Like some Stetson-topped Moses come down from the mountaintop, Chris Stapleton arrived on Fort Lauderdale beach Saturday night with a commandment for Tortuga Music Festival programmers: Thou shalt not forget outlaw country.
Facing a wildly passionate crowd that sprawled as far as the lights could shine, Stapleton, who won two Grammys last year for his career-changing 2015 album, “Traveller,” offered a vivid reminder that South Florida fans will belly up enthusiastically for a brand of country music that comes with a shot of whiskey.
Accompanied by his wife, Morgane, Stapleton ran through songs that the crowd, after several hours of beer-soaked camaraderie, sang with extra gusto, including “Nobody to Blame,” "Outlaw State of Mind,” “Parachute” and the title track from his hit album, “Traveller.”
He also treated the Tortuga audience to a track from his long-awaited followup to “Traveller,” a warm ballad called “Broken Halos.”
But the music that really mattered came toward the end, when Stapleton, sandwiched between Friday’s Tortuga headliner, the likable Luke Bryan, and Sunday’s main attraction, the sweet-tempered Kenny Chesney, offered a challenge: How much hard-country music can Fort Lauderdale handle?
The test began with the Charlie Daniels Band’s bluesy “Was It 26,” with Stapleton’s reading at once respectful and encouraging of the good-times singalong that it produced. Up next was the Lynyrd Skynyrd epic “Tuesday’s Gone,” with Stapleton jumping into a riff that stretched the song to the better part of eight minutes. No one complained.
Then came the number fans had been screaming for all night, a set-closing “Tennessee Whiskey,” the soulful love song that played out to dramatic effect under a nearly full moon. It was followed by a one-song encore, the Stapleton rarity “I Was Wrong.”
One thing we learned from Stapleton’s tight 90-minute set is that his type of literate, challenging country music is welcome at Tortuga, and the list for future festivals would be wise to consider Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Dwight Yoakam and, for crying out loud, Willie Nelson.
The Tortuga Music Festival continues on Sunday, April 9, at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd. Single-day general-admission tickets cost $99, $399 for VIP at TortugaMusicFestival.com.