“We’re a long way from The Dame,” remarked Dierks Bentley two songs in to his Rupp Arena return last night. From a literal standpoint, of course, the long demolished Main St. rock club located where the CentrePointe project now resides, was just a few blocks away from the cavernous Rupp. But The Dame was where Bentley essentially introduced himself to Lexington in 2004. So figuratively, the singer has indeed traveled far since then with a trio of possible wins at the annual Country Music Association Awards awaiting him next week.
The celebratory feel of last night’s Rupp outing – his fourth appearance at the venue, a stat he worked into a verse of the road anthem “Every Mile a Memory” late in the show – was mixed with a touch of honest gratitude for the venue, right down to a remark about the absence of Rupp’s famed “Big Bertha” speaker cluster. The good natured vibe carried over into the music, too, with a set launched by a pair organically designed, bluegrass-savvy works, “Up on the Ridge” and “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).”
The set quickly morphed into the kind of rockish drive indicative of contemporary inclined country with barroom themed works like “Am I the Only One,” anthemic pieces such as “Hold On” and every curiosities that included the title track to the singer’s recent “Black” album that matched Americana sentiment with the U2-like guitar chatter of Brownsville native Ben Helson.
But it was Bentley’s attitude that essentially sold the performance. The usual bro country machismo and modern country pandering were absent from the show. Instead, it relied on honest physicality, drive and musical gusto.
A similar sense of earnest cheer also pervaded the show-opening set by Drake White and the Big Fire. While some of their tunes tended to possess a shopworn country-rock feel, “That Don’t Cost a Dime” proved a novel stylistic mash-up of rural boogie, country swing and even reggae (via a chorus snippet of “Stir It Up”). Throughout, though, White’s vocals reflected a vintage swagger reminiscent of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show.
The antithesis of both Bentley and White was the artist sandwiched between them on last night’s bill, Randy Houser. A singer boasting a booming voice tailor made for arenas but little understanding of dynamics or artistic humility, Houser mistook vocal potency for artistic ingenuity. What resulted were bludgeoning performances of “Boots On” and “My Kind of Country” full of puffed up self-importance. Even the solo acoustic “Like a Cowboy” was a one man vocal stampede packaged with its own dramatic pause so the audience could bask in the strenuous feat that had just been executed.
The crowning touch to what may have been one of the more preposterous country performances to hit Rupp Arena in recent years, even more so than the video and lighting blitzkrieg that suggested Houser might have been imagining himself as headliner, was a bizarre remark the singer made following “How Country Feels” – specifically toward the hearty crowd adulation awarded to it.
“Well, that doesn’t suck at all.”
Sure, this was probably just a backhanded way of sounding appreciative. But one couldn’t help but imaging a different audience response fashioned as a response to such a classless quip.