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Six songs into his first show in Charlotte since the start of the pandemic — and just the eighth show on his first tour since COVID changed everything — Luke Bryan grinned a satisfied grin and slowly swept his dark-brown eyes across the PNC Music Pavilion crowd.
“Oh, I just wanna look at y’all,” the country-music star said on Friday night, as his fans roared, still keyed up from pumping their fists and stomping their feet to the bumping backbeat of his monster 2015 hit “Kick the Dust Up.” “I wanna take everybody in. I wanna study everybody. I wanna tell you how much I missed singing my songs for country music fans — and I’m glad we’re back.”
His fans roared again, even louder. There were maybe not quite 20,000 of them in total, as (stellar) opener Dylan Scott had estimated. But it was close.
Certainly more than three, more than four, and perhaps more than five times as many folks as attended the June 29 show by the band Chicago that marked PNC’s return to live music, following a dry spell for the venue that spanned 632 days.
And it had all the hallmarks of a pre-COVID show. Concertgoers standing elbow to elbow and bumping bellies and butts while squeezing through gaps in rows to get to and from their seats; performers handing out high-fives and slurping from cans of beer before handing them to the people closest to the stage; pot smoke and secondhand aerosol from e-cigarettes wafting through the air.
Meanwhile, the only person I saw wearing a mask was a security guard in front of the right side of the stage, and the top of that mask was at least an inch below the bottom of his nose.
I’m not judging. I’m simply saying that, for the most part, it felt just like every other Luke Bryan concert I’ve ever been to. In other words: It was a very fun night, plastered wall-to-wall with hit songs and colored by the headliner’s loosey-goosey persona — which can yield interactions with fans that feel organic, random and downright bonkers all at once.
Bryan, who turned 45 exactly one week ago, has been playing basically the same setlist since he started his “Proud to Be Right Here Tour” in Syracuse on July 8 (though he’s added regional ploys in a couple of instances, like a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” at the New Jersey show and a cover of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” for fans in Massachusetts).
It starts with a No. 1 song — country-rap concoction “That’s My Kind of Night” — and ends with a No. 1 song — first-date anthem “I Don’t Want This Night to End” — and in between he packs more than an hour and a half of blissful bro-country that rarely gives fans an excuse to slip away to use the little boys’ and girls’ rooms.
After all these years — or perhaps because of all these years, of experience — Bryan remains an imminently affable presence on stage. All that hip-swiveling and rump-shaking, all those little hand jives and exaggerated facial expressions, in plenty of contexts they could seem corny and contrived. But because the “American Idol” judge / reigning Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year is practically winking as he does these things, it’s easy to cut him a break.
It’s also easy to forget that the guy can sing much better than you might expect based on listening to him on the radio. And while I wouldn’t necessarily write home about his abilities on the guitar, he is more competent with one in his hand than many of his peers.
Vocally, the best showcase might have been him going a cappella at the end of “Crash My Party.” In terms of his chops with the axe, I’d point to the not-terribly-complex but still-bright-and-breezy double-solo he did on his electric with his lead guitarist in the middle of “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” as a highlight.
If there was something I noticed besides his prowess as a performer, it’s that he changed the direction of his ballcap almost to the point of distraction, wearing it frontwards during one song, backwards the next, then frontwards, then backwards again — and that was just during the first two songs.
But otherwise, for the most part, he focused on the music. On making his voice sound as full and rich as he possibly could. On making up funny dance moves. On making sure people had a good time.
Oh, and on product placement.
On Friday night, he wore black boots, faded blue jeans, a faded red T-shirt, and a black hat that featured a black logo that was hard to make out unless you knew exactly what you were looking for.
In fact, that was the most subtle of the forms of product placement Bryan slipped into his Charlotte show, the almost-invisible insignia of E3 Chophouse, the restaurant his family co-owns with fellow country star Jason Aldean and former MLBer Adam LaRoche.
Less-discreet was the “Buck Commander” logo adorning the sound hole cover on the guitar he slung over his shoulder while performing “Rain Is a Good Thing” and the acoustic mini-set of “Do I,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and “We Rode in Trucks.” (Bryan owns the “Buck Commander” TV show with Aldean, LaRoche and others.) He also flashed the tattoo he has of the “Buck Commander” logo on his right bicep with a quick roll of the sleeve at the end of “Play It Again” late in the evening.
But that was nothing compared to the shilling he did for his Two Lane beer.
