For more than six hours on Friday night, a crop of 40,000-ish country music fans marinated in guitars and mandolins, banjos and fiddles – and more than a touch of rock and pop.
The first of the two-date ATLive concert series at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which venue brass hopes to cycle on an annual basis, launched with a lineup boasting Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Sam Hunt, Sugarland, Judah & the Lion and Cale Dodds.
With two Country Music Association Awards stars who could be interchangeable as headliners – Shelton and Urban – the ATLive organizers couldn’t lose. Although with Urban’s set stretching well beyond 11 p.m., it was unfortunate the combination of the late hour (especially for fans who arrived for the 5 p.m. kickoff) and initially muddy and echo-y sound during the Aussie’s otherwise captivating performance prompted many in the crowd to exit early.
But the marquee lineup – who all hit the stage promptly – delivered stinging sets and a fulfilling evening of music.
Here’s a look at the first night of ATLive. Tickets are still available for Sunday’s show, which features Eric Church, Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne and Caylee Hammack. Visit the MBS site for more details.
Initiating the inaugural ATLive concert was Columbus-native-turned-Nashville-resident Cale Dodds. Though he didn’t have much time to make an impression – 20 minutes and a handful of songs – he cut an innocuously handsome figure in his white T-shirt, dark jeans and manicured beard as he roamed the stage. It’s never easy to play to a half-empty stadium – which it was at the stroke of 5 p.m., with thousands of fans no doubt stuck in head-exploding traffic, but Dodds enjoyed his stage time, which wrapped with his current single, the ballad “I Like Where This is Going,” written with the late Busbee.
Judah & the Lion – the Nashville trio of Judah Akers, Brian Macdonald and Nate Zuercher – received a similar fate during their aggressively energetic 20 minutes. The band, which played the Coca-Cola Roxy last week, is as much rock as country, evidenced by hits “Over My Head” (from their current “Pep Talks” album) and 2017’s steady thumping “Suit and Jacket.”
Frontman Akers and the band’s drummer sported matching yellow T-shirts bearing the Judah name and both exhibited tremendous exuberance during the set-closing, “Take it All Back,” their 2016 No. 1 rock hit. While the more traditional country audience seemed perplexed by Akers’ mandate that everyone dance at the end of their set – especially the band, which obeyed with abandon – their fire shouldn’t be dismissed.
Taking the stage just after 6 p.m. as a more robust crowd filtered in, the heart of Sugarland – Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles – arrived in unison, swaying in time to “Bigger,” the title track to their criminally underappreciated 2018 return album.
Though sound issues would later plague Keith Urban’s set, nothing but clarity filtered from Nettles’ microphone as her booming voice filled the cavernous room and their backing band, including Brandon Bush on keyboards, unleashed Sugarland’s delightful country-pop.
A friendly vibe emanated between Nettles and Kristian Bush, and both seemed additionally animated to perform in their hometown (though Nettles departed Atlanta several years ago, she’ll always have roots in Douglas). They strolled the catwalk together for “All I Want to Do” and, with Brandon Bush handling accordion, bopped through the perky piffle that is “Stuck Like Glue.”
Sugarland has always been at its best when nudging the confines of country (remember when the vague reggae vibe of “Stuck Like Glue” was a deterrent to country radio? Yeah, that seems really stupid now). One of the most memorable songs on “Bigger” is the funky-fresh “On a Roll,” which zipped off the stage with Nettles’ mid-song rap and segued into a medley including David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Deee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.”
Their well-paced 50-minute set included a handful of unexpected fun – 2008’s “Ain’t No Rhyme or Reason” burst with sunshine, while the even older “Something More” showcased their knack for ably melding soul, rock and country.
But, after a reference to the early days of playing Eddie’s Attic, Sugarland hit the sweet spot of its performance, a hushed rendition of “Stay,” with Nettles and Bush at the foot of the catwalk and Brandon Bush adding undercurrents of keyboards. The song was a vocal triumph for Nettles, who has become a looser performer since her serious foray into acting without losing a sliver of her vocal prowess.
The primary twosome will always divert from the band to tackle other projects – Bush has a new project called Dark Water and Nettles, as mentioned, is spending time in front of a camera – but when Sugarland reconvenes, it’s always a glorious sound.
