Kenny Chesney owns one of the most authentic country voices of all time and has applied it to a succession of contemporary country classics. But his chiseled physique speaks to spending every spare minute at the gym.
Luke Combs, by contrast, looks like he spends his days driving a tow truck. Or behind the counter at a feed store. Or checking IDs at the door of a college town bar. He is the physical manifestation of the rural working man archetype, from his trucker cap, scruffy beard and sweaty face to his thick torso, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
None of which would matter if Combs didn’t also possess a hearty, blue collar, honky-tonk-hero voice and a talent for writing the sort of wordplay and hooks that are country radio catnip. His won’t-be-denied charisma and air of authenticity also help.
On Tuesday night inside a sold-out Smoothie King Center, Combs was clearly fired up for his first concert since being crowned entertainer of the year at the 2021 Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 10. This show, like most of his tour, was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Thank you for showing up on a Tuesday night two years after you bought your tickets,” he said.
The in-the-round stage configuration maximized the arena’s capacity. Combs and his seven-man band made their way to the open-sided stage in the middle of the arena floor as the PA system blasted a recording of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” They rolled that song’s energy right into Combs’ own “Cold As You,” as he drop-kicked a red Solo cup into the crowd.
“Honky Tonk Highway” balanced the thumping beat of arena rock with a distinct twang. As Combs strummed an acoustic guitar to lead the band on “When It Rains It Pours,” more than 16,000 voices joined in.
The 31-year-old North Carolina native came across like a beefier Bocephus as he worked all points of the stage, heaving himself into the task. He gripped the microphone tightly near his face, as if he were barking at it rather than singing into it. When the lyrics of “1, 2 Many” suggested “the night’s still young, so what you say we shotgun one?,” Combs obliged by shotgunning a beer.
His musicians, arrayed across all four of the stage’s perimeters and atop a revolving platform at its center, did their part, making eye contact with and otherwise engaging fans. They were introduced while banging out a medley of Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” and Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.”
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Combs is in that sweet spot where he’s reached the top rung of the ladder but still remembers what life was like at the bottom. “I never would have imagined that a guy like me would be doing anything like what’s going on in this room tonight,” he admitted.
He sustained momentum and kept the crowd invested across the show’s hour and 40 minutes, even during a slower mid-section highlighted by a mandolin-garnished “Even Though I’m Leaving.”
He continued to pay the 60-odd members of his road crew and band during the 18 months COVID-19 prevented them from touring. “I got to pay them because of you,” he said to his ticket-buying fans. “I hope we can put on a good enough show where you think it was worth it.”
Struggling artists may joke about not forgetting where they come from, but “then all of a sudden things progress and it becomes a real conversation,” said Combs, who will headline stadiums in 2022. “I always want to remember how this started and how it used to be.”
To that end, he strummed a guitar alone for “This One’s For You.” Similarly, the huddled, acoustic rendering of “Falling For You Still” harkened back to barnstorming radio stations across the country, meeting programmers and potential fans.
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They then fast-forwarded to the present day, when Combs dominates country radio with the likes of “Does To Me,” his hit collaboration with Eric Church, a hero and mentor. The whole of the arena sang along with gusto to a “Lovin’ On You” laced with Kurt Ozan’s pedal steel guitar. Combs dug into the chorus of Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man” and stomped through the swaggering “South On Ya.”
A final flurry of his courtship ballad “Beautiful Crazy,” “She Got the Best of Me” and his smash “Hurricane” wrapped up the regular set. He eased into the encore alone with keyboardist Neil Tankersley for “Better Together,” then pulled out all the stops for a huge final “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” the country-est of country anthems.
Earlier in the night, “Doin’ This,” a song he premiered on the recent CMA Awards telecast, made its concert debut. Written during the pandemic, it addressed the question of what Combs would do if he couldn’t play music. The answer was, he’d still be playing music, still, as he sang, want to “have a Friday night crowd in the palm of my hand.”
Or a Tuesday night crowd.