LAS VEGAS -- Sara Evans feels lucky these days, a mood that fits her Las Vegas surroundings perfectly. Yet she wasn't talking about poker chips or roulette wheels. During a free show at the Fremont Street Experience on Friday night (April 1), the "Stronger" singer told thousands of fans she remains humbled by their support and that she thanks God for her blessings every night when her show is over.
Introducing "I Could Not Ask for More" as a single from her breakthrough Born to Fly album, she stated, "I'm standing here 10 years later with so much more to be grateful for."
Naturally, the fans were feeling like they hit the jackpot in Las Vegas, too, following nearly six hours of live country music from the likes of Lee Brice, Chris Young and newcomers Brett Eldredge, Casey James and Sarah Darling, all presented by the Academy of Country Music. The concerts in downtown Las Vegas are among the events leading up to Sunday night's (April 3) ACM Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. CBS will televise the event at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Throughout her 12-song set list, Evans stuck primarily to the fast material. Wearing a lemon-colored frock and denim shorts, she kicked off her show with "As If," "Perfectly" and "Born to Fly," but slowed things down for a lesser known single, "Backseat of a Greyhound Bus." She bounced back quickly, though, with "I Keep Lookin'" and "Coal Mine," the latter being the song she performed with panache on the ACM Awards in 2006, the year she won the ACM's female vocalist trophy.
Seemingly at the pinnacle of her career, Evans and her first husband, Craig Schelske, became involved in an extremely high-profile divorce later in 2006. She told the Las Vegas audience she's spent the last few years just getting caught up on the laundry (presumably not just the dirty variety that called national attention to her divorce).
In 2008, she married Jay Barker, a radio show host and former University of Alabama quarterback. They have seven kids between them.
"Together, we have way too many children," she joked.
After a self-imposed hiatus from the music business, she recharged her career this year with a new hit, "A Little Bit Stronger," written about coming out on the other side of a rough patch. Oddly, despite having a brand new album -- her first collection of all-new material in nearly six years -- "A Little Bit Stronger" is the only new song she sang Friday night.
Evans also recalled growing up on a farm in Missouri, telling the audience that her four younger sisters were all "hussies" and that "Suds in the Bucket" reminded her of something those girls would do. She kept up the momentum with "A Real Fine Place to Start," a drawn-out cover of "Suspicious Minds" and an encore of her 2001 hit, "I Could Not Ask for More," and Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me." Her set wrapped up a few minutes shy of midnight.
Down the street two blocks, Brice offered material he's written for other artists, such as Garth Brooks' "More Than a Memory" and the Eli Young Band's "Crazy Girl," plus quite a few album cuts like "She Ain't Right," "Falling Apart Together" and "Four on the Floor." Wearing his familiar backwards ball cap, he seems like a friendly, approachable guy during his shows. He received a warm reception for his latest single, "Beautiful Every Time," and, of course, immense applause for his enduring breakthrough hit, "Love Like Crazy," a double ACM nominee this year.
Young has also enjoyed a new level of success since last year's ACM festivities. Along with numerous references to having three No. 1 singles ("Gettin' You Home," "The Man I Want to Be" and "Voices"), he told the audience he believes his newest release, "Tomorrow," could be the biggest song of his career. The power ballad recounts a couple who are compatible in only one way (if you catch my drift). Handsome but hatless, Young also briefly moved out of the country realm to energize the fans with ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man."
The rock covers were far less plentiful from new country acts this year. Although Eldredge dipped into Bob Seger's catalog with "Night Moves," he mostly stuck to tried-and-true country themes in his songs -- girls, beer, summer, hometowns, etc. The exception is "Raymond," his debut single about an elderly woman with Alzheimer's, that earned significant applause near the end of his set. He closed his performance with a drinking game to the tune of "Thirsty."
Meanwhile, James and Darling launched the night with smaller crowds, shorter sets and distinct potential.
James, a former American Idol contestant, stayed away from boring covers, instead delivering a surprisingly soulful set of fresh material, enhanced by a little growl in his voice. Darling, a persistent rising star with youthful appeal, is currently finding mainstream success with "Something to Do With Your Hands."
James and Darling are among the numerous newcomers performing Sunday night (April 3) at the ACM Fan Jam headlined by Sugarland and special guest Rihanna at Mandalay Bay. The Fan Jam will coincide with the ACM Awards show.
The free shows at the Fremont Street Experience continue on Saturday night (April 2) with Ronnie Dunn, Easton Corbin, Randy Houser, Steel Magnolia, the JaneDear Girls and Thompson Square.
View photos of Sara Evans and others at the Fremont Street Experience.