Could Lenny Kravitz become the next rocker to attempt a country crossover? It's a question on the minds of many after the "Are You Gonna Go My Way" singer made a surprise appearance at the CMA Music Festival Saturday night in Nashville, where he turned in a determined but ultimately deflating five-song set of his hardest-rocking hits.
"I'm sure you weren't expecting me to play right here," Kravitz said, addressing the 50,000-strong crowd of hardcore country fans assembled at Music City's LP Field. Leading a seven-piece backing band, complete with a horn section, Kravitz came out guns blazing, opening with a one-two punch of "Fly Away" into his hard-charging 1991 riff-rocker "Always on the Run." Reprising his performance at Wednesday's CMT Awards, Kravitz enlisted country star Jason Aldean to join him for a run through his 1999 cover of the Guess Who's "American Woman." Aldean stayed onstage to trade lines and licks with Kravitz on a stadium-shaking rendition of the rocker's signature hit, "Are You Gonna Go My Way."
But Kravitz had a harder time getting the country-strong crowd to eat from the palm of his hand during an inexplicably near-15-minute-long extended performance of his 1989 retro-psych debut single "Let Love Rule," which closed what was supposed to be a 30-minute set. "You can join in, c'mon," the singer said after the first chorus, looking surprised and disappointed when it was crickets in place of the inevitable roaring sing-along he's used to hearing. Judging by his obvious frustration, this was a humbling experience for the self-proclaimed Minister of Rock & Roll.
But it wasn't for lack of trying. When it became clear that many (if not most) in the crowd didn't actually know the song, Kravitz cued a mid-song breakdown and headed from the stage to the stadium floor, making his way through the crowd to a mid-field platform, where he tried milking an impassioned, minutes-long call-and-response routine, to little avail. "You can't get with love? You can't get with love?! That's a shame, baby," the singer said, shaking his head in dismay after feverishly waving his arms from side to side like Dave Gahan rocking the Rose Bowl, in a last-ditch effort to get some superstar satisfaction during the anticlimactic conclusion.
Other special guests fared better at the four-day festival, which kicked off Thursday with headlining performances from Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and the Zac Brown Band, and wrapped up last night with sets from Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and the Band Perry.
On Friday night, Kravitz' fellow Nineties-dominating trad-rocker Sheryl Crow also surprised the crowd, strolling to the stage, backing band in tow, as Alabama pop-country vocal quartet Little Big Town wound down a performance of their fun-in-the-sun smash "Pontoon." The song segued seamlessly into Crow's 2002 Top 40 summertime staple "Soak Up the Sun," which the singer-songwriter followed by playing her recent country-rock single "Easy." Little Big Town's torch-pass to Crow was one of many moments throughout the weekend in which a festival notable gave stage time to their influences.
"I'm so pumped because this is, like, my first official set at a country thing," Kelly Clarkson, now a solid five years into her career as a country crossover artist, said near the top of her Saturday night slot, giddily expressing nervous excitement over appearing at the festival – and worry over misplacing her engagement ring backstage. The multi-platinum-selling, Texas-bred American Idol star, who opened her set with the very non-country pop powerhouse "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" (and eschewed her definitive mega-hit "Since U Been Gone" entirely), nodded to her country roots with a rip-roarin' rendition Garth Brooks' "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)."
"This [was] one of my favorite songs growing up as a kid," Clarkson said, introducing the foot-stompin' party anthem. Midway through the song, and much to the crowd's delight, Clarkson called Brooks' better half, Trisha Yearwood, to the stage to join in the fun. Minutes earlier, Jason Aldean had joined Clarkson to duet on the pair's 2010 power ballad "Don't You Wanna Stay."
On Thursday, in a similar move, the Zac Brown Band tapped Kenny Rogers to bring the house down on an always-welcome rendition of "The Gambler." Later, countrified rap-rocker Kid Rock and Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr joined Brown and band on a set-closing cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band."
Conversely, country-radio rising star Hunter Hayes – who, at 21, came off like a seasoned stadium rocker, turning in the breakout set of the festival Friday night – nodded to his pop roots, bringing out blue-eyed soul man Jason Mraz to help him sing his bouncy ditty "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me."
On Thursday, three nights after guesting with the Rolling Stones in Chicago, Swift garnered the fever-pitch response of the festival when a shockingly tan Tim McGraw sauntered onstage to duet on the duo's recent hit "Highway Don't Care." The stadium-wide euphoria was further elevated mid-song when pop-country master-picker Keith Urban (who headlined the festival on Saturday night) reprised his instrumental role on the track, inspiring deafening applause with some show-stopping shredding.
On Sunday, in spite of an incoming storm that forced truncated performances, the festival's other guitar god, Brad Paisley, amped up the crowd when, during his regrettably brief two-and-a-half-song set, he challenged surprise guest Charlie Daniels to a nimble-fingered fiddle-guitar showdown during Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Paisley later joined Underwood, his awards show co-host and closing-night headliner, dueting with the fair-haired American Idol victor-turned-country-queen on the pair's lawsuit-inspiring country Number One, "Remind Me." The crowd was blown away.