Luke Bryan Shakes It for Las Vegas

Scotty McCreery, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft Sing at ACM Event

LAS VEGAS — Luke Bryan launched his energetic, hour-plus set in Las Vegas with “Rain Is a Good Thing” — and judging by the cheers at this free party in the desert on Friday night (March 30), thousands of country fans agreed.

Although the desert air is dry and no rain was imminent, there were plenty of other liquids lubricating this particular crowd. Is it any wonder that Bryan’s current single, “Drunk on You,” earned some of the loudest singing-along of the night?

Bryan headlined the first of two nights at the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, capping a night of music that offered ACM-nominated newcomers Scotty McCreery, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes and the updated duo version of Love and Theft.

Concluding the night with to the longest imaginable rendition of “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” Bryan and his capable band admirably kept the momentum going up until midnight.

Hits like “All My Friends Say,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and “Do I” translated well to a live, late night setting and you could tell his fans were out in force. Bryan’s stage presence is undeniable, too, and if anybody unfamiliar with country music just happened to be downtown, you can wager they’re going to remember his name.

Some might say there were a few party fouls: brief covers of Adele‘s “Someone Like You” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” come to mind. Still, the gregarious Georgia native remains a safe bet to bring excitement (not to mention a blue cooler stocked with alcohol and at least two red Solo cups of whiskey) to the country music audience.

Along with an in-demand headliner like Bryan, the annual Fremont Street Experience concerts give fans a chance to see up-and-coming talent at no risk. Hey, it’s free! And you can just go into a casino if you don’t like what you’re hearing. But if you’re under 21, like McCreery and Hayes, you just can’t roll the dice.

Thanks to American Idol, McCreery has already won the jackpot anyway. He led his set with his new single, “Water Tower Town,” a slice-of-life tune that sounds destined to be another feel-good hit. In concert, he is making leaps and bounds toward connecting with the crowd, and his rich baritone is nothing but country.

At one point, I had to squint to see if McCreery was singing “Check Yes or No,” or if it was just the music bursting out of the casino next to me. The young star likes covers, too. (He won American Idol, after all.) Still, the visual stuck in my mind from McCreery’s set is of the scrawny guy next to me nuzzling his generously-sized girlfriend. I’ll never hear “I Love You This Big” the same way again.

Meanwhile, Gilbert infuses his country with a flair for Southern rock and rap. In interviews, he is a man of few words. However, onstage, he seems at ease talking with the people, even if it’s as simple as “Make some noise!” and “Are there any rednecks in the house?!”

As a performer, he can draw on his singles “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and his songwriting catalog offers now-familiar favorites like Jason Aldean‘s “Dirt Road Anthem” and “My Kinda Party.” Mix that with electric crowd response and a pillar of smoke swirling around the microphone, and you can see why performers like Gilbert want to make their living on the road. Multiply that with the neon gleaming in Las Vegas and you’re golden.

Hayes (who is nominated for in the fan-voted new artist along with McCreery and Gilbert) and Love and Theft (who are up for vocal duo) enjoyed playing for hundreds of curious fans who gathered between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. for the free shows. From where I was standing, Hayes’ voice was pretty muffled, but judging from the screaming fans, he was doing something right. (I think he said he met Stevie Wonder, and it was awesome.) Fans cheerfully applauded his breakthrough single, “Storm Warning,” and his career seems likely to keep forging ahead.

Love and Theft are on the right track, too. Applause greeted their pop-inflected hits from when they were a trio, such as “Runaway,” as well as their flirtatious new single, “Angel Eyes.” A year from now, will they keep their spot in the vocal duo category among the competition? I wouldn’t bet against them.

The free Fremont Street shows continue on Saturday with headliner Eric Church, as well as Laura Bell Bundy, the Eli Young Band, Craig Campbell and Jana Kramer.

View photos from both nights of the Fremont Street Experience.