By Allen Halas OnMilwaukee Staff Writer Published Feb 25, 2024 at 11:50 AM

Ole Red, the honky tonk owned by country superstar Blake Shelton, is about 535 miles away from Milwaukee. On Saturday night however, he and a pair of solid support acts did their best to bring Nashville’s Broadway experience to Fiserv Forum, getting a near-sellout crowd on their feet, provided they weren't already bellied up to the bar. The third stop of Shelton’s “Back to the Honky Tonk” tour had a Saturday night crowd ready for a party, and he would most certainly provide.

With a stage that included a full-service bar wrapping around it for VIP ticket holders, a full night of country had Shelton’s many endeavors incorporated. The bar was branded with Ole Red logos, named after a George Jones tale of a prison dog that Shelton turned into one of his biggest hits. Emily Ann Roberts, a contestant from season nine of “The Voice” (on Team Blake, of course) opened the night with a set full of old school country kitsch, and while we didn’t get “Barmageddon” style games on stage, it wouldn’t have felt terribly out of place for the atmosphere that the tour provided. 

Dustin LynchX

Roberts went more traditional to start the show, but Dustin Lynch followed, and he was ready to party. Between handing out tequila shots to fans in the front rows (even though he quipped about them possibly being too young to take them) and giving a fan up front a homemade helmet with beer cans attached and leading a “chug” chant, he was more backyard party than bar, and that brought the Fiserv Forum crowd to their feet. The tempo would change a little bit by the time the man of the hour took the stage, but when he did, everybody knew why Shelton’s name was biggest on the marquee.

With a set that spanned the better part of an hour and 45 minutes, Shelton settled into a pocket that felt as comfy as your favorite barstool. With the brooding intro of “Come Back as a Country Boy” from 2021’s “Body Language” (his most recent full length) he opted to build the energy rather than come out of the gate hot. It would take a few songs for things to really rev up, but Shelton was every bit of an entertainer as his television persona, a combination of no-nonsense country star turned comedic everyman.

Between interacting with the bar up front and his storytelling, Shelton tried to make an arena feel as intimate as can be at times. He would jest at a fan at the bar who didn’t dress up as much as his wife did for the show, before segueing into “Doing What She Likes.” Later, he would tell a story about supposedly FaceTiming with Luke Bryan over crowd interaction before asking the arena to sing along with “Gonna.” When he wasn’t playing around, he was sincerely thanking the fans for being able to come back to cities like Milwaukee year over year and be greeted with large crowds. Every bit of crowd work seemed to set up the next part of the show, a veteran move that felt organic in the moment.

Blake Shelton performs at Fiserv ForumX

Shelton also wasn’t afraid to explore the slower and lyrically heavier elements of his 20+ year career on Saturday, admitting that he was bringing back “The Baby,” a heartfelt song about a mother passing away, and breaking out love songs like “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” as well. A pseudo-duet with wife Gwen Stefani via video screen for “Nobody But You” also made for a special moment, and a subtle reminder that the husband-and-wife duo just released a single two weeks ago. While the pace would slow down at times, the set was designed in a way that never brought the crowd entirely out of it before bringing things back up again. “The Baby” would be the heaviest moment, but an immediate turning point, countered by the introductory drones of “Ol’ Red” that got the crowd up once again. From then on, it was a barrage of some of his biggest hits.

Though the night may have overall paced a little slower than expected, the closing string of his greatest hits seemed to be the most economical. Almost no time was wasted between “Hell Right,” “Sure Be Cool If You Did” and “Hillbilly Bone,” each warranting spirited singalongs from the crowd that made for a tidal wave of voices. The party was in full swing for closers “Boys ‘Round Here” and “God’s Country,” making you think that there genuinely might not be an encore after the lengthy main set. The house lights stayed down, though, and a version of “God Gave Me You” served as last call before it was bar time at Fiserv Forum. 

To the casual fan, it may be easy to forget that Blake Shelton has maintained a nearly two-and-a-half decade run at the top of modern country music. On Saturday night, though, he showed everyone the crossover entertainer that he had become, without being afraid to nod heavily back to his roots.