Nashville's Bridgestone Arena shook and shimmied in time with Luke Bryan's well-defined hips for two nights Friday and Saturday (Oct. 18-19). The ACM entertainer of the year and America's newest household name brought his Dirt Road Diaries tour to town for back-to-back sellouts.
"My name is Luke Bryan, and I'm your host," beamed the good-natured Georgia boy about halfway through his performance. "Thank you so much from the bottom of my big ol' heart for selling this place out for two nights in a row."
Bryan likely wasn't that surprised since later in the night Mike Dungan -- chairman and CEO of Bryan's record label, Universal Music Nashville -- mentioned that every single show on this tour has been sold out, while his latest album, Crash My Party, took less than six weeks to be certified platinum.
Still, Bryan has honed his craft tirelessly and patiently since his debut album, 2007's I'll Stay Me. Fans have watched him climb from parking lots and cornfield concerts to co-hosting the ACM Awards with Blake Shelton. Pulling into his Nashville stop -- second to last on the tour -- Bryan was reaping the rewards of six years of hard work.
Rising from beneath the stage, the singer-songwriter arrived in Bridgestone silhouetted against a giant white screen and immediately sprinted to the end of his long, cross shaped catwalk for the opener, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye."
Wearing his signature black backwards ball cap, fitted black T-shirt and jeans ... oh, the jeans ... he sent the arena into a frenzy of screams with a thrust here and a wiggle there.
"I see me a whole lot of country girls that need a country man tonight," he teased.
He hardly slowed down through the beginning of the show, working every corner of the catwalk, never missing an opportunity to growl seductively for the crowd.
Conversely, he adorably sang "Someone Else Calling You Baby" with a starry-eyed little girl about the age of 5.
A mature, sexy, playful, romantic who gets women and loves kids, too?
"I bet he wears his wife out!" exclaimed a woman near me in the audience.
But make no mistake, he's still a dude's dude, schooled in the art of Southern frat house partying.
Soon two stagehands carried a big cooler to the edge of the catwalk while Bryan tossed beers into the crowd. A piano appeared, and Bryan and his band huddled around it.
"We can't do pickin' and grinnin' without one ingredient," he said, looking at his bandmates. "You gotta have a li'l moonshine."
He produced a quart jar with a smile and began passing it around, then set his hands on the keys for a mini-set of subdued ballads.
You might think the break in intensity would cause a rush on the restrooms and concession stands. Instead, Bryan seems to draw the crowd in. He makes an even stronger personal connection this way, teasing bits of pop songs and showing a vulnerable side on album tracks like "Too Damn Young."
"Play It Again" and "Shut It Down" from Crash My Party were crowd favorites, suggesting that most of them had actually bought the new album and maybe hinting at future singles.
But the reason this piano breakdown is part of the show at all is "Do I," Bryan's first No. 1 hit. Friday night, Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood (who co-wrote the song) came out as surprise guests, but on Saturday, Bryan kept the moment for himself.
As the singing from the audience intensified, Bryan sat back from the microphone and led a choir of more than 18,000 voices.
After taking a bow and shaking off all that emotion, Bryan and his band turned the party machine back on.
Openers Cole Swindell -- who once ran Bryan's merchandise table -- and Dierks Bentley reappeared for a high-octane version of "The Only Way I Know." Each had impressive sets earlier in the night with Bentley collecting various articles of clothing and, at one point, hilariously dropping his microphone into the crowd. (Fans were kind enough to return it to the relieved singer.)
Finally, Bryan's "Drunk on You," with its infamous "speakers go boom boom" line produced a massive singalong and led straight into "All My Friends Say," Bryan's first single and still a crowd-pleasing hit.
Cups of beer were distributed to the crowd as the star bounded offstage, only to be summoned back moments later.
After one more harrowing bout of hip shaking at each corner of the stage, Bryan finally made his exit with arms raised and muscles flexed, clearly at the peak of his entertaining prowess.
Many Nashville acts avoid hometown tour stops because Nashville audiences can be notoriously hard to motivate. But Bryan has now left that phase of his career behind. He could probably draw a crowd anywhere now, and if this concert was any indication, he can certainly command the attention of a diverse audience.
As the lights turned on, I looked around to make a startling observation:
Only one cowboy hat in the entire arena.