He hasn’t released a full album since his 2014 full-length debut, “Montevallo,” but Cedartown son Sam Hunt has hardly been absent. “Downtown’s Dead” and “Kinfolks” have kept him on the charts, even though they didn’t rival the massive success of smashes “Take Your Time” (2014) and “Body Like a Back Road” (2017).
Hunt, an eager-to-please performer who hopped around the stage with boyish enthusiasm and took care to recognize fans in the pit, was greeted with full-throated singalongs by the crowd during both of those hits.
He and his backing band also tore through “We Are Tonight” and “Raised on It,” generic country rockers that, regardless, attract radio attention and ubiquitous play at backyard barbecues.
Before the set-closing “Body…,” Hunt, clad in layers of black and a matching baseball cap, presented one of his more musically interesting and lyrically poignant songs, “Break Up in a Small Town,” which rolls with a bit of an R&B feel. More of that, please.
Blake Shelton could simply stand on a stage and talk and people would flock to the tips of his boots. And why not? The guy is a charmer. His nonchalance and snarky humor are catnip to his legions of female fans and the bros like him because he rolls up his sleeves, drinks from a plastic cup and, despite his immense wealth and admirably tended hair, still comes across as a regular guy.
That combination of wit and sincerity was on display backstage at the CMA Awards earlier this week when Shelton, winner of single of the year for “God’s Country,” talked about why he loves the song.
But onstage Friday, “The Voice” coach sauntered onto the stage, clasping the microphone and singing “Neon Light” with the joy of a fellow going to work for tens of thousands of fans on a Friday night.
A few minutes into his set, he hoisted a drink and teased a male fan near the stage before the slow dancer “Sure Be Cool if You Did.” Shelton recalled his early days performing in Atlanta (shout-out to the defunct Wild Bill’s) and also marveled at the size of the stadium crowd.
He possesses a robust catalog that rewinds to 2001 and landed on an array of material – he called his 2013 ballad “Mine Would Be You” one of his favorites, pounded through “Hell Yeah,” his song with Trace Adkins from next month’s compilation album, and charged up the crowd with 2002’s “Ol’ Red.”
In between, there was plenty of good-natured banter and a few glimmers of vulnerability when Shelton admitted that he and the band performed a rousing cover of George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” because he wanted to be assured of a crowd singalong (not a problem). By following that with his hit rendition of Michael Buble’s “Home,” Shelton instigated another blast of audience participation, this time with phone lights held aloft.
His hell-raising “Hillbilly Bone” was elevated by the ace fiddle playing of Jenee Fleanor, who won the CMA Award for musician of the year (she was not only the first female to win, but the first to be nominated), while his No. 1 hit from earlier this year, “God’s Country,” wrapped the fervent set. Even in saying goodbye to the crowd, you could sense the twinkle in Shelton’s eyes.
Where Shelton is a natural entertainer, Keith Urban is a rock star, a musician entwined with his guitar and a precise songwriter.
The affable Urban, with his floppy hair and adorable grin, opened his headlining set with the muscular boot-stomper, “Never Comin’ Down,” from his most recent album, “Graffiti U.” Considering how unobtrusive the sound was for the rest of the lineup earlier in the night, it was disconcerting that Urban favorites such as “Long Hot Summer” and “Coming Home” were marred by a muddled mix (though maybe that meant some fans didn’t hear Urban refer to the city as “Hotlanta” – c’mon man!).
Urban is sweet and gracious, noticing signs in the audience and obliging some fans to come onstage and take a photo. After wrapping that digression, he tore into “Days Go By,” performed at a mic stand set to the side of the massive stage, which ensured more of the audience could see him.
While his guitar mastery – and no doubt, he is one of the most skilled players in current music – was frequently showcased, usually in crunchy bursts at the end of the catwalk, Urban also briefly switched to bass for “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” He’s a guy who likes a groove – witness his crowd shot during Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” performance on the CMAs – and he got his on for a bit.
It took a handful of songs into the set – “Parallel Lines” – for the sound adjustments to kick in and when clarity returned, Urban’s silky voice became more noticeable, whether he was punctuating choruses or crooning ballads.
A pulsing acoustic experience powered “Stupid Boy” and, later in his set, his 2016 No. 1 hit ballad, “Blue Ain’t Your Color” rang potently.
In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Urban expressed his desire to make even the biggest venues feel intimate. With his winsome personality and formidable musical chops, mission accomplished.
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