NEW YORK — The fact that Luke Bryan‘s first headlining concert at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (Jan. 25) sold out in five minutes and a second MSG appearance swiftly added for Sept. 12 was put on sale nine months in advance — and sold out at a similar speed — is a dramatic example of his superstar status solidifying before your eyes.
A subtler but more visceral indication could be seen even before the start of Bryan’s show with opening act Lee Brice. A runway led from the main stage to a huge, circular riser obviously intended for Bryan to bound around, and low flames could be seen just beginning to rise portentously up all along the perimeter. You don’t generally see that sort of pyrotechnic power at a state fair.
In due course, the giant screen above the stage was filled with the match-striking, flaming-arrow-shooting intro to the video for “That’s My Kind of Night,” from the singer’s latest platinum-selling album, Crash My Party, and the flames around the riser shot high in the air to form a fiery circle.
At the center was Bryan, perched atop a shiny black pickup truck. Clad in boots, black shirt, ball cap and form-fitting jeans, he began belting out the aforementioned No. 1 single that gives his current tour its name. Bryan’s tight-panted gyrations were an instant hit with the female portion of the crowd from teenage girls to their moms.
Racing back to the main stage, the genial Georgia boy strapped on an acoustic guitar as a huge drumbeat introduced his first-ever No. 1 hit, the 2010 single “Rain Is a Good Thing.” After bringing the tempo down a bit for the Tailgates & Tanlines hit “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” he shifted gears with his very first single, 2007′s rowdy, gold-selling barroom rocker “All My Friends Say.” He kept the rootsy vibe going by leaping straight into the Southern fried “Country Man,” another hit from his debut album, I’ll Stay Me.
Following the throbbing, midtempo slice of passionate paranoia that is his 2010 No. 1 “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” Bryan proudly predicted, “We’re gonna break all the beer sales records on the island tonight!” Meanwhile, the truck had been dutifully replaced by a piano, and Bryan sat down to pick out the gentle opening chords of his romantically yearning “Do I,” a platinum single from 2009.
Jumping back into the present, he tore into “Play It Again,” a tune with an urban-tinged groove, introducing it as his next single. Next, the moody, minor-key “Muckalee Creek Water” filled the midtown arena with a murky atmosphere as thick as the song’s Georgia swamp setting as the hard-rocking stomp culminated in a wailing guitar solo at the tune’s coda.
When Bryan trotted back out to the riser, an outsized beer cooler stood in the piano’s place, providing the perfect prop for the sand-speckled, good-time feel of “Suntan City” as the singer passed cans out to the crowd. The beer-buddy vibe continued with “If You Ain’t Here to Party” as Bryan’s earlier prediction about suds sales started to seem like a surer bet by the minute.
Highlighting his soft spot for hip-hop, Bryan flipped the script for his take on rapper Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ huge 2011 tune “Can’t Hold Us,” letting loose with a tricky-tongued rap atop a pounding dance beat. “Holy s**t, that was hard, New York,” he confessed afterwards, adding, “Now this one’s easy” as he led the audience into a singalong chorus to kick off his platinum-plated “Crash My Party,” an unconditional offer of emotional availability guaranteed to get the girls swooning.
Another set change on the riser soon found Bryan sitting on a wooden pier for the “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”-style sunset solitude of “Drink a Beer.” Two No. 1 singles from Tailgates & Tanlines closed the set — the slowly-surging power ballad “Drunk on You” and the punchier “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” with vocal effects adding a little R&B remix flavor to the latter. The heavy guitar crunch of “The Only Way I Know,” the Jason Aldean hit on which Bryan and Eric Church guested, fueled the first salvo of the encore. (No, there were no surprise guest appearances.)
Naturally, the crowd would have camped out at MSG overnight until they heard “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” the 2011 tune that shot Bryan’s career into the stratosphere. Fortunately, that possibility wasn’t put to the test as the song began booming across the Garden. When Bryan issued the title’s invitation, every girl in the audience, whether country or city, seemed eager to oblige, and the singer responded in kind, as searing lead guitar licks crackled behind him.
But at the close of the show, as if to prove he was there for the more masculine end of the audience, too, Bryan brought up an ambitious gent from the crowd to boogie with him on the riser before finally bidding his fans goodbye by shouting (with perhaps a hint of hard-earned triumph), “See you in September!”