NEW YORK -- "I'm a country singer. How the hell did I end up playing at Madison Square Garden?" Blake Shelton asked during his Friday night (Aug. 1) show at the storied New York arena. "I am freaking out!"
But despite this expression of discomposure, Shelton played the high-profile date on the second leg of his Ten Times Crazier tour as if the 18,000-capacity venue was a roadhouse in his native state of Oklahoma. Instead of grand gestures and broad, impersonal exhortations to the audience, Shelton shared his natural, easygoing charm with the crowd, keeping things as casual and intimate as an arena concert can be.
Plenty of talent was trotted out before Shelton even took the stage, of course. Up-and-coming duo Dan + Shay kicked off the evening, followed by The Band Perry, who duly served up No. 1 hits like "If I Die Young" and "Better Dig Two," not to mention their latest single, "Chainsaw," and their twanged-up cover of Queen's raunchy '70s rocker "Fat Bottomed Girls."
Neal McCoy delivered a miniset between the Perry siblings and Shelton. The '90s country star has plenty of history with Shelton and his spouse, Miranda Lambert. The couple produced McCoy's 2012 album, XII, and as McCoy mentioned between songs, he even sang at their wedding.
In the midst of a set that included both his 1994 signature hit, "Wink," and his sinuous new single, "Can You Do This," the 56-year-old singer wryly quipped, "Those of you who don't know who I am, turn around and ask somebody over 30."
Shelton's set opened with the perfect one-two punch of good-time country rockers "All About Tonight" and "The More I Drink" before changing the mood with the heart-on-sleeve balladry of his 2008 No. 1 hit "She Wouldn't Be Gone." A couple of tunes later, he was in full-on Outlaw mode with the no-apologies "Kiss My Country Ass," from his 2010 Hillbilly Bone EP.
By the time he got to "Some Beach," his No. 1 song from a decade ago, Shelton begged the audience's indulgence as he pulled out a cowboy hat "just for the sake of reconnecting with my old self." The crowd erupted with laughter when the hat turned out to include a longhaired wig evoking the hirsute look of Shelton's younger years.
Shelton didn't ignore his latest album, Based on a True Story, though. Having already played the hits "Doin' What She Likes" and "Mine Would Be You" earlier in the set, he also got around to the No. 1 single "Sure Be Cool If You Did," and brought out his former teammate from The Voice, Gwen Sebastian -- who had been singing backup all night -- to recreate their hit duet, "My Eyes."
Sitting down with his guitar for a pair of solo acoustic tunes that he described as "the two most important songs of my life," Shelton proceeded to play a poignant version of "Over You," a song he and Lambert co-wrote about Shelton's late brother, which appeared on Lambert's 2011 album, Four the Record. He followed that intensely personal song by going back to the beginning of his career for a stripped-down take on his first-ever single (and first No. 1), "Austin."
By the time Shelton was ready to bring the set to a close a few songs later, he returned to his latest album for the ubiquitous, double-platinum party-starter "Boys 'Round Here." Storming the stage anew moments later for the encore, Shelton charged into his version of the '80s hit "Footloose," which he cut for the 2011 remake of the film of the same name. In theory, it might seem unlikely that the most highly charged moment of a Blake Shelton show would be a 30-year-old Kenny Loggins tune, but when the long tall Okie and his band surged into the revved-up rocker, the Garden was instantly transformed into an arena-size version of the film with jubilant dancing as far as the eye could see.
After delivering the second song of the encore, the 2011 No. 1 ballad "God Gave Me You," Shelton bid the crowd goodnight, declaring his wonderment at the evening's circumstances once more.
"Never in a million years did I ever think I'd be playing in this place right here," he confessed.
It was immediately apparent, however, that several thousand people in the arena considered Shelton's presence there to be right on the mark.