NEW YORK — Dierks Bentley’s current Country & Cold Cans tour, with opening acts Jerrod Niemann and the Eli Young Band, finds the country star in a transitional phase. He’s in flux between the stylistic detour of his 2010 bluegrass-based project, Up on the Ridge, which found him collaborating with the Punch Brothers and Del McCoury (and playing acoustic sets full of traditional tunes at small venues) and what promises to be a return to a more commercial form with his upcoming album, Home, slated for release next year.
While Bentley’s bluegrass-oriented record was hardly a slouch on the charts, it didn’t do anywhere near the business of its predecessors, probably due to its non-mainstream approach. But months before Home’s release, the first single, “Am I the Only One,” has already become both a No. 1 country hit and gone Top 40 on the pop chart, sporting a radio friendly, good-time honky-tonk sound.
But even though Bentley seems to have rededicated himself to courting country stardom, he’s clearly wistful about leaving his high-lonesome leanings behind, and both ends of the sonic spectrum had their moment in the spotlight Thursday (Oct. 20) in New York City when he hit the stage for the first of two nights at Irving Plaza.
When he played New York last year in support of Up on the Ridge, Bentley performed at places like Brooklyn’s 350-capacity Southpaw, where he was backed by the aforementioned Punch Brothers as part of a four-clubs-in-four-nights jaunt, with a different theme each night.
An amiably eccentric superfan known only as “Will Ferrell,” a lookalike dressed in Talladega Nights character to underscore his resemblance to the comedy king, followed Bentley all around New York, starting a one-man tailgate party outside the venues by blasting Bentley’s music and tossing free beers from the back of a pickup truck. It was just the right left-field touch for that idiosyncratic moment in Bentley’s career. Many — including Bentley — were happy to see that “Ferrell” was back for the Irving Plaza show, this time dressed like the comedian’s basketball-playing character in Semi-Pro, complete with ball, headband and uniform.
Bentley paused about two-thirds of the way through his set to fondly recall the fun of last year’s outside-the-box shows, tailgate parties and pickin’ sessions — having already noted, “Will Ferrell’s having a good time!” — and announced his desire to “relive the tour” by launching into the bluegrass stomp of both the title track and “Dead to Me” from Up on the Ridge.
By that point, the basketball had already made its way into the singer’s hands and back out into the crowd, like the urban equivalent of a beach ball at a summertime amphitheater show, but Bentley had also hit the crowd with the modernized Waylon Jennings-style swagger of “Am I the Only One,” and the whole crowd already seemed to have the current single committed to memory, singing along with as much fervor as they would on Bentley blockbusters like “Sideways” and “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” In fact, the evening kicked off with another new tune, the one from which the tour took its name. The still-unreleased song’s hard-partying, country-pride feel had a lot more in common with, say, Blake Shelton than it did with Del McCoury.
Of course, Bentley has always been equally adept at touching on his Outlaw influences and giving the ladies in the audience something to swoon over, and he hit both of those bases with a batch of his biggest hits over the course of the show. After dedicating “How Am I Doin’?” to “a particular ex-girlfriend of mine” and declaring his gratitude for a certain engagement-ring proprietor’s 30-day return policy, he kicked off the classic-style she-done-me-wrong tune with his deepest country twang inflections of the evening, venturing close to Merle Haggard territory as he delivered the bitter-but-unbowed, cathartic song amid a frenzy of whoops and hollers from the male portion of the audience.
At the same time, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the entire front row at Irving Plaza consisted of excited young ladies constantly stretching their arms out to touch the singer whenever he ventured anywhere near the front of the stage. This segment of the crowd looked like they could have been scooped up off the floor with a spoon after Bentley delivered achingly romantic tunes like “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes,” “Settle for a Slowdown” and the set-closing “Come a Little Closer.”
The evening’s three-song encore proved to be a kind of microcosm of where Bentley is creatively during this in-between phase of his. After he and his band returned to the stage, they launched into a long, moody, instrumental intro that led to a countrified cover of the Pink Floyd ballad “Wish You Were Here,” showing that the wild-card sensibility of the man who covered both U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the obscure Bob Dylan tune “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on his “bluegrass” album was still in effect.
“Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go),” Bentley’s No. 1 hit from 2006’s Long Trip Alone, was a happy collision between down-home banjo, Celtic folk flavor and ’70s-style Outlaw country, proving he isn’t done recasting his tunes into new paradigms. And “What Was I Thinkin’,” the 2003 single that started it all, gave us Bentley, the showman. Before the driving tune ended, he had indulged in a stage dive that briefly passed him toward the back of the venue over the enthusiastic crowd’s heads and then did some onstage basketball dribbling before finally tossing the ball back out into the audience.
But while it seemed like Bentley was already well on his way back to the main drag after his off-road excursions, the friends he’d found along the way looked unlikely to exit his camp anytime soon. Immediately after the show ended, there was “Will Ferrell” holding court outside, his pickup ensconced across the street from Irving Plaza as he happily tossed cold cans of beer to exiting concertgoers while dutifully pumping some classic Dierks cuts out of his car stereo.