The patron saint of the modern male country artist is Garth Brooks. He’s the one that has inspired a million easy-to-swallow anthems about good times, bad times, and the many drinks that help us get through both. But he’s also provided the template for how these young men that have followed in his sizeable wake need to perform in concert.
They need to constantly be on the move, running to and fro, goofing around with the members of his backing band, and scaling whatever heights the stage set requires. All with an acoustic guitar strapped to their backs. Most of all, no matter how big the room and how much your face is being projected on a 45-foot tall video screen, you have to evoke this quality of being an everyman. A man of the people. Just another good ol’ boy with a truck lookin’ for the love of a good woman who just happens to spend his evenings being worshipped by thousands of country music fans. Ain’t no thing.
Nashville superstar Dierks Bentley has obviously been studying the Brooks handbook closely if his show last night at the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater is any indication. The ruggedly handsome 40-year-old kept reminding the huge crowd how honored he was to be there and how honored he was that we showed up. How he couldn’t believe that with his job “the only thing I have to decide is whether to drink the vodka-Redbull or the tequila.” How the venue was just like a bar or a barn back home. How the small stage right by the lawn seats that he played a couple of songs on was just like places he used to play back in Nashville. That sort of thing.
It would have been cloying were it not for the rapturous response that the audience gave his every utterance. Give Bentley the credit he deserves: after doing this for 15 years, he knows how to work a crowd. When he wasn’t high-fiving everyone within reach, he grabbed smartphones from folks in the front row and shot short videos while he sang, and he invited one super delighted gent onstage to shotgun a beer with him. And, after getting everyone good and riled up with a fist-pumping version of “Freedom” from his most recent album Black, he spotted a baby nearby, got ahold of it, and charmingly pretended to kidnap it. For all his unnecessary demureness, he is one hell of an entertainer.
His set last night also provided the clearest evidence of how Bentley’s career is in the midst of a transitional phase. He’s writing less and less of the material he records, and capitulating more to the commercial desires of the Nashville marketplace. In other words, in spite of his signposts of whiskey, women, and wanton desires in the lyrics, the actual country has been almost entirely drained out of the music.
So, newer songs like “What The Hell Did I Say?” and “Different For Girls,” his duet with Elle King (her part was piped in via video), evince the influence of '80s rock and new wave with a particularly surprisingly lean into the sound of U2’s The Joshua Tree. Even the stuff he's co-written in recent years, like “I Hold On,” his ode to, as he put it, “old guitars, old boots, and old dogs,” sounds more like polished chrome than rusted metal.
It’s also worth noting that the twang is almost completely gone from Bentley’s singing voice. This could be the result of the long tour that he’s been on since the release of Dark, but it could also be an indicator of how he seems to be seeking an even bigger measure of crossover success. Even when he dipped back into his past with his 2003 single “What Was I Thinkin?” and 2009’s “Feel That Fire,” the vocals were often bereft of affect.
None of this is meant to begrudge Bentley one bit, nor to diminish the power of his fantastic two-hour set. An artist of his caliber and abilities should be able to do whatever he chooses with his career, especially when he continues to offer up some great radio hits and concerts like this, which was blessedly free of pyrotechnics and much fuss in favor of highlighting his expert touring band and his beguiling stage presence. It was as spotless and fun as you would ever want from a big stadium concert.
But he’s also unabashedly playing the game, just like his buddy and opening act Randy Houser was. With a far shorter set and fewer people in the room, he had to make the country signposts that much bigger and bolder and his “aw shucks” demeanor that much more glaring. At the same time, it helped emphasize the more lunkheaded qualities of his songs and songwriting.
It was the presence of opening act Cam that provided the starkest contrast to the Brooksian script. Granted, she wasn’t headlining the show and hence didn’t have the flashy graphics and big playground of a stage to work with. And she was playing a lot of material from her latest album Untamed, which was recorded with the help of Kayne/Mark Ronson collaborator Jeff Bhasker. She’s also blatantly shooting for the stars.
Yet her material, like many of the best female country artists of recent years, is far more restrained and relatable even as it does slip into the dual shopworn grooves of broken-hearted ballads and empowering anthems. It helps that the former Portlander is a pure charmer onstage, beaming throughout her set and singing for the lawn seats even though the venue was only half full.