Blake Shelton gently rocks the Saddledome with humour and charm

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Blake Shelton was only six songs into his set Saturday night when the sound suddenly cut out at the Saddledome.

The country singer opened the Calgary show on his Back to the HonkyTonk tour with mid-tempo numbers such as Come Back as a Country Boy and A Guy With a Girl and had just settled into a  two-song run of the relatively moody Neon Light and Sangria when it happened. In the end, it was a minor, 10-minute inconvenience. More importantly, the crowd eagerly jumped in to finish singing Sangria, either because they were determined that the show not be derailed or simply because they thought it was all part of the act.

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Whatever the case,  Shelton heaped praise on the audience when he returned to the stage, suggesting it was all worth it just to hear them sing the song. He asked them to keep at it because “my ego needs it.”

Ironically, it may have been the only time Saturday night when it felt like we in an actual honky-tonk with a shoddy sound system. Both Shelton and opening act Dustin Lynch encouraged the crowd to drink at various points in the night and the seats closest to the stage had been set up like a bar. Nevertheless, despite the sound glitch, it didn’t sound much like a raw honky-tonk show. Instead,  Shelton’s two-hour set glided comfortably on Nashville polish  and the singer’s considerable charm. Not unlike fellow country singer Keith Urban, Shelton’s regular-dude vibes and self-deprecating humour are hallmarks of his concerts and go a long way in elevating shows filled with fairly standard mainstream-country material.

Blake Shelton
Country music star Blake Shelton performs at the Saddledome in Calgary on Saturday, March 9, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

Twice on Saturday he referred to his extensive back catalogue as “old crap.” At one point, he earnestly asked the crowd if it was OK if he played a certain song: “I’m working for y’all” he stressed. He began the evening with marching orders that he recycled from the night before in Edmonton, and perhaps says at every stop on the tour: We were there to celebrate country music and to drink. No crybabies, politics or vomiting/peeing in the aisles were allowed, he said.

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So it went.

Shelton offered a set of nearly 30 songs that stretched back to his early days. That included the ballad Austin and an appropriately menacing take on George Jones Ol’ Red, which were both on his 2001 eponymous debut. The latter was one of many music highlights Saturday night, as was a scorching run through the goofy but endearing honkytonk homage Hillbilly Bone. Roughly halfway through the set, there was a “surprise” appearance by Shelton’s wife Gwen Stefani, who bounced on stage to sing a sturdy version of her old band No Doubt’s ballad Don’t Speak. She stuck around to sing three duets with her husband, including her new ballad Purple Irises. Since this has been part of earlier shows and even previous tours,  it wasn’t much of a surprise. But she added some sparkly-sequin star power to the proceedings, which was a nice counterpoint to Shelton’s down-to-earth persona.

Opener Dustin Lynch, who was clearly enjoying the stadium setting, offered a similar vibe. With his toothy grins and country-boy gratitude, he proved a reliable primer for Shelton’s casual party vibes  At one point he handed out tequila. The music? It’s fairly formulaic, paint- by-numbers stuff, often sounding like it has been constructed by a Music City marketing team. He has songs about drinking, a song about his grandma and a song that his “mama” approves of. He also had a peculiar ode to his Chevrolet, which he set note-by-not to the music of 1970s soft-rockers Dobie Gray’s Drift Away. Lynch offered a reverent take on Joe Diffi’s 1990’s hit Prop Me Up By the Jukebox (If I Die), but his set was otherwise no better or worse than what we are likely to hear this summer from early acts at Country Thunder.

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Prior to Lynch, there was a short-but-sweet set by Emily Ann Roberts, a former member of “Team Blake” back when Shelton was a coach on the reality series The Voice. Roberts managed to cover a bit more ground musically than Lynch. She only had five songs, but they veered from the salty fiddle-piano stomper He Set Her Off, which sounded like she was channeling Loretta Lynn, to the Jesus-y power ballad The Building.

Those who arrived on time to see Roberts’ set were treated to four hours of music Saturday night, a generous offering even if it at times felt like a bit of a marathon.

“These are the nights you remember,” Shelton said at one point, perhaps still thinking about the sound gremlins early in the set. It may not be the year’s most memorable concert, but it was certainly pleasant and entertaining and a reminder of the singer’s amiable showmanship.

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