Chris Stapleton Shows His Inner Stax Soul Man at Album Release Party In New York: Live Review

Chris Stapleton
Live At Mercury Lounge

In recent years, more professional songwriters have been making the move from studio rooms to stage center. This could be due to coincidence -- a critical mass of musical talent coming of age around the same time -- but it's more likely that a music industry facing tough times chooses to fall back on the safe bets: the hitmakers. You can observe this trend in pop (take Nasri, frontman of Magic!), in R&B (try Rico Love, releasing his first album this month), and most of all in country: future torchbearers like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt spent several years writing in the trenches before stepping out on their own.

Chris Stapleton, the latest addition to the list with his solo debut, Traveller, has been penning songs in Nashville for more than a decade; his style, a gravelly stew of southern rock, bleeding-heart soul and hurt, hungover country, has barely changed during this period. Contrary to narratives that suggest someone like him cannot avoid being ground to bits by the strong currents of the pop-crossover imperative, he has thrived as a writer without touching a drum machine or a rap lyric.

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At his album release show last night (May 5th) in New York City, Stapleton delivered a set that was as much soul revue as Nashville. A cover can tell you a lot about an artist: singers tend to reshape the music of others into a form that they're comfortable with. On Traveller, Stapleton tips his hand when he retools "Tennessee Whiskey" -- originally performed by David Allan Coe, and made into a hit by none other than George Jones -- as a slow-burn ballad with a bassline reminiscent of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind."

After his first two songs at the Mercury Lounge -- "Nobody To Blame" and the new album's title track -- blistering country-soul made up the visceral heart of Stapleton's show. "Fire Away," with a dragging beat in a classic soul-ballad time signature, set the tone. Then Stapleton moved into the Coe/Jones cover, laying off his guitar-playing during the first verse to let the rhythm section, thick and malleable, emphasize the groove.

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During this stretch, Stapleton landed knock-out punch after knock-out punch. He dug into the back catalog for a loose, swamp-funk version of "Drinking Dark Whiskey," which he first wrote for a Gary Allan record more than a decade ago, and followed that with "Whiskey And You," a track that originally appeared in an overly-syrupy version on a Tim McGraw album in 2007. Here, fitting the run of soul-inspired numbers, it was reconstituted with the easy rising-and-falling guitar line that formed the backbone of countless Stax tunes. (This arrangement was almost too warm when compared to the uncompromisingly broken version recorded on the album).

Stapleton said it was the first time some of these songs had ever been performed on stage, but the band -- J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums, Morgane Stapleton on backup vocals, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Robby Turner on pedal steel -- was sure-footed, and the audience was vocal in their praise. During "Tennessee Whiskey," the chorus of whoops and hollers that met the end of each Stapleton line pushed the show into gospel territory. At the end of the night, the singer declared, "This might be the most fun I've ever had playing music." Maybe he says that in every town, but the band radiated happiness as they romped through their songs -- which is not a given, and the crowd responded in kind.

The fervor reached its peak with "Sometimes I Cry," another scorched-earth soul number that appeared late in the set. Stapleton went on swooping, melismatic, sandpapery runs and let out a number of unfettered cries, his voice seeming even more flexible and alive compared with the chopped, half-strangled riffs he smashed out on his guitar. Here he reached towards a legacy of great white soul shouters -- Wayne Cochran, Alex Chilton in his Box Tops days, Eddie Hinton. At one moment, Stapleton stepped away from the mic. Unamplified, he filled the room with a chilling scream.

He didn't play much more after that, maybe one more song, before leaving the stage with his band. The crowd clamored for an encore, but Stapleton did not return. He had nothing left to prove.