour set.
Early in the evening, he took a moment to acknowledge his recent trio of show date cancellations, saying, “As y’all know last weekend I had to cancel three shows, but I was not going to cancel Nashville under any circumstances,” a declaration that elicited cheers from the devoted crowd. Bryan’s voice sounded slightly haggard around the edges, making it clear he was still battling illness. “So, I’m going to sound good on some songs and I’m going to sound like s— on some songs. But when you see me drinking out of this cup,” holding up a red plastic cup, “I’m drinking tequila.”
The sentiment became an ongoing humorous moment, with the crowd cheering each time he lifted the red cup to his lips. The singer-songwriter grinded it out Saturday evening, offering his fans the best he had to give — and those loyal followers stayed with him the whole way, taking over singing the words to songs such as “Crash My Party” and “My Kind of Night.”
The 47-year-old has long since diversified his brand beyond solely lobbing hit songs at the charts and headlining sold-out tours — in addition to his Luke Bryan’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink, which since its 2018 opening has been a staple in the pantheon of celebrity bars flanking downtown Nashville’s Broadway, he’s served as a judge on American Idol since 2017, and this year will reprise his role as a CMA Awards co-host, alongside NFL legend Peyton Manning. But in the end, key to his success as one of country music’s foremost ambassadors for more than a decade has been his long-perfected onstage blend of lovable goofball, sultry swagger and positive attitude, and his insistence on recording songs that largely bring — and keep — fans in those good spirits, from his debut single “All My Friends Say,” to his current top 15 hit “But I Got a Beer in My Hand”
The tour’s namesake brought a highlight of the evening, as Bryan, situated center stage with his guitar, paid tribute to farmers, military members, small-town denizens, U.S.A. and Music City itself, with the crowd offering chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” as the song concluded.
“Thank you so much for this energy in here tonight,” he said, as he shared a bit of his journey. He played his breakthrough as a songwriter, Billy Currington’s 2006 hit “Good Directions,” and noted that he quickly tore through all the money he made as a writer on the song. “I bought a bass boat and two four-wheelers and I spent all my damn money.” His rendition of “Good Directions” proved a vigorous reminder that underneath that charismatic onstage persona is a sturdy songwriter who in addition to writing many of his own songs such as “We Rode in Trucks,” and “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” co-wrote songs for Bryan co-write songs for Florida Georgia Line (“That’s How We Roll,” a collab with Bryan) and Travis Tritt (“Honky Tonk History”).
Later in the evening, Bryan again acknowledged lingering vocal issues, joking, “If y’all give me a three-star review on Yelp tonight, I’m gonna be pissed.”
He saved many of his bigger hits for the second half of the show, piling on songs including “Crash My Party,” “My Kind of Night.” He welcomed two of his openers, Jackson Dean and Chayce Beckham, to the stage to perform the Jordan Davis hit “Buy Dirt,” which featured Bryan as a collaborator. The much-beloved song truly didn’t really need a vocalist Saturday evening, as the crowd took over singing the entire chorus, with Bryan ending by praising Davis for allowing him to be part of the song. The evening’s jamband vibe grew, as opener Ashley Cooke joined for a curious cover of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” following by a crowd-rousing rendition of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”
Bryan switched to piano offering a snippet of the 1981 Lionel Richie and Diana Ross collaboration “Endless Love.” The rest of the evening would bring a mingling of covers and his own hits, such as his own 2009 hit “Do I,” Ronnie Milsap’s 1981 hit “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” and Bryan’s “Rain Is a Good Thing.” He offered a solo acoustic rendition of his 2013 hit “Drink a Beer,” a tender ode to loved ones that has become a light-up-the-room staple in concert. He ended with his signature anthems “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” “Play It Again” and the all-too appropriate “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” which found seemingly every fan in the house with hands raised high in boozy appreciation for the hit-filled evening.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be in this arena, playing whatever I want for two hours,” he told the crowd.
