A group of owls is known as a parliament, flamingos a blush, bears a sleuth, and doves a dule. You might have a cast of falcons, a skulk of foxes, a smack of jellyfish, or a tiding of magpies. However, there is no collective noun for a gaggle of legends, nor any official grouping word for a selection of the highest quality of the world’s soothsayers of sound. For this lack of a designated term, we will simply call the ambush of cross-musical magic that descended upon Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium on the Friday & Saturday of November 11th and 12th, “ATLive,” as that is the formal moniker of this annual rush of rollicking reverberations. ATLive has always represented a lauded lineup to look forward to, but the 2022 queue was one unbound by reality. Featuring Sheryl Crow, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel, Dwight Yoakam, Miranda Lambert, and Chris Stapleton, this was sonic show pony superstardom served fast.
Sheryl Crow kicked off Friday night’s geostorm-of-genius festivities with her career-making combination of a breezy approach to beach-blues and an irrevocable chicness done in kinetic, pigeon-indigo. Like her records, her set knew no filler and even her sad songs make you feel better about whatever is less than best in your life. One might fairly say this desert-rock-meets-saltwater-reggae woman has been ‘on a streak’ since the first time she ever set foot on a stage. In her black floral bellbottoms, and with an acoustic guitar strapped like a solo wing to her back, she soared into “Every Day Is A Winding Road”, joking that the song was older than most of the folks in the front row, her voice high and clear like radio used to require and her band the crunchiest kind of ultraglide-Urban-Cowboy smooth. “All I Wanna Do”, her seminal hit from 1993, touched off the prime of her audience’s reciprocated aural awe for her, as well as set the tone, lyrically, for the entire weekend: unapologetic, walking-down-the-center-line fun.
Which leads to Friday’s second performer, but first things first. Let it be known: Lionel Richie can do no wrong. Across a consistently meteoric 54-year-career, he never has, not on any easy Sunday morning nor for even a segment of any of his all-night-long albums, the only kind he seems to know how to write. He really does dance on ceilings, and you would have done the same had you been one among the roughly 73,000 ATLive showgoers who twirled along to Commodores-era croon-tunes like “Easy”, insta-80s cruise-classics such as “All Night Long”, and Richie’s solo delivery of the decade-defining “We Are The World”. Alternating between a red, glittery baseball jacket worthy of Elton John and a black silk bomber with “All Night Long” tattooed in graffiti-like script across the back, Richie’s consummate showmanship and boundless energy remind you why it was down to him and Quincy Jones to make the miracle of the last song in that aforementioned list ever come to fruition in the first place. The big heavenly stage in the sky has taken far too many of Richie’s breed away from our ability to be bettered by their presence, and my overarching feeling the entire time I was using him to spot in my own endlessly spinning dances sparked by his sailing melodies is how lucky we all are to still have him here with us.
On that same note: there are breathtaking Bronx-born badasses of the black-and-white keyboard kaleidoscope… and then there is Billy Joel. When we talk of models of musician that they simply do not make anymore because committed ‘caliber’ is a feared qualifier in the internet age, this is the specific make of man we are lamenting the biggest loss of. His Long Island-lathed self-deprecation and wry side-eye at himself well intact, the Piano Man made his way through a starlit sheet of hallowed hits the audio equivalent to Babe Ruth’s called shot in the fifth inning of the 1932 World Series. Like The Great Bambino, Billy Joel just nonchalantly points his finger and away arcs another harmonic homerun for the history books, his most monumental contributions to the story of modern music gliding across the plate so airily you expect them to be chewing gum with one hand hung lackadaisically in a torn jean-pocket.
Such were Joel’s sign-on serenades of “A Matter of Trust” and “My Life”, both of which might just as well have slid in on roller-skates for the ease with which he makes the tallest level of musical erudition look completely quotidian. Joel’s lifelong appeal has only ever been heightened by that way he has of bringing the blue-collar brains of his real-world upbringing into the most exclusive possible category of songcrafting expertise. Of the same bring-it-to-Earth brotherhood as his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, Joel presented “Vienna” as being off a “non-hit” record called The Stranger, and laughed about the incumbent echo of the giant room we were all in, saying you could come back the next night and hear the show again if you missed it the first time. He did the same for “The Entertainer” from Streetlife Serenade, jovially quipping “No, you don’t have that album. Nobody bought that album.”
