It was like Friday night at college. Back before iPhones. When Mommy and Daddy had no idea what transpired, when you forgot about studies, raised a glass, and hijinks ensued.
And Luke Bryan was the ringleader.
I got there early, to see the opening act, one Dustin Lynch, who was supported by a band made up of three guitarists and a drummer. For a thirty minute set? Rock and roll lives on in modern country. And music lives on at the Forum.
It’s the respect.
Normally you go to the venue and are treated like crap. Inundated with marketing messages, brushed aside by the rent-a-help that doesn’t give a crap, never mind feeling like a displaced person in an arena where sports rule and the victories of these gladiators are enshrined overhead with the message that the arts are a second-rate pursuit.
But not at the Forum. Which was clean, sans endless ads and sports memorabilia, and featured an endless buffet of gourmet food for this event which did not draw the insiders of Hollywood. I didn’t recognize a single soul in the Forum Club other than manager extraordinaire Coran Capshaw and Forum employees, yet the red carpet had been rolled out for these poseurs and wannabes, how cool!
Dustin Lynch took the stage after the PA blared AC/DC. It’s country that’s inherited the rock mantle, that has embraced the classics. And when the guitars worked their way into a frenzy I told myself there was nothing like live music, nothing like the experience of being there. You can talk VR all you want, but you can’t FEEL IT! You can’t marvel at the attendees strolling by in their outfits. And one of the treats is being completely outside the mainstream, in a cocoon, where you and your brethren rule. All the acts paid fealty to Southern California, but the venue might as well have been on the moon. We were insulated from influences and judgments, and that felt so cool.
Little Big Town occupied the middle slot. They played “Girl Crush” and “Pontoon,” most of their set was taken up by recent tracks. But the highlight was “Boondocks”… When the assembled multitude, including me, stood on our feet, thrust our arms in the air and exclaimed…
I feel no shame
I’m proud of where I came from
I was born and raised in the boondocks
Now Jimi Westbrook claimed to be from a hamlet of 3,000, whereas most in attendance had probably never been in the woods, but at heart we all feel like we come from a small town, alienated, with our families as our main influence.
I loved hearing the anthem “I’m With The Band.” And Little Big Town also covered Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” demonstrating their classic rock bona fides, but…
Everybody was there to see Luke Bryan. Possibly the biggest name in country music. He’s excoriated by the red dirt authoritarians for being a pretty boy bro, but it’s Luke who has the hits, a treasure trove of them.
“Rain Is A Good Thing” was the opener, a cliched number about corn making whisky which makes one’s baby feel a little bit frisky. But the energy was UNDENIABLE! Luke, who turns out to be quite tall and beefy, the epitome of a hunk, thrust off his jacket, was bouncing in his t-shirt and I finally got his sexual appeal.
You see the last time I’d seen Luke Bryan was at the Hollywood Bowl. He performed, but that was not his show. Last night I got the full on experience. And I was stunned that it was so LOOSE!
Everything’s choreographed these days. Not only the dancing, but the songs themselves, oftentimes they’re printed on the laminate. Go from one town to another and you’re gonna get the same show.
But not last night.
Luke reached into the audience to grab a coat with stars upon it. He tried it on, attempting to sing at the same time, missing a few words, no hard drive filling them in, but when he finally got it on and the sleeves were so short and he was smiling you started to wonder, WHAT IS THIS? We’re used to an assault by an hermetically sealed entity we can see but not touch, whereas the only difference between Luke and those in attendance seemed to be that he was on stage. He was the charismatic guy in your dorm who pulled a Solo cup full of beer from the keg and bellowed at the top of his lungs THAT WE WERE GONNA HAVE THE GREATEST NIGHT OF OUR LIVES!
You know that experience, right? The college drinking ritual. It’s about having fun and testing limits. In search of god knows what, but we’re gonna go there!
And he’s playing his hits. Talking in between numbers. Not to excess, like Adele, but with enough information to create intimacy. He thanked Little Big Town for performing and then went into more than a few bars of “Girl Crush,” which was mind-bending, this dreamboat on stage sans accompaniment other than bass testifying to…his love of women? Funny and intriguing all at the same time.
And there was a giant runway into the audience. From which Luke could reach down and communicate with those in attendance. He asked if there were any schoolteachers there, and when he found some he told them their students were there too and Monday morning everybody was gonna know they were there drunk.
