OMAHA -- You never know what you’ll get on the last night of a tour. But it’s almost guaranteed to be a show that’s looser, longer, because of that, more memorable than any of the shows the preceded it.
That’s what 13,500 people got at the CenturyLink Center Saturday night when Chris Stapleton played his final show of 2017, a 2 hour plus affair that went on and on, substantially departing from his standard set list
Here’s a few of the notable moves:
Imagine, if you will, AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” done as a straight up country song. That’s just what Stapleton made it Saturday. Paying tribute to AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young, who died Saturday, Stapleton brought out opener Brent Cobb and his guitarist and turned the rock and roll anthem into a slow country song -- and somehow it worked.
Stapleton’s got his second album of 2017 “From a Room, Vol. 2,” set to be released Dec. 1. He’s been playing a couple songs from the record on the tour. But Saturday, he said, ‘we’re goin’ deep.”
Indeed, he and his band did, playing, by my count, six of its nine songs. They included a driving “Midnight Train to Memphis,” a lovely ballad titled “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight,” and, the night’s killer song, “Drunkard’s Prayer.” Done solo on acoustic guitar, the mournful “Drunkard’s Prayer” is an instant true country classic -- key line “I get drunk and talk to God, and say I’m sorry for all the things I’m not.”
Stapleton took the first turn off the setlist when he invited Marty Stuart, one of his heroes who’s been providing direct support to Stapleton with his band the Fabulous Superlatives back to the stage. The duo romped through Waylon Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and had a blast on Stuart’s “Now, That’s Country.” “That’s the one and only time that’s happened, right there,’ Stapleton said as Stuart left the stage.
A quick aside here: The Fabulous Superlatives would be my pick for the best band in country music. The Nudie-suited crew is drummer Harry Stinson, one of the best backing singers in Nashville who wowed the crowd with his lead vocals on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” ultra talented multi-instrumentalist, Chris Scruggs and the greatest guitarist in country and maybe just the world’s greatest guitarist.
Together they can deliver “Hillbilly Rock” and classic country with aplomb -- they even pulled off a cool, non-cliched cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” And Stuart’s an entertainer who can play a mean mandolin. Their 45 minute set was about 45 minutes too short.
Back to the main event: Stapleton also performed a few of his songs that he hadn’t been doing regularly on tour, including “When the Stars Come Out” and “Was It 26.”
All of that made for an unexpected, special show that held the crowd through the last note.
Now for some more general observations:
The bearded, burly Stapleton hasn’t changed much since he opened for Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena in May 2015. Then, he and his three piece combo -- wife Morgane on backing vocals and tambourine, bassist J.T Cure and drummer Derek Mixon -- were in the middle of a runway, playing songs from “Traveller,” his just released album, to a crowd that largely had no idea who he was.
But the songs, like the title cut, “Outlaw State of Mind,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Fire Away” and “Tennessee Whiskey” really connected then. And they did the same Saturday -- only this time, the throngs were at the arena to see Stapleton, now a two-time Grammy winner and recipient of multiple country music awards.
The most recent of those is the Country Music Association’s Best Male Vocalist award. That’s an understatement. Stapleton is a brilliant vocalist who can sing the deepest twang country and then go full Al Green soul on songs like “I Was Wrong.”
And that number turned into a five-minute blues jam with Stapleton, an underrated guitarist, Cure and Mixon really working it out.
Finally, unlike most arena concerts -- which are about the show as well as what is being played -- Stapleton in concert is, always has been and likely always will be about the music.
The staging and production as such concerts go is minimal -- just an arched backdrop with lights over the stage, a little fog to start things off and a couple big video screens that show the musicians at work.
Stapleton never moves far from his microphone, the biggest ventures are to pick up another guitar. And Morgane, who left the stage several times, and Cure don’t move much either.
That focuses the attention on the songs and Stapleton’s voice and guitar -- and does that ever pay off. There’s no better country singer or songwriter today and he’s shown that every time I’ve seen him, including Saturday.