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#BG Reviewer: Chris Stapleton Impresses at Budweiser Gardens

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U.S. country star Chris Stapleton made authentic history in downtown London on Saturday night.

Before a sell-out crowd of 8,900 fans at Budweiser Gardens, Stapleton shared his soul-, whiskey- and blues-drenched hits and songs from his next album — while playing his first headlining concert in the True North. Toronto’s Lindi Ortega opened and we’ll get back to her.

“This is my first official gig by myself in Canada,” the multi-award-winning Stapleton told fans just a few songs into a show that stretched well past the two-hour mark.

New songs including the lovely lament Broken Halos from the album due out May 5 were in the set list, giving London fans the first hearing. “Like history,” Stapleton said. The soulful voices of Stapleton and his wife, Morgane Stapleton, his riffing and fierce twanging guitar and the rock-steady bass and drums filled the arena with songs that bleed authentic. So was the quartet format. Nothing flashy. Just every note twanged and torn out with deceptive simplicity.

The Stapletons don’t move around much — they don’t need to. Chris Stapleton probably played fewer notes as a lead guitarist than anyone in Bud history. Only Neil Young — who also played songs from an unreleased album on his last visit to the The Bud — even comes close.

Keeping it simple (on the surface) means there is room for epic emotions when the time is right. 

Late in the set, Morgane was lead singer on You Are My Sunshine. Chris Stapleton’s churning guitar and Pops Staples-styled power backed up Morgane’s ultra-soulful way with a song that has seemed wistful but not tragic ever since 1939. On Saturday night, Morgane made it sound like the sunshine was going away. Forever.

Later, the encore finale had Chris in a full gospel roar of sorrow on Sometimes I Cry. Not many singers would take the chance on having enough voice left for a song with such huge demands.

But that’s Stapleton. Gas in the tank at encore time. Pain and hurt in his bones. And the soul of a country poet under that hat and behind that beard.

Among his country classics on Saturday were the short story of compressed regret, Was It 26; the ZZ Top killer riffs and down lyrics of Hard Living; and the sheer fun of the mass singalong on Whiskey And You. Stapleton introduced that one after talking about his breakthrough album Traveller.

“This is a song off that record,” he understated.

The fans who were determined to party party party with Stapleton had their chances.

Late in the set, Traveller, a driving Fire Away and an amazing, sung band introduction — including a tribute to Morgane “She’s my lovely, lovely, lovely wife” — set up the big finale.

“I know what time it is —it’s time to drink some whiskey,” Chris Stapleton said. That was the cue for Tennessee Whiskey, which was downed with crowd cheering and a sweet little dance from Morgane who twirled her tambourine as if it had been imbibing, too.

A standing ovation brought Chris Stapleton, the drummer and bassist back.

“If you're not done, I guess we’re not,” Stapleton said before launching into an encore that pushed the song count safely past 20 and the hurt meter way into the danger zone. Was It 26 has its bittersweet look back at wasted (in many senses) days. But other songs heard as the clock was getting close to 11, including what might have been some Lynyrd Skynyrd, were all raw pain and regret.

The Devil Named Music is about the personal price of being out on the road, the losses in family love and connection. Sometimes I Cry — well, the title says it all. You already know about the way Stapleton sang it.

It was a long way from the cheerful fatalism of Might As Well Get Stoned, which had started things off.

With all that excellent Americana to celebrate — and yay for new songs — here are the quibbles and caveats. The pacing was sluggish at times with the stage lights off for longish spells as the band readied for the next song. Which in turn encouraged the determined fan chatter which could be heard whenever Stapleton paused or offered a Willie Nelson-style acoustic weeper or when it was a new song, so why not yak till the hits come back.

Which may be partly tour genesis issues — and maybe partly due to the odd set which looked like the inside of a space age beehive or an intergalactic prison. Combined with the deliberately dim lighting both singers were shrouded at times.

So. Thank goodness for big screens which showed both Stapletons, their fine drummer and bassist as the giants they are.

Back to Lindi Ortega, the opening act who deserves her own review and a more suitable room. This Ortega fan was thrilled to see her and a guitarist make such existential country sounds — and then meet her parents at the merch table. She sang a few of her own gems, including a  brilliant new song inspired by a date who took her to a strip club — What A Girls Gotta Do, as well as Someday Soon and a bleak Townes Van Zandt cover.

Can’t beat that combination.

As for the room, well make that a more suitable crowd. The long-running Bud bad habit of chatter during an opener prompted a severe tweet sermon about the need for some respect from the guest reviewer.

Lindi Ortega had another angle. She told a story about having just played a pre-school. Four-year-olds are a tough crowd, she said. 

-#BGReviewer- James Reaney

Photos by: Bill Woodcock.

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