LeAnn Rimes, Kellie Pickler, Jason Aldean Warm Up the ACM Crowd

Julianne Hough, Jake Owen, Zac Brown Band Also Perform During Free Concerts in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — LeAnn Rimes is in Las Vegas this weekend, and what happens here is a big deal for country fans. She played a free outdoor concert at the Fremont Street Experience on Saturday night (April 4), capping two nights of entertainment from the likes of Jason Aldean, Julianne Hough, Jake Owen, Kellie Pickler and the Zac Brown Band. The concerts attracted hundreds of onlookers and served as a very diverse preview to the Academy of Country Music Awards to be held at the MGM Grand here on Sunday night (April 5).

Rimes didn’t mention a word about the rumors of an alleged affair with actor Eddie Cibrian, her co-star in a recent Lifetime television movie, although the gossip does sort of change the way you listen to “Commitment.” She only sang a snippet of “Blue” and skipped “One Way Ticket” entirely. Instead, she mostly drew upon her most recent album, Family, and an abundance of rock covers — Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and Janis Joplin’s arrangement of “Summertime.” Most of her up-tempo stuff was up front, with “Nothin’ Better to Do” and “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” as the first two songs in her 75-minute set.

Pickler worked hard to charm the crowd during her concert which took place just before Rimes’ set. (Performances alternated between two stages located about two blocks apart.) She has a vivacious personality that is easy to like, and she kicked off her set with her newest single, “The Best Days of Your Life.” Judging from the enthusiastic response, she might consider relocating it to the middle of her set, which could use a pick-me-up. However, she did a nice job on “9 to 5,” and declared, “You gotta like Dolly. She’s the greatest thing that ever happened to country music!”

She also thanked people for picking her on American Idol and recalled how the show presented her disheartening personal life. “They talked about my relationship with my mother — there isn’t one,” she said, before turning in a fine rendition of “I Wonder.” Of course, she dug into “Red High Heels” right after that.

The Zac Brown Band can barely get through a song without slipping in a few verses of a cover. But they’ve been playing live for so long, it’s always a very smooth transition. When they played John Mayer’s “Neon,” I didn’t really get it, until I remembered that Clay Cook, who co-wrote it, is in the band now, and also — duh — it’s Las Vegas! The cool desert air gave “Get Away,” “Toes” and “Free” a brisk, clean perspective, and a feisty take of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” went over very, very well. Personally, I like Brown’s version of Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene.” It has that intangible ache that seems to be missing from country music these days. And all the cowboy hats and baseball caps came off during the patriotic verse of “Chicken Fried,” as it should be, I suppose.

Brown also reminded the fans repeatedly to vote in the ACM’s best new artist category. Not coincidentally, he’s up for the award along with Hough and Owen.

As the headliner on Friday night (April 3), Aldean was not reluctant to throw in a few rock songs — from Tom Petty‘s “I Won’t Back Down” to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” His concert was mostly well-paced, with a comfortable mix of hits like “Amarillo Sky” and “Why,” along with selections from his new album, Wide Open, to be released Tuesday (April 7). But you could tell the crowd was itching to hear “She’s Country.” At one point, he implored the throng to bear with him a little bit longer, but when the moment finally arrived, it became perfectly clear that the song has officially taken hold, with plenty of screams and carrying on among the fans. “Hicktown” is probably still his signature song, but “She’s Country” is definitely having its moment now, too.

Owen kicked off his set with the “Tell Me,” which has that spaghetti Western feel to it, and always makes me want to yell out, “Rawhide!!” He enticed the crowd with songs from his two albums, as well as a funny one he hasn’t recorded yet, “Damn, Baby, Damn.” After singing “Easy Does It,” he settled in for a solo acoustic version of “Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold,” to honor Dan Seals, the well-respected country singer who died last month. I noticed a guy in his 50s next to me earnestly singing along through the whole tune — an essential reminder that country music prior to 1989 still has a soft spot for many listeners. And then, for inexplicable reasons, Owen launched into a medley of Sublime’s “What I Got,” the Bloodhound Gang’s “The Roof Is on Fire” and Will Smith’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Um, OK. At least it made sense to close out his slot with “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and “Yee Haw.”

Hough sashayed through her set and, yes, she had a couple of cover songs, too. She has only released a few singles — notably “That Song in My Head” and “My Hallelujah Song” — so I understand the need to fill a set list. Plus, a perky rendition of the Eagles‘ “Heartache Tonight” is fine in Las Vegas. I know that some crowds enjoy those ’80s pop songs at the end of a concert, but I hope Hough finds the time to dig up some country classics before her tour begins with George Strait in May. Still, there’s no doubt her heart is in the right place. She couldn’t make it through “My Hallelujah Song” without crying, being overwhelmed at winning an ACM award so early in her career, and selling quite a few albums, too. At 20, she has the potential to grow into an already promising career.

Early on Friday night, Matt Stillwell opened the series with songs like “Shine,” while new band Gloriana warmed up the crowd on Saturday night with “Wild at Heart” and some other new tunes. Both acts encouraged fans to come up afterwards for an autograph or a photo, a gesture designed to build a fan base — and hopefully grab a nomination at next year’s ACM Awards.

View photos from the concerts.
Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.