The first time I saw Dierks Bentley live he was the opening act on George Strait’s tour in 2005; I was seven at the time. Needless to say, it has been a while.
Fast forward twelve years.
My sister, Lauren, and I loaded into my Volkswagen Beetle and headed to Knoxville, Tennessee. The venue was Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee’s campus.
Sis attends UT and is currently in the process of preparing to show a heifer in the agriculture department. Due to this, before the concert we stopped by the ag building and she wrangled her calf into a halter and we attended to her needs via brushing.
Once we got inside the arena, we shared an overpriced pepperoni pizza and diet Coke.
In no time Jon Pardi was on the stage. We were temporarily transported to Texas for the duration of his set. We sported huge grins as we danced and sang along to “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt on My Boots.” Jon supplied the more traditional country music taste of the night.
Concert footage: “Up All Night” by Jon Pardi
Then came Cole Swindell: the energy of the show. There is no doubt that he is the “bro-country” representation on this tour. Cole’s bright smile and charm occupied the arena. Amidst his own hits, Cole performed a medley of hit songs that he wrote for other country stars before he began his own music career. The crowd exploded with singing during this particular moment: “Get Me Some of That” (Thomas Rhett), “Roller Coaster” (Luke Bryan), and “This is How We Roll” (FGL).
Cole had the crowd raise their voices to “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” in honor of their exes- which always rouses the crowd. Cole is inclusive- by his dialogue he makes the show as much about the individuals in the crowd as it is about him, constantly thanking the fans, engaging the crowd. In conclusion to “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” he commented that he only wished he could call his ex and have her hear the crowd sing, but he remarked that she could likely hear us “wherever the hell she was anyway”.
This is not unique to Cole, but throughout the show he reworded songs in order for “Tennessee girls” or “Knoxville girls” to be the subjects of the songs. Any musician, aware of their surroundings, typically addresses the crowd subjectively by their region- but Cole had a way of making me believe he meant it.
Patriotism held the moment when he brought on stage a man currently serving in the United States military- with the American flag flying on the background screen, the crowd sang to him: “Cheers to a good country song, to another long work week gone, and yeah I’m raising my glass to those saving our ass over seas.” This moment was followed by the crowd chanting USA.
When Cole left the stage, Sis and I kept remarking: “that was so much fun.” And it was, I danced as often as I could during his set. Songs such as “Let Me See Ya Girl,” “Chillin’ It,” and “You Got My Number” made this possible.
The first time I saw Cole Swindell live was at a Luke Bryan Farm Tour show in 2014. I was instantly won over by his presence on stage and the sound of Georgia in his voice. That has not changed. In fact, Cole seems to become even more enjoyable live as time progresses. It doesn’t hurt that he impressed me one-on-one, during a meet and greet in December of 2016, by being friendly and charming.
After an insanely long line for the women’s restroom and merchandise browsing, I took my seat once again and the anticipation rose in me.
Dierks began his set with “Up on the Ridge”; it wasn’t flashy and the song has heavy bluegrass roots but yet it felt just right for the moment. He began in a red and black lumberjack style flannel, often with his six string on his back. It was in slow motion compared to the set that Cole had just finished but I soaked in every moment.
Here’s when it helps to know that Dierks represented a more mature and serious set. Cole was energetic and charming but Dierks appeared rugged and authentic with his smoldering good-looks.
The chemistry among Dierks, the songs, and the crowd was in sync. It felt like a country show should.
To intro “I Hold On” he spoke of his late father and their connection to his old chevy truck that he still drives. In congruence, Dierks showed off his heavily worn Martin guitar; he described that he and his guitar had been through thick and thin: from karaoke bar performing to headlining arenas. By the time he began “I Hold On,” which describes these aspects of his character and life, trust was in the air. I was but one voice in the crowd, singing in agreement, “to the things I believe in-my faith, your love, our freedom,” it was so powerful. Concert moments like that set country music above any other genre, in my heart; meaningful country music at its core requires roots, soul and character.
Several different versions of Dierks Bentley were seen throughout the night. As his music has evolved it has taken different directions as far as sound and feel.
Fortunately, Dierks preformed some of his earlier songs such as: “Every Mile a Memory,” “Feel That Fire,” “What Was I Thinkin’,” “5-1-5-0,” and “Tip It on Back.” In the moments that these songs were in the air of the arena, it felt nostalgic and like the more youthful, rebellious, original Dierks’ sound and lyric content.
Dierks placed a ball-cap on backwards while performing “What Was I Thinkin'” and all of the sudden he appeared years younger and embodied the archetypical dreamy, small-town guy that drives a truck and can hold his own on the farm.
Concert footage: “What Was I Thinkin” by Dierks Bentley
Then there was yet another transition. Dierks moved to the back of the arena on a small square stage illuminated with lights, he performed “Riser” and “Home” in this location- which represented a more mature and thoughtful side of his musicianship.
Even still another. His inclusion of “Black” and “Different for Girls” that are fresh off of the latest album represented the newest sound that is shying away from any bluegrass twang and is less young-spirited in sound and content.
Concert footage: “Black” by Dierks Bentley
The following version of Dierks’ music invalidates my statement about his maturity: the non-cautious, non-thoughtful, non-virtuous songs such as “Somewhere on a Beach” and “Drunk on a Plane.” I must say though, they were exceptionally fun to participate in live.
For the encore, Dierks’ stage produced the exterior of a plane cockpit and he emerged as a drunken pilot to end with “Drunk on a Plane.”
As for the particular night, I was so impressed by the presentness of Cole Swindell and Dierks Bentley. The concert felt fresh and engaged rather than a manufactured, every-tour-date-is-the-same kind of concert.
As the concert concluded my sister and I continued to express how much fun we had and how impressed we were.
Luckily the good time wasn’t quite over thanks to local country radio stations Q100.3 and WIVK. Both stations played only Cole Swindell and Dierks Bentley music for the hour following the concert and also aired phone calls from people who had attended the concert. People exclaimed about what a great time they had. It brought a fun unity and closure to the event.
The concert represented three styles of country music: traditional, bro-country, and a combination of modern-rock-country-bluegrass. For someone like myself, who loves each of the aforementioned varieties, it was the perfect combination. It only deepened my attachment to current country music as a whole.
Across the board it seems that spending a Saturday night at Thompson-Boling with Dierks Bentley, Cole Swindell, and Jon Pardi was the right choice.