LAS VEGAS — If you had been living in a cave for the past two years and suddenly showed up here Saturday night (May 17) at the huge ballroom MGM Grand Casino and Hotel, you would have nonetheless recognized that Taylor Swift is a star. No, it’s not just because one of the high-rollers at the charity concert ponied up $60,000 for an auction package that centered around a meet-and-greet with the 18-year-old singer-songwriter. Swift’s star qualities are more about her sparkling stage presence and the way the crowd responds to her.
However, another singer-songwriter — Sarah Buxton — easily provided the biggest musical surprise during the Academy of Country Music’s New Artists Party for a Cause. If her backing musicians looked familiar, it was because they were members of Keith Urban’s band — with Urban himself tagging along as lead guitarist and background vocalist.
The ACM event showcased all but one of the acts nominated in the new artist categories at the 43rd annual ACM Awards show taking place Sunday (May 18) at the MGM Grand. Garden Arena. The Wreckers — who are either pursuing other projects or have broken up altogether, depending on the source of the information — did not appear, but the other new vocal group or duo nominees — Carolina Rain and Lady Antebellum — did. And in addition to Swift and Buxton, new female vocalist nominee Kellie Pickler demonstrated her star potential, too. Rounding out the evening were top new male vocalist nominees Luke Bryan, Jack Ingram and Jake Owen.
Carolina Rain opened the show with strong vocals by lead singer Rhean Boyer and harmonies by the other two members, Jeremy Baxter and Marvin Evatt. They haven’t yet had the major hit they need to fully establish their career, but the band’s talent came through as they performed one of their previous singles, “Isn’t She,” and a new song, “American Radio,” to be released in June.
When Buxton followed with a cover of the Bellamy Brothers’ pop hit, “Let Your Love Flow,” some people didn’t seem to notice at first that Urban was onstage. Urban pretty much stayed in the background as he assumed his role as a sideman, a job he became familiar with before he gained commercial success. Buxton co-wrote Urban’s hit, “Stupid Boy,” with Dave Berg and Deanna Bryant, but the ACM event gave her and Urban a rare opportunity to perform the song together. He offered a blistering guitar solo that set a high musical bar for other musicians to meet later in the show.
Jake Owen then turned in a spirited performance of one of his singles, “Yee Haw,” and a new song, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You.”
Considering that their debut album was only released a few weeks ago, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood are in an enviable position with their current Top 10 single, “Love Don’t Live Here.” The trio’s live delivery of the single and an album track, “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” showed an assuredness not often found in such young bands.
After more than a decade of playing clubs in Texas, there’s a certain level of comic irony connected to Jack Ingram’s current status as a new artist. His experience, maturity and easy-going persona gave him an immediate connection with the audience. It helped, too, that just two songs — “Measure of a Man” and “Love You” — provided a synopsis of his artistic range.
Kellie Pickler’s bubbling personality has made her a favorite of fans on the road as an opening act for Brad Paisley and others, and she was one of the favorites at the ACM party, too. In addition to her hit, “Red High Heels,” she introduced a new song, apparently titled “Rocks Instead of Rice,” about a wedding that is sure to eventually lead to divorce.
After introducing himself with “Country Man,” Luke Bryan had the advantage of being able to offer his hit single, “All My Friends Say,” to get the audience’s attention during an energetic performance.
I’m not sure how the order of appearances was determined, but it made perfect sense to have Taylor Swift close the show. Shortly before her set began, she actually wandered onto the stage during the charity auction after being told that bidding was inching toward $40,000 to meet her. Apparently unconcerned about making a big entrance for her musical performance, she had a look of genuine disbelief as she kept holding her forehead when the high bid of $60,000 was provided.
Swift was in fine voice as she sang “Our Song” and “Picture to Burn.” It was interesting to see the attention to detail that has gone into her stage presentation. In an era when nearly all backing musicians — and many male artists — hit the stage dressed in jeans while looking as though they just tumbled from their bunks on the tour bus, Swift’s musicians were attired in dark suits. In fact, a couple of them looked like they’d just come from the hairstylist. This doesn’t make them better musicians, of course, but a youthful, sharply-dressed entourage is likely to have a special appeal among Swift’s core audience.
Saturday’s concert was a fundraiser for the ACM Charitable Fund, which assists a variety of nonprofit causes. Swift was just one of the artists who volunteered for meet-and-greets as part of auction packages that also included prime tickets to the ACM Awards, an autographed guitar and a trip to see the artist in concert. The Kenny Chesney package fetched $40,000, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts each received high bids of $17,500 and George Strait brought in $15,000.