Maybe the music industry's best breakout story of the year, Zach Bryan also made for a mighty strong wrap-up to a bustling year of sold-out concerts at Surly Brewing Festival Field.
The rootsy Oklahoman country singer, 26, was still in the U.S. Navy at this time last year. On Sunday, he heard more than 6,000 fans in Minneapolis — most of them under age 30 — singing along to all 19 of the songs he performed.
Yes, all of them; even the one he released as a standalone single less than a month ago, "Burn Burn Burn" (actually one of the night's highlights).
Bryan's rapid rise in the year since his honorable discharge is a storybook success story, one that includes high showings on numerous Billboard charts and viral streaming numbers, too. Many of the songs on his May-issued, 36-song triple-album, "American Heartbreak," were written and posted online from naval bases.
The proud good-ol'-boy's applaudable good fortune continued Sunday with a picture-perfect night of autumn weather and a convincing, at times moving performance by him and his richly twangy band.
"They trusted us to play a few songs for you tonight, but I have no idea why," Bryan said for his first of many aw-shucks comments before the obvious-choice opening song, "Open the Gate."
The floodgate-like sensation of the crowd singing along lyric for lyric opened up right away and continued even stronger with the second song, "God Speed," as Bryan (and everyone) sang, "Only God and my mama know what I need."
With a slightly raspy and unvaried but still melodic and dramatic voice — somewhere between Tyler Childers and Steve Earle — Bryan avoided the formulaic nods to pickup trucks, six-packs and girls in tight jeans like too many other acts currently high on the country charts. He still sang a lot about simple small-town pleasures and workingman hardships, sure, but he did so with loads of heart.
When a man fresh out of an eight-year stint in the military sings about missing his girl, loving his mama or wanting to cut loose on a Saturday night, it just hits a little harder. It also helps that Bryan showed a knack for clever but not cutesy wordplay and phrase-twisting, part John Prine and Garth Brooks.
For example: using "the wrong side of pity" as a rhyming lyric in "Oklahoma City," one of the night's most personal and heart-wrenching tunes — and one of many to prominently feature his invaluable fiddle player Lucas Ruge-Jones. In "'68 Fastback," a seemingly predictable and rowdy "car song," he supplanted his beat-up heart for an old hot rod, begging his driver, "Use me for parts / Drive me, and then gut me."
Humorously ignoring the host brewery's product and pulling from a bottle of Bud on stage all night, Bryan's humble self-deprecation continued till show's end and even served as a setup to his biggest hit.
"I hate to depress you guys on a Sunday night," he said before "Something in the Orange."
While definitely a downer (sample lyric: "If I say I miss you, I know that you won't"), the breakup song brought the young crowd to an outright giddy state. It became a warm enough moment on a fall night to carry over fans until next summer's outdoor concert season — when Bryan will likely be playing venues thrice the size of Surly's field, based on his trajectory so far and on how well it went Sunday.