LAS VEGAS -- It was a quarter after 11 and a lot of people were drunk, but Lady Antebellum brought out thousands of country fans to a free show in Las Vegas on Friday night (April 16). The energetic trio played for about 70 minutes at the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian-friendly stretch with an enormous electronic awning and, more importantly, open-container leniency.
With a potent mix of new material, unexpected cover songs and radio-friendly hits, Lady A concluded the nightly entertainment (musically speaking, anyway) just before midnight, capping a five-hour concert that also featured newcomers David Nail, Danny Gokey, The Band Perry and Emily West.
Lady Antebellum lead the list of nominees for this year's Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards, which will take place in Las Vegas on Sunday night (April 18), so it only makes sense that they would be looking for a good time at the first of two free ACM-sponsored concerts on Fremont Street.
I had a wristband for the photo pit, but the audience size was so overwhelming, I couldn't get anywhere near it. Instead, I watched their set from behind the soundboard (and most of it on an LCD screen behind the band). Photographers have it easy with Lady A. Trios can be challenging to shoot, mostly because individual members are prone to wander. However, Lady A spent more time rubbing shoulders with each other than any band I think I've ever seen. Even from a distance, you can see they're a united front.
Starting with "Stars Tonight," the group connected with the audience through a lot of stage banter and lively material. "Love Don't Live Here" came second, followed by the sweet "Perfect Day" and the sentimental "When You Got a Good Thing." They paid respect to their country roots with an acoustic cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," with their talented touring band neatly lined up beside them. After that, they explained that the guys in the band (singer Charles Kelley and guitarist Dave Haywood) co-wrote Luke Bryan's "Do I" and that the remaining member, Hillary Scott, sang on his hit recording of the song. Their own tender rendition underscored the song's emotional lyrics, giving the crowd an opportunity to appreciate them as songwriters, as well.
Then they delivered their current No. 1 hit, "American Honey," which Scott said they'll perform on the ACM Awards. Next, they did "Our Kind of Love" (I would have preferred "All We'd Ever Need" from their first album) before breaking out another hit, "Lookin' for a Good Time." They also featured one of their musicians, Jason "Slim" Gambill, on a song they all wrote together, "Slow Down Sister."
One of the perks about standing at the back of the show is being able to watch people's reactions to the big hit song -- in this case, "Need You Now." Maybe it's just what happens in Vegas, but it appears that the booty call resonates with every demographic.
With a few more minutes to kill, they knocked out a quick pair of covers -- John Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." and the Beatles' "Hey Jude."
Actually, there were a lot of non-country covers throughout the evening. David Nail covered Ryan Adams' "Firecracker," Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," as well as one pop hit he covered for the title track of his debut album -- Train's "I'm About to Come Alive." He's early in his career, but "Red Light" elicited some recognition, and the melodies of "Strangers on a Train" and "Again" are easy to like. He closed his set with a nod to his gospel roots, "Turning Home" (right after asking the audience to "please go home and request the hell out of it.")
Danny Gokey, the third-place finalist from last year's American Idol, is also just getting started, but with a successful debut album, he already has a legion of fans who were pleased to hear "My Best Days Are Ahead of Me," as well as his next single, "I Will Not Say Goodbye." He's a confident performer, belting out album cuts such as "Be Somebody," "Get Away," "I Still Believe" and "Life on Ya." He also covered two of Rascal Flatts' biggest hits, "What Hurts the Most" (which he had performed on American Idol) and "Life Is a Highway," later tossing in Elvis Presley's "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" to complement the old-school Las Vegas vibe.
The Band Perry had a rough start due to dead microphones but quickly made up for it with a handful of new songs, including their perky first hit, "Hip to My Heart." The family trio from Alabama -- a feisty older sister and two easygoing younger brothers -- will be releasing a new ballad soon called "If I Die Young," which boasts a really nice melody. Citing their father's favorite band, they chose the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" as their closer.
Emily West kicked off the night with a few big tunes, such as the upbeat "Bulletproof" and the weeper, "Mississippi's Cryin'." She's a strong singer, and her full-throttle vocals remind me of Faith Hill's recent albums. And she isn't afraid to let her goofy side shine through, whether pulling a water bottle out of her strapless blouse or taking a sip of a fan's fruity concoction. Although she's a theatrical singer, her engaging smile is likely to win over fans. She also chose a Tom Petty song, "The Waiting," which she dedicated to her long-awaited moment to prove herself as a viable artist. Then she kicked off her black stilettos for a fun take on "Rocks in Your Shoes" and a passionate rendition of her new single, "Blue Sky." At the end of the set, she handed her set list to three very excited young women in the front row, which is certainly the right way to build a loyal audience and to prepare for the big stage.