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  • Review/Photos: Chris Stapleton

    On the final stop of his first full tour as a headliner, Chris Stapleton stuck to the setlist. When your songs are as strong as his, that’s not a bad thing.

    Stapleton’s All-American Road Show Tour, which started in May 2017, concluded its third and final leg Sunday night at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena.  Playing songs in support of his second and third studio albums — the two-volume From A Room — as well as the multiple platinum seller Traveller, Stapleton’s mix of pure country and full-throated soul was on full display.

    From the opener (“Midnight Train to Memphis”) to the closer (“Outlaw State of Mind”), the audience was treated to a generous mix of 19 songs from the three CDs. Because I was walking from the pit where I took photos during the first two numbers, I heard but did not see “Nobody to Blame” and most of “Hard Livin’,” but managed to get seated in time for a sublime version of “Millionaire.”

    That was followed by a stunning version of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” featuring opener Brent Cobb. Two songs later, Marty Stuart joined Stapleton on stage for a cover of his “Now That’s Country” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”

    At that point, it was hit after hit — “Whiskey and You,” “Broken Halos,” “Second One to Know,” “Traveller,” “I Was Wrong,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Parachute,” and the pre-encore closer “Tennessee Whiskey.” “Was It 26” and “Outlaw State of Mind” closed the show.

    What I appreciate most about Stapleton is his no b.s., music-first approach to performance, whether it’s in the studio or on stage. Live, each song is treated with care, appropriately loud or quiet depending on what it demands. The stage setup is bright but not overwhelming. The road-tested band is as solid as Stapleton’s songs.

    It’s been a heady year and a half for Stapleton, who in February became the first artist to hold the top three spots on Billboard’s country album chart. In July 2017, he played three days in support of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers; three months later, Petty was dead. During a break between the first and second legs of the tour, he performed on Saturday Night Live with Sturgill Simpson and was featured on “Say Something,” a duet with Justin Timberlake.

    Seven months ago, Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, had twins. On Friday, he announced from the stage at Madison Square Garden that their fifth child is on the way.

    Now, except for performing at Joe Walsh’s “VetSaid 2018” benefit this weekend in Tacoma, Wash., he’s not scheduled to play again until March. Here’s hoping he enjoys the respite while we wait for the next classic album to emerge.

    I’ve shot numerous concerts, shows and outdoor music festivals over the past several years, but this was my first experience photographing a show in a 14,000-seat arena. Unfortunately, due to traffic and a ticket mix up, I could not shoot Brent Cobb’s opening set, but I did catch Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives as well as Stapleton from the narrow pit.

    Stuart’s eight-song set included three originals (“Lesson in Love,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’, and the closer “Time Don’t Wait”) as well as five classic covers (“Country Music Got a Hold on Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Ring of Fire,” “Orange Blossom Special,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”). Throughout, the singer and country music historian managed to transcend the arena’s size and turn it into a small club. And that’s no small feat.

    Highly enjoyable.

  • Chris Stapleton & 'Fire Away'

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.

    ••••••

    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”

    ••••••

    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.