When Dierks Bentley returns to the stage at PNC Music Pavilion on Sunday night, you can count on him delivering three show-stopping moments:
1. He’ll dive off the stage into the crowd – possibly twice, if he can get a second jump past his handlers.
2. He’ll shot-gun a beer with a fan (don’t be surprised, by the way, if that fan is tall and has tattoos).
3. The 41-year-old country-music star will talk about how special Charlotte is to him. And when he does, you can expect specifics.
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Bentley – whose “What the Hell Tour” stop this weekend marks his fourth straight summer show at the big outdoor amphitheater – recently called us from (no joke) somewhere on a beach in the Florida Panhandle to chat about memorable past visits to Charlotte and share secrets behind his go-to live-show stunts.
Q. During last July’s concert, you talked about Charlotte being “a very special place” for a couple reasons. You mentioned that this was where you launched your first big amphitheater tour (for “Riser,” in 2014), and that your first recollection of coming through town was in 2003, when you were playing radio stations and trying to get “What Was I Thinkin’ ” heard. What do you remember about that first visit here?
A. Yeah, one of the stations invited me in off the bus to come play it live on the radio. I don’t know the station. There’s two there in town, so I don’t want to get in trouble. But there’s 103.7 and there’s The Kat. Oh, damn. Can’t think of it right now. ...
Anyway, I was gonna play the song for the conference room, and they were like, “Hey, why don’t you come play it live at noon?” So we went in there, and it was my first time really getting a chance to play a song live, acoustically, on the radio. That was a big deal, because up to that point, I’d been doing a lot of just – you know, you do three conference rooms a day, and sometimes you walk into the conference room and the program director’s not even there, because they’ve got stuff going on. So you’re playing for the guys that do the sports radio across the hallway, and random folks.
And that’s all good, we were happy to play for anybody, but to get an invitation to actually play on the radio, on the air, live, acoustic – that’s a huge deal. There’s been a lot of pretty amazing things that have happened along the way, but I try to be present in every moment that I’m in, and I can still go back to that moment and be like, “Wow, that was a big deal.” As big a deal as it was to headline the amphitheater.
Q. And then you also gave a shout-out to Coyote Joe’s.
A. Yeah, there’s a few places across the country, from the Grizzly Rose out in Denver to Coyote Joe’s in Charlotte, that are a big deal (to rising country artists). It holds like 1,200 people, and when you start hitting some higher numbers in those clubs, people take notice. I would think for any country singer, certainly for me, selling out Coyote Joe’s is one of those career moments. It means you’re doing something right, man. You look out of the window of your bus, there’s a huge line of people spending their Saturday night waiting to get in the door to party with you guys – that’s a really big moment. ...
If you’re trying to move up and play some of the bigger places, playing for free beer and tips down Lower Broadway is preparation for playing a place like Coyote Joe’s. And then Coyote Joe’s is good prep for playing an amphitheater or an arena. You take the skills you learn in there and build on them.
Q. I actually was poking around this morning and found a YouTube video of you doing “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” at Coyote Joe’s in, apparently, 2008. I don’t know if you remember this specifically, but you did the song with Luke Bryan.
A. Yeah, I do remember that. I think it was an after-show thing. We were on a tour together, and then we were going and hitting some bars afterwards, and he and I got up there and did that. There was a lot of Jagermeister in 2008, that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
Q. One big thing I appreciate about your live shows is that they feel so unscripted. A lot of acts feel overly rehearsed, and I think when a performance feels scripted, it kind of detaches the fan from what’s going on on stage. But when it feels natural and it feels like you’re talking to the crowd off the cuff, it draws fans in and gives them a sense that they’re a part of the experience. Is that something you’re conscious of?
A. Totally. Oh yeah, I’m always into spontaneous moments. Like, where’s the door that I can kick down and make this show unique? It’s a fine line between being too loose and obviously being scripted, but I’d rather err on the side of someone saying it was maybe too loose. ...
And I’m competitive, too. If there’s a dude there and I feel like maybe he’s just there because his girlfriend’s there to see me and he’s not really into it, that’s gonna – not piss me off, but I’ll be like “OK, that’s the way you want to be? Alright, I’m gonna get you into this.” That might mean stage-diving onto that part of the crowd not once but twice. ...
(At a recent show) I jumped out in the crowd, and my guys – Jay and Tom, my stage manager and tour manager – ran out there to save me. Then as soon as I saw them turn their backs to start walking off stage, I jumped back out there again with a bigger dive to get way out there, to show: This is gloves off, this is not scripted, I’m gonna meet you guys where you’re at and then try to even go further. I mean, my show’s as much physical as it is a vocal event. I would not say I’m a technically great trained singer, but in a lot of ways I think that serves me better because I have to go out there and find a different way to get the win. And I do associate a lot of music with hockey, which I’m a big fan of. I’ve got six guys on stage, just like a hockey team has six guys on the ice, and we’re there to get the win, man.
Q. Does the stage-diving ever make you nervous?
A. Totally! Which is good, right? I know at some point in every show I’m gonna do it. It’s there waiting for me. It has to be done. It’s about breaking down that physical barrier between you and the crowd, and once you do that, and you’re back on stage, and you’ve got all your clothes, and you didn’t break anything or hurt anybody, it’s like a whole ’nother level of energy. The wave of energy that hits you, like, “that just happened,” and it’s on.
From the beginning, I’m always kind of looking around and going, “Alright, where’s a good spot to do something like this tonight, and who am I gonna pull up here to shotgun a beer?”
Q. Yeah, that’s always a fun moment. How long has that been a part of your shows?
A. I’ve been shotgunning beers with fans now for three or four years. I’d done a lot of that in my youth before I had a record deal, so I’m pretty good at it. And I’ve only gotten better. ... I think, as a fan, I would love to get dragged up on stage to get a chance to shotgun a beer with someone whose music I really enjoy. I mean, it’s one thing to have Twitter and Instagram and ways to connect like that, but to physically drink a beer with someone whose music you really admire, that’s so cool. And vice versa – to get a chance to drink a beer with a random stranger that is singing along to all my songs, that’s a special deal.
Q. And you’re in it to beat the guy, right?
A. Yeah! I’m undefeated in 2017, so bring it on.
Q. Have you had many celebrity challengers? I saw you shotgunned a beer at one show with (professional golfer) Rickie Fowler.
A. Fowler did it once. He’s terrible. That’s probably why he’s such a good golfer; I don’t think he drinks too much. I did it with Duncan Keith, all-star defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s a moment meant more for fans than it is for friends that are backstage. So I try to keep it more just about that person down in front that’s made a sign, or the biggest guy in the room. Like, a lot of times, I’m trying to find the tallest, most tattooed dude in the room to get up on stage.
Q. What’s your top beer-shotgunning tip?
A. You want to make the hole as big as you can. That’s the main thing. You don’t want to be swallowing or anything. You just want to let it flow. Breathe it down. Don’t drink the beer, breathe the beer.
With Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: PNC Music Pavilion, 707 Pavilion Blvd.
Details: 704-549-5555; www.livenation.com.