Live Review

Stapleton Takes No Prisoners in Portsmouth!

Morgane Hayes Stapleton on September 1, 2016

Chris Stapleton and band rock his Traveler favorites for a sold-out crowd. Photo by Ron Wray

Chris Stapleton is a killer!

He’s the one instance whereby I can think murder is gorgeous. He gets into the guts of an electric guitar like few I’ve ever seen. He grabs at the resonant heart of the powered box of strings and pulls it out all red and pumping to share with the by now screaming crowd stretching from stage-side to the near distant horizon at the Portsmouth Pavilion (formerly Ntelos) on a rainy September night.

He kills some 6 or 7 guitars (I lost count) per set, barely working up a sweat. In the midst of his rockin,’ stompin,’ bluesy, or at times mournful sounds flying off his fingers, he lets out some of the most affecting, soaring vocals of any man alive. (No surprise he wrote one of Adele’s songs.), all with the grit of a gunman shaped by the heart of an artist. Add that to the sound, meaning, and wit of his lyrics, and you can understand how he has those in the darkness in front of him singing along to well-remembered songs – seemingly all of them – and cheering loud enough to rival the towering speakers surrounding the stage.

Opening for Chris was his old friend Sam Lewis, another genuine article in the traditional weave of Country, a genre reduced more now into a diet seemingly softened for the chew of infants, though, as they say, There’s nothing wrong with that! (To each his  own, both Stapleton and Lewis have essentially said, while lamenting still to some degree the changes orchestrated by the moguls of Music Row away from country music tradition to more of a pop orientation. Stapleton also brought Lewis out to sing with him Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Sam’s melodic voice softens the flavor sonically while missing none of the Stapleton soul and intelligence.

Apropos of the ongoing debate in Nashville and beyond about the current state of country music, my wife Gayle and I had a nice conversation with Lewis near the merch booth toward the end of the show. Sam pointed in the air toward the stage and to Chris’s voice appropriately singing The Devil Named Music and said “That’s real!” or words to that effect. He’d been talking about the emptiness of what he’d hear on the radio, under the name of country and the contrast to his friend’s work.

He stressed however that he didn’t want to fight over that, but to let people follow their own directions, and he argued against bringing down further the Nashville atmosphere by stressing the negative. This last sentiment was expressed by the singer-songwriter when I asked him if he’d been following the harsh words fellow country artisan Sturgil Simpson had recently for the Nashville execs, the CMA (Country Music Association), and Garden and Gun periodical (which had recently featured Simpson and country music legend Merle Haggard, but pulled the cover with them on it, a cover Haggard, who’d felt neglected in the last years of his life, had looked forward to prior to his recent passing. Ironically, it was Chris Stapleton G & G then put on the cover, though not by his choice).

The point being perhaps that the two men performing that night held to their own, which was in the straight-spoken, creative arc of the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, and many others. It might be noted in fairness to the CMA that Stapleton has been festooned with five award nominations at the upcoming CMA Awards and was the first artist to ever win in all three top categories at last year’s ceremony, the country music equivalent of the accomplishments of the women’s gymnastics team or swimmer Michael Phelps in this year’s summer Olympics.

Stapleton’s songs – propelled by his deeply encrusted, power machine of a voice and rocket-launching guitars – come from deep within him, reflecting much about the man himself, though this had not been his initial intention. He said in a recent interview with writer Jim Morrison (in Veer) prior to this performance that he had set out writing songs that weren’t autobiographical, but realized eventually that they all were, all showed some part of him to one degree or another.

No matter how or whom the songs reflect, they come with such resonance that you feel they’ve gotten to the heart of whatever he’s singing about. This is sometimes in great irony as in his song Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore that he sang this night in Portsmouth. The song is about a deeply religious parent whose experience from within a hard life has led him to a point where he no longer prays, no longer bows his head deep in reverence. He used to fold his hands and bow his head down to the floor. The song reads like a gospel song, but in this instance one ironically chronical-ling the protagonist’s loss of his previously treasured faith.    

Perhaps the key player in his top notch band is his wife, business partner (in their musical endeavors), and soulmate Morgane Hayes Stapleton, also a singer-songwriter with credits including Carrie Underwood’s hit Don’t Forget to Remember Me.” Apart from sometimes wielding a tambourine, Gayle and I wondered regarding her role, given that neither Gayle nor I could hear well her harmonies on many of the songs.

