Blake Shelton lifted his black cup up like Lady Liberty’s torch, inviting an arena full of fans into his semi-sauced nation-state to pursue a little happiness.
“People came here tonight to raise some hell,” he said through a stubbly smirk.
Few like to raise it like Shelton, especially on his star-studded Friends and Heroes Tour, which played to 15,000 fans at a sold-out Amalie Arena Friday night.
Chalk it up to a wascally-wabbit desire to stand out in a crowd, or just all those years surrounded by interchangeable young singers on The Voice. But People’s former Sexiest Man Alive is doing it his way on this tour, swinging more dad than daddy by turning his tour into a history lesson.
Three veteran country stars, Trace Adkins, the Bellamy Brothers and John Anderson, all popped up to sing during Shelton’s approximately three-hour, 40-song set, as did opener Lauren Alaina. It was the sort of multi-generational lineup that's far too rare in country music these days, and it yielded a jukebox’s worth of hits spanning some 40 years, curated by one of the most charismatic cats in Music City.
And judging by the way he sang Kiss My Country Ass, if you didn’t like it, Shelton probably couldn’t care less.
“When does this happen? When does a night like this happen?” Shelton yelled, hyping up all the talent on the bill. “This is a big damn deal, y’all!”
So is Shelton, especially with the ladies, especially when he belted out lunk-in-love ballads like Mine Would Be You, Every Time I Hear That Song or A Guy With a Girl. His crowd work is laced with flirtatiousness (“There’s some damn good-looking women here tonight”), his whole night peppered with references to his famous lady Gwen Stefani (No Doubt’s Rocksteady blared out before his band took the stage). And on I Lived It and God Gave Me You, he proved he could even tug a heartstring or two.
But this night was made for the other Shelton, the one who’d spike your drink as soon as look at you. The grinning scalawag who, after leading the crowd through She’s Got a Way With Words, introduced Sangria by saying: “We’re not going to do a sing-along portion of the show unless we do a drinking song.”
The one who just wanted to sit back, have a drink and watch the show like the rest of us.
When the lights went down after a jaunty little Honey Bee, the Florida house cheered the opening strains of Seminole Wind by Apopka’s own Anderson, still croaking out prime country at 64. Anderson ripped through Money in the Bank and his breakthrough 1982 single Swingin’ with Shelton’s band before the star came back out to pay homage.
“Congratulations, Florida, you’re the home of John Anderson!” he shouted. “That’s pretty badass! Somehow that makes y’all a little bit cooler to me!”
A little later, an even more local connection: Pasco County’s Bellamy Brothers, arguably the biggest musical export Tampa Bay’s ever seen. David and Howard Bellamy rose from the stage to sing Let Your Love Flow, Do You Love As Good As You Look and Redneck Girl, twanging it up for their hometown.
“Congratulations, again, Florida, home of the freakin’ Bellamy Brothers!” Shelton yelled. “Heroes! This calls for a damn drink!”
And then came Adkins, a big-hearted baritone who can swing his hips to a song about big ol’ booties (Honky Tonk Badonkadonk) and then break your heart with one about life moving too fast (You’re Gonna Miss This). The 57-year-old singer stuck around to join Shelton for their duet Hillbilly Bone, a dirty backwoods boogie that got the whole house yee-hawin’, and led Shelton to plant a big fat kiss on Adkins’ cheek.
It's more than just lip service, this respect for his country-music elders. Shelton did a decent Conway Twitty on his 2012 single Drink On It, and early single Some Beach still sounded soaked in Texlahoman charm. And when the stage lights went crimson for his cover of the George Jones prison song Ol’ Red, the rowdy cheers in the back seats went from scattered to smothering. Apparently Shelton wasn’t the only one there who knew his country history.
The only artist to get a full opening set was the former American Idol standout and the bill’s only woman (maybe think on that for the next tour, Blake). The Ladies in the ‘90s singer added a touch of earnest humanity to Shelton’s outsized stage, dabbing her eyes while singing Journey’s Faithfully after seeing her father get emotional in the crowd.
“Look, dad, I made it!” she said as the crowd lit up their cells during Road Less Traveled.
Alaina came back out during Shelton’s set for their duet Lonely Tonight, where they emoted at each other like old familiars. But she missed out on a big highlight near the end, an acoustic round with Shelton, Adkins, Anderson and the Bellamys on a small stage in the center of the arena.
Shelton framed it as a competition, with each artist playing one of their most beloved hits. Under those rules, no sane Floridian would vote against Anderson’s Straight Tequila Night or the Bellamys' If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me. But Shelton was just happy to be in the game.
“Those are Country Music Hall of Famers walking down, high-fiving people in Tampa!” he shouted as they left the stage. “This is literally the coolest tour that I will ever be a part of. This is it. I don’t care. I’m going to do more tours, I’m going to do whatever I want to do. But this may never happen again, I’m just going to tell you right now.”
And then he made a decision on everyone’s behalf.
“That calls for a drink, if you ask me.”
No one had to. Thanks to Shelton, the night was just one toast after another.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.