"This is like an organized car crash," said Dierks Bentley, well into his Dierks Bentley and Friends pre-Grammy celebration at West Hollywood's legendary Troubadour club Saturday (Feb. 12) night. "But there will be no blood spilled. Maybe some beer."
The loose-limbed, collision course of an evening featured four of the five artists vying for the Grammy for best country album. And with a list of guest performers that included Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown and Del McCoury, the event boasted almost more stars than the Grammy Awards themselves.
Bentley, who was up for three Grammy awards, proved to be a relaxed, congenial host, eager to cede the spotlight to the other singers and musicians.
"I'd just like to say that there's never been a more generous musician than Dierks Bentley," said mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush, who was the first "friend" to take the stage on the evening's opening number, the beautiful "Gold Heart Locket."
As Bentley and his versatile band ran through a string of hits (and two fun, up-tempo new songs), many eyes in the sold-out, 500-strong audience were turned upward to the dressing room window, where artists like Shelton, McCoury and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley, were tantalizingly just out of the reach, waiting for their turn to bound down the dark staircase to take the stage.
Even actors-turned-singers were welcome as Garrett Hedlund, one of the stars of Country Strong and Tron joined Bentley for a slightly stilted cover of Kris Kristofferson's "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33." That salute to one of Bentley's musical pillars set the tone for later performances with Bentley telling some of his guests to do "one for the fans and one for our heroes."
Brown complied with a delicate, plaintive version of "Colder Weather," preceded by Hank Williams' classic, "Your Cheatin' Heart." Similarly, Lambert followed a feisty take of her "Gunpowder & Lead" with a tender duet with Bentley on Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings." Non-country singers were also more than welcome as Paramore lead singer (and fellow Nashvillian) Hayley Williams joined Bentley for a dreamy, sweetly swaying rendition of "The Only Exception."
The Troubadour's marquis billed the evening as "Dierks Bentley & Friends: Up on the Ridge," but it was nearly 90 minutes into the show before any music from Bentley's Grammy, ACM and CMA-nominated, bluegrass-flavored album made it into the set with backing from the Travelin' McCourys, the band that includes Del McCoury's sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury. Having backed Bentley on his Up on the Ridge tour, the musicians reunited Saturday for a quick dip into the album with "Fiddlin' Around," as well as a bluegrass version of Bentley's mega-hit, "Sideways." He then brought out album producer Jon Randall Stewart and his wife Jessi Alexander (co-writer of Miley Cyrus's "The Climb") for the low and mournful "Down in the Mines."
But the evening's best moments came when Bentley was joined by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Del McCoury for a few bluegrass standards, including the classics "Single Girl, Married Girl," "It Takes a Worried Man," and "Can't You Hear Me Calling," with McCoury's breathtakingly clear high harmonies soaring to the rafters. Bentley then left the stage for McCoury and the Travelin' McCourys to perform "White House Blues," a song written in 1901 (or "Nineteen One," as the 72-year-old bluegrass legend said it) following President William McKinley's assassination. Though the band had performed beautifully with Bentley, unleashing them to do their own thing was like letting a thoroughbred out of the stable to run free.
The evening's only disappointment? Bentley didn't take advantage of having Del McCoury there to perform their exquisite take on U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" from Up on the Ridge.
Throughout the evening, Bentley took some good-natured ribbing from his peers. When the ultra-tall Kelley took the stage with his Lady Antebellum bandmates for soulful versions of "Love Don't Live Here" and "Need You Now," as he raised the microphone stand, he looked at Bentley and said, "Damn, you're as short as Hillary [Scott]." Bentley, looking slightly wounded, shot back, "I'm 6-foot!"
Much later in the concert, with the alcohol clearly flowing, Shelton, drink cup in hand, bounded on stage, flipped Bentley the bird, and then hugged him and endearingly kissed him on the forehead.
"I love each and every one of y'all," Shelton said to those in attendance. "Dierks doesn't give a s**t about you."
Bentley retorted, "I want to start a campaign to bring the mullet back," referencing Shelton's longer hairstyle of days gone by.
As the show hit the two and a-half-hour mark, Bentley looked to the magical staircase and asked, "Who's left?" The answer was no one. And with that, Bentley launched into one last hit, an amazingly energetic version of "What Was I Thinkin'."
As the song came to an end, Bentley surveyed the crowd, nodded his head and said, "I was thinking this was one of the best nights of my life." Plenty of people in the audience shook their heads in agreement.