CHICAGO -- Blake Shelton was just being himself.
That may have been bad news for the Nashville executives who booked his Saturday night show (July 19), but it was very well-received news for the capacity crowd at Wrigley Field.
"Ever since this was booked, there have been meetings about how I should be the night I do this show. 'Chicago is a big market,' they said. People get paid to say things like that," Shelton said about five songs into his two-hour set.
"They said, 'Don't talk about drinking and hunting. Don't be yourself. Just sing your damn songs -- and leave.'"
And he did sing his damn songs. Twenty of them. But Shelton also talked. And talked. And talked. He filled the gaps between songs with stories, jokes and nonstop awe over his spot on the stage in the outfield of the legendary Chicago Cubs baseball field.
"I am a damn country singer playing Wrigley freakin' Field. And, damn, I'm nervous," he admitted early in the night. But he was quick to add, "I drug my big ass all the way up here to Chicago for two reasons -- to play country music and to drink."
He did both, in a simple brown pearl-snap shirt over a white T-shirt and blue jeans. No cowboy hat, except for the three minutes he put one on to sing one of his older hits from his early days in country music.
"This will help me reconnect me to my old self. If you didn't have one of these on back then, you sucked," Shelton explained as he put on a white cowboy hat with a built-in mullet for his 10-year-old hit "Some Beach."
Even after the hat came off, though, the oldies kept coming. "Nobody but Me," "Ol' Red" and "Austin," the latter his debut single and his first No. 1 song back in 2001.
He'd told the crowd he wasn't sure if he even wanted to play those songs from the start of his 14-year career.
"I've got a decision to make," he told the crowd of more than 40,000. "I've got to decide where to go from here with this concert. Should I just keep doing the new stuff or old stuff from way back in the day? These songs are so old that I may screw 'em up. So if you know them, for the love of God, sing along."
The balance of new and old seemed to suit the crowd just fine. While they may not have understood the nuances of a story song like "Ol' Red," they hung on Shelton's every word just the same.
And for the fans there who might not have known much about Shelton before The Voice, and before hemarried Miranda Lambert, songs like the show opener "All About Tonight" and the show closer "God Gave Me You" were likely the biggest highlights.
As the concert seemed to pick up steam, Shelton seemed to mellow out a little and put his nerves behind him.
"I'm starting to relax. I think I figured this crowd out. A bunch of rednecks have infiltrated the city," he said. Then he grabbed an acoustic guitar and headed out to the end of the catwalk in center field. "Is it OK if I come down here amongst y'all? It'll just be one guitar -- and all of us."
He brought out Gwen Sebastian, a former contestant on The Voice, after admitting he and Lambert fight over who gets to bring her on the road. Saturday night, Shelton won that fight. They sang their current single "My Eyes."
Without any of his band backing him, Shelton went on to perform "Over You," the song he and Lambert wrote about his late brother, that she recorded. And he did it, remarkably, without shedding a tear. Calling it one of the most important songs in his life, Shelton explained why he wasn't the one to cut it.
"I wasn't sure if I'd be able to perform it like this," he said. And then when it was done, he insisted, "No more sad!"
Other songs from Shelton's Ten Times Crazier tour set list included "Home," "Doin' What She Likes," "The More I Drink," "She Wouldn't Be Gone," "Honey Bee," "Hillbilly Bone," "Sure Be Cool If You Did," "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking," "Mine Would Be You," "Drink on It," "Boys 'Round Here," plus his remake of Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" and then the old Rhett Akins song "Kiss My Country Ass."
"This is without a doubt," Shelton said as he eased into his final songs of the show, "the biggest night in my country music career, man."
Before Shelton took that stage, The Band Perry prepped the crowd with a 10-song set full of the country charisma they've become known for in their short four-year career.
Starting, ironically, with "Done," Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry barely stood still for the hour they spent on the stage and at the end of the catwalk. They did sit down on stools for "All Your Life," though, because they explained that, that way, "we can all sit together like one big country family."
To introduce "I'm a Keeper," off their latest album Pioneer, each one of the Perrys had a story about haters they'd endured in their lives.
Kimberly's was an eighth grade teacher who told her that there were a lot of pretty girls in the world, so she should "be glad you're smart."
Reid's was someone who told him his hair was "way too long for country music."
And Neil's was someone commenting on the size of his mandolin, asking him if it came in a men's size.
"I say, I put the 'man' in mandolin," Perry told the fans before they launched into the empowering I'm-still-me anthem.
Newcomers Dan + Shay took the stage before The Band Perry. And while they may only have two songs on the radio, "19 You + Me" and "Show You Off," the rest of their 25-minute set showcased their range of styles, from rapping lyrics in their "Somewhere Only We Know" to a brief cover of Diamond Rio's 1991 hit "Meet in the Middle."
Playing host throughout the night was Neal McCoy. He played a few songs to kick off the night, and he played again between each artist's set. For the fans who showed up early enough, he explained who he was and how lucky he was Shelton had asked him to be a part of the tour. Even at a point when the stadium was only half full, McCoy remarked, "I ain't used to singing for this many people at Neal McCoy shows."
Every chance McCoy had to establish himself as a solid entertainer, he took it.
He mashed up pop, rock and rap songs, did his own new stuff and, then much to the delight of the longtime country fans, McCoy never missed a beat on his big old hits like "The Shake," "Wink," "The City Put the Country Back in Me" and "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On."
When it was time to play his 1993 "No Doubt About It" ballad, McCoy admitted why the song was so special not only to him but to the headliner.
"This song was Blake and Miranda's first song at their wedding," he said.
And he'd know. McCoy was at the couple's 2011 wedding in Texas and sang it to them himself for their first dance at the reception.