Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert Provide Surprise at Country Thunder

Keith Anderson, Emerson Drive, Ashton Shepherd and Heidi Newfield Also Shine at Wisconsin Festival

TWIN LAKES, Wis. -- Dierks Bentley knows how to throw a party. And how to give it a surprise ending.

Thursday night (July 17) at Country Thunder USA, Bentley closed his 18-song set by bringing Miranda Lambert onstage to tear through a raucous duet of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Two of Nashville's best bets, together on a Nashville classic, gave the night a memorable finish.

Bentley's whole show, in fact, was a nonstop 90-minute festival in and of itself. He managed to give off that superstar vibe while genuinely maintaining his regular-guy status. He talked about his worn-out boots, how he cries during Days of Thunder and noted that his '94 Chevy pickup has 200,000 miles on it. Even his band was tight and blessedly lacking in showbiz stunts. Just five guys (and countless guitars).

It's Bentley's energy, though, that makes his shows, well, his. He's a little like Garth Brooks during his swinging-from-the-trapeze heyday. So when Bentley opened with "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," he immediately ran from the main stage -- to the end of the catwalk and back. And he still managed to sing just fine where a lesser artist might have lost their breath.

He may have the schedule of a celeb, but Bentley seems to pine for events like the four-day Country Thunder festival. "I spent the morning in L.A. getting pictures taken for the new album, but I couldn't wait to get on a plane to get here," he said.

He appeared to revel in the cheers and, most of all, the music. Old stuff like "What Was I Thinkin'" and "Cab of My Truck" were just as well-received as new tunes like "Trying to Stop Your Leavin'" and "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)." Really, the guy didn't sing any mediocre songs. And when he quieted down, like on "Settle for a Slowdown," he showed his range as a true vocal champ. But then he'd be at it again, working up a sweat while covering every inch of the stage. A few songs in, he even had to take off his classic plaid shirt and opt for a plain gray T.

Before encoring with Bentley, Lambert played her own 15 songs. Well, two were technically cover songs, but she made them her own. Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band" is not unexpected as country do-over, but her take on the Faces' "Stay With Me" was refreshing and less formulaic than the original version sung by Rod Stewart.

Her five-man band kept the beat steady all night, mostly because Lambert's Mohawked doghouse bass player was there. The crowd banter was a little rote, but that left more time to show off her songwriting craft.

From the opening song, "Guilty in Here," to the infectious "Dry Town," there were hardly any fans still sitting in their chairs. Lambert's decision not to play any new material off some future album was a good one. Like most fans, the Country Thunder audience seems to feel more comfortable with the songs they know and less so with hearing the experimental tunes.

Emerson Drive spent a good part of the evening onstage, too. Frontman Brad Mates sang loud and proud for the fans still making their way to their seats. "Fall Into Me," "Moments" and "I Should Be Sleeping" made them take notice. And then the killer fiddle in their cover of Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" made their jaws drop. It was that good.

But the first guy to get fans really ready for a night of country music was Keith Anderson. His walk down the catwalk drew them in close, like he was some kind of magnet. His mix of hits ("XXL," "Podunk" and "Whenever I Hear Your Name") fused perfectly with the songs from his new album that's due out in early August. And his soulful take on "Lost in This Moment," a song he co-wrote with John Rich, was flat-out brilliant. The only bittersweet moment in his set was when he sang his soaring ballad, "I Still Miss You," because the same day that song made it into the Top 10, Anderson's mother passed away.

Before Anderson, there was a short stint from newcomer Ashton Shepherd, who showed up with a big band and an even bigger litany of solid country songs. Her debut single, "Takin' Off This Pain," is the one everybody knows, but even her other anthems of motherhood felt at home in front of the predominantly female audience.

Heidi Newfield started the day early, which is no easy feat. But she managed to hold the attention of the fans on the lawn with stuff from her old Trick Pony days and her latest single "Johnny and June," about yearning for that perfect kind of love.

Country Thunder USA keeps on coming with Sugarland and Clay Walker on Friday (July 18) and Sara Evans, Kellie Pickler and Nashville newcomer Jessica Simpson on Saturday (July 19).

View photos from Country Thunder USA.

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