Blake Shelton was imploring his Buffalo crowd to sing along when he tossed in a little motivation.
“If I read a bad review tomorrow,” he said, “it’s all y’all’s fault.”
Here’s that review. And the verdict: Both Shelton and his five-digits crowd of newly anointed backup singers inside First Niagara Center get a double thumbs-up, flying-colors, cool-cliché-of-your-choice grade.
But would it matter if they didn’t? Not one bit.
Shelton, 39, is one of country music’s – and pop culture’s – shiniest stars. He’s an arena headliner, a coach on “The Voice,” and for good or not, has even reached the point of being tabloid fodder.
A good review to him is as meaningful as a cup of coffee to a pot-a-day drinker. Or, to keep in line with the theme of much of Shelton’s music and stage banter, a shot of something stronger to someone who can guzzle it. You build a tolerance.
Each sip tastes good, but it’ll take a lot to feel the effect.
There’s a greater question, though – When you reach Shelton’s heights of stardom, fans will show up loyally and enthusiastically. But are they getting the performer they paid for? Is Shelton connecting?
When he played Darien Lake a couple of summers back, I thought he didn’t. I thought Shelton pounded through his set without any real connection to the crowd, save for when he sang about his lost brother.
Some readers agreed. Many didn’t. I expect most will join me this time on this thought: On St. Patrick’s Day in Buffalo, Shelton deliver a party with rocking celebration and some poignancy too.
Most of his nearly two-hour set was the former, from a bright and colorful entrance to “Neon Light” to a playful bounce through “Some Beach.”
But Shelton took full advantage of his repertoire of heartfelt slower songs and ballads. He stood alone with his guitar at the foot of the short runway that jutted into the center of the crowd and sang acoustic versions of older songs like “Austin” and “The Baby.”
At other points, with his seven-piece band backing him, Shelton circled the stage and sang to the fans that surrounded him at every angle.
For songs like “She Wouldn’t Be Gone” and “Over,” Shelton’s tall, linebacker frame wrapped in jeans and a pinstriped black button-down accentuated his delivery. It was the man, a microphone and a squared-jaw delivery that conveyed a man completely immersed in the emotions of his music.
Shelton talked to the crowd plenty, and while he didn’t delve into the headline aspects of his personal life, anyone who’s aware couldn’t help but wonder if any of the feelings from his recently ended marriage to country star Miranda Lambert (and his current relationship with “Voice” judge Gwen Stefani) fueled his delivery.
That’ll remain a mystery, and probably for best. A touch of mysteriousness is part of Shelton’s brand.
Shelton’s first act, Chris Janson, opened the evening splashily with a tidal wave of harmonica. Janson, a self-proclaimed “135-pound skinny white boy” of a rising country star, strutted onstage with his shaggy dark hair framing a mouth pressed against a harmonica and microphone.
That served as the entry point into “Back in My Drinkin’ Days,” a redneck-ish, rock-ish whirl through, well, exactly what the title of the song suggests.
With songs like “Power of Positive Drinkin’ ” and “White Trash,” count Janson among those country artists who embrace some of the genre’s staple topics. It’s an approach that works: The 29-year-old’s single “Buy Me a Boat” hit No. 1 on the country charts and he’s up for a trio of Academy of Country Music Award next month.
Janson’s music blends the traditional twang of country with a rock-inspired bass, and his delivery is fun and personal. After one song, he traded his T-shirt get-up for a Sabres jersey, and whipped up the crowd readily by animating his music with playful eyes and another kinetic harmonica performance to close his half-hour set.
He left to a chorus of cheers that only grew louder when Shelton arrived onstage a half hour later. Call it a high-pitched, raucous and nearly unanimous set of good reviews from the critics Shelton needs most. And he’s had them for a long time.