With Quaker City Night Hawks
Gas Monkey Live, Dallas
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Country music is in a strange state of transition. As Luke Bryan sits at the top of the charts, a new crop of refreshing artists are reviving country's classic sound in a modern way. For fans who have been itching for something different (and better), the voice of Chris Stapleton is a refreshing departure. Last night, the Nashville songwriter turned bonafide country star turned Gas Monkey Live into a showcase of one of country's finest rising talents.
Stapleton has already seen plenty of success in country music, even if most of his biggest tracks weren’t recorded under his own name. He's penned No. 1 tracks for Luke Bryan, and has been recorded by legends across the genres, everyone from George Strait to Adele. Adele! Now Stapleton is stepping out on his own as a performer in a big way, and it really couldn't have come at a better time.
On Thursday night, Stapleton's simple stage presence — just a few vintage amps and little else — failed to adequately prepare the crowd for a voice so powerful you really have to hear it in person to understand just how damn good it is. Stapleton's bluesy drawl is the best male voice in country music right now, an an excellent venue like Gas Monkey Live only highlights it.
After a short set from Dallas' best alt-country band Quaker City Night Hawks, Stapleton took the stage at around 10 p.m. Despite the torrential rain that poured outside the venue, a crowd of drenched country fans was eager to see Stapleton in his first major Dallas appearance. If you were lucky enough to catch that tiny show at City Tavern earlier this year, you're really fortunate. Those days are already over for Stapleton, and much bigger venues are in his future.
Stapleton opened the night with "Nobody to Blame," a good old fashioned redneck breakup song. From the first notes of this twangy track, it was clear that the crowd was in for a show. When Stapleton warbles about having his fishing rods snapped and his six-strong in a bonfire, it feels unbelievably authentic, which is super refreshing for a country fan lost in the bro-country nightmare.
On stage, Stapleton is joined by his wife Morgane, whose pipes are equally impressive. Frankly, the two should consider recording as a duo. Let's just say that Mrs. Stapleton deserves top billing, and that she's infinitely more talented than your average back-up singer. Together, they bring a vocal power that is almost impossible to describe. It's bluesy, soulful and country at its heart. The chemistry between one of country’s most talented couples was smoldering when they covered George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey."
The rainy evening was a perfect backdrop to Stapleton’s more intimate tracks, both the sad and the sweet. Stapleton knows his way around a love song, that's for damn sure. On "Fire Away," his characteristic growl was all you needed to understand the emotion of a track that centers around a relationship going south. If that emotion was familiar to you, a tear probably glazed your eye.
Stapleton is frequently lumped in with the rest of the guys who are making authentic country music, and that may be a bit of an unfair comparison. Stapleton is the whole package — singer, performer and songwriter — and he has real potential to go mainstream. What guys like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell lack in radio-ready familiarity, Stapleton really excels at. In its best moments, Traveller sounds like the best of the 1960s through 1990s country music condensed into one incredibly powerful record.
Perhaps most interesting last night was a bluesy, guitar-heavy take on "You Are My Sunshine." Who knew that a kids song could have a kick-ass guitar solo and soaring vocals, but Stapleton made it happen. Last night's rendition may have been the hardest rocking nursery rhyme since Jimi Hendrix recorded "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
But then came that cover of "Freebird," requested by the guy in the audience who always hollers out "Freebird." Unlike most other versions of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic, Stapleton's version was breathtaking, and that might be an understatement. As he transitioned into "The Devil Named Music," well before the song was over, you felt pretty damn lucky that Stapleton's own recordings are so impressive. More than once, you could see someone in the crowd turn to their date and say, "Damn, this guy is good."
And that's because no amount of recorded music compares to hearing Stapleton's powerhouse voice live and in person. Even if he weren't already one of Nashville's best songwriters, he could sing you the damn phone book and you wouldn't care, so long as he's singing something. In fact, Stapleton’s voice is so powerful that it’s pretty easy to forget he’s also an incredible guitarist. That is, of course, until you hear that Tele hit the right groove and you just can’t help but thrust your $10 beer in the air with a “Hell yeah!”
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As good as Stapleton is, there is certainly some credit due to the venue. Gas Monkey Live has one of the best (if not the best) sound systems for a venue of any size in the city, and last night it felt like they brought Stapleton in to show it off. If anyone could demonstrate the prowess of the set up here, it's Stapleton and his incredibly talented band. For acts that can attract a crowd big enough to fill it, Gas Monkey Live is easily the best venue in this city. It’s comfortable, and it sounds really, really good pretty much all of the time.
Last night we could all count ourselves lucky that Dallas attracts such high-caliber country talent. Hell, this is already the third time Stapleton has passed through Dallas-Fort Worth just this year alone. As we watch this star ascend — perhaps really rapidly if he wins the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award he’s nominated for this year — you’ll be able to say you once caught him in a pretty intimate venue for just $10. If that doesn't indicate just how dedicated Dallas is to good country music, nothing does.
To say that someone "kicked the footlights out" of a venue is really the highest compliment that country music has to offer, courtesy of one Mr. Merle Haggard. If you were there last night, you know that isn't much of an exaggeration.