BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Much has changed in Blake Shelton’s life in the nearly three years since he last played Atlanta at the first – and so far only – Shaky Boots Music Festival.
But a reliable component any time Shelton steps in front of a crowd – live or televised – is his scruffy charm.
At a packed Philips Arena Thursday night, the mainstay of NBC’s “The Voice” reminded that while his TV gig and high-profile personal life help earn him People magazine covers, at heart he’s still just a guy with a string of solid country songs and a mischievous grin.
Shelton curated this brief (14 dates) “Country Music Freaks” tour to run in between his other commitments and is offering fans a four-hour country smorgasbord featuring big-voiced upstart Carly Pearce, the genial Brett Eldredge and, during Shelton’s set, Mr. “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Trace Adkins.
Shelton arrived at the stroke of 9 p.m., stalking a spacious, circular stage as his seven-piece band blasted “Gonna,” followed by the pedal steel-guitar accented “Doin’ What She Likes.”
What Shelton lacks in vocal perfection, he makes up for with the earthy quality to his voice – and really, what more does he need for a litany of songs about drinking?
“Holy crap, Atlanta! You realize this is Thursday night, right?” he asked the proudly boisterous crowd before hoisting a cup in a toast “to country music!” and proclaiming, “Let’s do some damn drinking songs!”
And so he did, with a stroll thorough “Neon Lights” (on cue, the virtual lights on the cylindrical video screen blinked accordingly), the salty “She’s Got a Way With Words,” the tropical-brushed “Sangria” and the aptly named, “Drink on It.”
But as much as Shelton plays the boozehound, there is also plenty of depth to many of his song choices.
Lovely fiddle coated the infinitely catchy – and sweet – “’l’ll Name the Dogs” and the big chorus of “Every Time I Hear That Song” barely masked its inherent melancholy.
Shelton mentioned a couple of times during his two-hour set that he’s been playing Atlanta since 2001, and he and the audience shared an easy rapport throughout the night. His on-camera experience has also enhanced his abilities as an emcee; his patter was so well-timed and delivered, it almost seemed spontaneous (as demonstrated prior to “A Guy With A Girl”).
The blue-eyed Oklahoman paid tribute to a mighty Texan with a deep-voiced and dramatic rendition of George Jones’ “Ol’ Red,” but it was Shelton’s twang-i-fied cover of Michael Buble’s “Home” that produced his sturdiest vocal of the night.
He also shared a fiery duet with Pearce on “Lonely Tonight,” his 2014 hit with Ashley Monroe, with Pearce proving a worthy sparring partner.
With the mere dimming of the stage lights, Shelton scampered off and, as the spotlight returned, the towering Adkins sauntered out, no introduction necessary.
With his trademark ponytail and cowboy hat, the molasses-voiced singer gave the crowd a musical jolt with “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and, after taking a quiet look around the full arena, offered the bittersweet “You’re Gonna Miss This.”
While Shelton can certainly command an arena tour on his own, the inclusion of other country stars solidified the value of the ticket.
Eldredge, a hitmaker since 2010, immediately invoked a party vibe when he hit the stage earlier in the night with “Somethin’ I’m Good At” and “Love Someone.”
A natural goofball, Eldredge made good use of the ramp extending from the stage as he high-kicked and shoulder-wiggled through “Wanna Be That Song” and the pulsing “Beat of the Music.”
Noting that he has family in the area, Eldredge segued into “The Long Way,” one of his more evocative songs, and, with his easy smile, pulled out the soulfulness in “The Reason.”
The ladies love Eldredge anyway, but when he brought his beautiful Weizsla pup Edgar Boogie on stage to nose a few fans and engage in a quick trick, the swooning audibly elevated.
Kicking off the night just after 7 p.m. was Pearce, who vaulted up the charts last year with her debut single, “Every Little Thing.”
Delicately pretty and with a voice that evokes Faith Hill, Pearce had the unenviable task of performing while latecomers trickled in, but owned her 20-minute set with the pop-leaning “Careless,” a slide guitar-filled “Catch Fire” and the boilerplate country-rocker “Everybody Gonna Talk,” all from her debut album, “Every Little Thing.”
Pearce mentioned that her parents were in the audience, and the crowd waved their lighted cell phones as she sang “Every Little Thing” in their presence.
“You changed everything about my life,” she told fans of achieving her first No. 1.
Clearly, it won’t be her last.