Review by Peter Coates – www.facebook.com/InsideEdgePhotography
LUKE COMBS / CODY JOHNSON / LANE PITTMAN
Spark Arena, Auckland 9th August 2023
A full house at Auckland’s Spark Arena on a chilly Wednesday night saw a big slice of New Zealand’s country crew fly and drive in to catch the opening night of the AU/NZ leg of the massive Luke Combs World Tour.
Due to some confusion on the Media List, Lane Pittman had almost finished his set by the time I got inside, which was a shame. A 17 yo Australian, Lane got his break on The Voice singing a Luke Combs song, and while he didn’t win the final, he got a call from Luke’s management team asking if he might be free to open up for these huge Arena dates. Lane admitted he had not left Australia before Monday, but with a really tight band of seasoned musicians, and sporting a mullet for the ages, Lane showed off his considerable voice, and showmanship, closing his set with his new single, Love In A Country Town. He is on the rockier side of country, but his voice is a standout, and playing with a full band was a boost – and whatever else The Voice did, it taught him how to handle himself onstage!
Cody Johnson has been around for 15 years or more, plying his trade with songwriting, gigging, and doing what he could to make his way through an independent approach to albums and gigs, and eventually starting to impress the industry in 2019 with Ain’t Nothin’ To It. The band came on to ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man, and launched into a rip-roaring barnstormer of Let’s Build A Fire, with a fiddle / guitar duel to kick us off in style. Cody sports a big black Stetson, and talks a lot about “real country music”, and definitely walks the walk, coming across as a mix of Garth Brooks and Zac brown, with a really good 6 piece band. We get some good country rock and ballads, such as Dear Rodeo, with haunting guitar intro, and On My Way which was his first major hit. Hi sits on a stool for an emotion delivery of Human, with some restrained drumming and tasty lap steel work, before an uptempo, high volume song with the raunchy off-beat of Long Haired County Boy, again seeing his lap steel player tear off a ripping solo while the band really opens up behind him. Cody spends some time introducing the whole band with a story and a solo spot, for bass, fiddle, lap steel (Metallica’s Enter Sandman like you have not heard it before), guitars and drums, which builds into an instrumental climax. The set closes with Me and My Kind, and his biggest hit to date, Til You Can’t, which was sung back so loud by the crowd you might think Cody was headlining! He leaves the stage on a high, and lets the band wind things up. Well played Sir.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Luke Combs a few times on his previous visits to Australia, and his voice was always impressive, and he had a great set of band-members along each time…….but this was the first time I had witnessed the Luke Combs stadium show, and it is on another level. Cleverly, the lights went down while the soundtrack kicked off with Dave Dobbyn’s Slice of Heaven – to get 10,000 Kiwi’s onside immediately! Then AC/DC’s Thunderstruck cranked out of the PA as the band bounced onstage, until the larger than life figure of Luke appeared from behind the curtains center stage, cup in hand, and we were off. Sporting a NZ Fern baseball cap instead of the normal sponsors cap, Luke was taking no chances – but from the start of Loving On You, to the final extra track of Brand New Man (written by Brooks & Dunn), the crowd was on their feet, and in full voice for every moment of the 20 track set.
The band featured a number of familiar faces from past tours, and are clearly a bunch of talented guys, with multiple instrument changes throughout the set, including the triple-guitar attack plus banjo for Hannah Ford Road, and the powerful Cold As You which seemed to have Luke’s voice fully warmed up, and the band hitting their straps. And from then on it was great pop song after hit after country classic, with the crowd in full voice for One Number Away, and the heart-rending Love You Anyway. Luke’s voice is quite a unique one, with a very individual style, but it absolutely fits the song structures and music, which suggests a real quality of songwriting from the big man! Luke’ picks up a guitar for the mellow Going Going Gone, which leads right into Must Have Never Met You, driven along by the drummer, and with some great bottleneck guitar work. Beautiful Crazy was immense, with a 10,000 voice backing chorus, before we get a little band-driven medley that allows each of the team to shine, with Dust O The Bottle / Meet In The Middle / When I Was Your Man allowing the band members to show off their own talents a little.
The laconic drawl of Forever After All then slides into the soaring chorus, before Does To Me gives us a taste of all those little things that mean a lot to Luke, which he also references in his comments about the wonders of New Zealand, where he has hunted a Red Stag and seen the All Blacks play this week already! There is always a lot going on in the backing here, and the excellent sound means that we can really hear the little touches on the keyboards, the fiddle, and the lap steel guitar. There is a solid riff the underpins Where The Wild Things Are, and this erupts for the chorus, before a change of pace for a mainly solo rendition of Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) that builds up as the band rejoin the song halfway. The band is having fun, Luke can’t stop smiling, and we get plenty of mid-set stories, noting that She Got The Best Of Me was his first song written with a couple of strangers in Nashville, with a trademark rousing chorus and some slick lead guitar work and punchy drums that rolls into Hurricane, still such a powerful track. All downhill now, with 1, Too Many including an unprompted “shoey” from a cowboy boot, and this gets the crowd jumping and the hoe-down pumping, into When It Rains It Pours, which is another example of the clever wordplay in Luke’s lyrics. The band rocked up the into to Beer Never Broke My Heart to close the set, lifting the roof off the arena.
There was no way we would miss out on an encore ,and Luke comes out to deliver Better Together just backed by piano, and the band kicked back in for The Kind Of Love We Make, which is the official set-closer. Luke then starts signing hats, shirts and a NZ Flag from the lucky few at front of stage, and we are all revelling in the experience of such a great show from a consummate professional, with a huge production to support this larger than life, but seemingly very humble man. Instead of leaving, the bands just keeps ticking along while Luke keeps signing……and the cries of “One More Song” get louder and louder, until they pick it up for an unanticipated version of the Brooks & Dunn song Brand New Man, which Luke guested on. What a way to close the show.
Thanks to Frontier Touring & Chugg Entertainment