Day three of the CMA Music Festival's nightly shows at LP Field found a fresh star shining as Luke Bryan headlined the massive concert for the first time. Saturday night (June 9) also featured performances by Faith Hill, Eric Church, Little Big Town, Rodney Atkins, Hunter Hayes and Kenny Rogers. Love and Theft and Kip Moore provided acoustic entertainment.
Photo Credit: Ed Rode
Bryan, though, stole the show with his swiveling hips and catchy tunes about passionate country romance. He even pulled double duty as an interviewer and performer.
As part of his co-hosting duties for CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock, an ABC special airing Sept. 17, Bryan made multiple appearances throughout the night before finally taking the stage to shake it in earnest for the country girls.
The Georgia native has had a stellar year, touring with Jason Aldean and scoring a platinum selling No. 1 album in Tailgates & Tanlines. He also took home the trophy for male video of the year for "I Don't Want This Night to End" at last week's CMT Music Awards, but his headlining status at CMA Fest may be one the biggest honors of his budding career.
Kicking things off for the resilient third day audience was Julie Roberts performing the national anthem, followed by the steady voice of Rogers and his classic set list. He led the crowd in their first choruses of the day and showed a confidence of craft that settled fans into a relaxed mood for the evening.
That was just the thing for Hayes, whose laid-back guitar riffs are soothing listening in an outdoor setting. He ran through a few tasty blues-infused solos on "Love Makes Me," even apologizing afterward for indulging himself a little.
Hayes is also a gifted pianist, and at one point, he leaped off the stage and into the crowd, darting between fans and up to a small stage with a piano placed in the middle. Surrounded in the middle of the audience, he told the sold-out crowd to light the place up.
Each fan had been handed a penlight at the entrance with the vague explanation that they would need it later, and this was apparently the moment.
The sun had just disappeared and a beautiful scene developed as it looked like thousands of white fireflies surrounding Hayes. He soulfully delivered "Wanted," a performance taped for the ABC special.
After the fireflies dispersed, a quick rotation of artists took over with Love and Theft, Atkins and Little Big Town all singing and thanking the fans.
Little Big Town swung with the swampy melody of "Front Porch Thing" and then got everyone clapping along to the pulsing beat of "Little White Church." Saying they were about to usher us into summertime, we were treated to "Pontoon," a bouncy tune the quartet performed from a party boat on the CMT Music Awards. Always a favorite for their onstage chemistry, the group left the stage on a high note after the slow burn of "Boondocks."
Much of the audience was looking forward to Church's appearance, and "the Chief" turned in a cocky performance that got LP Field ready for action.
Strutting out to the stage in his trademark aviator sunglasses and ball cap, beach balls descended on the crowd from high up in the stands and his band launched into "Drink in My Hand."
After soaking in the applause, Church raised that drink in a salute and made a promise.
"This is my first time ever getting to play LP Field," said Church. "That means I want to give you every ounce of what I have, as long as you give me every ounce of what you have, too."
That got everyone fired up, and Church kept pouring the encouragement on with fist pumps and muscle flexing as he moved across the stage for "Guys Like Me," "Smoke a Little Smoke" and "Love Your Love the Most."
He picked up a banjo for "Creepin'" before sitting down at a piano for one of the night's highlights. Plucking out the first few notes of "Springsteen," the crowd erupted and Church came alive with a contented smile.
About halfway through the hit, he paused to ask everyone with a cellphone to pull it out and raise it up.
"Now look to your left and your right," he said. "This song is about when memories and melodies connect, and I hope that happens here tonight in Nashville, Tenn."
Hill looked stunning as she arrived for her portion of the night. Wearing a fitted pair of jeans and a red long sleeved T-shirt, Hill seemed as tall as a mountain as her hair shimmered in perfect waves of blonde.
Her voice still seems to be immaculate, as well. Soothing and never so intense as to be shocking, "Mississippi Girl" kicked off her classic set.
Up-tempo tunes like "This Kiss" and a new track, "Illusion," picked the audience up. But then she knocked them over with "Breathe," which she started off with a spiritual intro and performed like it was 1999.
The man of the night was up next, though, arriving to the sound of falling rain and wearing his usual black ball cap and tight charcoal T-shirt.
"Who's feeling frisky on a Saturday night in Nashville?" Bryan asked from the center of the stage. A shimmy of his hips sent the girls wild for the first of many times as he started into his playful set with "Rain Is a Good Thing."
Bryan loves to tease the ladies in the crowd, continually purring and asking the girls to let loose. The way he dances gets a reaction that makes you think back to the early days of Elvis Presley. Bryan has the most dangerous moves in country right now.
"Drunk on You," his current single, is sitting at No. 5 on Billboard's country songs chart, and he had the whole stadium clapping along and joining in on the big "boom, boom" part of the song's chorus.
He gave thanks to all the fans making CMA Fest possible, then sat down at a piano of his own for a few fun-loving cover songs. He didn't play the whole tunes, but Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend," Lionel Richie's "Easy," Adele's "Someone Like You," Journey's "Faithfully" and Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive" all started sing-alongs.
Then it was back to romantic country with "I Don't Want This Night to End" and "Do I," which featured a full moon backdrop on the huge video screens.
To cap off the evening, Bryan played his trump card, the infectious hit "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." With silhouettes of shapely dancers filling the screens behind him and smoke cannons bursting, Bryan strutted across the stage in front of a sea of fans who seemed to be totally mesmerized.
At one point, Bryan reached into the crowd and pulled up a young man named Steve, and turning the tables on the guys, told him to shake it for the country girls. Steve did his best, but Bryan decided that it wasn't good enough and, to the delight of the audience, was forced to demonstrate the proper technique.
"If you can't hook up tonight, you're just plain ugly," he joked. "And there's nothing I can do about that. I even showed you how to dance!"
Fans were treated to a double dose of all this shaking as Bryan's microphone pack came loose during the frenzy and forced a retake of the entire song to make everything perfect for TV.
Nobody seemed to mind that, though. Especially Bryan, who soaked up every extra moment of what might have been his biggest performance yet.
View photos from Saturday night's concert at LP Field.
Check out complete coverage of the 2012 CMA Music Festival.