At past shows, Bryan has indicated a strong preference for Miller Lite. Two Februarys ago, however, he unveiled his own signature beer — a lager — during a launch party and private concert at the Alexander Homestead in east Charlotte that marked his last official appearance in North Carolina prior to the pandemic.
The beer bowed in March 2020 ... and then COVID hit. A decision was made in September to shelve it. Two Lane relaunched in March 2021.
With touring back, they’re now going big on the brand.
For Bryan’s PNC show, there were Two Lane tractor-trailers prominently parked in the venue’s “premier” lot before, during and after. There were Two Lane ads on the video screens flanking the stage before Bryan’s set.
And during the concert, there were lots of Two Lanes to be seen and consumed.
In the middle of Bryan’s set, two stage hands lugged a giant cooler full of Two Lanes to center stage, where Bryan and lead-in act Dylan Scott grabbed cans as they slapped each other on the back while bro’ing out during a group rendition of “All My Friends Say.” (They were joined by first-on support act Cayley Hammock, who used a red Solo cup to hide the fact that she was drinking a beverage that was not a Two Lane.)
The headliner cracked open another can of Two Lane during his performance of reflective hit “Drink a Beer,” then another after one was whipped at him by a stage hand — and Bryan made a startlingly good catch, you’ll be interested to know — during “Play It Again.”
On top of all that, I’m having trouble getting the first two lines of “Knockin’ Boots” out of my head, for crying out loud: “This truck needs a half tank / These wheels need a TWO LANE ...”
OK, THAT’S IT. I will NOT be mentioning those two words again in this article.
I do need to mention, though, before I forget, that Dylan Scott absolutely crushed his set-up set. The 30-year-old Louisiana native got through to the already swelling crowd with hooky originals like “My Girl” and “Nobody,” as well as with a natural sense of showmanship and a high likability factor. He also at one point orchestrated a funny bit that saw two women in the pit shotgunning beers. I won’t mention what kind.
I also should mention that only once did Bryan do a full extended stop to banter with the crowd.
And this was clearly no canned speech.
First, as he’s done before, Bryan made reference to the Carolina heat.
“It’s hot as (expletive) tonight,” said the singer, whose faded red shirt gradually turned a darker shade of red due to it being drenched with his sweat on the 80-degree evening. “I mean, welcome to the wet T-shirt contest.”
At this point, he started touching his breast with his finger, and as he did, he looked over at the big video screen on the side of the stage, regarding the images of him touching his breast with his finger in real time. The camera zoomed in.
It got weirder.
“That is my nipple,” Bryan said, again grinning a satisfied grin. “It’s kinda lookin’ actually pretty good, right? That’s a solid male nipple right there.”
Then it got funnier.
“Now right here,” he said, rubbing at his belly, “that’s a whole different story right there. You know what that’s called? ... First name ‘pan,’ last name ‘demic.’”
The crowd howled.
After briefly talking college football at the behest of a South Carolina Gamecocks fan in the front section, he read aloud the words written on a yellow sign held by a woman in the pit: “All my mom wants for her 50th birthday is a beer from you.”
So, a stage hand brought him a (brand of) beer (that I won’t name). Bryan popped it open, suggested that the mom looked like Sheryl Crow, inserted the woman and himself into a brief send-up of Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” handed the beer to her, said “Happy birthday” ... and almost immediately was shouted at by another fan who claimed it was his wife’s 40th birthday.
“Alright, everybody, chill out on the damn birthdays,” Bryan groaned, mostly in jest. “I don’t care. This is what happens when you start acknowledging people. See how y’all take over? ... Y’all quit bothering me, please. I mean, I’m trying to earn my money that y’all paid.”
This whole series of exchanges felt a little bit weird, and a lot wonderful.
Then Bryan ended the shenanigans, returning to belting out a parade of songs that made for a perfect Friday-night party, and the rest of the show felt — blessedly — just like old times.
Luke Bryan’s setlist
1. “That’s My Kind of Night”
2. “Rain Is a Good Thing”
3. “What Makes You Country”
4. “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”
5. “Knockin’ Boots”
6. “Kick the Dust Up”
8. “Down to One”
9. “What She Wants Tonight”
10. “One Margarita” / “When The Sun Goes Down” (medley)
11. “All My Friends Say” (with Dylan Scott and Cayley Hammock)
12. “Do I”
13. “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”
14. “We Rode in Trucks”
15. “Crash My Party”
16. “Roller Coaster”
17. “Strip It Down”
18. “Drink a Beer”
19. “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”
21. “Play It Again”
22. “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)“
23. “I Don’t Want This Night to End”