Photos by Dale Benvenuto.
The month of August seems like the best time for country music fans in the Toronto area, between the Boots & Hearts Festival and acts like Jason Isbell and Zac Brown Band, there are lots of options. Opening for Chris Stapleton is upstart country singer Margo Price, someone who is also going about making it big in the twang scene without using the traditional Nashville channels. With her charm on full display for the fans that arrived extra early to start pre-gaming plenty of beers before the main stage, she certainly wowed those in attendance. Price has Loretta Lynn-like vocals and razor sharp lyrics all of which don’t employ the normal cliché top 40 country hits. She is signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records label and only a few weeks ago released new music, Weakness EP, which is already shaping up to be one of the strongest country releases of the year. She showed her country credibility to the hardcore fans by performing the classic Kris Kristofferson hit Me and Bobby McGee that started out slow and folksy before ramping up into a real stomper. She finished her set with her own hit song Hurtin’ (On the Bottle), which complimented her outfit as she was wearing a t-shirt that stated “I Think I’ll Just Stay and Have a Drink”. After her set finished I heard numerous people chatting about how they were blown away by her talent a sign that in the next year she will most likely be the one headlining big shows of her own.
Chris Stapleton has made a name for himself in a few different avenues of the country music world. His outlaw country style harkens back to the greats like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash with his non-conformist style and more bluegrass and soul inspired sounds instead of the over produced country pop that is so prevalent today. He also is famous for his lyrics that he writes for other artists. You may have only recently discovered Stapleton’s solo music as he only has two solo albums, but he has been writing hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan and even Adele as he infuses his down to earth style into other people’s tunes. You can tell that he separates himself by his choice of intro music, as The Band’s Up On Cripple Creek played in full before the four piece emerged on stage. With his big bushy beard and cowboy hat pulled down low it is easy to see that Stapleton prefers to get lost in the music than having a marketable look.
The show started with Might As Well Get Stoned and a familiar scent breezed over the crowd as the audience appeared to be quite good at playing Simon Says. Stapleton remarked that this was actually his first time performing in Toronto, somewhat surprising since he is on his second solo record and one record as the lead singer of The SteelDrivers a bluegrass group. Perhaps waiting so long to come to our neck of the woods did him good as the Budweiser Stage was completely packed, even with the rain coming and going throughout the evening. Stapleton switched from his electric guitar to an acoustic one to play the first track off of his newest album From A Room: Volume 1. As he eased into the gentle Broken Halos, the lights spread out on the foot of the stage lit up like how the Ryman Theatre is sometimes set up, evoking the strong history of country music. The song was punctuated by the beautiful harmonies performed by his backing singer and wife Morgane Stapleton, who is also an accomplished song writer in her own right penning words for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson and LeAnn Rimes.
The music Stapleton makes has far more in common with the Muscle Shoals blues sound that influenced rock music over the twang of Nashville. A lot of artists add the strong southern accent to their vocals when singing, but Stapleton manages to actually tone it down as his speaking voice showed his Kentucky roots better then when he sung. I Was Wrong had a strong blues riff to it and a groovy bassline making me wonder if Stapleton grew up listening to artists like The Allman Brothers and Muddy Waters instead of George Jones and Hank Williams. While the Nashville scene has managed to completely polish away any integrity created with what is some awful combination of Hick-Hop and Twang Pop where songs only consist of three themes; lifted trucks, cheap macro beers and girls in bikini’s, there thankfully seems to be a group of acts hell bent on reclaiming the authenticity that country music can put forth. Acts like Stapleton and Margo Price and their peers Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Zac Brown Band, Tyler Childers and Maggie Rogers all have shown that shrewd writing and music that is open to influence from everywhere is the best way to move forward, all while doing it with a literal and metaphorical middle finger to the establishment scene.
The band left the stage so Stapleton could perform a solo acoustic rendition of Whisky and You, a tender song that deals with breakups and some unhealthy ways of coping with loss. He switched things up to be more positive when he performed the touching ballad More of You, which was written as an ode to his wife. Stapleton couldn’t completely betray the country clichés as he still drank from a red Solo cup on stage, a staple made famous by Toby Keith who wrote an entire song about the country partier’s choice in glassware.
Stapleton reiterated how it was really his first time in Toronto and how he wasn’t sure how he would be received, despite getting loud cheers after every song. He played his first single from his first record both named Traveller, which introduced him to the world’s main stage. The anathematic Fire Away had the only big sing along of the night and a standing ovation that looked as though it left Stapleton blushing behind his burly exterior. It was a shame my own personal favourite Stapleton song, Second to Know, was ruined by being distracted by several mini fights almost breaking out in my section necessitating a swarm of security to deal with the drunken buffoons.
His impressive guitar playing was more inline with Eric Clapton combined with psychedelic riffs; he left the crowd stunned and pleased with the show. Thankfully it seemed like the rain stopped not long after the concert started letting everyone enjoy the veteran, despite the small discography, to the fullest. It may have been Chris Stapleton’s first trip to Toronto, but with the reception he got, it certainly won’t be his last.