There are three types of country culture in 2021. The first is the mainline racism of the late Charlie Daniels and the brutal Hank Williams Jr, the next is the liberal and red Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, and finally there is the middle of the road culture warp of Eric Church, Brad Paisley. And Luke Combs. Luke won the entertainer of the year at the CMAs in 2021 (Eric won in 2020) and arrived two years late at Madison Square Garden, where he sold out two nights.
Luke is a southern culture titan, he is all beer, true love, more beer. Occasionally, he tip toes into the wars but always with care, note the bathetic “Even Though I’m Leaving”. On “Leaving” Luke offers a father-son story and the second verse is the sort of sentiment you can’t expect anywhere but in country, “Dad, we’ll be late, and Uncle Sam don’t like to wait, He’s got a big old plane that’s gonna take me far away”. You can’t expect a sentiment like that anywhere else and one big difference is here in New York City the majority don’t consider joining the armed forces something to sing about. Except 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden did and sang along to the ballad. Just like they did to every single song.
Tuesday night, Luke brought his vision of non-offensive, superbly crafted (but not blood) red country to us, and if you are song person, it was pretty ace. Not sexy (Luke is a schlub), not charming, but energetic and filled with music you want to hear. Including both of his openers, Ray Fulcher, who is a pen for hire and the leader of a good ol’ boys band and Ashley McBride. Ashley is absolutely something of a shit kicker with a line on adultery that’s as original as anything you’ll hear: “Tired Of Being Happy” as she tries to interfere in an exes love life, wooing him back with the promise of misery like Taylor Swift circa “Speak Now” and “One Night Standards” romantic cynicism that’s a song Lydia Loveless could’ve written. When you leave a concert with the first thing on your mind listening to songs from the show, the concert won.
You don’t leave a Luke Combs show feeling anything like that. For one reason, you already know the songs. And for another, he is just not imposing a character. It is like being serenaded by the sort of boy in High School whose romantic aspirations you sort of giggled at. He doesn’t deal in sex, he does do romance, and the shouts of “Luuuke” are friendly not worshipful. He lives and dies with his songs and his songs are popular, his first album, 2017’s This Is One’s For You went triple platinum, his latest, What You See Is What You Get went double. The set is filled with songs you want to hear, five country number ones and twelve country top tens. The pace is fine, even the slow ones, and an hour in he kills Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive”. There isn’t a sag, there isn’t a bathroom break. And yet Luke isn’t satisfying on stage. Not looking right doesn’t mean you can’t project yourself as frontman, all he really needs to do is look at his buddy Eric. The in the round staging is lovely, the LCD screens all over the room insures we all get a great look, the band can rock hard and even a lachrymose “Houston, We Have A Problem” (written for the Texan native he would eventually marry) doesn’t slow it down to a crawl. And the drinking songs (Houston, we have another sort of problem) weren’t bad, “1, 2 Many” had him cheering us with his red plastic Solo Cup and set closer “Beer Never Broke Up” was a rousing sing along. Luke went as far back as his first single “Hurricane” and all the way to the not yet released “Doin’ This” -five years worth of hits. When he enters the Red State civil war it was the inclusive “South On Ya”.
But Combs isn’t an arresting performer, for all his skills he doesn’t fill you up the way even a Jason Aldean will. He has been at it since 2014 so he is unlikely to change any time soon. So maybe keep to the albums.
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