Intimacy reigns despite arena setting

Chris Stapleton approached his Friday concert at a packed Nationwide Arena as though he were in the midst of an intimate living room tour.

The Kentucky-born singer, songwriter and guitarist eschewed pyrotechnics, catwalks, rotating drum kits and elaborate costume changes, instead delivering a workmanlike, two-hour set aided by little more than a trio of musicians, including his wife and backup vocalist, Morgane, and a song catalog that already appears impressively deep though Stapleton just released his second solo album, From a Room: Volume 1, earlier this year.

Rather than spreading out on the wide arena stage, Stapleton and Co. huddled closely much of the evening, positioned in the center of a simple backdrop made to look like a classic band shell, which had a way of further shrinking the venue.

Oddly, the music got looser the tighter the musicians grouped together. On “Outlaw State of Mind,” the four pulled nearly as close as a pro football huddle while the music unwound, spilling into a freewheeling, blues-rock shuffle as hairy as the long-locked, impressively bearded Stapleton. On the more composed “Millionaire,” a stately, mid-tempo country rocker, the four allowed for additional physical space.

The musical intimacy was particularly strong between Stapleton and his wife, who spent much of the early portion of the concert facing one another, harmonizing on a series of songs about lost love (“Nobody to Blame” opened with a scorned woman tearing a wedding photo in two) and lost loved ones (“Broken Halos” sounded destined to soundtrack a future “In Memoriam” segment during an Oscars telecast).

Though Stapleton could undeniably be classified a mainstream success — he has a pair of Grammys and swept the 2016 Country Music Awards on the strength of his 2015 debut Traveller, which has now sold more than 2 million copies — the current Nashville resident has a clear soft spot for vintage country outlaw-types, and he takes his preservationist role seriously.

Here, he covered both Willie Nelson (a languid, lovely “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”) and Waylon Jennings, inviting opener and country lifer Marty Stuart onstage for a rollicking run through “I Ain't Living Long Like This.” Songs such as “Was It 26,” a smoldering country-blues number that nearly singed the stage, and a hard-nosed “Midnight Train to Memphis,” felt a part of this lineage.

Other songs explored different musical and geographical terrain. “Death Row,” a loping, bluesy tune colored with Stapleton's liquid-mercury guitar and driven by his big, soulful voice, traversed the Mississippi Delta. “The Devil Named Music,” in turn, briefly detoured to Florida, opening with a few bars of Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Free Bird” before returning to Big Sky country, Stapleton singing, “We drove all night to Billings, Montana.”

Between tunes, Stapleton often turned cheerleader, reminding audience members that they were all there to party and forget about their troubles. These good times were rarely enjoyed by his song's narrators, who tended to be so beaten down they were reduced to smoking the refuse from their pot stash (“Them Stems”), or pouring the rest of the good whiskey down the drain because of the prior damage caused under its spell (“Nobody to Blame”).

At one point, Stapleton introduced “Whiskey & You,” as a “drinking song,” which, sure. Rather than a party, however, the downcast acoustic ballad conjured images of a solitary, broken soul slumped over in a recliner and pouring shot after shot of rot-gut in an attempt to dull the ache inside. "I'll be hurting when I wake up on the floor," sang Stapleton, completely alone in that moment even as he was surrounded by thousands.