On the surface, Dierks Bentley booked his show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Thursday night (Feb. 2) to preview material from his new album, Home. However, "on the surface" took on a whole new meaning because that famous wooden stage -- where countless Grand Ole Opry stars have stood and sung -- is being replaced next week after 61 years of heavy use.
As a result, Bentley turned out to be the last artist to hold a full-length concert on those old boards (even though the Opry will be there this weekend.) And the historic moment clearly touched him, as Bentley got down on his knees at the end of the night and kissed the well-worn boards.
Bentley was a good choice for the stage's swan song, if only because he used practically every inch of it. Wearing a denim jacket, white T-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, he looked pretty comfortable up there and had no problems crouching down to sing to the front row, leaning over to greet his fans who approached the side of the stage or trotting up to his band members for a quick jam.
Unlike most record release concerts, Bentley didn't simply reproduce the new album, which is due Tuesday (Feb. 7), then tack on a few hits at the end of the night. The set list proved to be a well-thought-out representation of everything he's built his career on -- drinking songs, party anthems, sensual ballads with a lot of romantic tension and an everyman perspective that is easy to identify with. And speaking of "everyman," it seemed like every man was singing along with every word, something I rarely see at country concerts these days.
The early numbers leaned heavily on uptempo material, starting with a new song, "Tip It on Back," and followed by "Feel That Fire," "Am I the Only One," "5-1-5-0" (another new one that references the police code for a criminally insane person), "Every Mile a Memory" and "A Lot of Leavin' Left to Do." At the end of the latter song, he transitioned into Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean," a classic he covered for a Jennings tribute album that is also coming out on Tuesday.
For the next segment, Bentley slowed things down a little. I glanced at the women around me and noticed quite a few with lusty eyes. Maybe it was the growl of "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" or just the two-day beard and close-cropped hair. That anticipation only grew when Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild stepped out for a duet of "When You Gonna Come Around," a smoldering new song about crushes that you just don't act upon.
Bentley told the audience he'd been sleeping for the last few nights in a Nashville hotel ("with a backpack, a guitar and a bottle of wine," he noted) because his two daughters were sick at home, and his wife didn't want him to catch anything. That turned out to be a wise move because Bentley's vocals remained strong throughout the long set of 25 songs.
After chatting a bit with the crowd, he drew upon traditional country with "Heart of a Lonely Girl," contemporary country on "Come a Little Closer" and "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" and bluegrass for "Up on the Ridge." Just before the latter song, he declared, "This is one of the greatest acoustic buildings of all time. ... Let's get off the grid and play this room the way it was meant to be played."
By then, he had invited the supporting players of the Del McCoury Band (although not Del ... yet) to re-enact the vibe from his Up on the Ridge tour of 2010. "Fiddling Around" and "Draw Me a Map" appealed to the roots-oriented fans in the crowd, and of course, the place lit up when Del McCoury arrived for "Good Man Like Me" and U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." And since McCoury had played with Bill Monroe on that very stage, they all teamed up for a lively rendition of the bluegrass pioneer's "Roll on Buddy."
After a few more covers (one from Pink Floyd, the other from Hank Williams), Bentley revved things up again with "How Am I Doin'" and "Sideways." And, yes, there was one more surprise guest -- his 3-year-old daughter, Evie, to sing the chorus of "Thinking of You" with him. Awwwwwwww.
Usually I don't like to give away the encore, but in this case, it's important to go on the record: The last song played was "I Saw the Light." And for Dierks Bentley fans, there truly was no sorrow in sight.