Dierks Bentley, by his own admission, was slightly off his game during his concert on Thursday night at PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte.
“I’ve been undefeated so far in 2019... and I think I just lost to this guy,” the 43-year-old country star said, incredulously, as it began to dawn on him that he’d been beaten in a head-to-head beer-drinking duel with NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin.
Bentley shook his head again, grinning crookedly. “Can’t believe I just got beat shotgunning a beer. That’s like part of my job description — sing songs, sign autographs, take a lot of pictures, and be really good at drinking beer. That’s, like, what I do.”
And this wasn’t the only sign that things were just a little bit awry: Earlier in the evening, a fan tossed a T-shirt onto the stage for him from the pit, and the singer picked it up and read the logo on the front as “Whisky River” (Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s uptown-Charlotte-based bar) as he flashed it to the crowd.
A few minutes later, Bentley looked at the artwork more closely and realized his mistake. It was actually a Whiskey Row T-shirt, which he almost certainly should have recognized — that’s the name of the bar he owns, in Nashville.
Maybe it could have been a mild vacation hangover. Around the same time he mistook Dale Jr.’s restaurant’s logo for his, he revealed that on Thursday morning he’d been fishing up in Canada, squeezing out the last few hours of a break from his “Burning Man Tour” (which started in January).
“I was fly-fishing over the last few days,” he told the crowd. “My only companions were the eight grizzly bears I came into contact with... so to be back here amongst all you guys is like sensory overload.”
But even before Hamlin’s upset victory and Bentley’s brief bout with dyslexia, it seemed like the headliner wasn’t quite himself. This was my third time seeing him, and at the outset, I felt he just didn’t have his usual energy. During the first few songs — “Burning Man,” “Up On the Ridge” and “Somewhere On a Beach” — he almost appeared to have just rolled out of bed, or something.
His delivery wasn’t as sharp as I remembered from past shows. It was almost imperceptible, but his voice sounded just a little flatter, tonally. During “Somewhere On a Beach,” he faked like he was going to trust-fall into the crowd, then didn’t. (He actually went sprawled out into the pit last time in Charlotte, at the end of this same song.)
The good news? Whatever was holding him back in the early going, Bentley eventually overcame it.
He perked up quite a bit for his duet with lively opener Jon Pardi (who crushed his own hour-long set, by the way — it’s hardly a bold prediction to say the guy will no doubt be headlining PNC a year or two from now).
One song later, halfway through, Bentley fully hit his stride in terms of kicking up the energy level, working the kinks out of his delivery, locking in his vocals, etc.: And ironically, this came during a song that is all about fighting through adversity and getting the job done.
“When I sing this song,” Bentley said, as he teed up his 2014 hit, “Riser,” off the album of the same name, “I think about the message that all those people that serve their community” — in this case, he was talking about military and law-enforcement agents — “(the ones) that are no longer here, but they’re all around us, right? What message would they send back to us tonight? What would they tell us? What wisdom would they impart on us? And I think they’d say, ‘You’re ... not even guaranteed another sunrise tomorrow, right? Every day is so precious. Don’t go through life just being a survivor. Live every day like you’re a riser. Make the most of every day.’”
Then, with those words echoing in everyone’s head, he absolutely 100 percent nailed it.
- - -
I’m a riser
I’m a get up off the ground, don’t run and hider
Pushing comes a-shovin’, hey, I’m a fighter
When darkness comes to town, I’m a lighter (although here he subbed in “I see those lighters,” which actually these days are cellphone flashlights, of course)
A get out aliver, out of the fire
- - -
From that point on, Bentley was in peak form.
He brought Janet Joplin-esque opener Tenille Townes back for a duet — with Townes filling in for Elle King’s part on 2016’s “Different for Girls” — and while I prefer King’s more-soothing voice on the studio track, it’s a nitpick. The lyrics stand as some of the most poignant and resonant in modern country music (there’s a reason it was nominated for a Grammy), and Bentley and Townes have a chill, crisp chemistry on stage.
A little later, Bentley made his usual trek back to a mini-stage in front of the lawn (this is where he lost to Hamlin in the beer-shotgunning competition), and hit all the right notes while serenading a couple who got engaged right in front of him while he sang early ballad “Come a Little Closer.”
After calling them up onstage and getting a closer look at the woman’s new ring, he quipped, “The first ring I bought for a girl... I got it from Service Merchandise — and she said no. But I held onto my receipt and got all my 400 dollars back!”
As he went through the last part of the song, he teased them about the public displays of affection they were showing off.
“Come a little closer, baby, I feel like strippin’ it down — hey, uh, this is a family show,” he said, interrupting his singing.
Then, the next time he got to the same lyric, as they continued to make out: “Come a little closer, baby, I feel like strippin’ it down — later on... after the show... not right now.”
When they overstayed their welcome in the spotlight, Bentley struck a perfect balance between light-heartedness and seriousness as he addressed the couple before security staff fully intervened: “I gotta get back to my, uh, my thing here... Wish I could hang out, but I gotta do this.”
Then he waded back through the crowd — slowly at first, even taking the time to stop and hoist a young boy into the air with a smile. Eventually, he broke into a run and careened wildly back onto the main stage to finish the show, which included go-to encore staple “Drunk On a Plane” and buoyant “oldie” “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).“
After hitting the last note, Bentley dropped to knees. Who could blame him? It’d been a very long day.
And — following his own sage advice — Dierks Bentley wound up making the most of it.
Dierks Bentley’s setlist
1. “Burning Man”
2. “Up On the Ridge”
3. “Somewhere On a Beach”
4. “Woman, Amen”
6. “I Hold On”
9. “Missin’ You Crazy” (with Jon Pardi)
11. “Strawberry Wine” (Tenille Townes)
12. “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” (Tenille Townes)
13. “Different for Girls” (with Tenille Townes)
14. “Am I the Only One”
15. “Come a Little Closer”
16. “Say You Do”
17. “What Was I Thinkin’”
19. “Drunk On a Plane”
20. “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)“
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes