CHICAGO -- Dierks Bentley's curls are gone. And so are his inhibitions.
Photo Credit: Alison Bonaguro
How else would you explain the impromptu stage dive? The sexy slow dance with a fan? Or the two-hour show for 900 Chicagoans?
Bentley's High Times & Hangovers tour, a hiatus from the mid-size venues he's been playing since last year, got off to a rowdy start Thursday (Feb. 1) at Joe's Bar in Chicago. It also got off to an early start -- at 6:30 a.m., actually. That's when the first fan showed up to get in line outside the bar. According to Chicago radio station WUSN (US99), the show sold out in four minutes, so fans knew they'd have to go early to stake their claim to a front row spot for the general-admission venue.
He didn't take the stage until 10:30 p m., but when he did, those fans got a close-up look at what makes Bentley one of the most roadworthy country artists right now. There's no script, no strict set list. It feels more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants than the expected sing-and-chat rhythm most artists fall into.
The set had just about everything Bentley does well: his radio hits, his favorite unreleased songs and his own kind of covers. It was what he described as "a chance to get away from the smoke and the lights and strip it down to what we used to do before."
Early on, Bentley eased himself into the night with "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" and "Band of Brothers." Then somehow, seamlessly, he went tearing into "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do" and "How Am I Doin'." With his solid band backing his every move, he was singing into fans' cell phones, drinking their beers and wearing their hats. Bentley's interaction with the crowd -- emphasizing party-boy antics over shallow conversation -- is why he's gained a reputation as one of country's most engaging live acts.
At one point in the middle of the show, during the steamy "Come a Little Closer," Bentley pulled a woman up to the microphone, wrapped his arms around her and danced her all over the stage. Then, he stood with his back to the crowd and fell gracefully into the waiting hands of the first six rows of fans.
And with the local crowd convinced that the Chicago Bears are about to embark on a Super Bowl win, Bentley displayed a mischievous streak by mentioning the names of his former tourmate and the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
"You know, Kenny Chesney's from East Tennessee," Bentley joked to the crowd. "So he's going to the Super Bowl with his friend, Peyton Manning." Plenty of good-natured booing drowned out any additional talk of the Colts.
One of Bentley's gifts is his ability to sing right through all the activity. Even with the stage dive, the dancing and the shots of tequila, the microphone rarely left his hand. And the vocals rarely suffered. "Long Trip Alone," "Free and Easy Down the Road I Go" and "What Was I Thinkin'" all sounded flawless -- no matter what he was up to on stage.
"Every Mile a Memory," which has earned Bentley two Grammy nominations, was the star of the night, although a close second had to be his version of George Strait's "All My Ex's Live in Texas."
"Country artists are always doing rock covers," Bentley told the crowd. "But I love country music, so I'm not gonna do a Guns & Roses song." He made good on his promise to country with Strait's "The Fireman," Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues."
Cross Canadian Ragweed, one of Bentley's favorite bands, was on hand to warm up the crowd for an hour with a 13-song set which included "Dimebag," "Fightin' For" and "This Time Around." Frontman Cody Canada led the four-man band into guitar jams between each tune, giving the crowd a feel for their rock-influenced take on country music.
Bentley and Cross Canadian Ragweed will make seven more stops before this specialty tour wraps up on Feb. 9 at Legends in Statesboro, Ga., and Bentley gets back to his larger Locked & Loaded shows.