There was a lot of talk about Number Ones as Kane Brown sat in the lobby of the Canopy by Hilton in Dallas, Texas, last Friday night. Fresh off topping the Billboard 200 album chart with his Experiment LP, Brown was performing for a small gathering of Hilton Honors members, and the company he kept — especially that which he brought with him — made it feel every bit like a victory lap.
“Matt McGinn and Taylor Phillips played a big part in getting me where I am,” Brown said early on in the 70-minute set, pointing to the two guitarists seated immediately to his left and right on the small stage. “I wanted to bring them down to Texas to have some fun. [Phillips] is about to get his first Number One with me, but he already got one with Luke Combs.”
No one was particularly shy about their bragging rights on this occasion, which felt more like an informal song swap than a proper concert. Phillips even got the chance to sing Combs’ “Hurricane,” while McGinn sang a couple songs of his own that he wrote for other artists, like Florida Georgia Line and Josh Abbott. But Brown, a little over a month away from embarking on his first headlining arena tour, the Live Forever Tour, was a little bashful at first in such close quarters.
“Hopefully I don’t jinx myself, but this song should go Number One this week. It’ll be my third Number One,” Brown said as he introduced “Lose It,” the lead single from Experiment (he was right: the song is now topping the charts). His face partially hidden by a baseball hat, he hunched in close to the microphone, clutching it with a tattooed hand that peaked out from beneath a glittery green jacket. A few feet away, fans were shooting Facebook Live videos and talking to friends on FaceTime, separated from the 25-year-old country star by a pair of security guards at either side of the stage.
Brown could be forgiven for feeling superstitious, as well as for cataloguing his still-new successes, which — for now — he can count on one hand. A little more than 18 months elapsed between his first country Number One, his “What Ifs” duet with childhood friend Lauren Alaina, and Experiment debuting at the same spot on the pop chart. Music City has a particular obsession with radio airplay and unit sales, but Brown understands it can change at a moment’s notice.
That’s an unlikely outcome, however, and it was on “Lose It” that Brown the burgeoning pop star began to peek through again. There may have been a smoldering calm to his receding presence through the opening songs, where his vocals were delivered in a near mumble, but midway through “Lose It” he stood up from his stool, patted his chest, and pointed to the audience, a smile beaming from his face.
The trio of friends at the center of the stage (who were joined by two of Brown’s bandmates, also wielding acoustic guitars) traded jokes, stories, and verses throughout the set. While either McGinn or Phillips took to the mic, Brown, an orange Dixie cup in hand, was often laughing to the side with his other buddy. He and Phillips split singing duties on “Pull It Off,” sang harmonies on “It Ain’t You It’s Me,” and reminisced about the origins of “Good As Me,” which Brown said they wrote in 45 minutes on the back of his tour bus in Peoria, Illinois. That may have made it sound easy, but in another anecdote he recalled listening to “Homesick” on playback “200 times until I fell asleep.”
More revealing still was McGinn’s attempt at singing “Heaven,” which he prefaced by saying, “I’m going to sound ridiculous doing this first verse.” When he then dropped his voice to a seemingly unnatural octave, the crowd gave an enthusiastic cheer, before he handed off the next verse by calling out, “Give ’em what they want!” As Brown lingered on the song’s closing notes, his range was brought into perspective: So broad are his talents that two of his friends had to throw their voices just to imitate him. Even then, Brown handled the spoken-word rap of “Learning,” which closed out the show, all by himself.
But the show wasn’t just about Brown and his friends. Towards the end of the set, he called a young woman named Chelsea McClendon up to the stage. A native of Dallas, McClendon — who was selected to meet Brown ahead of the show as part of a special Hilton members program — explained that she, like Brown, was raised by a single mother, and is herself an aspiring country singer.
If McClendon was surprised to be called up during the show, she was in for a bigger shock when Brown then invited her to join her on “What Ifs.” The crowd threw up their hands in celebration as she took up her first vocal, as Brown gave her high fives and fist bumps. “Come on!” he shouted in encouragement, singing face to face with her, and for a few moments Brown was the mentor, blushing with pride and living in the moment.