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Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood Shine Bright at Country Thunder
Keith Anderson and Luke Bryan Also Excel at Wisconsin Festival
Dierks Bentley performs at Country Thunder USA in Twin Lakes, Wis., on July 19, 2007.
Dierks Bentley performs at Country Thunder USA in Twin Lakes, Wis., on July 19, 2007.
Photo Credit: Alison Bonaguro
TWIN LAKES, Wis. -- Finally, Dierks Bentley got the audience he deserved.

Roughly 30,000 rowdy, ready, loud and proud country fans showed up to adore him at Thursday (July 19) night's Country Thunder USA concert in Twin Lakes, Wis. After years of climbing up the gig ladder from honky-tonks and clubs to college arenas and county fairs, Bentley has now landed at the top. And this festival, which pulls fans from all over Wisconsin, Chicagoland and the entire Midwest for five days straight, is a nice place to land.

Bentley didn't start his set until just before 11 p.m., so his 20-song set went well past midnight. As he put it, "Our job is to be the first guys to jump on the bar and get the party going." His stories about life on the road gave his long list of hits some breathing room. And his vocals have been aging nicely: a little grittier, maybe, but strong and full of the distinctive sound that give his show such range. You can hear a longing in his soul on "My Last Name" and "Come a Little Closer" and yet still hear him getting his flirt on in songs like "Cab of My Truck" and "Domestic, Light and Cold."

When he wasn't singing, he was talking. Telling a story about judging a recent Hooter's bikini contest in Las Vegas, he explained, "It's just a job. It's what we do for a living." He went on to say that it's difficult to explain the things you see from the stage, so he wrote a song about it. "That Don't Make It Easy Lovin' Me," made the crowd feel like he'd written a song all about them. With his full band behind him, and the standard-issue black T-shirt and jeans, Bentley made the most out of every minute while playing for such a massive audience.

The seats at the festival were still filling when Carrie Underwood took the stage before Bentley, but she sang like she was doing so for a sold-out crowd. (The general admission lawn was just about at its capacity, while many of the much pricier reserved seats stayed empty all day and night.) The audience sang along on her mega hits like "Jesus, Take the Wheel" and her opening number, "Young and Beautiful." But they seemed less sold on her sporadic tributes to Guns 'N Roses. She spent much of her hour and a-half show dancing up and down the catwalks off the stage, touching fans and even stopping to sing to a little girl. While some of her peers are suffering from the tolls of the road, her powerful voice shows no signs of shutting down.

Before Underwood, Keith Anderson came out for an hour, doing the songs that have made him -- and other artists -- such fan favorites. He opened with "XXL" and "Podunk" but quickly changed gears when it was time to get sentimental on "Lost in This Moment," the No. 1 song he wrote for Big & Rich. The highlight of Anderson's set, though, was when he brought out a few good men from the military and sang "Sunday Morning in America" while the soldiers walked the catwalks to shake the hands of the fans. When it was time for "Pickin' Wildflowers," a half-dozen dancing girls in jeans and half-tanks joined Anderson on the catwalk to pack a little more heat into the already-sexy song.

Country rockers Trick Pony had a chance earlier in the day to show off new lead singer Aubrey Collins. Dressed in pigtails, short overalls, knee-high athletic socks and heavy eye make-up, she hardly fit the image of a female country vocalist -- which may be just how she likes it. Collins' voice was certainly just as non-traditional throughout their set, even though the band had some stellar talent on traditional country instruments such as stand-up bass and banjo.

Nashville Star winner Chris Young took the stage earlier with his own solid tunes like "Beer or Gasoline" and "Drinkin' Me Lonely." He had been to Country Thunder before when he was just 18 and opening the show for Chris LeDoux.

Newcomer Sarah Buxton had an aggressive set of her own, doing the hippie cowgirl thing with her raspy vocals and folk-style songwriting. Her rendition of "Stupid Boy," which Buxton wrote and Keith Urban recorded, sounded nothing like Urban's version. There's something less pathetic and more empowering when Buxton does it her way.

But the stand-out guy during the afternoon had to be Luke Bryan. It's hard to say who was happier: Bryan (to be sharing a festival bill with Anderson, Underwood and Bentley) or the crowd (to be hearing genuine country music full of lyrics about life). His success as co-writer of Billy Currington's No. 1 single, "Good Directions," immediately established his credentials as a songwriter. But then his own single "All My Friends Say" and a cover of Conway Twitty's "Lay You Down" had fans asking over and over, "Who is this guy, and why haven't I heard of him before?" When you find a Georgia native who'll sing honestly about hog-wrestling, hot-wiring tractors and curing hams, you can't let him get away.

Country Thunder USA continues through Sunday (July 22), when Kenny Chesney will be closing the festival with tourmates Pat Green and Sugarland.

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