“When this generation takes over,” announced Sam Hunt, speaking to a sea of teenagers and twenty-somethings last night in New York, “you’re going to tear down the walls that have been dividing us for too long.” Performing his first-ever sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, Hunt’s statement of forward-looking optimism, delivered midway through his thrilling 80-minute headlining set, was the closest thing to a mission statement the 32-year-old country singer-turned-R&B-loving pop star offered all night.
Armed with his array of syncopated Nashville slow jams, Hunt’s deeply optimistic belief in cultural collision – in the erasure of borders, the collapsing of genres, the clashing of pop traditions – was on full display during his tour-de-force performance on this marquee stop during his current 15 in a 30 Tour. Hunt’s show made clear just how much he prefers house parties to honky-tonks; the most, if not the only, conventionally country moments of the night came when Hunt sang either covers or songs he had written for others, like Billy Currington’s “We Are Tonight” or Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over.”
With only the three-year old LP Montevallo and a handful of singles to his name, Hunt had ample time to fill out his set with gestures that laid bare his artistic philosophy: a 10-minute, highly curated pre-show D.J. set that placed Backstreet Boys and Florida Georgia Line alongside Luis Fonsi and Selena Gomez; a show-opening sound collage that merged Martin Luther King, Ray Charles, Jeff Foxworthy and Dr. Dre in quick succession; and an extended mid-show monologue tracing Hunt’s musical coming-of-age that was accompanied by covers of Alan Jackson and R. Kelly.
The majority of Hunt’s set, however, was of course formed around spot-on renditions of highlights from the triple-platinum Montevallo. Set-opening rouser “Leave the Night On” and “Ex to See” found Hunt skipping around onstage, while down-tempo moments like “Cop Car” and “Make You Miss Me,” the latter of which began with Hunt performing by himself on piano, proved to be the evening’s emotional anchors.
Hunt is an easygoing and resolute headliner, confident in his material without ever coming across as overly eager to please. He delivered his mega-blockbuster “Body Like a Back Road” without fanfare, and never stretched out crowd favorites like “Take Your Time” and “Break Up In A Small Town” for more than a simple extra sing-along chorus.
Performing directly before Hunt, Maren Morris, another R&B disciple who draws equally from Rihanna and Shania Twain, delivered an impressive, no-nonsense nine-song set of songs from her 2016 breakthrough, Hero. Morris alternated between the warm intimacy of hits like “My Church” and “I Could Use a Love Song” and pop-flavored jams like “80s Mercedes” and “Rich,” before closing with a show-stopping take on “Second Wind,” complete with a snippet of Beyoncé’s “Halo.”
After a brief set from Ryan Follese, Chris Janson kicked the night off in earnest with an energetic set that previewed tracks from his forthcoming album Everybody while touching on the singer’s past hits as a songwriter and singer. After performing his signature “Buy Me a Boat,” Janson wrapped up his 45-minute set with a brash, pop-punk rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The irreverent Cash cover set the tone for the rest of the evening: a vision of modern mixtape country music that winks at the genre’s history even as it ignores much of its orthodoxy.