ATHENS, Ga. — Saturday (April 13) was a meaningful night for Jason Aldean as the Georgia native headlined the first-ever concert in Sanford Stadium, home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my career, playing here,” the lifelong fan and freshly crowned ACM male vocalist of the year told the sold-out crowd.
Wearing a red UGA T-shirt and his trademark straw cowboy hat, Aldean drew more than 60,000 cheering fans and brought along his Night Train tour partners Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett, plus fellow Georgian and new ACM entertainer of the year Luke Bryan.
Surprise guest Ludacris appeared, as well, joining Aldean to reprise their country rap performance of “Dirt Road Anthem” from the 2012 CMA Awards.
Earlier in the day, Aldean talked with reporters about what the show meant to him.
“Growing up, I was a big fan,” he said. “For anybody from this state or a fan of this team, that [stadium] is like a church. To walk in and see my stage in the end zone, I’m sitting there thinking to myself ‘When did it get like this?’ I think we’ve got 50 trucks here for this week. It’s ridiculous.”
He went on to explain a moment of reflection with close friend Bryan, who also began his career singing in the small clubs throughout Georgia.
“We talked a little bit today,” Aldean said. “He was too nervous to even see the stage. He didn’t want to go in. It’s like, ‘Can you believe we went from playing these little hole-in-the-wall bars to playing the Georgia mecca?’”
The weekend before, Bryan had one-upped his buddy by winning his first entertainer of the year prize.
“I was the first one onstage congratulating him,” Aldean said of Bryan’s ACM Awards win. “He’s one of my best friends. He came out on the road with me for the first time in 2010. To see where his show has gone since then, it’s no comparison. Hell, he’s on fire right now. Everywhere you turn you see teeth,” he joked.
“The mentality for this show is that we want to go out and kick ‘em in the teeth, ram it down their throat and give it everything we’ve got,” said Aldean. “When they leave, you want them to feel like they just got hit by a freight train.”
After tailgating through the day and having Aldean and Bryan tear up their night, many fans likely did feel that way.
He dedicated “Nothing Town” to the Sanford Stadium crowd, saying “This one is about not growing up in a big city. I’m sure you guys can relate.”
“Amarillo Sky” brought a wave of nostalgia over the audience, followed by the steady roll of “Night Train.”
“I’ll be honest,” said Aldean taking a break about halfway through the show. “This is different than any song I’ve recorded. Do we have pics?”
A slide show of vintage looking photos appeared on the stage’s giant video screens while Aldean narrated and pointed out which band member was having his 1994 look displayed for the crowd’s amusement.
Arriving at the last photo, Aldean looked like a teenager and was sporting a blond bowl cut. Fans erupted in cheers and laughter as his current hit “1994″ began and Aldean screamed, “Justin Bieber, I had that shit, like, 10 years ago!”
His sense of history was a little off, but the playful jab at the Canadian teen sensation and his signature haircut found its mark, catapulting the band into their hit-filled drive to the finish.
Bryan bounded on to the stage to sing with Aldean on “The Only Way I Know,” and despite missing the third member of the collaboration, Eric Church, the two ramped up the camaraderie in the stadium with their obvious friendship.
Bryan showed why he deserved his entertainer of the year crown, performing a new set list and driving all the ladies in the audience wild with cat calls and his swiveling hips.
But his career-defining dance smash “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” was a free-for-all moment of energy, wrapping up a scream-inducing performance that also included “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “Country Man” and “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” among others.
Launching straight from Bryan and Aldean’s collaboration into “Dirt Road Anthem,” fans had no idea they were about to be treated to hip-hop star Ludacris in the song’s second verse. Stepping onstage in a leather varsity jacket with a UGA logo, the Atlanta native and hometown hero delivered his lines and led the crowd as they turned into a sea of waving arms.
As quickly as he arrived, Ludacris was gone, returning at the end of the song for a quick shout-out and round of thanks to Aldean and the fans.
For the encore, Aldean and his crack band blasted through “She’s Country” with the highest energy levels of the night, then closed things down with “Hicktown” and wave after wave of pyrotechnic fireballs.
We could feel the heat in stands with no problem at all, but Aldean’s hometown performance — the first ever in famed Sanford Stadium — put off plenty of heat of its own.
Aldean has three more stadium concerts scheduled this year — one at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and two others at Boston’s Fenway Park.