Keyboards throughout this set being handled by New Jersey’s exponentially talented David Rosenthal, who has been with Billy Joel since the River of Dreams tour and across all of his Face 2 Face tours with Elton John over the years, meant the band behind Billy Joel could have commanded its own top-tier ticket price even without him. “Zanzibar” included a first-class trumpet performance by Carl Fischer from the south side of Long Island. Crystal Taliefero helped Joel turn “The River of Dreams” into a three-part opera with huge choral harmonies complete with bongos. “Don’t Ask Me Why,” from 1980’s Glass Houses, was amplified in both volume and tangible feel by Andy Cichon from Adelaide, Australia on bass, and “Allentown” became its own musical municipality with Tommy Byrnes – whom Joel previously inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame – creating whole nor’easter zip codes on guitar.
When he got around to the indelible high ground (all puns intended) of crowd-awaited “An Innocent Man”, Joel lead with characteristic sagacity about what he worried were his own sagging vocal ranges. “They want me to do this one standing up,” he said, “Because I recorded this one in my early 30s when my voice was starting to get deeper and I felt I was saying goodbye to a lot of high notes. There’s a high note in this song I always worry about hitting so if I don’t hit it, you’re gonna know it!” Spoiler alert: he struck the famous high-slide that so signalizes that stirring song each and every time with the same tranquilizing facility that the note itself makes you feel when you hear it. It is as if the entire heart-pressing message of the song is encapsulated in that one, piercing piece of plaintive bravado and Billy Joel has lost none of the above.
Seeming as much to jaunt as to joyously sing his way through standards like “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”, “Uptown Girl”, and “You May Be Right” from his endlessly inspiring catalog, lookers-on were re-captivated anew with the New York of the man. As internally diverse and shrewdly comical as the city that raised him, Joel made sure to shout out the love and loyalty he bore his 40-year partnership with his Brooklynite saxophone sultan, Mark Rivera, during “Just The Way You Are” even as he giggled at having written that song for a wife he was soon to divorce because, “Yeah, shit doesn’t always work out, ya know?” We do, Billy Joel, but lord that song sure did and we thank you for the eternal vow of it. Though Joel chose to close Friday night with “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, everyone, including him, knew that he bloody well had done just that, and poured a few dozen barrels of gasoline on it too for good measure before he shuffled away, winking and grinning as conspiratorially as he did back when he first pulled the un-pullable Christie Brinkley, still master of all the same secrets.
Country music of an outlaw bent has been a curiously American tongue since its rather gnarly inception with the snatch-back of power from labels, producers, and publishers first wrought on Nashville by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early 1970s. While the rest of the musical world has openly admired our banjo-brandishing Billy the Kids, the phrase “country songs” pretty unilaterally takes on a more folkish meaning everywhere else on the planet. The American definition of the phrase is still the only place where the law-breakers have been encouraged to secede and then lead. For those admirers of ball-busting bad boys of the highway-oriented persuasion who lament the current state of country music in America for being abuzz with airbrush-painted people bearing the countenances of factory-stamped radio-lackeys, take heart: the second night of ATLive 2022 was a full racket of prohibited-by-law prowess of a kind to make Johnny Cash smirk in appreciative approval from behind the veil.
Dwight Yoakam has always written songs that are texturally novel even for his genre-less genre. He is the Tom Petty of country music, a great unifying force in skinny Wranglers and an artfully eye-contact-evading hat that even people who say they cannot stand any brand of spur-clad nasality eagerly listen to and ardently love. Like his aforelisted groundbreaking forebears of rule-twisting road kings, Yoakam has shown as much charisma on the silver screen as he has standing bowlegged atop any of the world’s most iconic stages, handing in critically acclaimed performances in Sling Blade and South of Heaven, West of Hell, whilst never missing a chance to quietly lambast the “serious cowboy” trope with hilarious, characterful turns in Wedding Crashers and Four Christmases as well. He set the mood as the Saturday starter with a setlist scored in this same wide swatch of chameleonic pageantry, moving versatilely from “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” with his “Guitars and Cadillacs” showing not one sign of road-wear. Despite having a tiny spot of trouble with his guitar monitor, every one of his sounds was received by his adoring audience like the garage-kept ‘57 Chevies his songs will always be. This pensmith who still dreams of riding for the obviously-not-in-existence-anymore Pony Express was far from the only Ponygirl in attendance who was smitten by the rarity of a real cowboy with a black-hat bent and a white-hat heart.
