Expectations were running high for country sensation Chris Stapleton’s Santa Barbara Bowl debut even before he had to cancel the show’s original date due to vocal strain. His arrival on Tuesday, May 10 was certainly worth the wait, and from the opening choruses of his ACM song of the year, “Nobody to Blame,” it was clear that his voice had recovered and that this was going to be one great night. With longtime Willie Nelson compadre Mickey Raphael on harmonica, his wife Morgane on backing vocals, and a simple two-piece rhythm section of bass and drums, Stapleton showed that between his untamed voice and alternately sweet and slashing guitar playing, he has what it takes to command any venue. Following “Nobody to Blame” with “Traveller” and “Fire Away,” he settled into a groove that would satisfy fans of Al Green, and not just the country music folks who were already on board. Deftly blending blues rock guitar with big choruses and even bigger expressive shouts that rang out all the way to the top of the Bowl, Stapleton found the place where all the great American musical genres meet. Morgane Stapleton offered a gorgeous version of “You Are M
y Sunshine,” but don’t let that make you think this was a tame set for a quiet crowd. Concession lines were long all night, and when Stapleton played “Might As Well Get Stoned” clouds soared as the crowd roared.
As Stapleton finished the main set with “Tennessee Whiskey” and the night with several encores including “Whiskey and You,” musical and social boundaries dissolved like ice melting under the stars. With new music this immediately satisfying around, it’s bound to be another great summer.