Last night at the sold-out Madison Square Garden stop of his Kill the Lights Tour, Luke Bryan opened with “Move,” the most recent Number One off his 2015 Kill the Lights album. The beat, appropriately, was first, thumping through the dark arena. Guitar soon followed, another propulsive riff drawn from the Billy Gibbons well that lies beneath Music Row and, finally, there was the singer, shaking his hips in silhouette, then running down the catwalk, then shaking his hips right there in the flesh. His hat was backwards by the end of the first verse. By the time he started the third, he had purred once, offered a shout-out to all the country girls and completed rigorous additional testing on the durability of his skintight jeans. “Y’all ready to honky-tonk with me, Manhattan?” he asked the New York City crowd. The country girls screamed their approval. Bryan purred again.
It wasn’t always like this. Bryan, now 40, debuted in 2007 with a charming yet anonymous album called I’ll Stay Me. (Its best song, “All My Friends Say,” is a country Dude Where’s My Car?, retracing what went down during a night of blackout partying.) The breakthrough came four years later, with Tailgates & Tanlines – the record that both invented and perfected bro country.
The subgenre may be in decline – slowly being replaced by a more singer-songwriter focused brand of country music – but Luke Bryan is still standing. And gyrating. When he reached “All My Friends Say” in last night’s set, he navigated around a cooler of beer that had been placed, altar-like, at the center of the catwalk. Some of those beers made it into the crowd. The rest were martyred in a stripper routine enjoyed by no one more than the stripper himself. Since Tailgates, Bryan has released 14 consecutive chart-topping singles, with “Fast,” a sentimental ballad about how quickly we age, on track to extend the streak. Placed in the middle of the set, the song didn’t undermine the drinking anthems so much as augment them with unexpected gravitas. Yes, it seemed to suggest, we must learn to appreciate those nights of blackout partying, because one day we will all be dust.
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Yet “Fast” is an enigma in the Bryan catalogue, a callback to the exact sort of linear songwriting, exemplified in Trace Adkins’ similar “You’re Gonna Miss This,” that bro country helped displace. In Bryan’s work, wit no longer holds the center of country music; rhythm and alliteration have pushed it to the side. His songs are still clever, but the cleverness that used to be found in tightly-crafted three-act stories and Brad Paisley-style wordplay has shifted toward melody and the way the words themselves sound. Songs like “That’s My Kind of Night,” performed here while fireballs blasting around the stage, don’t have many puns, but they brim with internal rhyme.
For this, Bryan has earned the ire of many self-proclaimed traditionalists. But traditionalists should know better: Bryan is far from the first country artist to foreground rhythm. What makes him so compelling – and to some, so confusing – however, is that he accesses the rhythm-first tradition of country music indirectly, by taking a detour through 2000s hip-hop.
From his perspective, it’s a natural move. But it’s one that troubles the idea that there was ever a pure, whole country tradition to begin with. Bryan’s country-rap admixture is usually described as a combination of two distinct forms of music, but he’s really just untying a knot formed by two ends of the same string.
Onstage last night, the singer never looked happier than when he was playing covers. Such has been the case at three previous New York City gigs by Bryan, from 2011 to the present. In the past, he’s interpreted Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Taio Cruz. This time, he played piano while opening act Brett Eldredge cooed Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” Then he and Eldredge helped the evening’s other opener, Brett Young, work through a version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” that also included much of “Let’s Get It On.” The Marvin Gaye portion proved useful when the three singers serenaded a country girl celebrating her birthday in the front row.
Bryan continued with “Drink a Beer” and “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Everyday,” a song that avoids any sense of subtext, before closing the main set with “I Don’t Want This Night to End.” The Tailgates & Tanlines single may still be the best thing he’s ever written. As a love song, it’s blissed-out and bittersweet. In more technical terms, it manifests the euphoria described in the lyrics by combining the pre-chorus and the chorus into one extended high. It’s the promise of an eternal present, and it slips away at exactly the moment you become aware of it: the night ends only when the singer realizes that he doesn’t want it to, when it occurs to him that it eventually will.
But this is show business, and Bryan is a two-time Entertainer of the Year for a reason. In a few minutes, he was back onstage for his encore: “Country Girl (Shake It for Me).” Those titular ladies shrieked, Bryan teased and the party raged on. Just this once, the night could continue.