My plan for this space was to write an extensive review of country star Dierks Bentley’s concert Wednesday at Les Schwab Amphitheater. But circumstances have conspired against me, not the least of which is a general ambivalence about the show. So here are a few brief thoughts, and then I’ll get out of the way so you can see a ton of terrific photos of Bentley and his adoring fans that were taken by The Bulletin’s Pete Erickson.
–Like a lot of country’s biggest stars, Bentley knows how to work a crowd. He talked about riding Phil’s Trail and slipped in a reference to JC’s Bar. He told the audience Central Oregon’s High Desert reminds him of home in Arizona. He said he’s stood on a lot of stages, but not many with a more beautiful view than the Schwab’s. He invited the audience onto his tour bus. He got screams of delight every time he mentioned beer. He was a puppet master on stage, essentially conducting the crowd with pointed fingers and pumped fists and hands cupped around his ears.
–Bentley did all his big hits. The lovey-dovey ones (“Feel That Fire,” “Every Mile a Memory,” “Come a Little Closer,” “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes”) and the party / drinkin’ ones (“Sideways,” “Am I the Only One”) and the travelin’ / ramblin’ ones (“Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)” and “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do”). He closed with his breakthrough hit “What Was I Thinkin’” and skipped an encore (bravo, Dierks!), instead ending the show by huddling with his band and then bowing as a group while Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” blared over the loudspeakers. It was as odd an ending as you’ll ever see at the Schwab.
The highlight of the night was “Long Trip Alone,” a song with a beautiful, easy melody that Bentley dedicated to the American military. The timing was just right, too. Any time you pair a pretty song with a Cascades sunset, you’re going to make some memories.
–When they were plugged in, Bentley’s band was anything but country. They were essentially a hard rock band with a banjo plugging away in the background. Which was fine, but it wasn’t very country. Country these days comes in the artists’ look and lyrical themes. And country these days is mostly about pop-rock hooks. Country is where the arena-rock riffs of yesteryear live in the 21st century.
–That said, Bentley was in fine voice: deep, and creakier than on his records, which was welcome.
–My biggest beef with the show was that bluegrass — a major influence on Bentley (he says) and the basis of his 2010 album “Up On the Ridge” — was given such an obligatory treatment. Mid-show, the band brought out the upright bass, mandolin, fiddle and banjo, but rather than rip through two or three or four songs from “Ridge,” they aimed straight for the lowest common denominator. They did the title track (and single) from that record, then used a “late-night jam session on the bus” construct to do a medley of familiar tunes, bluegrass-style: the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” And then a cover of U2′s “Pride (in the Name of Love)” that was on the “Ridge” album.
People seemed to dig it — the “Dukes” theme, Billy Idol and Bon Jovi tickled their nostalgia bones, no doubt — but it turned me off. In fact, I thought it bordered on disrespectful to a style of music that Bentley claims to hold dear to his heart (and I believe him). Think about it: Rather than showcase their chops and the genre they love by actually playing bluegrass songs, it was as if the band feared losing the audience by playing bluegrass, so it chose to do its most accessible original, one serious cover and a bunch of half-jokey songs before scurrying back to the party country folks came to hear.
That’s not honoring bluegrass music. That’s just kind of weak. And I truly believe Dierks Bentley is better than that.
Alright, enough blabbering. Check out Pete’s awesome photos.