LAS VEGAS -- Gary Allan wagered that country fans would stick around past midnight during Friday's (April 5) festivities on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. And for the thousand-plus folks who stuck around for the event, presented by the Academy of Country Music, it paid off in spades.
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Two nights prior to the ACM Awards, Allan led a lineup across two alternating stages during a free concert that also featured Kip Moore, Joe Nichols and Sunny Sweeney. Although he's been out of the glittering lights for a few years, Allan picked up right where he needs to be -- performing a mix of new material and familiar favorites with a road-tight band.
Allan doesn't spend a lot of time with onstage banter, yet his charisma comes through on songs like "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)" and "Best I Ever Had." The most impressive thing about his set is how he switches effortlessly between new songs and old ones -- in other words, how he's been able to remain consistent in his approach for nearly 20 years. Around the middle of his set, he played his new single "Pieces" immediately followed by his 1995 debut single, "Her Man."
Allan released his album Set You Free in January, and tracks like "Tough Goodbye," "Bones," "Sand in My Soul" and especially "It Ain't the Whiskey" inject his live show with fresh energy. Meanwhile, longtime fans will still enjoy staples like "Runaway" and "Smoke Rings in the Dark." Even the 2004 single "Nothing On but the Radio" might qualify as one of the older tunes now, although it still brings the audience to life when he plays it.
Meanwhile, if Kip Moore plays his cards right, he'll enjoy that same longevity. Already he's backed by a capable touring band, and his music is muscular enough to command attention, even for fans who don't know anything beyond the crowd-pleasing hit singles "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" and "Beer Money."
Judging from the screams as he was introducing "Hey Pretty Girl," he's got another smash on his hands. Personally, my pick would have been "Crazy One More Time," which led his set. And even though he's a newcomer who's still promoting his first album, Moore is a solid performer who struts across the stage like he owns it.
Joe Nichols' slot began just before 10 p.m., and he played for a full hour. Like Allan, Nichols has a strong catalog. However, he spent far more time talking than Allan did. For example, a tutorial about when and how to sing the word "Yeah" lasted almost as long as the song of the same name.
To me, that new song sounded like something Blake Shelton and Jake Owen would sing. Nichols played a couple of new songs, too, which he said indicated his new direction. One of them is a breezy summer tune called "Sunny and 75," which will sound just fine on the radio when it's released in May. Another is a novelty song that might frustrate his fans who appreciate his traditional side. It's called "Hee Haw," and the cheerful chorus goes something like "If you show me your yee-haw, I'll show you my hee-haw." It did not receive rousing applause.
Fortunately, Nichols can still draw on familiar favorites like "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," "Brokenheartsville" and his 2002 breakthrough single, "The Impossible." The crowd also recognized upbeat tunes like "Take It Off," "What's a Guy Gotta Do" and "Gimmie That Girl."
So far, Sunny Sweeney has just one Top 10 hit to her credit, "From a Table Away." However, for fans who just happened to be on Fremont Street on Friday night, they would immediately know there was a country event going on -- because her music is nothing but country.
As songwriters often do, she shared the stories and inspirations behind her songs. At one point, she inquired, "Who's been married before and got a big ol' divorce?!" Numerous hands went up.
Although she's primarily focused on touring and writing now, Sweeney was offered the prime opening spot because of her nomination as the ACM's best new female vocalist. With any luck, she'll bounce back with a winning hand.