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Review: Sam Hunt spins conventional country on its head at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre

By Jay Cridlin
Published: July 15, 2017
Jay Cridlin
Sam Hunt performed on July 14, 2017 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa.

Conventional wisdom says you wait a few songs before charging into the crowd like a bull in Pamplona. Give yourself and the crowd a little time to work up an appetite.

Of course, when you’re Sam Hunt, conventional wisdom goes out the window. The appetite was there before you even entered the building. You might as well dive on in.

So on the second song of his sold-out concert Friday at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, the new-school country hunk jumped off stage, raced through the stands and sang House Party face to face with 19,500 delirious fans. And boy, did they dig it.

Hunt is the face and fantasy of Country 2.0, a helluva hardbody whose smoldering songs blend country, pop and R&B better than just about anyone. To win over the screaming hordes at his first Tampa concert in two years, and first local headlining show of this magnitude, all he had to do was show up.

“I want y’all to sing, dance, kick back and relax, do whatever makes you feel good,” he said.

From opener Leave the Night On, the former college quarterback bounced from spot to spot across the stage like an overcaffeinated shadowboxer. His voice sounded better than he’s sometimes given credit for, but it was really this constant state of motion that fueled the fan frenzy.

Well, that and the catchy-as-sin songs from his lone LP, 2014’s Montevallo, most all of which he played on Friday. And rather than feeling warmed-over and past their prime, the songs held up well live, in part because fans have had so long to get to know every lyric.

Hunt’s simmering, searing Cop Car was and remains superior to Keith Urban’s shinier single version; the low, sexy Speakers sounded like Barry White if he’d come up in the Bluebird Café. And the stormy, sultry Take Your Time, Ex To See and Break Up in a Small Town, all performed late in the evening, ensured more than a few ticketholders would go home and get lucky – that is, if they even made it out of the parking lot.

But after three years, you can only do so much with one album, especially when everyone’s waiting for the next one. Hunt’s monster 2017 single Body Like a Back Road may not be his best work, but anticipation for all things Sam ensured it got fans up and moving in the aisles. He filled his setlist with a couple of older songs, rapping through Saturday Night and driving through the anthemic We Are Tonight. He covered Travis Tritt’s It’s a Great Day to Be Alive and Alan Jackson’s Don’t Rock the Jukebox for the pure country fans; Outkast, R. Kelly and Usher for the crossovers. (Prediction: If Hunt ever gets around to releasing his acoustic version of Usher’s Nice and Slow, it’ll hit No. 1 everywhere. You just watch.)

Joining Hunt on his 15 in a 30 Tour is Maren Morris, another country-pop crossover well equipped to follow in his footsteps.

Styled more pop than country in a teeny black top and studded slacks, Morris let her 'tude do the talking on swaggering opener Sugar and the PG-13 upper-class fantasy Rich, two pure-as-powder singles that would make Shania Twain proud. '80s Mercedes was another hooky wonder, its synthy bass wobble and pouncing pianos powering Morris's rangy vocal melody.

If Morris ever does go full-on pop, it won't be by accident -- her voice (free-range and gospelly) and delivery (intentionally a hair off the beat) has more in common with chart-topping divas like Rihanna and Beyonce (no surprise she closed with an audience-rousing cover of Bey's Halo). While she did strap on an acoustic for a couple of more folkified numbers, like the earnest I Could Use a Love Song, she more often strutted around the stage, swinging her arms and twirling her wrists with confidence. For major hit My Church, Morris turned the Amp into exactly that, pulling up an unexpectedly power-piped fan named Dayton to sing with her as the fans howled along up to the lawn.

"Thank you guys!" she chirped, sounding almost surprised. "You sang every single word!"

Before Morris came hip-wigglin’ harmonica-honker Chris Janson, who showed off an array of excitable dance moves ("I drank like 16 Mountain Dews," he said); gave caffeinated shout-outs to God, his family and Johnny Cash (with a punk cover of Ring of Fire); and prowled through the infectious low-country anthem Buy Me a Boat. And before Janson, Hot Chelle Rae singer Ryan Follese went county, just barely, during a 15-minute opening set that showcased his a venerable tenor; sampled R. Kelly's Ignition and the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; and closed with his old power-pop band's goofy Top 10 hit Tonight Tonight.

Hunt, Morris, Janson and Follese made for an atypical Nashville crew, especially when they all came out together to sing Outkast’s Hey Ya!, moving and grooving in their own distinct ways. Hunt seems to realize there’s a responsibility that comes with being the standard-bearer for genre-fluid country music, and it has a lot to do with breaking down barriers.

“Y’all are going to tear down the walls that have divided the country for so long,” Hunt told the mostly younger crowd. “You don’t care about genres of music; you don’t care about genres of people. You listen to what makes you feel good, and you hang out with people who make you feel good.”

For once, that feels like conventional wisdom Hunt can get behind.

-- Jay Cridlin