Chris Stapleton. El Rey Theatre. 11.13.15

El Rey

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Setlist:
Traveller
Fire Away
Tennessee Whiskey
Parachute
Whiskey and You
Nobody to Blame
When The Stars Come Out
Might As Well Get Stoned
Tipsy
Was It 26
Free Bird
The Devil Named Music
Outlaw State of Mind

Sometimes I Cry

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Setlist

  3 comments for “Chris Stapleton. El Rey Theatre. 11.13.15

  1. Joseph C.
    November 18, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    I seen Chris and Morgane at The Fillmore, SF. We bought our tickets when they first went on sale and didn’t even bat an eye at selling them. I found Chris Stapleton on CBS Sunday Morning and was instantaneously a fan! His ability to write and sing songs that reach right into you and tug at your heart and/or make your feet tap are undeniable. I knew when I first heard him that this man is gonna be a star, better yet, a legend.
    His concert was amazing. As well as The Walcotts, who opened up for him. Both were a great compliment to each other. I was right up front and was easily the best out of the many concerts I have been to. Unfortunately it will be the last time his tickets will cost $25, but I would pay more anyways next time.

  2. a . wolverton
    November 18, 2015 at 9:35 am

    People not familiar with the theatre would probably not see the beauty it actually holds. I thought it was a wonderful backdrop. I agree completely with the above comment about loving the long overdue publicity but being a little sad to share the secret with the world. We also had our tickets long before the cma’s and knew it would sell out as soon as we saw awards. It was hands down one of the best shows I’ve seen. Simple, but to the point. When you are as talented as they all are, you don’t have to put on the frills, your art speaks for itself. Well done.

  3. N.Vigallon
    November 17, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    My husband and and I felt exactly the same way. We only watched the CMA’s to see Chris win. We were on one hand very excited for him and his long over due accomplishments, but on the other hand sad to have to share him now with the rest of the world. We already had our tickets to the El Ray Theater and were eagerly awaiting the two hour travel to see them.
    we couldn’t quite tell whether he was looking at his wife the entire time due to being uncomfortable with all the fame or dumbfounded by the tiny little dirty Theater. We were so amazed at just being there and hearing his powerful voice that we didn’t mind how obviously uncomfortable he seemed. The show was short but all that we expected. The concert before was in Seattle and after in San Francisco. And it was mentioned on his FB page. Which made me feel that we were almost an unworthy show. I’m sure that is not the case ( I choose to believe that anyway). I did expect to hear a little something from Reckless but was fine with just seeing them in such an intimate place. We happen to be front row down in front and the sound was horrible. I’m sure back a distance was a much better acoustically.
    Over all I was more impressed then I have been at a show in a very long time and felt like a little kid.

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