LAS VEGAS -- If you were wondering how Ronnie Dunn would compile a set list as a solo artist, you weren't the only one. After opening his free show at the Fremont Street Experience on Saturday night with two new songs, the former Brooks & Dunn member confessed, "I don't know how to do this yet. I could do stuff you haven't heard, or I could do some of that old shit."
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The crowd roared, prompting Dunn to reply, "So I'll mix it up."
Indeed he did, visibly loosening up as the show progressed. And the audience grew more responsive as the night went on, too, perhaps because of the generous open-container policy in downtown Las Vegas. Yet, it seemed strange to end the ACM-sponsored night with a duo-less Dunn after starting it with Easton Corbin, Randy Houser and three pairs -- Steel Magnolia, the JaneDear Girls and Thompson Square, with the latter having the No. 1 hit in the country right now.
Of course, they all have a long way to go before breaking even with Brooks & Dunn. For the fans who missed the superstar duo's Last Rodeo tour, Dunn still provides an opportunity to sing along with modern classics like "My Maria" and "Boot Scootin' Boogie," as well as familiar hits like "Play Something Country," "Hillbilly Deluxe," "Ain't Nothin' 'Bout You," "Red Dirt Road," "Neon Moon," "Cowgirls Don't Cry," "It's Getting Better All the Time," "Put a Girl in It" and "You Can't Take the Honky-Tonk Out of the Girl."
Astonishingly, the new material stands up to a set list like that. He launched his performance with the autobiographical "Singer in a Cowboy Band" (with a Vegas reference in the first few words), followed by a self-explanatory party anthem, "Let the Cowboy Rock." After confirming that it was OK to shake it up, Dunn forged ahead with "Ain't Nothin' 'Bout You" just before bringing out two female trumpeters to lend a festive mariachi vibe to "How Far to Waco," drawing a significant response from the crowd. They also seemed satisfied with the romantic number, "Your Kind of Love."
But if Dunn could persuade his record label, he would probably choose "Cost of Livin'" as the next single -- and it would be a gamble that would very likely pay off in spades. Dunn said the song doesn't fit neatly into his upcoming solo album, due on June 7 on Sony Music, but no other new song I heard all weekend earned such a passionate response. He was speaking directly to the people when he expressively sang about a determined man willing to work to provide for his family, but with nowhere to find a job. It could be a career song, judging by the obvious cheers and fist-pumping afterwards.
And, yes, Dunn has already heard the skeptical remarks from the industry -- that he's too rich to sing and write about struggling, despite a hardscrabble upbringing in Oklahoma, and that by the time the album is out, the price of gas will be down again (not likely since it's a summer release). Here's hoping this one rises above the fray and proves the naysayers wrong.
Dunn wrapped his main set just before midnight, then encored at 12:01 a.m. with his latest single, "Bleed Red," essentially ushering in a new day in more ways than one. Along with two other upbeat songs, he concluded his late night/early morning with a cover of ZZ Top's "She Loves My Automobile."
Although I didn't notice any ZZ Top impersonators, there was a long list of "celebrities" wandering up and down Fremont Street, including Prince, Jack Sparrow, Darth Vader, two members of Kiss, Superman, late-era Elvis, a dolled-up Vegas showgirl, an Aztec warrior and at least three Bret Michaels doppelgangers. Even a Willie Nelson lookalike was taking in the show from a balcony above the stage, catching Dunn's eye more than once. When the red-headed stranger started happily moving to the music, Dunn teased, "Willie don't move like that!"
Corbin and Houser, meanwhile, showed their cards as promising artists on the country landscape (with the ACM award nominations to prove it). In between lots of banter, Houser offered his signature hit, "Boots On," as well as a spiritual song about patience titled "In God's Time," which will be released as his next single later this month. Corbin dipped into his debut album for hits like "A Little More Country Than That," "Roll With It" and "I Can't Love You Back," along with a bright cover of Kenny Chesney's "Don't Happen Twice," a No. 1 hit from 2001.
Cover songs proved to be a recurring theme for the new duos. Steel Magnolia dabbled in Dwight Yoakam's "Fast as You," Aretha Franklin's "Pink Cadillac," Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks' "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," the Faces' "Stay With Me" and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's "Jackson." (Remember, Steel Magnolia met at a karaoke bar.) Finally, the ACM-nominated duo played their breakthrough hit, "Keep On Lovin' You," along with a handful of tunes from their debut album.
Jumping up and down, the JaneDear Girls energized the crowd with Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (which they said they performed at Blake Shelton's bachelor party) along with a sampling of originals like "Wildflower." This year marks their first-ever ACM Awards show, for which they earned two nominations. The peppy pair slowed down just long enough for a dreamy ballad, "Saturdays in September," a song they said helped them land a record deal.
Taking the stage first, Thompson Square turned to their own upbeat material, along with Katy Perry's "Waking Up in Vegas," and their own debut single (and current No. 1 hit), "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?" The married couple related that just a year ago, they had quit their bartending jobs to mix and mingle with radio personnel in Las Vegas during ACM week, long before they had released any music. Next year, you can bet they'll be on the ACM awards ballot, and with any luck, Dunn and his appealing new material will make the cut, too.
Check out photos from the Fremont Street Experience and more coverage from the ACM Awards.