DENVER, Colorado — Luke Combs climbed to the peak of country music's mountaintop this weekend — embracing the view with an ear-to-ear grin and drink in his hand.
Combs performed Saturday for a sold-out crowd of roughly 53,000 inside Empower Field at Mile High, the first N.F.L. stadium headlined by the "Forever After All" singer since he barnstormed country music five years ago with his remarkable rise from Nashville underdog to reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year.
And, as he soaked in the chilly view from 5,280 feet a day after snow covered seats inside the stadium, Combs admitted he "never, never, never, never thought in a million years" that this would happen to him.
"Today [is] the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me. It's really hard to imagine or to even process in my own head what the hell is actually going on right now. [It's] insane to me," Combs said from the towering Mile High stage.
He added, "Seven years ago, I had never been on an airplane ... I'd never lived more than an hour-and-a-half away from my parents. And here I am, three quarters away, across the United States with 53,000 people in a football stadium, playing songs that I wrote in my living room with my friends."
But as he held center stage for the two-hour show, Combs proved why he and his growing collection of hits sound best with a stadium-sized crowd singing along. The 32-year-old North Carolina native and his seven-piece band thundered through the songs that got him there: "Hurricane," "She Got The Best Of Me," "Beautiful, Crazy," "Cold As You," his latest country radio No. 1 "Doin' This" ... and the list goes on.
He shotgunned a beer during drinkin' tune "1, 2 Many," dedicated "Forever After All" to his pregnant wife Nicole and encouraged the dreamers sitting two rows from the top of the stadium — as he once did as a 21-year-old at a Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw concert — before delivering "What Memories Are Made Of."
And no, Combs didn't cut corners on opening talent for his Mile High debut, either.
Country music fans may not find a better slate of fast-rising entertainers on a one-night stage this year: Morgan Wade, a newcomer schooled in singing truth-telling anthems with her unvarnished drawl; Zach Bryan, a troubadour and Navy veteran who climbed from DIY roots to release this week a mammoth 34-song major label debut album; and Cody Johnson, a neotraditional Texan who’s dominating country radio.
“Mile High, I’ll be honest, this is the biggest crowd I’ve ever played for,” Bryan said as he popped open a Budweiser tallboy. “It means the world.”
After nearly two dozen songs — including rollicking covers of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson — Combs inched toward closing his set with cornerstone hit "When It Rains It Pours" before returning for a three song encore: Big-voiced ballad "Better Together," David Lee Murphy cover "Dust On The Bottle" with Johnson and fist-pumping crowd favorite "Beer Never Broke My Heart."
Tossing his red cup into the audience, he soaked in the view once more before kicking into a beefy chant of "Long. Neck. Ice. Cold. Beer."
"Denver, have we had fun tonight?" Combs said, closing his show. "I love y'all. I owe my whole ... life to every single one of y'all in here."
Luke Combs in Denver setlist
Cold As You
1, 2 Many
Must’ve Never Met You
The Other Guy
She Got The Best of Me
Houston, We Got A Problem
One Number Away
My Kinda Folk
What Memories Are Made Of
Even Though I’m Leaving
This One’s For You
Two Dozen Roses (Shenandoah cover)/Chattahoochee(Alan Jackson cover)/Ain't Goin' Down ('til the Sun Comes Up) (Garth Brooks cover)
Lovin’ On You
Brand New Man (Brooks & Dunn cover)
Blue Collar Boys
Does To Me
Forever After All
When It Rains It Pours
Dust On The Bottle (David Lee Murphy cover with Cody Johnson)
Beer Never Broke My Heart
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Luke Combs takes Denver by storm with sold-out stadium concert