Any doubts about her ability to deliver harmony or indeed that of her voice in general were put to rest forever with her rendition of the Carter Family’s You Are My Sunshine, with a nod to the version of the Pine Ridge Boys. Her vocals were jaw-droppingly good and rose to heights you’d almost think you could visualize above the stage, heaven-bound.

Chris sang a love song to her that night, the lovely More of You written with a capital L by himself and a friend, extolling the many ways they loved their respective wives (“It makes me want more of you, again and again.” It’s a tune, the artist said, that he’d been told had led to some marriage proposals made during past performances. She sings harmony at times and then marches over to him afterwards, leaning over to say something to him, after which he pulls out the stops on another guitar solo as if she’d told him to punctuate the sentiment with an awesomely powerful set of chords.

That night at the Pavilion, Gayle and I sat next to a gregarious gentleman in a wheel chair who livened things up even more with his dancing – in his wheelchair, up and down, wheeling around 360 degrees, and swaying back and forth, all to the beat of the songs. “You can tell he’s been doing this before,” Gayle said, as we marveled at his skill.

Chris’s set list included four songs about whisky drinking out of the total nineteen tunes. “Where are my whiskey drinkers out there?” he’d shouted to the crowd earlier to loud hurrahs. A tough night for teetotalers, his songs included Tennessee Whiskey, Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey, a cover of a song (that he wrote) of a side project band of his, The SteelDrivers, and Whiskey and You in the encore, with David Allen Coe’s Tennessee Whiskey just before that, You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, you’re as sweet as strawberry wine.

Perhaps he sang about whiskey because it was a night he’d fancy a drink in that he said he’d felt like he might be coming down with something prior to the show. He told the crowd however that coming on stage to sing songs to a crowd like that was an antidote to any bad feelings he might have had. Music, he said, was great medicine.

Other songs he described as bluesy, and they were, deeply bluesy. I hear that blues tone central to much of the music on his current, multi-award-winning album, Traveler. In live performance on this, his Traveler tour, it strikes me that he ups the volume, and some of those same songs become, to my ear, more rock and roll or roadhouse country. I enjoy that transition; much of Traveler on the recording stays, to me, in a darker shade of blue that I’d like to see bounce out into that electric-guitar propelled rocking I hear in the some of  the live versions, for diversity sake, musically. But, as they say, and certainly with Chris Stapleton, It’s all good!

In Jim’s article, Stapleton says, more or less, that it’s all the blues. Whether country, bluegrass, or rock and roll, he traces a bloodline and marked similarity to the blues, and salutes blues singer and virtuoso blues guitarist Freddy King. Brought to America on the slave ships of a couple of centuries prior to our current Americana landscape, the blues as a music and the instrumentation of those same slaves, from banjo to other stringed and percussion music makers are both central to much of our music. However, it’s a legacy I’ve seldom heard evoked by other contemporary Country and Western performers and musical artists, especially with the passion I hear in Stapleton’s remarks as recorded in the story.  

The afore-mentioned set list includes many songs from Traveler, which is a compilation of songs he has written over the years of his career but weren’t until now recorded, though many of his other songs have been recorded by the stars of today’s country and pop music scene, from Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to his friend Justin Timberlake. He now belts out these rich songs from his repertoire, the song Traveler being the only new song on the album, night after night to sold-out crowds who now know these songs by heart, thankful for the songwriter’s coming out, if you will, as the star he himself is. Not only has he sold out virtually all venues, as he did in Portsmouth and at the venerable country performance icon, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. His 2016 Traveler tour t-shirt is even sold out in certain sizes already with maybe a quarter of the tour to go.

He encored with Whiskey and You and Sometimes I Cry as some in the crowd happily started to make their way homeward, but only after Stapleton requested that his listeners hold lighters and cell phones skyward to create a constellation of moving lights to punctuate his song, Fire Away. In addition to his own tunes, he did covers that included Free Bird and You Are My Sunshine.

Guitars holstered now, Stapleton closed quietly, sending thousands home savoring a night of blues, country, folk, rock, soul, and serendipity, rendered by an artist unique and welcome, the now seemingly ubiquitous Chris Stapleton.