Kenny Chesney has one of the most authentic country vocals of all time and has applied it to a succession of contemporary country classics. But his chiseled physique speaks volumes about spending every free minute in the gym.
Luke Combs, on the other hand, seems like he spends his days driving a tow truck. Or behind the counter of a grocery store. Or check ID at the door of a college town bar. He’s the physical manifestation of the rural worker archetype, from his trucker cap, scruffy beard and sweaty face to his thick chest, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
None of this would matter if Combs didn’t also possess a warm blue-collar, honky-tonk-hero voice, and a knack for writing the kind of puns and hooks that are catnip. country radio. His undeniable charisma and air of authenticity also help.
On Tuesday night at a sold-out Smoothie King Center, Combs was clearly excited for his first gig since being named Artist of the Year at the 2021 Country Music Association Awards on November 10. This show, like most of his tour, was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Thank you for coming on a Tuesday evening two years after purchasing your tickets,” he said.
The round stage setup maximized the capacity of the arena. Combs and his group of seven walked towards the open stage in the middle of the arena floor as the public address system detonated a recording of AC / DC’s “Thunderstruck”. They incorporated the energy of this song into Combs’ own “Cold As You” as he tossed a red Solo mug into the crowd.
“Honky Tonk Highway” balanced the punchy rhythm of arena rock with a distinct twang. As Combs strummed an acoustic guitar to lead the band on “When It Rains It Pours,” over 16,000 voices joined.
The 31-year-old North Carolina native presented himself as a beefier Bocephus as he worked all points of the stage, launching himself into the task. He gripped the microphone tightly close to his face, as if he was barking rather than singing into it. When the lyrics to “1, 2 Many” suggested “the night is still young, then what do you say we shoot one?” Combs forced, pulling a beer.
Its musicians, spread across the four perimeters of the stage and atop a rotating platform at its center, did their part, making eye contact with fans and engaging otherwise. They were presented by playing a medley of “I Like It, I Love It” by Tim McGraw and “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” by Travis Tritt.
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Combs is in this perfect place where he has reached the first rung of the ladder, but still remembers life below. “I never imagined that a guy like me would do something like what’s going on in this room tonight,” he admitted.
He maintained his momentum and kept the crowd engaged for the entire hour and 40 minutes of the show, even during a slower midsection highlighted by a mandolin-lined “Even If I’m Going”.
He continued to pay the sixty or so members of his touring team and band during the 18 months COVID-19 prevented them from touring. “I have to pay them because of you,” he told his ticket-buying fans. “Hope we can put on a pretty good show where you think it was worth it.”
Struggling artists may joke about remembering where they’re from, but “suddenly things move forward and it becomes a real conversation,” said Combs, who will be hitting the stadiums in 2022. ” I still want to remember how it started and how it was.
To this end, he strummed a guitar alone for “This One’s For You”. Likewise, the huddled acoustic rendering of “Falling For You Still” was reminiscent of radio stations across the country, meeting potential programmers and fans.
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They then quickly moved on to the present day, when Combs dominated country radio with tastes like “Does To Me,” his successful collaboration with Eric Church, a hero and mentor. The whole arena sang enthusiastically to a “Lovin ‘On You” accompanied by Kurt Ozan’s pedal steel guitar. Combs dug into the chorus of Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man” and stomped on the swagger “South On Ya”.
A final burst of her “Beautiful Crazy” courtship ballad, “She Got the Best of Me” and her “Hurricane” smash concluded the regular set. He threw himself into the encore alone with keyboardist Neil Tankersley for “Better Together”, then went all out for a huge finale “Beer Never Broke My Heart”, the most country of country anthems.
Earlier that night, “Doin ‘This,” a song he premiered on the recent CMA Awards TV show, made his concert debut. Written during the pandemic, it addressed the question of what Combs would do if he couldn’t play music. The answer was that he would continue to play music, while singing, wanting to “have a Friday night crowd in the palm of my hand.”
Or a Tuesday night crowd.