Chris Stapleton. Fillmore Auditorium. 05.06.16
[I am on the road this week and didn’t have a lot of time, so I had to steal some of the language in this write-up from the one I did a few months ago in Chico.]
Splurging on Pappy Van Winkle before a show isn’t commonplace, but if one is so inclined to fork over the big bucks for the heavenly, burning sensation that comes with sipping one of the best bourbons in the world, I recommend doing so in preparation for Chris Stapleton. In fact, have two, because when you leave Prohibition and walk across Colfax, you’re going to find the line at the Fillmore quite daunting if you don’t have a good buzz. Having already seen Stapleton at the much smaller El Rey Theatre in Chico, California, mere days after his coming out party at the CMAs, there was a part of me that wanted to scalp my tickets and blow my ridiculous profit on more whiskey. That’s just not who I am though, so as we trudged around the entire perimeter of the giant auditorium, I allowed a timeline to take form in my bourbon addled brain…
After building a name for himself in Nashville by writing songs for some of country music’s most successful artists, as well as short stint fronting The SteelDrivers, Chris Stapleton released his first solo album on May 5th, 2015. The album could have easily fallen through the cracks, but it popped up on my radar because of Dave Cobb. The man responsible for incredible LPs by Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson produced Traveller, thus making it mandatory listening. I named it my Album of the Week on May 7th, 2015. The Bluebird Theater hosted him three weeks later. Tickets were $20. The show did not sell out, but I was still unable to make it. I thought I’d just catch him next time around. In the meantime, Jason Isbell chose Stapleton to open for him on the last of a four night Ryman residency in October of last year. It was the only night I was unable to attend, so my sister and I bought tickets to see him when we were visiting our dad in Chico. The show was on November 13th, which happened to be exactly nine days after Justin Timberlake helped introduce Stapleton to the world on the CMAs. In the short time since then, Stapleton has taken the world by storm. He performed a Ryman residency of his own. He followed in Sturgill’s footsteps by playing both Coachellla and Stagecoach. Traveller hit the #1 spot months after its release. And to celebrate the one year anniversary of the album, Stapleton came back to Denver and sold out two nights at the 3700 capacity Fillmore Auditorium, causing me to stand in line and contemplate his incredible trajectory while kicking myself for missing that Bluebird show.
Once we finally found our way into the Fillmore Auditorium, Anderson East was making a racket with a full horn section on a stage that felt extremely far away. Paying tribute to our fallen idols, East covered Davie Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”, as well as Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U”, while we stood in line for much needed beers. Chris Stapelton took the stage about a half hour later. The man seemed surprised by the capacity crowd, even though he should have been used to it by that point. His interaction with the audience was less awkward than it was in Chico, but he still couldn’t take his eyes off his wife. 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. 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. The one exception was when she brought the house down with “You Are My Sunshine”; proving Chris isn’t the only voice in their marriage.
With only one true album under his belt, it was a little disappointing that so many tracks were missing from the setlist, but the Stapletons are proving themselves masters of the cover song, so there were very little complaints to be heard when Merle Haggard’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and Guy Clark’s “Magnolia Wind” were thrown in to augment “Nobody to Blame” and “Might As Well Get Stoned”. Although the best cover of the night came in the form of CCR’s “Long As I Can See the Light”, which found Anderson East back on stage for a victory lap. Stapleton brought us back to The SteelDrivers days with “Midnight Train to Memphis”, but he also gave us some insight into the future with a new selection called “Hard Living”.
The Fillmore is one of my least favorite venues in Denver, and the sound usually leaves something to be desired, but Stapleton’s extremely powerful voice rang through to the very back, although it did come close to being drown out by a crowd who were more than happy to sing along with every song. In response to the audience participation, he cranked it up a notch for “Fire Away”. That song threatened to blow the roof off the hundred-year-old building, but it wasn’t until he ended the main set with “Tennessee Whiskey” 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.
After the main set, Stapleton returned by himself. A single spotlight lit the outlaw while he explained the difference between “Whiskey and You”. No band was needed for that song. It was all about Stapleton’s range. It’s a full throttle vocal song; the kind that makes you want to love and hate and drink bourbon and scream at the sky. It’s one of those songs that are worth standing in line for 40 minutes to hear. The band came out for a couple more after that, but “Whiskey and You” was the most memorable song of the night for me. The set was relatively short, just like it was in Chico; running an hour and a half from start to finish, with “Parachute”, “More of You” and “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” all absent. A less than perfect setlist is always disappointing, but there was no disappointment in the moment. We witnessed an incredible songwriter making his Denver debut as the new face of “real” country music. Things have changed immensely since he played the Bluebird Theater. And things are going to continue change for this travelller. The roads in his songs are going to take him to bigger, more exciting places. Hopefully, for those of us in Colorado, one of those places will be Red Rocks. It’s going to be a fun journey to watch either way. I’m just glad we were able to be a part of it, if only for a couple nights.
Nobody to Blame
I Ain’t Living Long Like This
Midnight Train to Memphis
Was It 26
Long As I Can See the Light
Might As Well Get Stoned
You Are My Sunshine
The Devil Named Music
Whiskey and You
Outlaw State of Mind