THE REIGNING CMA MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR HIGHLIGHTS HIS GREATEST ASSET: HIS VOICE
Two months ago, I worked as a back-of-house productions assistant at theBumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle. The opportunity was chock-full of excitement, privilege, and chances to shake hands I never thought I’d get the chance to shake in my life. To my delight, one of those hands was Chris Stapleton’s, whom which I’ve been a longtime fan of for several years. Whenever I told my friends and family that I got to meet him and work with him, almost none of them cared.
On November 4, 2015, Stapleton performed at the 49th CMA Awards, where he was a triple nominee for Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year (Traveller), and New Artist of the Year. He ended up winning all three of his awards, demonstrating a huge shift for =c\ountry music and radio’s idea of what is and isn’t “conventional” to the genre’s mainstream of today. The night belonged to Stapleton; he collaborated with Justin Timberlake for a medley of his now-popular cover of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”. The performance went viral, rocketing the two songs into the respective #2 and #3 spots on iTunes, only behind Adele’s monster, “Hello”. Fast-forward to today and his debut album, Traveller, is spending a second consecutive week at #1 on the Billboard 200, six months since its May release. Even better? For the last couple of weeks, he had the #1 album on iTunes. He was even beating Adele’s 25.
Stapleton brought his Cinderella success story to Seattle’s Showbox on Wednesday, November 11, just two months after his first stint at Bumbershoot in September. He had a four-person band, the smallest I’ve seen any headlining act have: himself on lead vocals and guitar, J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums, and his wife, Morgane, providing some of the most ethereal background vocals one could ever imagine. I managed to score some great second-row standing room space, which is typical of my life: I’ve never been front row for any of the +60 concerts I’ve been to in my life. Stapleton opened with his newest radio effort, the uppity “Nobody to Blame”. The song was almost as infectious as the crowd’s enthusiasm. (It’s worth mentioning that the show sold out within the week between his CMA sweep and the Showbox show.)
Following ‘Blame’, Stapleton roared through songs from Traveller, including “The Devil Named Music” and the album’s title track. After Mr. and Mrs. Stapleton sang the bridge to “Traveller”, they flipped their microphones towards the crowd for a sing-along on the last chorus. Singing every word right back to them, the Seattle audience barrelled through the chorus to the very visible delight of Stapleton, whose humility shined through the entire time.
On a brief side-note, Morgane Stapleton is artistically and vocally divine. Throughout the entire set, the Stapletons were beaming with pride and endearment for each other, but Morgane rarely took her eyes off of her husband. Not only was it refreshing to see artists portray such care and appreciation for each other on stage, but it made every word they sang feel so much more real. The two of them make performing look effortless, and the musical connection they have plays handily into their personal connection on stage. Morgane Stapleton is phenomenal.
Crowd favorites including the overnight sensation “Tennessee Whiskey” and the raucous “Might As Well Get Stoned” buoyed the crowd’s energy and attention into much deeper and profound tunes, including “Fire Away” and “More of You”. Stapleton’s vocal prowess is absolutely unreal, y’all. (Pardon my southern vernacular; I’m just really invested in Stapleton’s voice.) He uses his talent to speak to people in such deep forms. His lyrics reflect his life, and with songs that are exclusive dedications to his wife, like “More of You”, he draws everyone in.
I’m always puzzled when I hear people tell me how much they dislike venues that can hold above, say, 300 to 400 people because “it takes away from the intimacy of the show.” I respect that they want to experience shows on a smaller scale with less people and more interaction with the performer(s), but at the end of the day, it’s the artist’s responsibility to create that feeling. I’m from Las Vegas; venues there hold either 150 people or 15,000 people, with the rare thousand-seater here and there. I’ve sat in arena nosebleed seats, and there were moments where I felt like the only one in the room at those concerts. Maybe I just got lucky, maybe I’m sounding pretentious; I don’t know, and I certainly don’t mean to be sounding that way. Chris Stapleton managed to wrap a crowd of over 1,000 rowdy Country music fans around his guitar-strumming fingers and got everyone listening to what he was saying instead of how fast he was saying it. That’s intimacy.
Stapleton’s openers, The Walcotts, also provided some great entertainment. The nine-piece group based out of Los Angeles played to an already-hyped crowd for about forty-five minutes. Their set was full of extremely jazzy and bluesy jumpers, led on vocals by Tom Cusimano. Background vocalist Laura Marion was arguably the strongest entertainer on the stage, with a killer voice to boot. Other standouts from the band include Tacoma native Devin Shea on violin, and their jazz instrumentalists. They’ve got a forthcoming effort slated for potential release in 2016.
It’s amazing how, in just two weeks, everyone that I told “I got to work with Chris Stapleton at Bumbershoot” suddenly started expressing interest. Thank you, CMA Awards, for showing the general public how much of a musical treasure Chris Stapleton is. Seeing Seattle’s Showbox packed to its capacity of over 1,000 attendees was such a satisfying sight.
CRAIG JAFFE | Always in the Second Row | KXSU Reporter