CHICAGO — It was the absence of cowboy hats that made this Dierks Bentley show feel a little different. That and the fact that he came on at 2:30 in the afternoon. And that he only played for an hour.
But other than that, Dierks Bentley as the lone country act at mega rock fest Lollapalooza seemed as right as Dierks Bentley as the headliner of his own show. Although he previously performed at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, it was a feat for him to be the fish out of water at the Chicago show.
As the sold-out crowd of about 75,000 poured into Grant Park on Saturday afternoon (Aug. 2), most heads were bent over the day’s itinerary of bands — ones Bentley doesn’t ever share billing with. People roamed from stage to stage as if trying to catch connecting flights. Rage Against the Machine, Wilco and edgy rookies and pros were the big draws. And while many of the thousands of people in front of the Bentley’s stage had come to see him on purpose, some looked like Bentley’s music had accidentally lured them away from the loud screamer bands carrying on elsewhere.
Especially when he opened with Waylon Jennings’ hard-to-ignore “Lonesome On’ry and Mean.” But then his own songs filled up the bulk of his 13-song set. Like on his pleading “Tryin’ to Stop Your Leavin’,” rowdy road anthem “Can’t Live It Down,” “Every Mile a Memory” and “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).” As usual, Bentley’s band of brothers gave him just enough backing to make sure there was no sound bleed from the other seven stages that filled up the four city blocks flanking the Windy City’s famed Buckingham Fountain. It’s been a problem in past years, as the music from one stage overlaps and drowns out the music from another. But for Bentley, it wasn’t an issue. Maybe because Bentley had his beat-up red Telecaster guitar back, after it was lost for a while on his recent European tour trek. With the guitar back in his hands, he seemed every bit the rock star his Lollapalooza festmates were.
He thanked his fans who’d immersed themselves in a music fest of bands they’d never heard of just to see Bentley. As he introduced “Long Trip Alone,” he said “Thanks to the fans, and thanks for not making it so.” His wailing hallelujahs here sounded good to those there for his vocal power, and his longer-than-normal guitar solo nestled in the middle of “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” satisfied the hardcore axe lovers. Then when he encouraged everyone to stay hydrated with something domestic, light and cold, Bentley earned some of the loudest cheers in the park.
There’s no doubt it’s a character builder to go from headliner for adoring fans to opener for people just discovering you for the first time. But that may be what keeps Bentley so fresh. He has even commented on his Web site that he likes to get away from his comfort zone. And because his music tends to get more progressive with every album, it wasn’t such a culture stretch to include him in this lineup. But his sound still has enough touches of bluegrass and a traditional sound to keep him from being accused of crossing over. Enough, too, to pique the interest of even the most hardened indie/alternative fan.
The energy of those green fans (and maybe the smell of marijuana in the air) fueled Bentley’s charismatic attitude throughout the afternoon. And with Lake Michigan to his left and the skyline to his right, he held the crowd’s attention until the very last song. Bentley’s fiery take on “Folsom Prison Blues” wrapped his set on a very country high. “We started this with Waylon,” he said, “and we’re gonna end it with Johnny Cash.”