By the looks of things at the Luke Bryan concert at Joe’s Bar on a Thursday night, country is cool for yet another go around.
And not just that edgy alt-country, southern rock, indie label crap. But the real stuff. The kind that fuses country music with more country music. The kind that Bryan, the son of a peanut farmer, was born to make.
This was Bryan’s first time headlining a show at Joe’s Bar, Chicago’s one and only honky-tonk. He finished up fair and fest season this summer while his first album “I’ll Stay Me” debuted and his first single “All My Friends Say” flew up to the top of the country charts. But he likes playing these little clubs better. “At festivals you only get a 30-minute window in someone else’s show. But tonight, this is my show,” Bryan told Lumino Magazine. “I love being right on the fans like this.”
And the fans loved having him there. The standing-room-only crowd of about 500, packed in tight around the stage, sang along with most of Bryan’s own tunes and some classic country covers. Even when he was singing Conway Twitty’s old “Lay You Down,” the hip crowd was swaying along like it was a Twitty Fan Club meeting. And when he told everyone there it was time for a holler & swoller, they somehow knew to yeehaw and take a swig of their beers. “Lord have mercy, it is good to be back in Chicago,” he said to the fans.
He started his set with his autobiographical “Country Man.” Every new artist has their defining anthem, and this is Bryan’s. All about hot-wiring tractors, salt-curing hams and hating Hoobastank. Bryan’s take on another rural-roots hit, “Good Directions,” which Bryan wrote and fellow country artist Billy Currington took to #1, was a stand-out moment in the show. And Bryan ended it by saying “I wanna thank y’all for making that one a big ‘ol hit,” because even though Currington gets the fame and glory, Bryan still gets the royalties.
Then came the medley of good-ole-boy covers. From the Twitty singalong, he eased into Steve Miller Band’s “Space Cowboy,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark,” Brooks & Dunn’s “Hillbilly Deluxe” and Joe Diffie’s “Pick Up Man.” Songs you never thought city folks would know by heart, and yet, they did.
The night mellowed out when Bryan threw in some of his heart-wrenching ballads, like “First Love Song,” “We Rode in Trucks” and “The Car in Front of Me.” Proving that soul-searching love songs aren’t just for your iPod, but can work equally well in a live show. And pulling out these tear-jerkers gave Bryan a chance to showcase his range as a singer and his songwriting chops. In other words, he’s not just about the frat-rock drinkin’ songs.
But by the end of the night, the energy was back when Bryan brought out two last covers to the Luke-Luke-Luke chants of the fans. Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” and the Charlie Daniels Band’s “South’s Gonna Do it Again” gave his five-piece band a chance to shine. Especially the fiddler, Kristy Jo, she’s only 27, but has been playing the fiddle for 19 years and it shows with every piercing solo and every bouncy backing rhythm she bows.
Where’d this sound come from? Leesburg, Georgia where Bryan grew up on a haphazard diet of music with everyone from Metallica, Lionel Richie to the Stone Temple Pilots and even the Allman Brothers to digest. But like any good card-carrying redneck, he’s got a few Lynyrd Skynyrd and Merle Haggard references in his lyrical repertoire.
Add to that his slow southern drawl (he pronounces guitar “gi-tar” and calls women “babydoll”), and you can see why Bryan will never have any crossover appeal. And Thank God for that. The world doesn’t need more shiny pop dance beats from guys in cowboys hats. What it needs is more pure, true, genuine country, and Luke Bryan’s just the guy to bring it.