Ashley Cooke Takes Her Best ‘Shot’
Cooke made perhaps her biggest Music City showing to date, in the first opening slot on Bryan’s tour, flexing laid-back, accessible style with an infectious pop-punk energy as she regaled the crowd with songs from her recently-released debut album, Shot in the Dark. Her pitch-perfect vocals led “Getting Into,” before welcoming fellow concert opener Dean for a sultry take on another album cut, “What Are You on Fire About.” Commanding center stage, standing close and mingling their voices effortlessly, the two brought an undeniable energy and camaraderie to the stage.
“I can’t tell you how many years I dreamed of getting up on this stage..it’s pretty freakin’ cool,” Cooke said. Taking up a guitar, she took listeners through her musical journey, offering snippets of the first concert she ever saw — performing Hilary Duff’s “Come Clean,” and following it with Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” before she got a surprise when “Cruise” co-writer Chase Rice joined her onstage for the song. She offered T-Pain’s “Buy You a Drank” and Morgan Wallen’s “Chasin’ You.”
Cooke, signed to Big Loud Records, worked the early evening crowd with her conversational style and encouraging the audience to light up Bridgestone with a sea of cell phone lights for her performance of her RIAA-certified gold record, “Never ‘Til Now,” before rounding out her set with songs including “Back in the Saddle.”
Chayce Beckham Translates Television, Viral Success to the Stage
Beckham, a former American Idol winner and a polished entertainer and vocalist further bolstered his career surge thanks to his viral hit “23,” which has also cracked the top 40 on the Country Airplay chart. His 30-minute opening set at Bridgestone was a potent testament to the road-tested stage presence he’s forged in the two years since his Idol triumph.
Beckham launched with “Doin’ It Right,” following with “Keeping Me Up All Night,” and using his time before a Music City crowd to preview his upcoming Aug. 25 release “Little Less Lonely,” which drew a solid reaction.
Bryan’s openers generously have access to the full stage and walkway, which Beckham used to his advantage. Slinging his guitar over his back, he strutted to the front of the walkway, kneeling at the edge of the stage to shake hands with those in the front rows.
He dedicated “Til the Day I Die” to a friend, Lance, who died last year. With his dark hair and dark attire, he evoked a certain throwback country essence, as he namechecked Red Foley, Merle Haggard and the classic Haggard/Nelson song “Pancho and Lefty.”
“This is about staying true to who you are and not letting anyone tell you any different … we miss you, Lance.”
He concluded with a muscular rendition of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” and his own breakthrough hit, “23.”
“I moved to Nashville a few years ago,” Beckham said. “I never thought I’d be up here singing this song for you … I love calling this place my home.”
Jackson Dean Evokes a Gruff, Outlaw Cool
Newcomer Dean broke through last year with his freewheeling, defiance-fueled “Don’t Come Looking,” which became a top 5 Country Airplay hit. The song would be an apt introduction to Dean’s enviable musical talents with his soulful brand of country with its Southern rock-soaked edges and flashes of grunge. Ambling onstage in his signature feathered hat, Dean sang “I ran like hell from wedding bells/ And I rambled my whole life,” in his opening song, “Trailer Park,” staking his claim of freewheeling musicality early.
Though Chris Stapleton is a peerless vocalist, newcomer Dean shares a similar vocal essence — one uninhibited and unpredictable, veering from serrated to soulful on a whim. But his vocal gifts only tell half the story; it’s not that common for an absolute newcomer to release a live album — much less a live album recorded on the historic stage of the Ryman Auditorium — but that’s what Dean did earlier this year, following the 2022 release of his Big Machine Records debut album, Greenbroke.
On the considerably larger Bridgestone stage, he offered the fan favorite “Heavens to Betsy,” about a deceased man trying to reconnect with his daughter from heaven — or someone “looking for redemption in his own way,” as Dean put it. He followed with an adrenaline-fueled take of Fred Eaglesmith’s 1998 song “49 Tons,” before dipping into the gruff-yet-vulnerable “Fearless (The Echo).”
“I’ve walked in here a lot of times and I’ve always thought about playing int his room, and here we are,” he said, launching into “Don’t Come Looking.”