This Luke doesn’t shake his booty, fill his stage with pyro or sing in a nasally whine about partying with young women in skimpy outfits.
This Luke looks like a burly barroom bouncer with a bushy beard, ballcap and black Performance Fishing Gear shirt. His stage is totally no-frills with no choreography. And his booming voice never utters a sexist word, image or idea.
No one will ever confuse Luke Combs with Luke Bryan, thank you very much.
Combs’ performance Saturday night at sold-out Xcel Energy Center was the most exciting first-time headline performance by a country newcomer since Chris Stapleton’s in 2017. The 29-year-old from Asheville, N.C., commanded the stage with his down-home personality, powerful voice and superior songs, cut from the fabric of 1990s Nashville but still sounding fresh.
What made the performance even more impressive is that Combs is the first country star in recent memory to headline an arena tour after releasing only one album — a disc that set a record for most weeks at No. 1 for a male country artist, at 47 and counting.
Combs arrived with a battle cry in his first song, “Can I Get an Outlaw,” begging for another Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, looking for a country-music savior “ ’cause we don’t need another pretty boy, singing pretty songs.” Then he spent the next 95 minutes asserting that he just might be the best candidate to come along, sort of the anti-Luke Bryan.
Combs has already scored six No. 1 songs, with both ballads and barroom anthems — and captured the CMA Award for best new artist in 2018.
The sincerely humble Combs talked about his parents (and how he helped them retire early thanks to his recent success), let some of his sidemen sing (Rowdy Rob Williford has a better voice than half the male recording artists in Nashville) and explained what inspired several of his songs.
For instance, Combs pointed out that he crafted the ballad “Beautiful Crazy” for his now-fiancée before they were even “officially dating.” And he didn’t know how she’d react, but if it was anything like the way 16,000 fans at the X — fairly evenly divided between women and men — did, then you know why he won her heart.
“Ain’t afraid to take chances,” he crooned. “And wears her heart on her sleeve.”
Those lines could just as easily describe Combs.
Even though he looks like a guy’s guy, he’s not afraid to show sentimentality. Or demonstrate his flair for clever wordplay.
He popped a double entendre in the buoyant “Beer Can,” declaring “nothing picks me up like a beer can.” And he poured it on in “1, 2 Many,” celebrating “By half-past 10, I’m half past tipsy ... The countdown’s on when the first beer hits me / 5-4-3-2-1 too many.”
Yes, the dude — who clutched a red Solo cup in his hand for nearly half the show and shot a can of beer in about three seconds — has a winning way with drinking songs. Whiskey showed up in a tune or two, but beer foamed up several times, including the pre-encore finale, the rollicking “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” which could be 2019’s best honky-tonk romp.
That number will be on Combs’ sophomore album, “What You See Is What You Get,” due Nov. 8. He previewed a couple of other selections from that record: the current single “Even Though I’m Leaving,” a touching ballad that could be about someone dying or a relationship that’s ending, and “Lovin’ on You,” which sounded like a Brooks & Dunn lite-boogie.
That hitmaking duo is clearly a big influence on the big-voiced Combs, who sounded at turns like Ronnie Dunn with more gusto and Merle Haggard with more molasses. If there was any doubt about the B & D debt, Combs made it obvious on the encore, with a rowdy rendition of their “Brand New Man,” during which he was the most animated he’d been all night and the fans the most boisterous they’d been.
On Saturday, Combs left no doubt that he is Nashville’s brand-new No. 1 man.
Perhaps Combs’ only misstep of the night was enlisting two underwhelming opening acts, both of whom have written hits for big-name country stars.
Mississippian Jameson Rodgers, who got Florida Georgia Line and Chris Lane to cut his tunes, came across as a capable songwriter but a singer with limited vocal range.
Nashville’s Cadillac Three — whose frontman Jaren Johnston has penned six No. 1 tunes for the likes of Keith Urban, Jake Owen and Tim McGraw — came across as a cocky redneck hard-rock trio. With their roaring guitars and rebel- and booze-spiked lyrics, the three rockers seemed to be enjoying themselves more than the crowd did.