CHICAGO -- At the end of Luke Bryan's Sunday (Aug. 31) show in Chicago, he did his 2011 hit "I Don't Want This Night to End." And judging from the sold-out crowd standing their ground, it seemed like the feeling was mutual.
Usually after about an hour of a headliner's songs, fans are starting to look at their phones, check their watches and assess the best exit strategy. But not at this Soldier Field show. Even though Bryan had broken the attendance record for a country concert at the place -- exceeding Taylor Swift's 2013 show and Kenny Chesney's 2008 and 2012 shows -- it was as if all 60,000 of those Bryan fans just couldn't tear themselves away.
It's likely because Bryan knows how to entertain in a way that almost feels like a lost art -- keeping the crowd guessing all night long.
There was no predictable ballad-rocker-ballad-rocker cadence to the set. And when he pulled his openers back on stage to join him on tunes, they weren't even his own.
Bryan had the show's opener Cole Swindell come back out to do Florida Georgia Line's "This Is How We Roll," a song Swindell and Bryan both co-wrote with the band.
And when he brought another opener -- Lee Brice -- out to sing, Bryan called him the best singer and songwriters on planet Earth.
"Lee wrote a song for the Eli Young Band, but he doesn't do it in his show anymore. So I'm gonna make it do it for y'all tonight," Bryan said as he sat down at the piano with Brice on acoustic guitar by his side. The two of them, without any backing band, played "Crazy Girl," and took turns on lead vocals.
"Me and Lee ain't never heard it sound that good," Bryan said when it was over and he and Brice had given each other a couple of hearty hugs.
"Chill bump city," he added, trying to show a football stadium full of fans the goose-bumps on his arms.
Bryan stayed at the piano, alone, for a song he dedicated the farmers there, called "Shut It Down." It's off his last album but was never released as a single. And yet the crowd fell into kind of a hushed singalong with Bryan for the rural ballad.
He managed to work a few more classic country covers into the mix -- the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Fishin' in the Dark," Brooks & Dunn's "Hillbilly Deluxe" and David Lee Murphy's "Dust on the Bottle."
The rest of his show was filled with a mix of his own hits spanning his seven years in the spotlight, even going all the way back to his first couple of singles, "All My Friends Say" and "Country Man."
Bryan had opened the show with "That's My Kind of Night," rising up out of the stage on a black pickup truck surrounded by fire. Not fireworks, but actual fire. Which made for a spectacle worthy of some kind of '80s metal band.
But pyrotechnics aside, Bryan did his best to literally surround the fans with his music. The stage was set up with a catwalk out into the center of the floor seats and another two bridges coming off of both sides of the stage so Bryan and his band could walk out and over the crowd. So even his fans in the far, far away seats could get a little closer to Bryan and his songs.
Before Bryan took the stage, Dierks Bentley was there to help warm up the crowd for about an hour.
"This is the best night of my musical life. I'm still playing songs I played 10 years ago. And this might make my whole life right here," he said in the middle of his most recent No. 1 song, "Drunk on a Plane," when he'd let the audience take over lead vocals.
One enthusiastic fan was even able to join Bentley on stage during "Am I the Only One" so they could both shotgun beers. So after punching holes in the sides of two beer cans and drinking out of the sideways cans, they nearly emptied the beers in about five seconds. And that was only three songs into Bentley's set.
Earlier in the night, Brice had his own chance to take the massive stage in the end zone of the Chicago Bears' iconic football stadium. Even in a short set, Brice was able to showcase his range of songs from the this-is-how-we-mourn ballad "I Drive Your Truck" to "Beer," a deep cut off his Hard to Love album. For that one, he let the fans just getting settled in their seats listen to what he called "my favorite sound in the whole world" when he popped the top of a can of beer.
But Brice was hardly the only one on the all-guy concert bill singing about beer. Swindell, Bryan's former merchandise salesman, opened the show at 6 p.m. with a few drinking songs of his own. Even one called simply "Brought to You by Beer."