in performance: dierks bentley/jon pardi/tenille townes/hot country knights

Dierks Bentley. Photo by Jim Wright.

Perhaps the most concise way of summarizing Dierks Bentley’s return concert to Rupp Arena on Thursday evening is by viewing it as a set of before and after portraits.

The “before” image was the least telling of the two. It came at the stroke of 7 p.m. when the country star donned a mullet wig, ‘80s style shades and a bit of an amateur hour/lounge lizard stage persona. Here, Bentley transformed himself into the hapless Doug Douglasson, lead singer of a cover band called Hot Country Knights with a repertoire that stuck to ‘90s era country hits like Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do.”

What transpired was fun and very purposeful deconstruction with Bentley… er, Douglasson… and pals squabbling for the spotlight and high-stepping through some imploding chorus line choreography. It was half Louvin Brothers and half Marx Brothers, but mostly an intriguing (and quite rare) glimpse of a country celebrity willing to let loose and poke fun at himself.

The “after” shot arrived at 9:30 when Bentley, sans the hijinks and costuming, got down to business with an energetic set that emphasized the anthemic and affirmative lyrical bent of his last five albums.

The show-opening “Burning Man” set the mood with layers of syncopated ensemble might, a tasteful vocal roar from Bentley and orchestral guitar color from Brownsville native Ben Helson that would regularly propel much of the program’s drive.

At times, Bentley and his band allowed the lyrical sway of his narratives to trigger some of the show’s more intriguing instrumental passages, as with the brief but arresting bluegrass-esque breakdown that concluded “The Mountain.” In other instances, the lyrics triggered conversational turns in Bentley’s singing, especially during the back-to-back affirmations “Living” (his newest single) and “Riser.”

That’s not to say these “after” images didn’t loosen things up at times. “Am I Only One,” in fact, was sung with Bentley walking the length of the arena floor, slapping hands with some of the 5,200 fans on hand, while enroute to a second stage late into the show. The party material didn’t slide into country convention, save for “Somewhere on a Beach,” a weirdly conciliatory nod to Kenny Chesney-like pop. Other than that, the mullet-wearing class clown and the affirmative yet assertive country star managed an impressive balancing act.

Sandwiched between Bentley’s sets were performances by California singer Jon Pardi and Canadian newcomer Tenille Townes.

Pardi had a rough night. His performance was fine – a strong slab of electric honky tonk tunes (“Night Shift,” “Paycheck” and the new “Heartache Medicine”) highlighted by an assured, if not entirely distinctive vocal command. Musically, it was a more focused and traditionally accented outing than Pardi’s opening set for Miranda Lambert a year ago at Rupp. But onstage sound problems, which did not seem evident from the audience, got the better of the singer, causing him to tear out his ear monitors, blast the set as “probably the worst performance of the tour” (an estimation he later rescinded and apologized for) and even halt his show momentarily.

Townes took to Rupp with a big beat and even bigger bell bottoms for the electric “White Horse.” Her brief set reflected a voice that sounded more the product of ‘90s alternative pop than contemporary country (think Blind Melon had it come from Nashville). But the mix was appealing nonetheless, from the good-natured cheer of “I’m Gonna Find You” and “Where You Are” to the cautious professions of faith revealed within the eulogy of “Jersey on the Wall.” “If I ever get to heaven,” Townes sang in the latter tune, “I got a long list of questions.”



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