For its inaugural outing, ATLive, the two nights of country concerts produced by Arthur Blank's AMB Sports and Entertainment at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, attracted more than 90,000 fans, with Sunday’s crowd of 52,414 deemed a sellout.
Not a huge surprise considering a first-night lineup of Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Sam Hunt, Sugarland, Judah & the Lion and Cale Dodds.
For round two, Eric Church topped a night that also included feisty sets from Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne and Caylee Hammack.
Call it country nirvana.
As well, a portion of the proceeds from the concerts will benefit the Johnny Mac Soldier’s Fund, which provides scholarships to veterans and military family members, and Quest Community Development Organization, whose mission is to develop affordable housing and provide community services to underserved individuals and families.
During Sunday’s performances, the sound issues that marred a chunk of Keith Urban’s Friday night stage turn were non-existent, aside from the echo that will always accompany concerts in a large venue with a primary purpose other than music.
Following an opening set from Ellaville native Hammack (“Family Tree”), the siblings of Brothers Osborne – T.J. (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) and John (lead guitar and background vocals) – hit the stage for a near-hourlong set that showcased their two studio albums.
T.J., clad in a black satin baseball jacket, and the shaggier John, in a plaid shirt and feather-adorned cowboy hat, guided the crowd through the tick-tock twanger “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” and the overhead clapper “Burnin’ Man.”
During “Stay a Little Longer,” T.J. ventured toward the crowd to shake hands with fans while behind him, John uncorked a screaming guitar solo during the 2015 hit.
Many bands – indeed, most – save their most powerful live song to cap a set, and the Maryland-bred Brothers Osborne abided by that plan. “It Ain’t My Fault” wasn’t their biggest radio success, but it’s customized for arena singalongs and in a stadium, even better. A feverish jam that spotlighted keyboardist Billy Justineau and John’s sizzling playing captivated the audience and by the time the epic set closer crashed to its end, everyone needed the 30-minute breather until Combs arrived.
It can be said that the North Carolina native and justlastweek winner of two Country Music Association Awards is having a moment.
He’s only 29, but Combs, a fellow who oozes sincerity, just tagged his seventh No. 1 country hit – “Even Though I’m Leaving” – and his new album, “What You See Is What You Get,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 172,000 equivalent album sales – the most for a country record in more than a year.
Onstage, Combs isn’t a flashy performer. He strolled out hoisting a red Solo cup to the meandering bass line of “Honky Tonk Highway,” wearing a uniform of short-sleeved black shirt, jeans and a trucker hat. He quickly grabbed an acoustic guitar – complete with “LUKE” strap – for “When It Rains it Pours” and exhibited his mighty set of lungs with the banjo and slide guitar-inflected “Must’ve Never Met You.”
Throughout his hour and 15 minute set, Combs shared brief anecdotes, such as not being able to take many vacations as a kid because his parents worked so hard.
“I hadn’t been to Atlanta until a couple of years ago and here we are tonight in sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Things are good,” he said from the stage with a smile.
While many of his songs include favorite topics of country music – beer and honky tonks – Combs also has a sensitive side, which he’s already exhibited impressively in his young songwriting career.
The ballad “Houston, We Got a Problem” and similarly tempo-ed “One Number Away” exemplified that vulnerability, while “This One’s For You” indicated that no matter how many charts he tops, Combs will always remember his roots.
And speaking of…as a fan of his hometown Carolina Panthers, Combs lost a bet with his Atlanta-bred keyboardist about Sunday’s game (the Falcons trounced the Panthers, if you missed the score) and donned a Matt Ryan jersey during his final song, the rollicking “Beer Never Broke My Heart.”
Even his final act of scribbling his signature on his hat and seeking out a fan in the crowd to receive it couldn’t have topped the sight of a Panthers fan being forced to publicly support the Falcons.
While the crowd was sufficiently amped to witness Combs’ live performance, the anticipation leading into Church’s arrival – after a 35-minute set change - was palpable.
Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” blasted through the stadium in the final moments before Church crept onstage, standing in a white spotlight on the side of the catwalk to sing “Drowning Man.”
A man in black, including his trademark aviator shades, Church was coming off a couple of nights at The Anthem, a comparably intimate venue in Washington, D.C., for his “Double Down” tour. But the rebel with a cause demonstrated throughout his 21-song set how he can command a room of any size.
His guitar hung down his back as he outstretched his arms and brought fans his version of church (no pun intended) during a fiery performance 9f “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” more than a little bit of one of his idols, Bruce Springsteen, apparent in the way he works a crowd.
“Ain’t none of you going to work in the morning,” Church said with a sly grin as many in the crowd responded with adult beverages held aloft.
His wickedly talented backup singer, Joanna Cotton, was more of a duet partner on many songs, and her participation always elevated Church’s effort (mostly out of necessity).
Church gave another shout-out to the late Wild Bill’s - Blake Shelton sang its praises on Friday -before rolling back to 2006 for “How ‘Bout You,” one of his early authentications as a country outlaw.
Whether growling through “Creepin’,” tossing in a snippet of “Black Betty” or guzzling a travel-sized bottle of Jack Daniel’s before the rousing rocker “Drink in My Hand,” Church was effortlessly cool. But then he could just as easily flip to a poignant “Mr. Misunderstood” – which escalated from quiet ballad to pointed declaration – or watch his taut band detour in the middle of “Cold One” into a snare-slapping, guitar-picking jam.
Church’s introspective tendencies also glimmered later in the show with “These Boots” and his ode to memories and influence – “Springsteen.”
The beauty of Church’s artistry is that casual listeners and concertgoers view him as a badass. But a closer listen reveals the heart of a poet.
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