Jason Aldean was three songs into his October 12th tour stop at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the house lights came up. It was his first full concert since the deadly mass shooting October 1st at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas and his first opportunity to directly address the tragedy with his own audience.
He seemed to be searching for the right words, as if he wasn't quite sure how to say what he was feeling and yet understood that words would never be able to adequately sum it up. He plowed forward anyway, as if he had to get it out, talking about the bitter divisions in the country as well as the random acts of kindness that often spring up in the wake of disaster.
"This country can be really divided – that's really unfortunate to see," he said. "It’s been cool to see all the love and support that's been going on for the last 10 days. If we could do that on a daily basis the world would be a better place."
In his speech, Aldean described people like Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock – who killed 58 and injured more than 500 before taking his own life – and others who attack spaces where people find community as part of a malevolent force, bent on eradicating joy for regular folks just trying to blow off some steam.
"They're gonna try to continue to hold us down ... make us live in fear and be scared," he said, acknowledging that concerts, movies and other public areas were among the places being attacked. "To those people I say: Fuck you, we don't really care." The crowd roared. And with that, he ripped right back into his set, a defiant and pulverizing return to the stage on his They Don't Know Tour, which included guests Dee Jay Silver, Kane Brown and Chris Young.
More than identifying this particular tour by name, that defiant tone is a key element of Aldean's very brand – his best songs offer glimpses at the overlooked and misunderstood America, surviving on whatever terms please it.
It's a theme that ran through much of the show, from the introductory video for show-opening "They Don't Know," where an assortment of people list things not understood by outsiders while scenes of work and play flash in the background. In "The Only Way I Know," he proudly copped to stubbornness, singing "Straight ahead, never turn around. Don't back up, don't back down" while a hard-charging guitar rhythm drove it along. "Fly Over States" was bolstered by panoramic video of open fields and mountains, with the Tulsa crowd hollering its approval of the line, "Thirty thousand feet above, could be Oklahoma."
It's a nice bit of synchronicity with Aldean's appearance on Saturday Night Live last weekend, where he performed Tom Petty's resolute "I Won't Back Down." He'd canceled his weekend tour stops after the shooting, and then faced criticism from UFC president Dana White, who'd offered him the chance to sing the national anthem at the fighting sport's bout in Las Vegas on Saturday. "His image was more important than coming back to Vegas and playing for the people who are his fans and who got shot watching him play," White told TMZ. But there isn't a roadmap for grieving and processing something like this, least of all in public as a well-known celebrity, and Aldean and wife Brittany Kerr did spend much of the last week in Las Vegas visiting with survivors.
Whatever scars he may be dealing with – and how could he not be – Aldean saw the Tulsa crowd's energy as a kind of healing therapy. On the fast and heavy songs, he beckoned them out of their seats. On the slower numbers, he invited them in. In his fantastic breakup song "The Truth," the line "Tell 'em all I'm out in Vegas" had some added heft in light of recent events. Beyond the shouts of approval and support during Aldean's speech, the audience didn't seem scared or interested in making grand gestures about the Route 91 tragedy, save for the odd Las Vegas-themed garment here and there. It was more about losing oneself in the hard-edged riffs of Aldean's molten debut "Hicktown" or swaying to the laid-back country-rap hybrid "Dirt Road Anthem."
Aldean addressed the Las Vegas shooting once more during his encore, keeping the rest of his streamlined set focused squarely on the hits and giving the crowd its money's worth.
"For the last 10 days, we really didn't know what it was gonna be like to get up here and play for you guys. We didn't know how tonight was gonna go," he said, graciously thanking the crowd for welcoming him and his band back before cracking a beer and dousing himself as he chugged it.
Couples hugged, friends high-fived and snapped selfies. It could never be enough to solve all the ills of the world, but it at least felt right in the moment – a call to rally, to get our fists in the air, to say we can get through this together, one show at a time.
"They Don't Know"
"The Only Way I Know"
"Take a Little Ride"
"A Little More Summertime"
"Any Ol' Barstool"
"Just Gettin' Started"
"Texas Was You"
"Tattoos on This Town"
"Fly Over States"
"Burnin' It Down"
"Lights Come On"
"Dirt Road Anthem"
"My Kinda Party"
"Big Green Tractor"
Watch below: At least 50 people were killed, hundreds more wounded when shooter opened fire from Mandalay Bay's 32nd floor into crowd at Route 91 Harvest country music festival.