I don't get to as many concerts as I'd like, but I go to the ones that count. This year, the one that counted most was Chris Stapleton at Rabobank Theater, just weeks after the death of Merle Haggard in April.
I was raw with grief and ready for a Merle moment; all his fans were. We wanted a country artist with a national reputation to come to the home of the Bakersfield Sound and bow down to the finest singer/songwriter in the genre's history. To share our sense of loss and offer a communal opportunity for our mourning.
Stapleton did just that — and proved why he's the most exciting guy in country music at the moment.
I was so knocked out by Stapleton's performance, I went straight back to the paper and wrote a review, though no one — least of all me — was expecting it. It seems like cheating to crib from my own reflections of that night, but I'm going to do it anyway because though the concert is unforgettable, my flickers of memory can't approximate what I felt then:
Fans — most of whom looked like the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Bakersfield Sound bar-hoppers — came not to mourn Haggard but to adore Stapleton. Their 40-ounce cans outstretched in a Bakersfield salute, the 3,000 or so music lovers roared as Stapleton took the stage with his band, which includes wife Morgane Stapleton on background vocals and Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael.
Stapleton started with the hit “Nobody to Blame” from his breakthrough 2015 album, “Traveller.” The staging was minimal — just a half-dozen illuminated orbs behind him. But with a voice and magnetism that commands the room, you don’t need laser shenanigans or videos playing on a screen; truth be told, you don’t even have to move that much. You just have to be Chris Stapleton.
Six songs in, they brought out the upright bass and acoustic guitar for what would be a two-song tribute to Haggard. When the Stapletons harmonized on “Silver Wings,” the sense of emotional release among the legend’s hometown fans was palpable.
“Everybody stand for Merle!” a guy shouted from down front.
In the hands of a less-gifted vocalist, it would be hubris to take on giants like Haggard, Jones and Jennings. But damned if Stapleton doesn’t pull it off.