There’s no doubting the ample musical gifts built into Chris Stapleton – the songwriting, the singing, the guitar work, the stylistic versality. But there’s also a purity of spirit coursing through his work, and it helped the country A-lister soar Friday night at Comerica Park.
On paper, Stapleton isn’t the conventional idea of a stadium headliner. The bearded musician is a static figure at his center-stage spot, not to be bothered with any high-flying showmanship or production frills. By the standards of modern country stardom, he’s not even armed with some vast arsenal of radio hits.
But the Kentucky native nevertheless waged a command performance at the Detroit Tigers’ ballpark, playing for a packed and rapt crowd that appeared to number about 30,000 in the first Michigan stadium show of his career.
His Friday concert was the first in a busy music weekend at CoPa under the Detroit skyline. Billy Joel will take the same stage on Saturday, with Motley Crue and Def Leppard co-headlining on Sunday.
Stapleton is a traditionalist without making a fuss about it, seamlessly drawing from classic country, Southern rock, blues and outlaw country in a way that feels authentic but fresh. His flexibility was front and center Friday: In one 10-minute stretch midway through the set, he jumped from the gritty ’70s heat of “Arkansas” to the supple grove of “You Should Probably Leave” to the barbed-wire guitar of ” Midnight Train to Memphis. ”
He’d made his intentions clear early in the set, which would clock in at just more than two hours.
“I’m not gonna do much talking,” Stapleton told the crowd. “Gonna play as much music as I can.”
Stapleton’s rock-ready voice comes brined in blues and seasoned with soul, with an electric rasp at the top of his range to seal the deal. In the supersize stadium setting, there was plenty of vocal power to carry the moment, but the expressiveness in Stapleton’s delivery made things feel intimate and nuanced as needed.
Stapleton was just as dexterous with his panoply of guitars, coaxing an array of tones as he riffed, soloed and otherwise took the lead to steer the seven-piece band around him. As always, he was flanked for much of the performance by his wife, Morgane Stapleton, who provided sweet harmonies to numbers such as “Millionaire” and “Fire Away.”
From the opening number, “Nobody to Blame,” through the encore’s searing “Outlaw State of Mind,” the 44-year-old drew generously from his 2015 debut album, “Traveller,” plucking another handful of tunes from his fourth record, last year’s “Starting Handful.” Opener Marty Stuart popped out to join Stapleton for a lively take on “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best,” Stuart’s 1996 duet with Travis Tritt.
At one point, Stapleton stepped things back for a three-song solo set that included the early composition “Whiskey and You” (“the song I used to play for nobody,” as he introduced it), and he pulled the reins again for a bluesy stretch that included “Cold” and a sumptuous “I Was Wrong,” complete with extended breakdown and soloing.
As the show built to its expected climax with his signature rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey,” Stapleton introduced his band members – prompting a long, heavy-duty ovation for Detroit-raised Paul Franklin, a Steel Pedal Guitar Hall of Famer.
“You guys love some Detroit stuff, I know that,” Stapleton said.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, preceding Stapleton, won over the Comerica crowd with a rousing performance that typified the Colorado outfit’s genre-blending approach. Opening with “The Future,” title track from Rateliff’s latest Stax album, the ensemble went on to deliver an hour of punchy, rootsy music washed in horns and swirling organs.
With the burly front man lending distinctive pinched vocals that occasionally swelled into gravelly shouts, the set turned into a quasi-soul revue midway through, before finding its way to “SOB,” the lightning-in-a-bottle dose of righteousness that became the Night Sweat’s breakout hit in 2015.
Country vet Stuart helped open the festivities, leading a four-piece combo through a brisk, bluegrass-flecked set that served up older hits (“Tempted”), latter-day stuff (“Time Don’t Wait”), a few covers (Waylon Jennings’ ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’) and even a brand-new tune (the lockdown-inspired “Sitting Alone”).
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.