in performance: luke combs/ashley mcbryde

Luke Combs playing to a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photo by Estill Robinson.

It was at the midway point of Luke Combs’ sold out performance Friday evening that the pieces of this rather unexpected country music superstar saga came together. They didn’t necessarily fit together, mind you. But given how the explanations for Combs’ meteoric commercial ascension, especially within the last year, are like parts of a jigsaw puzzle, it was at least insightful to have the pieces in full view.

First up was the song at hand, a mid-set tune called “She Got the Best of Me.” With the help of a capable, seven-member band, over half of which was devoted to guitarists, Combs offered a country breakup story seemingly devoid of traditional design. It was instead an assured slice of sentimentalism performed with a clean pop sheen, a melody propelled by a mid-tempo current and lyrics of polite despondency that the crowd of 16,000 sang back to Combs with conciliatory respect.

Two more pieces of the puzzle dealt with expectation and relatability. That Combs’ entire show was rooted in a country-pop sound that was largely rootless made him neither a stylistic maverick nor a corporate prop. Normally, contemporary trappings are gussied up in a high-tech show where every movement, every audience interaction and every bit of between-song banter is choreographed. The Friday concert was none of that.

It played out on a largely bare stage backed by three huge video screens serving as the only luxury items. When Combs spoke to the crowd, he sounded reserved, almost shy, especially when introducing “Dear Today,” a kind of inner monologue where a present day persona fearful of losing its identity converses with the future. It began as a solo acoustic snapshot by Combs before the rest of the band joined in, making it an affirmation more in line with the rest of the program’s pop-friendly fare.

As for the relatability issue, all you had to do what look at the guy. Dressed in what looked like black work clothes and the requisite mesh hat (in this case, one bearing the logo of a sunglasses manufacturer), Combs looked more like someone who would have bought a ticket to a Rupp country show rather than an artist headlining one. Similarly, his songs embraced a bounty of expected country themes. That culminated late in the performance with “Lovin’ On You,” which was essentially a checklist referencing fishing, whiskey, boots, trucks (by brand name), beer (by brand name) and cigarettes (by brand name). It also possessed the remarkable ability to fashion all of that into a love song.

As a singer, Combs largely mirrored his material. He displayed hints of a rugged tenor that clicked into gear as soon at the show-opening “When It Rains It Pours” commenced, retaining a capable, conversational tone for the entire concert. But like so much of material, the vocals were merely serviceable. There was little offered to distinguish anything other than the moment at hand. Despite Combs’ immense popularity, the bulk of this performance isn’t destined for any record books other than those devoted to ticket sales.

Ashley McBryde at Rupp. Photo by Estill Robinson.

Far more enriching was a solid 45-minute opening set by Ashley McBryde. In her third Rupp outing in just over two years (each as a show opener), the Arkansas-born song stylist fashioned songs and storylines that largely bypassed the more expected freeways Combs’ music travelled in favor of back roads full of dark rural imagery.

Among the highlights, each distinguished with a rich vocal vibrancy, were “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” a brittle snapshot of life with a meth addict for a neighbor, and a riotously rocking preview tune from McBryde’s forthcoming “Never Will” album called “Martha Devine” that uncorked some especially dirty (and murderous) family secrets. “Honor thy father, honor thy mother,” the lyrics went. “But the Bible doesn’t say a damn thing about your daddy’s lover.”

Okay, country radio. Play that.

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