Luke Bryan Closes Out RodeoHouston With the Biggest Show of the Season

Photos by Darrin Clifton.
Luke Bryan
NRG Stadium
March 19, 2K23

There’s something quaint about the fact there are still a handful of country purists out there that think Luke Bryan is the devil. Yeah, we’ve been over this before, about how he has songs with some of the dumbest lyrics around, and how he’s ultimately harmless, but the fact that we’re in the Year of Our
Lord 2023 people still want to complain about the guy is just wild.

The transition of pop country into the land of 808s and awful rhymes was always just a formality. There’s too much money to be made to keep it all steel guitar and fiddles. It happens in every genre, the mainstreaming of a sound: thrash bands write ballads, rappers embrace autotune, country goes hick-hop. Whether it’s the Nashville Sound, bro-country, or drums on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, someone’s take on country music is always going to piss someone off.

But why take it out on Luke Bryan? Sure, a decade ago when “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” was more omnipresent, it made sense, but if you look at his work over the past decade it’s not been all kick drums and dad raps. If anything, his music is more in line with Jimmy Buffett, summer anthems for people who spend their winters in deer blinds and are excited about the prospect of getting a tan after a cold season of killing.
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Photos by Darrin Clifton.
If last year’s RodeoHouston performance by Bryan felt more like a sprinter trying to shake off the rust of inactivity, 2023 felt more like a long-distance expert in complete control of his stride. There was no race to jam as many songs into his set as possible; in fact, there were times where the band was content to show off their chops and jam a little. This was the tightest, most focused Bryan and company have felt, coming off more like a real band rather than a bunch of guys hired to play someone’s songs.

What’s always seemed strange about the Rodeo is that these acts getting booked in bring in 50-to-70 thousand people to see them and yet somehow the crowds never feel particularly big. The screams and sing-a-longs never sound as loud as you'd expect unless the person booked is a pure pop act. Bryan is the one country artist whose Rodeo shows feel like an event; the crowd gets loud, they dance in their seats, they pull out their cellphones. The shows feel special.

It’s not going to be for everyone, and that’s OK. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to respect it. But don’t bother complaining about it because the crowd isn’t going to notice. Luke Bryan is on stage, and they’ve come to NRG Stadium to dance.

Personal Bias: Every year about halfway through his set, I worry this will be the year Bryan doesn’t play “Crash My Party.” As someone who, over the course of his life, has often been lonely in the middle of the night, songs relating to that subject hit me extra hard. Plus, you know, it was my first dance song, so there’s that.

The Crowd: As of this writing, the Rodeo had not released the official attendance figure online, but it was announced in the stadium as over 74,700, which would put it as the biggest crowd of 2023. Not bad at all for a school night.

Overheard in the Crowd: “Let’s get this over with so I can go see the cows.” There was one very vocal bull doing the bull riding event, and this is what his moos (is it considered a moo if it’s from a bull? I have no idea) were translated as by the announcers.

Animal Update: One of the bulls knocked one of the riders out of the competition before they left the shoot. It was brutal.

So, How Many People Were Wearing Masks at the Rodeo?: Other than my +1, I’m not sure I noticed a single other person wearing a mask any of the three nights we were at the Rodeo.