Chris Stapleton. El Rey Theatre. 11.13.15
“It looks like we’re going to have some fun tonight.” Those words were obviously meant for the packed house at the El Rey Theatre in Chico, California, but Chris Stapleton couldn’t take his eyes off his wife when he spoke them. Concealing his true identity behind a grizzly mane and a weathered cowboy hat, the newly-crowned savior of country music seemed just a little uncomfortable in his own skin. It was almost as if he were convincing himself that it was going to be an enjoyable set. When he did expose his wide eyes to the crowd, apprehension could be read loud and clear, but then he’d turn them back to Morgane and let her reflection ease his nerves. She provided backup vocals and made her tambourine sing, but just like Amanda Shires at those Jason Isbell shows in Nashville, Morgane Stapleton’s primary role was that of a muse. Performing in front of an old movie screen, while a sold-out crowd sang every word back at them, the Stapletons must have felt like they were characters in some film themselves.
What happened at the CMAs last week was something stranger than fiction. While Morgane’s face was broadcast to millions of viewers across the country, her husband swept the awards show with sponsorship from big names like Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan. As a revered Music City songwriter, he was hardly an unknown entity, but there were more than a few country music fans who were left bewildered by the bearded man who stole the show. Many of those fans rushed out to purchase tickets to his upcoming tour as soon as the awards ended, thus selling out every venue before radio stations could remedy their mistake by giving him some airtime. In a single night, Morgane and Chris Stapleton’s lives changed forever. So it was that scalpers were getting hundreds of dollars for tickets to a show at the tiny El Rey Theatre, and so it was that true cowboys mingled with college girls in the line to buy beer and popcorn from the snack bar before a multigenerational crowd watched from old school theatre seating while Chris Stapleton fired away at his wife; both of them knowing it would probably be the last time this scene would play out in a such a small venue.
As I write this, Traveller is enjoying its second week at the top of the charts, beating out the likes of Carrie Underwood and Eric Church, so it was fitting that Stapleton would play almost the entire album in sequence on Friday night. Standing just a few feet from the man himself, his extremely powerful voice came close to being drown out by the growing crowd as more and more people packed into the small open space in front of the seats. In response to the audience participation, he cranked it up a notch for “Fire Away”. That song threatened to blow the water-stained roof off the hundred-year-old building, but it wasn’t until “Tennessee Whiskey” was dedicated to the George Jones fans (although it could have just as easily been dedicated to the Justin Timberlake crowd) that I could picture him on a much larger stage, with a much larger band. I’m sure the tour budget was to blame for the lack of pedal steel, piano, and organ, but the stripped down line-up of Derek Mixon on drums and J.T. Cure on bass made for a more intimate show. Stapleton might consider himself a songwriter by trade, and there is no questioning his talent for writing radio-friendly songs with substance, but it’s his voice that people respond to. His blues extract constant “whooo’s!” from all those within range. His outlaw style harkens back to the golden years of country music, but there is a weight to his delivery that puts an almost unbearable burden on the hearts of his listeners.
There was very little banter between songs, but the man of the hour loosened up as the night went on. Every time they brought out a different guitar, he’d check in with the crowd. “Are you having fun yet? Everybody doing ok? Well, alright then.” The set continued to follow the track listing from “Parachute” to “Whiskey and You” to “Nobody to Blame”. “When The Stars Comes Out” was introduced as a song he wrote in California with Dan Wilson (of Semisonic fame), which seemed appropriate because it could have easily been adapted into an alternative rock single. “Might As Well Get Stoned” led into a new one called “Tipsy”, before Morgane took a short break during “Was It 26”. Then he covered “Free Bird”, despite it being the one concert where it wasn’t requested. He did Skynyrd justice, but before the song went on too long he transitioned into “The Devil Named Music”. When he hit the “I can’t remember stopping in Denver” part, I was surprised there was no audience response, but then I remembered I was a long way from home. Band intros followed. Cure was referred to as his “dearest friend of twenty years”, while he gave Mixon the honor of his “favorite drummer in the entire world.” And although I refer to Morgane as a muse, Stapleton explained her role much better as “high harmony and shaking things.” The night ended with “Outlaw State of Mind”. The song paid tribute to all the outlaws who came before him, then it deviated from the script into a Crazy Horse-like jam session. When the music stopped, Stapleton thanked us from the bottom of his heart and then he left the stage.
Only a few minutes passed before he returned for the down-and-dirty, ‘bad boy with feelings’, “Sometimes I Cry”. The band was there, but they didn’t need to be. That track is all about Stapleton’s range. It’s a full throttle blues song. The kind that makes you want to love and hate and drink whiskey and scream at the sky. It was a fitting end to a powerful night of music, and it wrapped up just as the album does, with a simple ‘thank you’ and then silence. We just sat there reflecting for a bit before making our way out of the theatre. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how short the set was. It only ran an hour and fifteen minutes and he left “More of You” and “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” off the setlist. My sister was disappointed The SteelDrivers songs were completely absent as well. But there was no disappointment in the moment. We witnessed an incredible songwriter making his debut as the new face of “real” country music. We witnessed him do so in a tiny venue in a small college town in Northern California. Things are going to change quickly for this traveler. The roads in his songs are about to take him to bigger, more exciting places. It’s going to be a fun journey to watch from the sidelines. I’m just glad we were there to bid him farewell before he embarked on it.
Whiskey and You
Nobody to Blame
When The Stars Come Out
Might As Well Get Stoned
Was It 26
The Devil Named Music
Outlaw State of Mind
Sometimes I Cry