March 10, 2016
Luke Bryan always looks proud of himself. When he finishes a song, he beams. When he has a particularly good moment in the middle of a song, he might holler or make a growl noise. If a song requires it, he might display something close to melancholy, but he might also just be giving his smile muscles a break, because as soon as something like “Have a Beer” ends, he’s back to beaming.
And why not? He’s the current ACM AND CMA Entertainer of the Year winner, and 75,000-plus showed up to see him sing his songs and shake his hips. Does he have the best songs in country music? No, but his stuff is insanely catchy. Is he the best performer in country music? Not while Garth Brooks has a beating heart, but he is clearly putting everything he has into his performances.
But despite the answer being no to both of those questions, his being the Entertainer of the Year does make sense. His music and his performance both hit a sweet spot; his songs aren’t transcendent, but they are fun to sing, and while he doesn’t do a lot onstage, he knows how to work a crowd from the front row all the way up to the cheap seats.
He has mastered the art of the well-time air grind, and that with some catchy tunes is something you can easily build a career on.
By now he’s an old hand at playing the Rodeo, and his set list and interaction with the cameras were impeccable. It’s a shame, then, that the sound didn’t live up to what he was doing. There was something bizarre about the guitar/bass mix, and at times it felt like Bryan was struggling slightly to find where he fit vocally in the mix. Things smoothed out the longer the show went on, but it was never really right.
This would likely explain why the highlight of the show was when he performed “Home Alone Tonight” and George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away” just him and his acoustic guitar. For all of his sins against country music, when Bryan slows things down and strips away the hip-hop influence on his style, he can really impress with his voice, and I say this as someone who unironically likes bro-country. Hearing the crowd sing along with “Play It Again” was another highlight from his slower stuff.
Then again, there was that moment at the end of the show, in the middle of “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” that he and his band started to cover The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and he did a shockingly good job with the high parts. Not quite Abel Tesfaye good, but enough to drop a few jaws in the stadium.
I don’t like country music, by and large. It’s just not my thing. I imagine this is why Luke Bryan charms me as much as he does; I have no reason to hate him for what he represents to the genre at large. To me he’s just the guy who sings some catchy songs and pantomimes his lyrics like a fourth-grader at a dance recital. I find him to be absolutely delightful. I actively look forward to his trips to town.
I know it would be better for my personal brand to root for Sturgill or Chris Stapleton (but hey, at least I acknowledge the greatness that is Kacey Musgraves), but there’s a reason that, once again, Luke Bryan was the first artist to sell out his RodeoHouston performance this year. The guy is good at what he does, even if typing out what he does makes you feel a bit silly. But maybe that’s just me.
Personal Bias: I told my roommate that I wouldn’t be upset if “Crash My Party” was our first dance song next year.
The Crowd: The tenth-largest crowd in RodeoHouston concert history really wanted to shake it for Mr. Bryan.
Overheard In the Crowd: “You have to yield to them; you don’t have to pull over,” said a woman arguing with her friends about how one responds to emergency vehicles flashing their lights in what has to be the most random, pedantic post-show conversation I’ve ever heard.
Random Notebook Dump: No joke, I went to look up something I wrote about last time Bryan was in town, and to my surprise I totally called him covering The Weeknd a year ago. The smile on my face when I read that would have made Luke Bryan proud.