Only free beer would have made it a more joyful evening than fans experienced Thursday (June 7) as the CMA Music Festival presented the first of its four megaconcerts at Nashville’s LP Field.
The weather was ideal and the music spectacular, thanks to such big guns as Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and the Zac Brown Band. There was even a surprise appearance from Hank Williams Jr.
The artists performed on a stage framed by a giant lighted arc that, at times, looked like the entrance of a railroad tunnel.
Addressing the sold-out crowd before the music started, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said fans from all 50 states and 26 countries had registered for the festival, which runs through Sunday (June 10).
“Please spend a lot of money,” Dean implored. “We’re going through the budget process, and we need it.”
Backed by the Nashville School of the Arts Chorus, David Nail opened the show with the title track from his current album, The Sound of a Million Dreams.
A cloudless sky and the gentlest of cool breezes prompted the show’s host to demand “a round of applause for Mother Nature” — which he got.
The irreplaceable Glen Campbell really put the crowd in a party mood and had it clapping along when he kicked off his segment with “Gentle on My Mind.”
Afflicted with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Campbell frequently stumbled and hesitated over his lyrics, but his guitar playing was right on the money as he ambled through “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Try a Little Kindness,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Southern Nights” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
Even impaired, Campbell is a magnificent performer and fully deserved the standing ovation the fans awarded him.
Next came ready-to-rumble Lambert, radiant in her blonde curls, black bustier top, miniskirt, knee-high boots and pink guitar — just the kind of girl you’d invite to the NRA dance and turkey shoot.
Pausing to take a breath, she beckoned to the stage Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, her partners in the dangerously candid trio, Pistol Annies. They promptly pinned the audience’s ears back with “Hell on Heels” and “Takin’ Pills.”
When Monroe and Presley exited, Lambert closed her set with “White Liar” and “Gunpowder & Lead,” the latter of which she introduced with the warning, “One thing I will not tolerate is a man who beats up on women.”
The way she commanded the stage, it was easy to believe every word she said.
Kellie Pickler came out to sing a couple of songs as the sets were being changed. The most-emphatic of these — and the one winning the loudest applause — was “Stop Cheating on Me.”
When Aldean hit the stage, it was like a shift in emotional gears, with the crowd leaping to its feet. Girls abandoned their lines at the restroom to rush back to their seats when they heard his name announced.
Of all the evening’s performers, he brought the most energy and rock ’n’ roll attitude to his set. Cocky as Mick Jagger, he paced the stage to storm through “Hicktown,” “My Kinda Party,” “Big Green Tractor” and “Tattoos on This Town” before striking a pensive note with “Fly Over States.”
The graphics projected on the stage behind Aldean — whether it was silhouettes of undulating women or cartoons of pulsating speakers — added much to the effect.
Shots of the members of Lady Antebellum looking distracted or apprehensive as they waited to go onstage heralded the entrance of that trio, as did a persistent, almost ominous drumbeat.
Lady A arrived with “Need You Now,” the first of several face-to-face vocals between Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott. The two exude a special chemistry, as though they’ve so internalized a song’s message they have a compelling need to get it out.
Propelled by insistent percussion, the trio continued with “We Owned the Night,” “Our Kind of Love,” “American Honey,” “Wanted You More” and “I Run to You.” They bowed out with “Lookin’ for a Good Time.”
The Zac Brown Band came on at 11 p.m. to a volcanic roar of approval from the audience. Starting with “Keep Me in Mind,” the group proceeded with a credible cover of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Always at the ready, fiddler Jimmy De Martini has become almost as much a signature and sound of the group as Brown himself.
The band’s new album, Uncaged, will be out in July.
But there was still close to a full house when Paisley rocketed in with “Camouflage.” There was substantially more excitement and some dancing in the aisles when he moved on to “Mud on the Tires” and “American Saturday Night.”
Paisley then took a leisurely stroll through “This Is Country Music,” interspersing it with improvised lyrics and guitar runs.
He ended with the phrase, “a country boy can survive,” which signaled the entrance of Hank Williams Jr.
There was a time when the rough and brusque Hank Jr. might have regarded Paisley as an hors d’oeuvre, but on this evening, the two were honky-tonk picking buddies who were there to tell the world, “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams All Night Long.”
Good as his word, Paisley ended his set — and the show — at 12:15 p.m. with “Alcohol.”
The weather was still perfect as the crowd departed under a three-quarters moon.View photos from Thursday night’s concert at LP Field. Check out complete coverage of the 2012 CMA Music Festival.