At Innings Festival at on Friday, I spotted a bearded dude in a cowboy hat directing the foot traffic leaving Tempe Beach Park. The men behind me debated whether the volunteer traffic cowboy was also multiplatinum recording artist and Justin Timberlake wingman Chris Stapleton. It wasn’t a totally crazy thought: Sturgill Simpson, who often gets lumped in with Stapleton as one of the modern saviors of “real country music,” mocked the Country Music Awards by busking outside the ceremony in 2017. Maybe Stapleton was trying to one-up his buddy. “Oh, you busked? That’s cute, Sturgill: I worked a music festival incognito, amigo.”
Of course it's a preposterous notion that Stapleton, one of the busiest musicians in Nashville, would show up two days early in Tempe just to dick around as an Innings staff member. Or that Stapleton wouldn't be immediately recognized by the throngs of people coming out to Innings to see him. And there were a lot.
The audience that gathered in front of the Home Plate Stage to see Stapleton close out Innings on Sunday was massive. No other set I saw at Innings drew as big or as enthusiastic a crowd as Stapleton's. They sang along to almost every song he played, inspiring the singer to warmly chuckle "Thank you for helping me out. Your singing sounds good."
The crowd was warmed up earlier in the evening by Counting Crows. The country fans were pretty familiar with their stuff, to the point that Adam Duritz let the crowd sing parts of the "Mr. Jones" chorus. Counting Crows' newer material received a mild reception, but the hits like "Long December" and "Hanginaround" drew appreciative Ric Flair-style "wooos" from the audience. They even drew a warm response when they dropped a respectful (and dull) cover of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
I will confess that I spent a good portion of the set mesmerized by Adam Duritz's hair. His iconic white boy dreads seem to have tripled in size since the '90s.
Stapleton was visually mesmerizing for a different reason: his majestic beard. The kind of flowing, wild chin mane that would guarantee him a spot on ZZ Top's lineup if they needed an extra guitar shredder onstage. Wearing a white cowboy hat, Stapleton commanded the crowd's attention as he and his band played in front of a backdrop of glowing blocks.
Earlier in the weekend, a Stapleton fan who had seen him before confided in me that "he's not exciting to watch, but he writes great songs." It turns out they were 100 percent on the money. Live, Stapleton isn't a hellraiser or an entertainer. He isn't there to crack jokes or drop bon mots. He's there to unleash some country thunder on the audience like a Southern-fried Zeus. On that score, he truly electrified the crowd.
Stapleton's guitar playing was clear as a bell and as loud as a car alarm. Opening his set with "Midnight Train to Memphis," Stapleton had the crowd enraptured from the first note. They sang along to "Nobody to Blame" like it was a honky-tonk "Hey Jude." Stapleton would alternate between electronic and acoustic throughout the night, going unplugged for tunes like "Millionaire."
Songs like "Hard Livin'" and "Tryin' to Untangle My Mind" would make just as much sense in 1970 or 1995 as they do today. It's lively and contemporary while being deeply rooted in a tradition that's as old and durable as blue jeans. Even country skeptics can bob their heads to the Grand Ole Opry beat and marvel at Stapleton's dexterous riffing.
When I first saw the schedule for the festival, it seemed bizarre that the "biggest" group on the bill, Queens Of The Stone Age, weren't closing out Innings. But seeing how turnt up the country crowd got for Stapleton, there's no question that he was the best person to put this festival to bed.
Last Night: Chris Stapleton's closing set at Innings Festival in Tempe
The Crowd: The Innings day three crowd looked like they're Country Thunder regulars. The younger, indie-loving audience from days one and two gave way to a huge crowd of folks rocking cowboy hats and shit-kicker boots.
Overheard: Chris Stapleton: "You sure do smell good out there ... I think you what I mean." He means weed, people. People were getting blazed like it was a Snoop Dogg set.
Random Notebook Dump: Noticed an interesting ratio in this crowd. For every three women wearing booty jean shorts, there was one dude gripping said shorts the same way you'd hold a bowling ball. It was as if these bros were worried their ladies would roll into the nearest gutter if they let go.