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Blake Shelton returned to the Summerfest main stage Friday night. (PHOTO: Ty Helbach)

Blake Shelton comes alive for his Amp headlining return

"What's up Milwaukee? Whew! I'm back! I love this gig. First time I ever played this show I was opening for George Strait. I'll never forget that," Blake Shelton shouted out as he took the stage at the American Family Insurance Ampitheater at Summerfest on Friday night – his fourth appearance at the Big Gig.

Sometimes, when you know someone is going through some brutal life issues, you cut him a break. You give him some slack. You hope that he gets through it. That he heals. And that he comes out the other side a stronger person. Pretty sure Friday night's performance bore witness to Blake Shelton's full circle of healing. And I've got to say that bearing witness was pretty incredible.

The last time I saw Blake Shelton, it was Country Thunder in 2015, just days after Shelton and Miranda Lambert announced that they were divorcing. Shelton barred media from the pit, didn't take interviews and generally put out the signals of someone going through a brutal, life-altering event. That said, Shelton's performance, while sedate and not full of energy, was full of his killer material and kind of epic.

But it's two weeks shy of three years from that announcement and walking into the American Family Insurance Ampitheater, I was really hoping he'd deliver more – much more – than he gave at Country Thunder in 2015. Clearly, I shouldn't have worried.

Shelton was musically brilliant. From the moment he stepped on stage, he had everyone in the palm of his hand. With a troupe of incredibly talented musicians, crazy lights, lots of drinking – and drinking songs – and a surprise appearance by Hunter Hayes, Shelton's 2018 Summerfest appearance brought the house down.

Opening for Blake Shelton was a relatively new and immensely talented country artist: North Carolina native Luke Combs.

I'm digging on Combs' vibe. He's a no holds barred, calls it like he sees it, grateful as all get out, down home country kid. He seems like a guy you could sit down and play quarters with – or, um, whatever the 2018 equivalent of quarters is.

I'm not alone, I know, in proclaiming myself a fan of Luke Combs. Not only did the crowd adore him, but his string of number one hits solidifies his place as a fan favorite.

Combs dropped a good deal of new music on Friday night, including his latest single, "She Got the Best of Me," and a brand new song, "Along the Way." Both right in Combs's rock country lane.

He stopped to interact with the crowd between most songs, telling them something about himself – like he'd never been on an airplane until he was 25 – or the background of a song. He wrote "This One's for You," for instance, to remember where he came from and to remember to be grateful for the people who support his music. The crowd loved that he filled in Wisconsin lyrics whenever a song mentioned a place.

Probably my favorite of his set was a beautiful version of "One Number Away." Sweet harmonies. Crowd singing along. It was so, so good.

Combs has only been on the scene for about three years, but in that time, he's racked up three number one singles and a number one album, along with outstanding sales – platinum to be exact.

He closed his set with "Hurricane," which brought down the house. Keep an eye out for Combs. He'll be around for awhile.

At the end of a short break, Shelton's crew cut the lights and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Shelton took the stage belting out "Gonna." He slowed it down right out of the gate, rolling afterwards into his romantic ballad "Doin' What She Likes." It wasn't exactly a surprise that the crowd (from very young to grandparents) pretty much knew every word to every song.

Here's the thing: When the artist is only half there, the crowd is, too. But I've got to say that Friday night, Shelton was 100 percent present. It was really good to see. Really good. He interacted with the crowd before nearly every song, joking about pretty Wisconsin girls, making sure that the crowd was drinking with him (he was drinking copious amounts of ... something. Water? Beer? Jack?) and being sure that everyone was on the journey with him. He made sure the Summerfest powers that be knew that he wanted to come back, you know, maybe every two years. In between, he said, they could put Luke Bryan or some other "jackass" in – which, of course, received insane cheers.

His banter, while energetic and funny, felt a little too canned. But really, do people come for original comedy or do they come to see Blake Shelton for his music? Pretty sure you know the answer to that.

After immediately slowing it down with "Doin' What She Likes," Shelton hit the gas. And with the exception of only three other real slow songs, he didn't take his foot off the pedal.

He pulled out a couple songs from the kind of bitter stage of the healing process from his split with Miranda. "She's Got a Way with Words" is such a slam – but such a good song if you're just angry at an ex.

Shelton laid down hit after hit ... after hit after hit, including crowd favorites "Some Beach," "Old Red" and "Drink on It."

After dropping so much of his music, Shelton paused to take stock and sort of half-jokingly started to play Hunter Hayes's song "Wanted," which caused the audience to go a little crazy. But Shelton stopped and was like, "Wouldn't it be cool if … ?" The crowd, hoping that it was true, went nuts. And it was: Hunter Hayes walked on stage and played "Wanted." It was just such a cool moment for a mega-country star to share the stage with an artist who is high caliber but not quite to Shelton's level yet. Hayes was amazing – and you can catch him headlining the BMO Harris Pavilion on Saturday.

Hayes exited the stage with a great man hug from Shelton, who picked right back up where he left off. And that is, with the grittiest, sweatiest, hottest version of "Hillbilly Bone" I've ever heard – complete with an insane duel between Shelton's lead guitarist (on electric) and his fiddler (who also sang backup and played backup guitar). It was seriously off the chain. His band is so immensely talented. It definitely shows in the music they put out on Friday. Oh, and I just have to note that his drummer was wearing a Bucks jersey. It made me smile for some silly reason.

Winding down the show, Blake played the song I'd been waiting to hear all night, the one that always makes me cry even just hearing it on the radio: "Austin."

He wrapped with "Honey Bee" and "Boys 'Round Here" before coming out for a one song encore ("God Gave Me You").

The two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year and two-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year put on a show that won't soon be forgotten. It's clear Shelton found his joy again. And I, for one, am glad for that.

Setlist

Blake Shelton

"Gonna"
"Doin' What She Likes"
"Neon Light"
"She's Got a Way with Words"
"Sangria"
"I'll Name the Dogs"
"Every Time I Hear that Song"
"Drink on It"
"A Guy with a Girl"
"Mine Would Be You"
"I Lived It"
"Some Beach"
"Ol' Red" (George Jones cover)
"Came Here to Forget"
"Home" (Michael Bublé cover)
"Sure Be Cool If You Did"
"Wanted" (Hunter Hayes cover)
"Wanted" (performed by Hunter Hayes)
"Hillbilly Bone"
"Austin"
"Honey Bee"
"Boys 'Round Here"

Encore
"God Gave Me You"

Luke Combs

"Beer Never Broke My Heart"
"She Got the Best of Me"
"Don't Tempt Me"
"Along the Way"
"Must've Never Met You"
"Honky Tonk Highway/Boot Scootin' Boogie" (Luke Combs original/Brooks & Dunn cover)
"Houston We Got a Problem"
"When It Rains It Pours"
"This One's for You"
"Take It Easy/Should've Been a Cowboy/Chasin' that Neon Rainbow" (Eagles/Toby Keith/Alan Jackson covers)
"Beautiful Crazy"
"One Number Away"
"Let the Moonshine"
"Hurricane"


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