Luke Bryan really didn’t want to cancel on his fans in Nashville. So, he squirreled water bottles across his stage, moved his band closer, crumpled up his set list and asked his fans to do some heavy lifting.
They showed up for him.
The big pivot that happened early during Saturday night’s (Aug. 12) concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena was necessary because Bryan — by his own admission — couldn’t find his voice. The illness that forced him to miss a trio of shows last weekend hadn’t gone away and nothing he tried (mostly water and tequila) worked to help him hit a groove. His current radio single “But I Got a Beer In My Hand” — a song that, as it turns out, is very high for Bryan — tested him, and soon after, he made the call to give this crowd a different kind of show.
It was the right decision, since Bryan was in no man’s land. The show had started, and it was too late to cancel and issue refunds. He also didn’t have a phone-a-friend option, as the usual small crowd of surprise guest artists waiting to bail him out were off on their own tours.
An 8-minute-long version of “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” probably wasn’t on many Bryan fan bingo cards, but this early-show highlight showcased his band and his burgeoning skill on electric guitar. It seemed like that was a direction he may go until he returned to the top of his cat walk for two more tries at normalcy.
The Country On Tour stage is very large and Plan A is for Bryan to work the top of it, standing, hip-shaking and singing 100 feet away from his band. The isolation left nowhere to hide during a coughing fit, so after “Country On,” a small drum set, piano and stools were rolled into place behind him.
The 10-song, quasi-acoustic set that followed was no less vocally challenging, but it changed expectations. Sure, a few fans left, but those that stayed were treated to covers of Ronnie Milsap, Billy Currington, Lionel Richie and more.
It’s hard to fault Bryan for wanting to make it through his two-hour show and his determination and grit overshadowed the vocals he missed and the unforced errors that held him back elsewhere (starting a song in the wrong key, for example). If you get the sense that the real show was watching him figure out how to finish, you’re mostly right. Still, it was disappointing that knowing he was on an edge, Plan B wasn’t solidified. Simply turning up the backing vocals would have covered some of the gaps.
However it all came together in the end in a somewhat surprising way. After a solo version of “Drink a Beer” that was as satisfying as it usually is, the American Idol judge threw caution to the wind and gutted out five finishing songs. “One Margarita,” “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “I Don’t Want This Night To End” and “Country Girl” brought him to a one-song encore (“Play It Again”) and the finish line.