The last time Miranda Lambert played Charlotte, it was her first show back after burying her father-in-law and it was an emotional exercise in soldiering through with heart-on-sleeve that made fans adore her even more.
Her concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Friday with Dierks Bentley was a lighter affair, if not carefree. The jubilation came from Bentley, who repeatedly said it might be the best night of his life. The first time he said it I assumed it was a line he gave to all audiences, but after noting the overwhelming response to the sing-along portion of his latest single “I Hold On” and repeating the sentiment on his knees in thanks to the rapt audience following the finale of “Home” I kind of believed him. I figured he meant after the birth of his children.
Bentley’s set appealed to both women and men who knew practically every single word to every single song. They rolled with him from the opening lines of “Am I the Only One,” “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go),” “5-1-5-0,” and “Every Mile a Memory” through “Sideways” late in the set. He played up his hunky looks without removing his shirt or gyrating by bringing a girl from the crowd on stage to pretend to play guitar while he watched her shake from behind leaning on the pedal steel riser and flirting jokingly with another late in the set.
He even handed a guitar to someone in the pit area after his set was over. He was very particular about who received it (maybe a kid? I couldn’t see). He didn’t make a big show of his generosity either. The music had stopped, the band was leaving the stage, and applause were subsiding.
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The logistics of two supersize country artists sharing the Locked and Reloaded stage was solved by Bentley working vertically on a three-tiered stage and Lambert’s setup utilizing depth instead of height. Both prowled a wide guitar-painted walkway that extended into the audience. Bentley and his band began the rootsy party song “Up on the Ridge” standing in front of the wide screen at the top back of his stage and made their way to the end of the walkway by song’s end.
In torn jeans, a plaid shirt that gave way to a black t-shirt and shorter curls that he admitted cutting covered with a ball cap, he led songs about drinking (“Tip It On Back”) and more poignant numbers like “I Hold On.” He introduced the latter by noting the old things he values - his acoustic guitar signed by Georges Strait and Jones and the truck he originally drove to Nashville. He ended the show by dedicating “Home” to the military. The soldier beside me, who said he deploys in two weeks, was irked that so many folks in front of us sat down for the song. Maybe people thought the dedication signaled a time to be more serious. Regardless I was glad I remained on my feet.
Between sets a trio from Nashville called Jukebox Mafia entertained the crowd from the center of the amphitheater with acoustic guitar-accompanied live mashups of classic rock, hip-hop, country, and R&B hits. The trio, which Lambert discovered and immediately invited on tour according to the backstory they shared, weaved tunes by Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, and Georgia Satellites. Their soulful singing and funky hip-hop backbeat went over fabulously with the crowd. My sister texted me from the lawn: “Who is this and where can I go see them?”
Lambert came out firing with “Fastest Girl in Town.” The production was grander and more impressive than at Bojangles’ Coliseum a year and a half ago when she first began touring for the “Four the Record” album. She hit on “Only Prettier” and “Baggage Claim” with signature sass early on. She let loose on Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s “Fire Down Below,” which was the strongest of five cover songs. She flung her long blonde locks wildly and stomped the stage before turning serious on “Over You.” She skipped the 2013 CMA Song of the Year, which she and husband Blake Shelton wrote for his deceased brother, on her last trip to Charlotte. It was obvious the very personal hit is still a tough one to perform.
The mood lifted for “Me and Charlie Talking” before turning serious again for “Dead Flowers.” Her voice soared on the ballad, leaving behind her country girl twang for the maturity and tempered scale climbing Lambert is capable of but doesn’t over use (she does this on the new Willie Nelson duets album too). It was a beautiful performance, but her face read as if this one got to her too.
Later in the set Lambert apologized for forgetting some words (she apparently forgot an entire verse of JOhn Prine's “That's the Way the World Goes `Round”). She said she was anxious about going into the studio on Monday to work on a new record. Having seen her four times now, there’s a sense that despite her tough girl persona Lambert is a sensitive soul that takes whatever is going on in her life on stage with her. That might not work for a highly choreographed pop artist like Lady Gaga or Madonna, but in country music it makes her seem more like a member of her audience.
Her sass returned for “Mama’s Broken Heart” as she spun like Stevie Nicks in her black tank top, sequined silver skirt, and fringed boots. She and opening act Gwen Sebastian (from “The Voices’” Team Blake) rallied for girl power on the Judds’ “Girls Night Out.” It was the second of five covers, including the all-star encore of “King of the Road” with Jukebox Mafia, Bentley, Sebastian, Randy Rogers (who turned in a crowd-rousing opening set) and their bands. Personally I want more originals (“Airstream Song” and “Me and Your Cigarettes” from “Revolution” would be my picks), but that’s just me.
There were no costume changes or band-showcasing exits. Lambert is no diva. She and Bentley both performed with five-piece bands, not the swelling three-guitar assaults solo stars sometimes carry. She broke from recent setlists, switching order and leaving a couple songs off. Instead she opted for must-play hits like “Famous in a Small Town” and “Kerosene.” The latter always manages to burn the house down as if it was meant to close the show. That place was reserved for the equally fiery “Gunpowder and Lead.”
In between she struck on The Beatles’ “Get Back,” the new single “All Kinds of Kinds” (with a beautiful revolving light show of disco balls throwing white light around the arena) and the touching “House That Built Me.” But it was during “Gunpowder & Lead” that a gleeful grin was glued to her face.
She ended with an encore of “White Liar” and the all-star jam where she again threw the spotlight to her touring companions. If she hadn’t admitted earlier to “seeming disheveled” the crowd wouldn’t have noticed. But that’s kind of why people dig her - because she does admit it.