When it comes to wearing multiple sequined hats (and wearing them all the way out too), Miranda Lambert is impossible to beat for present-day Palomino princesses. With the natural salaciousness of full-blown women forever under siege in our society, her modern-day Annie Oakley presence is desperately needed in far more than the field of music. All of Lambert’s records are as much storytelling concept shops as her stratospherically popular Idyllwind, Pink Pistol, and Casa Rosa business endeavors, and there are undercurrents of the down-to-clown jezebel in even her most muted twangs. Cantilevered against the subversive brilliance of guitarist Ethan Ballinger, her candy-striped vocal wares glistened even more sharply with her signature gunpowder-sugar as she strew her big Texas tunes like so many shivers of giddy-up-glitter along Atlanta’s metropolitan rodeo.
From her reverie-inducing “Bluebird” to the double Fireball shot of “Little Red Wagon” and on through “White Liar”, the longstanding favorite of ‘been-there’ babes the world over, Lambert illustrated again and again not just her polished professionality, hard-won by as many barefoot miles as any of the boys on this bill, but her fulsome awareness that there is something unnamable in the collective spirit of a woman’s life that can only be exhumed with the careful instrument of a very blunt shovel. She demonstrably gets that the tool of humor is for digging and for burying. When it was time for her to lope through “If I Was A Cowboy”, there was only one real lyric left to sing back to her: Long may you ride on, Miss M. No cowboy could keep up with you and the smart ones will know better than to try.
Saturday night headliner Chris Stapleton is a bard from the beyonds, an enigmatic Traveller from a time both before and after this one. His long-whiskered wails walked out of a world very nearly forgotten, and one wherein masculine voices in country music used to wear facial hair that matched the length of their hitchhiker hauls and the depth of their thousand-yard stares down to the millimeter. The sigma-male galaxy that once spawned shooting stars like Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard has grown significantly less stubbled of late, and the music has suffered greatly for it. Neither Chris Stapleton’s voice nor his spirit seem to have gotten these memos, and from the moment he breathes his first lyric into any microphone within ten miles of your location, you will know precisely why he has been rightly hailed the singing salvation of what Waylon, Willie, and the boys began all those years ago.
Playing not one of the delayed gratification games considered standard practice for shows this size, Stapleton offered up breakthrough road-dust ballad “Parachute” within the first three songs. No matter how many times you might have let that dark wolf circle the campfire on your stereo at home, nothing prepares you for the sound of his voice as he sings it in the real. On the record, you get that his is a voice inhabited by the smell of a very particular pine and smoke, but until you hear him live you do not realize that it is also of a song-world with skies sheeted by cyclone fire.
It must be said that it is not only Stapleton’s peerless vox, oracular nature, or symbolic beard that has vaulted him to permanent Charlie Daniels status in Nashville; it is also the free-thinking evident in the fact that his guitar of choice is a battered Fender Jazzmaster that brings a brutal, savage sound to his otherwise Americana rudiments, and aligns him not with any country heritage at all but with titans of the underground art rock world like Thom Yorke, J. Mascis, Ric Ocasek, Troy Van Leeuwen, Tom Verlaine, Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, and Robert Smith. In truth, Stapleton has elements of each of these colossi woven into the tapestry of his bespoke approach to Route 66 expressivism, the Chris Stapletone if you will. The only country guitarist to ever make notable, consistent use of a Jazzmaster before Stapleton is Kenny Vaughn of Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. The way the special gnaw of the Jazzmaster blends and bites into Stapleton’s surly-sweet voice on songs like “Fire Away” and “Cold” transforms it into something saw-toothed like a blade.
Forever flanked by his stunning wife Morgane Stapleton, a bona fide mermaid-in-boots to whom he directly sings every single song, Stapleton clearly receives far more than her heart-harmonies and tambourine-timbres in their time together onstage. Everyone knows the best bandits always worked with a sidekick shadow-equal that was arguably worthy of greater fame than their own: Bonnie and Clyde, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, J.D. and Veronica. The Stapletons are visibly all these and then some more who were too slick to get caught, and their shared charity collective being named Outlaw State of Kind says more about the way that they increase the pirate riches within one another than any verbal language I might conjure could. The step-by-step story of their love is likewise intertwined with all of the most famous songs in the Stapleton oeuvre, and watching them perform the infamous “Tennessee Whiskey” in the live setting feels like walking in on a first dance at a private wedding that no one was supposed to see. You certainly feel that “You Should Probably Leave” when the sex in the air starts dripping from the ceiling on that song, but you surely will not want to.
With both evenings of extraordinary etudes beginning at 5pm and extending through to 11pm, ATLive 2022 was afire with the muskets and tomahawks of when pop-rock met alt-country from start to finish, a zeal (to borrow from the zebras) of the finest posse of wild women and road-warrior roués ever to kick up a particolored cloud of trail-tail sparkles together.
-words: Dana Miller
-photos: Jay Bendlin & Brandon Magnus courtesy of ATLive