ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Dierks Bentley has been playing to the big rooms for a long time now -- first as an opening act for George Strait for two years, then warming up crowds for Kenny Chesney. Now, he's on top of the bill for his first headlining stretch, the Locked & Loaded tour, which he officially kicked off Thursday night (Oct. 5) in Asheville.
Bentley and his two opening acts, Miranda Lambert and the Randy Rogers Band, played a private gig the night before, but the concert at the Asheville Civic Center was the first night people could walk right up and buy tickets. In that regard, it was similar to a club show. Actually, in a lot of ways, the night seemed like a gig at a very large local music venue, right down to the bands carrying off their own gear after their sets.
There were no rows of chairs in front of the medium-sized stage, and some wedding singers probably carry more flashy equipment than Bentley and his band. (A shiny, iridescent curtain behind the stage is pretty much the limit of luxury here.) However, when was the last good concert you attended where you could be face to face with an established country star with just a general admission ticket?
With a new album to be released Oct. 17, Bentley previewed several new songs and earned exceptionally enthusiastic responses, especially for the jovial "Free and Easy Down the Road I Go." (As Chesney is inspired by the islands, Bentley seems to find his muse on the asphalt.) At one point, he planted himself in the front of the crowd -- and looked shell-shocked by the screaming and groping that ensued. With all the hands on him, he must not have been able to reach his microphone for a few moments because all you could hear was a lot of excited shrieking. After jumping back on stage, he scrambled to the left side, then to the right, then shook his fists and sang to the rafters at the people settled comfortably in their seats. Unlike them, Bentley hardly remained still throughout his 90-minute set, knowing he had to live up to the high expectations for a headlining act. This time, the people were there to see him.
Anybody who thinks young adults don't listen to country music ought to attend this tour because they'd immediately be proven wrong. Most, but not all, of the over-35 crowd lingered near the back of the room. (When this happens in Nashville, you assume they work in the music business.) Yet the bulk of the agreeable audience happily stood a stone's throw from the stage.
If nothing else, clustering the fans up close and personal is an easy way to see familiar faces and meet new people -- for better or worse. Just to strike up conversation, one friendly young woman gladly recounted to me all the country shows she's attended lately. Later, some guy asked me if I wanted to wrestle.
Bentley kept up his momentum for nearly an hour and a-half, finishing up, of course, with his most popular songs. Unfortunately, a woman near the front of the stage fell to the floor in seizures almost immediately after the last note. Rather than shouting "encore!" people were screaming for paramedics. To his credit, Bentley returned to center stage to see if he could help, although there was nothing anyone could do. We were all eventually asked to leave as an ambulance raced to the scene.
But since that unusual turn of events didn't happen until the very end, Miranda Lambert and the Randy Rogers Band were able to entertain the crowd without distraction.
The audience welcomed Lambert's music with hearty applause. Her sassy approach certainly appealed to the young women. She also received a lot of screams for her forthcoming, very loud single, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Yes, she admits that she is one and seems awfully proud of that fact, too. We'll see how it does in terms of radio airplay. When was the last time you heard a country song (one that doesn't sound country in the least) with the words "damn," "hell" and "bitch" race up the charts?
When she wasn't trying to be so edgy, Lambert showed that she has a lively country voice, especially on "Bring Me Down," "I Wanna Die," "New Strings" and the new song, "Dry Town." As most opening acts are prone to do these days, she covered a few songs, too, choosing Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band" and Steve Earle's "Hillbilly Highway." With a new album coming early next year, she should have more songs to choose from on her next visit.
The Randy Rogers Band impressed the crowd with a crisp-sounding set and a rollicking country-rock sound that should go down easy with Bentley's fans. Highlights included "Kiss Me in the Dark" (their current single) and "Before I Believe It's True." Rogers has been playing around Texas for a long time now and seemed grateful to bring his music to a wider national audience on the tour. It's a major stepping stone for his band to be playing large rooms in other cities. And as a headliner, the same could be said for Bentley, too.