It was the sound of letting go–the powerful feeling of a human being who has felt loss, yet was now ready to step back into the world and cut loose. Dierks Bentley, who lost his father only a week ago, chose Detroit’s WYCD Downtown Hoedown as his moment to return to the public eye, and the stage–and to turn all that emotion into something positive.
And what the fans got last night was a truly rousing performance from one of country music’s most engaging performers.
Dierks headlined the main stage on the second night of the Hoedown, following sets from hell-raisers Montgomery Gentry, newcomer Jana Kramer, and fun-loving trio THE FARM. Two other stages at Hoedown featured Glen Templeton, Katie Armiger, Molly Hunt, and Jocaine as well as a lineup of local acts.
Low-key in person, and even in interviews (he spoke with WYCD’s Steve Grunwald backstage before his performance), it’s a surprise to see how engaging and fiery a performer Dierks can be when he gets in front of a rowdy crowd.
Immediately, when the lights came up at Hoedown Saturday night, he was like a horse let out of the gate, bouncing around the stage, his band kicking in behind him, keeping the foundation solid and strong. He led off with “Country & Cold Cans” and kept the energy high by moving seamlessly through songs like “Every Mile a Memory” and “Lot of Leavin'” (which included a verse of the Waylon Jennings classic “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”). And he maintained that energy all the way to closing songs “Home” and “What Was I Thinkin’.”
“Am I the Only One” was special for the Hoedown crowd as Dierks added an extra verse especially for Detroit. And speaking of Motor City tributes, Dierks later pulled an older song out of the bag just for tonight. As he explained while introducing it, he wrote it after hearing a story of a Michigan factory that had been disassembled, moved to another country, and the reassembled there…just to ship the same parts right back to the U.S., but at cheaper cost. When he told the story, the crowd booed at the tale of job loss; and when he sang the song, many fans stood quietly, soaking it in.
Easily the most moving moment in Dierks’ show, though, was his dedication of “My Last Name” to his dad. He performed it sitting alone on a chair at the front of the stage, with just an acoustic guitar. The whole place again grew quiet and listened–even if you didn’t know that Dierks had just lost his father, it was clear this was something special.
But just as he took time to slow down and pay tribute, it was also clear that Dierks wanted to cut loose with his band, have a good time, and connect again with his fans. Which he did–literally–during “Settle for a Slowdown,” laying belly-down on the stage, reaching out and taking the hands of fans in the front row.
The next moment, though, he was bouncing back across the stage to his band (which included fiddle and banjo along with guitars, bass, and drums), grinning wide and obviously having a blast as he kicked out a rowdy “5150.” A couple songs later he even brought WYCD’s Grunwald onto the stage to add a brief (as in, one word) vocal part during a particularly rowdy rendition of “Free and Easy.”
Dierks has played Hoedowns more than once in years past, but many agreed this was his most energetic–and powerful–Detroit show to date. He normally is all over the stage, but he was working it extra hard Saturday, which translated into a great performance, and fans–packed against the fence, hands in the air, some throwing hats and even bras (we counted seven) onto the stage–felt that energy and responded in kind.
Montgomery Gentry preceded Dierks on the main stage, kicking out their renegade brand of Southern-bred honky-tonk to a crowd that, having stood in the hot sun drinking beer all day, was more than ready to eat it all up.
For those who like their music big, bold, loud, and proud, Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry have it down. The two guys and their band (which included three guitarists in addition to Troy) kick out a steady stream of beefy, chunky beats, which they combine with lyrics that talk up small town values, Southern pride, respect for the men and women in uniform (“If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be having this party today”), and overall American pride (the crowd at one point broke into a chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”).
These guys don’t mince words (“I don’t give a damn what other people think” they sang on “What Do Ya Think About That”), but at the same time, they love to party–and a big country music party is exactly what they created Saturday at Comerica Park. And the spirit from the stage remained positive the whole set through. “We don’t call you fans, we call you friends,” Eddie said at one point, grinning wide while sweat dripped from below his trademark wide-brimmed black hat (how he managed to perform the entire set under that thing, not to mention wearing a black leather coat, in that kind of heat, was mind-boggling).
Jana Kramer dished out an energetic set that included her new single “Why You Wanna,” which she’d just played on the CMT Music Awards a few days earlier. Her voice has an old-school quality not unlike that of Tammy Wynette, but her songs, lyrics, and arrangements are clearly contemporary. Formerly known best as an actress (One Tree Hill), she’s not diving full-on into a new career as a country artist, and based on her chart success this past week, audiences are responding.
THE FARM (yes, they spell their name in all caps) are a trio of stellar instrumentalists and singers all from different musical backgrounds who blend their skills together beautifully. Consisting of Damien Horne, Nick Hoffman, and Krista Marie (former solo recording artist and, get this, Motocross racer), their new single “Home Sweet Home” cracked the Top 20 this past week. On stage they work together easily, with crisp energy. And their vocal harmonies are so strong, it’s almost as if they’ve been singing together since childhood.
The 30th anniversary WYCD Downtown Hoedown continues today (Sunday, June 10) with many more artists including headliners Miranda Lambert, Chris Young, Kip Moore.
– Kurt Wolff, CBS Local