And he asked for and found a bachelorette party. There were a ton of women there, Luke said the ratio was ten to one, and that if we males couldn’t get laid… Like I said, it was akin to a frat party, but before the blackouts and the untoward sexual activity. It was a celebration that seemed unique, that we were privileged to attend.
And everybody was singing along. And I’ve experienced this at many a show, especially Taylor Swift performances. But this audience wasn’t that young, teenagers were in a distinct minority, most people were middle aged, they were music fans, they needed these tunes, they bought the albums, they knew all the songs by heart, no matter how deep the cuts.
And then Luke did “Play It Again.”
And with the audience taking over parts it was a victory lap for a track that embodies the essence of modern country music, a rock-based sound that is all about life…the trials and tribulations, the triumphs. You sat there (and stood there!) and thought about moving to Tennessee or South Carolina, far from the metropolis, where life was solely for the living, where your experiences mattered, where you weren’t chasing fame, just laughs.
And Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town flew up from the depths with Luke to sing their duet “Home Alone Tonight.”
And after bringing out the rest of Little Big Town Luke called for the Patron. You see tequila adds fuel to the fire. And after an a cappella take of Tupac’s “California Love,” tiny red cup were passed around and everybody took a shot, and then another, and then the assembled multitude, Luke and all four members of Little Big Town, sang the Ed Sheeran hit “Thinking Out Loud.”
And that was good, but the moment became transcendent when they segued into Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” with the sex oozing from the stage, the audience oiled for…
This was a revival show. Sans religion and focused on music. This was not static, but something that lived and breathed, imperfect and constantly changing, just like you and me.
Dustin Lynch reappeared and the two extracted beer from a Yeti and passed it down to the throng.
And then came an extended version of “Huntin’, Fishin’ And Lovin’ Every Day.”
If I could make a livin’ from walkin’ in the woods
You can bet I’d be sittin’ pretty good
High on a hill lookin’ at a field downwind
If I can make a nickel off ‘a turnin’ them bass
Never worry about the price of gas
I’d be wheelin’ and dealin’ and sittin’ there reelin’ ’em in
The four guitars are wailing, Luke has strapped on an axe and is duetting with the lead player and I’m sitting there wondering, maybe he has it right, maybe the rat race is not quite what it’s cracked up to be, all of us trying to get ahead for fear of being left behind, working so hard for our leisure that we’ve got no time off.
Now I don’t want to say there weren’t some jingoistic comments made. When Jimi Westbrook went on about how America is the greatest country in the world I winced, it’s this blind patriotism that keeps people away from country music. Then again, by time he was done, Jimi had included everyone as an American, unlike Donald Trump, so I forgave him. Luke thanked the military, and then the police and firefighters, and I’m not saying we don’t need ’em and they aren’t doing a good job, but I wonder what they’d have to say in Charlotte and Oklahoma right about now. But when Luke went down the ladder to include transit police and then stopped at the TSA, not sure whether to give them a pass or not, you had to laugh.
The sound is pure rock and roll.
But the politics…are too often questionable.
But the songs, we can relate. As Luke said when he told us to sing along with “Drink A Beer,” we’ve all lost someone, we’ve all got someone we can lift a beer to.
And there you have it. After Dustin’s thirty minutes, Little Big Town’s hour and Luke’s nearly two, it was all done.
But what was it?
It was like it always was and forevermore should be. It was just like the seventies, we were inside the Forum, thrilled by Gibsons, detached from an outside world that neither understood nor accepted us.
This is white music. This is not a big tent.
Then again, Luke did sing the Florida Georgia Line hit he cowrote and performed on, “This Is How We Roll,” which has got more to do with urban pop than Merle Haggard. You see the makers of this music may come from the South, but they’ve got cable TV and the internet, they’ve been exposed to the city influences just like you and me.
She was sittin’ all alone over on the tailgate
Tan legs swingin’ by a Georgia plate
This is how it happens. We’re in a new environment, off at school, at a new job, and we catch a glimpse…
I was lookin’ for her boyfriend
Thinkin’ no way she ain’t got one
We’re all insecure, we’re all checking ourselves, looking to get up the gumption to take a risk, that’s the essence of not only love, but LIFE!
She was like, come here boy I wanna dance
‘Fore I said a word, she was takin’ my hand
We’re trolling for action, looking for a response, and nothing gets our adrenaline pumping more than gaining reciprocity. You like me? You wanna play with me? HOW COOL IS THAT!
Spinnin’ me around ’til it faded out
That’s what being at the show was like, caught up in the maelstrom with fifteen thousand other souls on the exact same page. All we could say was…
PLAY IT AGAIN!