Chris Stapleton remains in service of the song at the Schott
The Kentucky-born country superstar delivered a sharp concert that rejected arena spectacle and kept the focus purely on the music
In spite of its title, Starting Over, the fourth and most recent album from Chris Stapleton, isn’t some radical musical reboot. Rather, the Kentucky-born, Nashville-based country superstar continued to mine fruitful if familiar territory, delivering the same types of earnest, heartfelt, roots-tinged songs that drove his 2015 record Traveller quadruple-platinum and earlier this month made him a Grammy Awards winner three times over, including a nod for Best Country Album.
The same can’t be said of the tour in support of the 2020 release, however, which has been scheduled and then kicked down the road a couple of times over in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, finally pulling into the Schottenstein Center in Columbus on Thursday.
Stapleton, supported by a five-piece band that included his wife, Morgane, on backing vocals, approached the two-plus hour concert as though he were making up for this lost time. “We won’t do too much talking tonight,” he said prior to easing into “Millionaire,” a gorgeous tune where the musician measured riches in love exchanged rather than bank account figures.
Throughout, Stapleton kept the focus wholly on the songs, a drive that informed every detail down to the band members’ outfits. Dressed all in black, the collective could have passed for stagehands, which had the effect of allowing them to almost recede into the background, at times, leaving the songs to stand on their own.
“What Are You Listening To?” which Stapleton introduced as his first-ever single (“It shot straight to number 46!”), further highlighted this focus. A heartfelt ode to the power of song, Stapleton performed the tune alone onstage with his acoustic guitar, recounting how the simple sounds pouring from the radio speakers could provide salve or salvation, escapism or ecstasy.
Stapleton’s music served all of these functions and more here, whether he was drawing listeners close on tender love songs (“Starting Over,” heightened in intimacy by the fleeting glances exchanged between the couple) or drawing blood on emotionally shattered ballads (the piano-laced “Cold,” its ache deepened by Morgane’s absence from the stage).
Only briefly did Stapleton relay the hidden cost of this unending devotion to his craft, with “The Devil Named Music” serving as a reminder of the sacrifices required to live a life as a traveling musician — a feeling amplified by his decision to lead into the song by playing the opening verse of “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that famously lost members in a plane crash between tour dates.
Musically, Stapleton traversed a rich but narrow stretch, delivering bluesy shuffles (“Worry B Gone”), Southern rock rippers (a thundering “Midnight Train to Memphis”) and stripped-down country ballads (“Broken Halos”). No matter the backdrop, however, the songs all centered Stapleton’s voice, a big, booming, richly textured instrument he often used to give life to small details: a man pouring his good whiskey down the drain in a bid to turn the corner; the person who will always show up to offer a hand in our lowest moments; the way time can tame even the wildest among us.
Indeed, there’s an Everyman quality to Stapleton’s music that clearly appeals. His narrators have flaws and a past but are generally trying to find a better way forward, often with the help of a new love. Witness “Traveller,” a song Stapleton said he hit upon while driving through New Mexico in a 1979 Jeep Cherokee, his wife asleep in the passenger seat and his mind returning to thoughts of “life and how we’re all just passing through it.” What Stapleton’s best songs suggest is that it’s better to make that journey in the company of others.
Opening for Stapleton, Nashville singer and songwriter Margo Price unpacked a similar array of conflicted characters. The musician filled her tunes with narrators who were often overextended and road-weary (“Nowhere Fast”), who found release in substances (“Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”), or who were so desperate to find escape that they virtually scorched a hole through their hometown upon departure (“Letting Me Down”).
Like Stapleton, Price is blessed with a powerhouse voice, and she deployed it to masterful effect here on rousing anthems about refusing to burn out before your time (“Hey Child”) and Southern rockers steeped in the idea of reconnecting with a simpler way of life (“Tennessee Song”).
Sonically, though, Price largely rejected simplicity in her opening stint, hewing to the more thunderous end of her catalog alongside her six-piece backing band. Here’s hoping her next time through town we get a full headlining set, giving the musician time to explore some of those more deliberate, aching tracks that make her albums such immersive, three-dimensional experiences.