Welcome to Nash-Vegas! The inaugural Route 91 Harvest Festival took over Las Vegas this past weekend, bringing a lineup of country music heavyweights (Miranda! Blake! Jason!), middleweights and up-and-comers to MGM Resort's Village on the south end of the Vegas strip, a former parking lot turned open-air concert venue that catered to 30,000 strong. The three-day festival — the first of its kind in Vegas — saw a lot of cover songs, tanned skin (after all, it is the desert), plaid shirts and more beer sales than you could shake a stick at. Here are a dozen of the best things we saw from the Sin City celebration.
These days, Blake Shelton knows that his bread and butter are his new radio-ready songs. But during his 90-minute set, Shelton reminisced about his older tunes, some of which he admits he doesn't "have the same connection" he once did. Still, he decided to play a few classics. In doing so, he grabbed a white cowboy hat, to "reconnect" with his younger self. "When I started, if you didn't have one of these on your head you were a douche. You weren't going to make it," he said. Shelton then did a little sleight of hand, donning a hat that was now suddenly attached to a mullet — which, of course, was sadly another part of Shelton's arsenal early in his career.
Coming on stage like a proverbial bull in a china shop, Dierks Bentley had women throwing bras at him, and he even freestyled a few verses of his biggest songs to appease those ladies, adapting lyrics to lines such as, "There's a hottie in the front row of the Route 91 festival." Midway through his 60-minute performance, he took an American flag scarf from a fan during "Home," waving it around his head. "I spend my whole time on a bus with five other dudes so this is overwhelming to me," he said. His crowning achievement came when he decided to invite a fan onstage after challenging the bystander to shotgun a beer. The battle was a damn near photo finish, but we gave Bentley the win by a nose.
With enough sass to make the late Joan Rivers blush, Lambert flipped her hair, swung her hips, smirked, cursed a bit and owned the stage on the penultimate night of the festival. The only female headliner of Route 91, Lambert straight worked it, inviting her Pistol Annies pal Ashley Monroe to the stage to sing "Heart Like Mine." "We're all about some girl power up in here right now," said Lambert. "We wrote this together, and it's a drinking song because we like to drink." Naturally, those in the crowd with double X chromosomes went crazy with applause.
It was merely three songs into Tyler Farr's set when out went the sound. Crickets. Trying to talk into his non-working microphone, the crowd began chanting Farr's name, creating the only noise aside from the faint sound of the drummer, who continued playing. Making the best of the situation, Farr ran to the front of the stage, took a bow and proceeded to jump in and greet fans. After about four minutes (which seemed like forever in the suddenly quiet Vegas night), the sound system thankfully switched back on. "We cannot have shit nice [sic]. It breaks. We just broke something," he said before performing one of the most high-energy sets of the weekend.
Sometimes these guys can be sentimental. Before his performance of "You Don't Know Her Like I Do," Brantley Gilbert said, "There are always people who will tell you a relationship isn't gonna work out. This is a big middle finger to them." He proceeded to pound his chest and belt out the song with the emotion of a teenager defending his first love. Later, talking into a microphone shaped like brass knuckles, he dedicated a song to the military and those affected by cancer. Don't let the tattoos (or the knuckles) fool you, this Georgia boy is a softie at heart.
It's fair to say a lot of the audience — dominated by twentysomethings — was somewhat unfamiliar with Yoakam's music, and he knew it, often telling the young crowd what year a particular song was from. But his quick wit may have been his best moment. In a scripted stoppage during his 1988 hit "Streets of Bakersfield," in which he feigns singing the wrong city name, Yoakam said he was confused by the smoke enveloping the stage. "I know when I'm near the Strip or a stripper. I can feel it," he quipped. "Well, one more than the other."
Playing shows and festivals is old hat for country vet McCoy, so he didn't even bother to create a setlist. Sure, he performed "They're Playin' Our Song," "Wink" and a few other hits, but his set list also included two Beatles songs ("Yesterday" and "Come Together"), Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and the theme from Cops, "Bad Boys." "A lot of times you'll go to these festivals and it's rehearsed. We don't have a set list. If you don't like it, well, to hell with you," McCoy told the crowd. He then went into "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" from Annie. "If you told your friends that you were going to that damn Harvest festival and you bet them that you wouldn't sing [a song from] Annie, well, you just lost your bet," he joked afterward. Oh, by the way, did we mention that McCoy was introduced by Wayne Newton?
Dan + Shay were the second act on the main stage, playing while the sun was still overhead and most people were at their 9-to-5s. The rising duo rushed onto the stage to Guns N’ Roses' "Paradise City" and continued the not-quite-country them by diving into Def Leppard's ubiquitous "Pour Some Sugar on Me." "I told you we came to party," Shay Mooney boasted.
Just before taking the stage, Houser told Rolling Stone Country, "I don't know what I'm going to get into up there." What he gave was perhaps the most rock & roll-worthy set of the show, with the guitar riffs capable of injuring eardrums. At one point, he was ripping off a faulty guitar string during a song, and the next he was sipping a Moscow Mule from a copper mug onstage. He told the rambunctious crowd, "We got longer than usual, so we're gonna play whatever the hell we want," before tearing through Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See." At one point Houser was working so hard, his microphone pack fell out of his back pocket. Rock on.
The pint-sized Australian beauty won over the hearts of the crowd with her sweet voice and mixture of cover songs (Etta James, the Killers, Johnny Cash) and her own music. Many of the crowd simply knew her from her work on ABC's Nashville, but it's safe to say she wowed the uninitiated with her charming personality and genuine appreciation for those who watched her 45-minute performance early in the day. And Nashville fans were especially rewarded: Bowen brought out costar Charles Esten for a surprise duet on the song "This Town."
Jason Aldean's latest single is titled "Burnin' It Down," and he lived up to those words with his entrance alone. Starting off a 90-minute set with "Hick Town," the singer's arrival featured fireworks exploding overhead and pyrotechnics on both sides of the stage — a taste of what's to come on his upcoming tour, he told Rolling Stone Country before taking the stage. During his performance, he rattled off a couple new songs but stuck mainly to the favorites. No one complained. The final artist to take the stage at the festival, Aldean started and ended emphatically. At the show's culmination? Yep, more pyro.
It's not everyday that an artist gets to perform while surrounded by the neon lights of Vegas, but there were some of Nashville's finest, belting out their hits with the backdrop of the Luxor pyramid and glimmering Mandalay Bay over their shoulders. "I've been really excited to play this place," Dustin Lynch said to the crowd. "Isn't this a beautiful backdrop?" Not even Elvis at the International had this kind of luxury.