Chris Stapleton’s All American Road Show At Madison Square Garden, Friday, November 2nd, 2018, Reviewed
Watching Chris Stapleton at Madison Square Garden last night, 18 months into his “All American Show” tour, it never fails to surprise how, what’s that word, cosmopolitan his audience is. This is not the MAGA good ol’ boys at Garth Brooks Jersey show last year, it cut right across the musical civil war with only skin pigmentation being the tell tale sign that this is, indeed, country. To find out why Chris is what Garth ain’t you have to go back in time a little: Chris Stapleton is the latest in a long line of coal miner’s son’s who left Kentucky for the wilds of Nashville and a career as a songwriter. An instance success, Chris’ amalgamation of bluegrass, southern rock, blues and country balladeering sold well to the likes of Luke Bryan. But he couldn’t seem to jumpstart a solo career, despite a powerful voice, until he shared the stage with another son of Tennessee, Justin Timberlake. They performed “Tennessee Whiskey,” originally recorded by David Allan Coe, at the 2015 CMAs, where Stapleton’s debut album Traveller, won album of the year. The duet went viral and it broke Chris pop.
Three years later and Chris spent the night performing with his beard, giving Americans what they crave so much: authenticity. That’s the secret behind the dreaded “A Star Is Born” reboot, it is the one thing in the age of Trump that both the Red States and the Blue States want. We might be able to fool themselves that the weakest in society are a threat, but can’t convince ourselves that fear mongering is a real, cowboy, God and country, frontier vibe: we need somebody to wash the stench of cowardice off us. It has sullied the USA’s sense of itself as a force for good and so Chris represents something pure: a man who emerged from his blue collar, lung blasted, coal mines hometown to stardom, pulled through by his father and father’s father, into the the exquisite preset for American male artistry: country singer.
I missed Brent Cobb, but did see Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives for the second time in a little over a month. Marty performed with Roger and Chris Hillman at the “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” gig in September, he held his own with the Byrds boys and was better than Chris last night: A genre spanning, head turning, guitar bursting half hour of everything we love about country and country rock. When he joined Chris halfway through Chris’ set for “Now That’s Country” and, in one of the truly great moments, Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” Chris was a good sport and he shared his stage with generosity and Marty took it and played fire with fire. Chris was rewarded momentum that pulled him to a two song acoustic moment that made sense of his phenomenal success. “Whiskey And You” and “Drunkard’s Prayer” was where Chris stepped back from his relentlessly disinteresting blues country boogies, and caught the songs in mid-flight. The band returned to the stage for his most recent hit “Broken Halos”.
As is clear from his live performance, Stapleton is not a natural frontman. Yes, he can speak to his audience, told a sweet story about performing at Mercury Lounge during his first trip to nyc, and also about playing at a John Lennon tribute at Hulu Theatre, right below us, and imagining playing at the Garden main stage. MSG was sold out and it must have been gratifying (albeit not that gratifying). But he is an introvert, singing to his wife and back up singer Morgane Stapleton, he is not quite ready for his close up. The tenor rumbles and so does the band, but there is something missing underneath. He is the real deal and has the voice for it, and some of the material, as a non fan songs as good as “Them Stems,” “Millionaire,” a good ol’ sing along to “Fire Away,” are revelations, and yet they aren’t fulfilling. He skirts jamming out, and he allows his voice that embodies everything with layers of sincerity, to do the work. Yeah, yet when I saw Justin Timberlake at the same venue (Chris co-wrote three songs on Man Of The Woods), Justin came across as more sincere. Hey, Luke Bryan came across as more sincere.
Chris keeps evoking Johnny, Merle and Waylon, but can’t emulate them, he lacks that thing in his DNA that makes him more than an ace songwriter for other artists, an ace who got lucky and could sell em all on cowboy hat and heft. Listening to his thunder through “A Drunkard’s Prayer,” I don’t believe the “I wish that I could go to church but I’m too ashamed of me”. I don’t believe him at all. And if he can’t sell that then what makes him anything more than Bradley Cooper with a longer beard?