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You know you’re at a country concert when the singer surfaces from beneath the center-of-the-arena stage standing atop a shiny black pick-up truck, surrounded by a circle of fire.
Need more proof of country cred? How about when, later on, rising from underneath that same stage is a cooler of beer, from which the performer pulls a couple of cans to hand down to happy audience members.
Or when that same stage — yes! again! — reveals a pier so the singer could sit, dangle his legs off the end of it, strum the guitar and croon, “So I’m gonna sit right here/On the edge of this pier/Watch the sunset disappear/And drink a beer.”
Such were some of the down-home theatrics of Luke Bryan, who on Thursday gave the first of two nights of concerts at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The gigs were just a week into his 2014 “That’s My Kind of Night” tour. Bryan is scheduled to play a few stadium dates later this year, and he seems already to be gearing up with a bigger-is-better/reaching-the-masses ethos.
As he said in a news conference about this tour: “My main thing is more lights, more speakers, more video, more camera guys, more things to make it a very special, interactive experience with the fans.”
More of everything did, in fact, rule the day, as befitting a performer who has become one of Nashville’s biggest names over the past year. There’s a reason he was named Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Bryan’s voice doesn’t have a whole lot of character, but it works well enough in service of his girls-trucks-beer tunes. What he has going for him, though, is an affability that fans respond to. He’s part good ol’ boy, part average Joe, part stealth hotshot. His aw-shucks magnetism doesn’t hurt when it comes to attracting an army of female fans. Neither, apparently, does his fit physique or his way with a dance move. His every hip roll and swivel elicited swoons and whoops.
The arena set-up — with a catwalk leading from the main stage to a huge circular platform in the middle of the room — made it easy for the audience-friendly Bryan to get up close with fans all over the venue. He lied down on the stage so he could take photos with concert-goers using their cell phones — all while he kept on singing. He brought a girl up onstage — she must have been 6 or 7 years old — when he sang “Someone Else Calling You Baby”; he kneeled next to her and temporarily replaced the tiara she was wearing with his own baseball cap. Very cute.
The atmosphere stayed boisterous throughout much of the evening, thanks to a cache of songs like “That’s My Kind of Night,” “All My Friends Say” and “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).” Bryan tossed in a couple of curveballs, too. He rapped Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” — and not too shabbily, either. He broke up his own hit “I Don’t Want This Night to End” with a bit of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” because, well, I guess because they both have lyrics about putting your hands up in the air.
Bryan had two opening acts — one of whom (Cole Swindell) was fine but forgettable, and the other of whom (Lee Brice) was dynamite. Like Bryan, Brice has had a run of chart success recently, with “A Woman Like You” “Hard to Love,” the emotional “I Drive Your Truck” and the ridiculously catchy “Parking Lot Party.” His rugged voice proved compelling, and the song that he says will be his next single — the ballad “I Don’t Dance,” which he wrote for his wife — sounded just beautiful.