In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I love country music. It didn’t used to be that way, but during my college years, I grew into it. I found a couple country radio stations. I listened proudly while walking to class. Before I knew it, I had songs memorized. I saw Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett. Then I started following the lesser-known guys, waiting for them to make it big (cough, Jon Pardi, cough).
Thankfully, country music is alive and well in South Florida. This summer’s country lineup tour is one for the books, starting with Dierks Bentley’s “What the Hell Tour” this past Saturday. He performed along with Jon Pardi and Cole Swindell at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.
Up-and-comer Jon Pardi started the evening with songs from his newest album, “California Sunrise,” released in June 2016 and his first album, “Write You a Song,” released in 2014. Standing tall in dark jeans, a blue plaid short sleeve shirt and a light cream cowboy hat, Pardi received many cheers despite the limited crowd. He opened with “Paycheck,” followed by “Out of Style” and “Heartache on the Dance Floor.” I happily recognized these tunes from KISS 99.9. Like many country artists, Pardi’s song lyrics tell stories about experience: love, loss, working on the farm. Pardi alternated playing electric and acoustic guitar, accompanied by bass, drums and a steel guitar. It’s upbeat, fun and easy listening music. I saw plenty of couples in the VIP seating area get up and dance, laughing and singing along to the music.
About halfway through, Pardi remarked, “I feel like I just ran a marathon—sweaty. Sexy!” The (mostly female) audience applauded, and he launched into “What I Can’t Put Down,” “Night Shift,” and “Cowboy Hat.” His deep voice hit every note perfectly, even the higher octaves. After “Up All Night,” and the hit single “Head Over Boots,” Pardi paused. Finally, the opening notes for his top-charting “Dirt on My Boots” began. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I was happy to hear the live version. This song marked the end of his show, and the stage crew began moving sets.
As they set up for Cole Swindell, I looked around. One of the best parts of country concerts is the people watching. I saw plenty of cowboy boots, plaid shirts and hole-filled jeans. Beer was flowing, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. About 20 minutes later, the lights flashed onstage and Swindell popped up from underneath a hidden floorboard. His set started with the hit single “Hope You Get Lonely” from his self-titled 2014 album. When he started “Brought to You by Beer,” he encouraged everyone to raise his or her cans (or cups) and toasted to a good night in West Palm Beach.
Unlike other artists I’ve seen, Swindell took the time to share a bit of his music career story with fans. He’s a songwriter at heart and wrote popular singles for Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean before ever writing his own music. To exemplify, he launched into a rendition of “Get Me Some of That,” “Roller Coaster” and “This is How We Roll.” The rest of the set was his original songs. Swindell slowed the mood with his 2016 hit single “Middle of a Memory” and “Remember Boys.” After “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” he dedicated “You Should Be Here,” to his father, Keith, who died suddenly in 2013. Swindell rounded out the show with “Let Me See Ya Girl” and “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. Who knew that country could meet EDM/pop effectively? I loved the mash-up, and I hope to hear more in the future.
At last, Dierks Bentley played. DIERKS. BENTLEY. (Sorry, I’m still excited and all caps are necessary.) His performance was by far my favorite, and as the headliner, it should be. I think the crowd of 18,000—the largest he’s played for in West Palm—agreed.
Bentley started with “What The Hell Did I Say,” the song that gave name to the entire tour. He had plenty of energy, jumping and walking back and forth on stage with a mic. The lights moved and changed colors, and some even flashed every now and then. Then the band segued into “5-1-5-0,” “Am I the Only One,” and a popular favorite, “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)” from the “Long Trip Alone” album. He brought Jon Pardi back on stage for a cover duet of George Strait’s “Cowboys Like Us,” which the crowd loved. Bentley even “sang” with a video version of Elle King for their 2016 radio hit “Different For Girls.”
Toward the end of the show, Bentley made his way to a smaller stage about 20 feet away from me, shaking hands with police and medical first responders on his way. He played “Home” and “Riser” from the little platform stage, then returned to the big stage for “Flatliner” with Cole Swindell. After “Somewhere on a Beach,” he played a few more tunes before closing with “Sideways.” It occurred to me that he hadn’t played one of his most famous songs, “Drunk on a Plane.” But I was certain he’d play that for the encore, and I was right.
It was even better than I imagined. The video boards on either side of the stage tuned in to Bentley in a captain’s uniform in a plane cockpit, sunglasses dangling haphazardly on his face. The next thing I knew, the stage lit up and the front end of a plane came into view. Bentley climbed out, stumbled around, and the melody played. It was the best way to end an incredible show, which up to that point, totaled 4 hours. If “What the Hell” is any indication of what South Florida’s summer country series will be like, it’s sure to go above and beyond expectations. Hold on to those cowboy hats.