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If awards shows and critics’ best-of charts are to be believed, Alabama Shakes and Chris Stapleton are two of the best in the music business right now. But would the two be a good fit for one stage – especially the biggest one Summerfest has to offer?
While the two are far from small indie acts, neither one has yet reached the kind of household name status that typically claims the Amp stage. You could scour your radio for hours and never hear an Alabama Shakes song, while Stapleton needed an award-winning, show-stealing turn at last November’s CMA Awards before his album, "Traveller" – released half a year earlier – began to receive the sales and radio play it was due.
Even putting that aside, other than their critical darling status, the duo would seem to share little common ground – and even less of a common audience, with Shakes leaning toward soul and Stapleton heavily edging toward country. Would they mesh as one show – and, more pressing, would they draw?
After close to three hours of music between the two acts – not even including the opener J Roddy Walston and the Business – the answer to both questions was a resounding yes, with a packed and active Amphitheater crowd treated to one of the best concerts you may see this year – at Summerfest or anywhere else for that matter.
Three-time 2016 Grammy Award winners Alabama Shakes were the first of the potent pairing to take the stage, which was decorated simply with seven large colorfully lit columns of fabric. The show would certainly not need crazy theatrics, as from the opening number, "Future People," powerhouse frontwoman Brittany Howard provided all of the electricity, explosiveness and emotion one would need with her soulful howls, wails and guitar strums.
She was low on audience interactions Saturday night – a few sincere "thank you’s" scattered about – but that’s fair considering the shared headliner status. And even so, her performance style couldn’t be the furthest thing from impersonal. Each song – from country-driven build of "Always Alright" to the soulful jam of "Rise To The Sun" – felt freshly torn from Howard’s bleeding on-stage heart. I would kill to see the band play a more intimate venue, where her bluesy heart-on-sleeve emotion and dynamic vocals (especially with the quieter lyrics, which occasionally got oh-so-slightly lost in the Amp) could be even more upfront.
However, even in the sprawlingly large venue, her expressive on-stage performance – from her finger-pointing on songs like "Heartbreaker" to simply her steely heartbroken singing on "Joe" and raw howling on "The Greatest" – spoke clear all the way to the back of the grass. When some dramatic flashing lights went off during "Be Mine," her on-stage power rendered them utterly redundant.
Howard is certainly the star of the Alabama Shakes show, and the music that serves as her delivery device is no slouch either, searching out all sorts of nooks and crannies of soulful blues rock. There was the Motown vibe of the band’s second song "Dunes," the dreamy soul of "Guess Who," the rollicking rock of "The Greatest," the wailing blues ballad "Gemini" and plenty more. The result was a satisfyingly setlist of unpredictable ebbs and flows, united by Howard’s incredible voice and presence.
Speaking of unpredictable, during "Gemini," Howard managed to lose her glasses – a first in Alabama Shakes history. Yet even knocked down to only four fully working senses, Howard soldiered on through the hypnotic jazzy dream of "Sound and Color" and jammed on "You Ain’t Alone" as though nothing happened. A stagehand eventually found her specs – or at least summoned a new pair from backstage – just in time for the slow burn finale "Over My Head."
The night of firsts continued into the evening’s second headliner, Chris Stapleton, who quickly announced this was his first sojourn to Milwaukee. The Marcus Amp crowd gave him a fond welcome, loudly singing along right away to his twangy roots rock set opener "Nobody To Blame."
Stapleton feels sadly like an anomaly in today’s country music scene. Most of the popular Top 40 country acts are generic white shirts, each seemingly with the same carefully calculated, sanded and smoothed out songs and lyrics to go with their carefully calculated, sanded and smoothed out stubble.
None of that applies to Stapleton. Forget stubble; the Kentucky native rocks a long hair and beard combination that makes him look like a "Duck Dynasty" member but with talent. But most importantly, his music is raw, true and authentic, a drastic step away from typical Top 40 arena-approved safeness and back toward the backroads and dusty bars of which the music was born.
Much of the difference between a good country song and a bad one is texture – real texture – and Stapleton proved he has that in spades Saturday night, from the whiskey howls and harmonies of "Outlaw State of Mind" and "Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey" to the soulful old school country balled "The Devil Called Music." There was no manufactured twang to be found in his set, but there was plenty of great sounding, rockin’ noise – impressive considering it was just Stapleton and three others intimately assembled on stage.
It’s fitting that Stapleton’s breakthrough album is called "Traveller" as his set seemed to traverse all across the country rock spectrum. "More of You" delivered a drawling crooner with sweet harmonies reminiscent of Johnny Cash and June Carter (and not just because it’s also a husband-and-wife duet, with Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, providing the harmonies throughout the night; unsurprisingly, they had sweet on-stage chemistry). There’s a dash of a ’70s stomper in a new track called "Hard Living" (whose awesome strutty hook also sounds like a country-fried "Superstition"), as well as a more bluesy country sound in "Fire Away" and "Was It 26." And each variation came with his own roaring authenticity, strong guitar work and shockingly impressive vocal range.
Perhaps the song that most showed what makes Stapleton special was his final act rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," a country concert cliché made fresh and uniquely felt thanks to his rockin’ yet soulful update. What could’ve been an eyeroll was instead another highlight in a set full of them.
The clear standout of the bunch, however, was "Fire Away" near the middle of the set, a great bluesy ballad. At the end of the song, impressed by the crowd’s singing along with the words, he asked the audience to sing a quick reprise. And did they, singing on their own with such startlingly enthusiastic volume and clarity that Stapleton was moved to tears and had to take a moment with Morgane looking on equally moved and flabbergasted. It was one of the more touching moments you’ll see at any Summerfest gig.
The incredible moment seemed to loosen up Stapleton’s on-stage persona even more for the final stretch. For much of the first chunk of the show, his crowd interactions were a bit mumbly, but cutely humble and simple. He told a short story before "Traveller" and joked about being asked about a wedding proposal on Facebook before "More of You," but for the most part, he seemed more musician than showman. By the end, however, he was introducing his fellow band members via a playful show and poking fun at his bassist.
By the time he wrapped up his well-earned two-song encore – a solo acoustic performance of "Whiskey and You" followed by the roaring soul of "Sometimes I Cry" – Chris Stapleton left no doubt that his current title as the savior of true country music was well deserved.
In the end, as different as they seemed on paper, Alabama Shakes and Chris Stapleton ended up an ingenius mashup by Summerfest, both reflecting two sides of the same coin – or perhaps two closely related sides of the 24-sided dice – called rock. One act was slightly more blues, one act was slightly more country, but both are led by roaringly soulful and talented leads, and both are utterly unencumbered with simple genre labels or expectations. And their joint show Saturday night was a reaffirmation that rock’s not dead; it’s just as indefinable as it's always been.
"Rise To The Sun"
"On Your Way"
"Gimme All Your Love"
"Don’t Wanna Fight"
"Sound and Color"
"You Ain’t Alone"
"Over My Head"
"Nobody To Blame"
"Midnight Train to Memphis"
"Outlaw State of Mind"
"Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey"
"More of You"
"Might As Well Get Stoned"
"Was It 26"
"The Devil Called Music"
"You Are My Sunshine"
"Whiskey and You"
"Sometimes I Cry"
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.