Every year during the National Finals Rodeo, the city turns into a sort of piecemeal country-music festival, with concerts ranging from big-name stars to underground singer-songwriters to hardworking cover bands taking place all over town. Some acts come to town every December, while others just conveniently route their tours to Vegas during NFR. It’s the one time of year when even under-the-radar country artists can usually count on reaching an audience.
Of course, that isn’t always the case: Even NFR couldn’t overcome Vegas’ typical alt-country apathy, and I was among a crowd of maybe 50 at Beauty Bar Thursday night to see Nashville singer-songwriter Nikki Lane. For those who braved the cold at the venue’s outdoor stage, Lane and her band delivered a lively, diverse hourlong set that combined old-school country chops with a loose, ragged, rock-and-roll style. Lane brought along psychedelic rockers Clear Plastic Masks as her openers (and invited them onstage for a closing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) and expressed annoyance with an audience member who kept yelling for her to play “country music,” but she also brought a deep Southern world-weariness to her singing, and delivered a traditionalist cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Waymore’s Blues”—as soon as the obnoxious country-music snob left.
The next night I headed to the Joint for a packed show headlined by pop-country quartet Little Big Town, although I was more excited to see opener Ashley Monroe, another singer-songwriter toiling away in Nashville without getting her proper due. Although Monroe has gotten more mainstream attention than Nikki Lane (thanks mostly to her membership in trio Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert), her classic, twangy sound doesn’t fit on country radio. She took the stage to Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country” and spent the next 40 minutes proving worthy of it, with a set full of aching ballads (“Like a Rose,” “Has Anybody Ever Told You”) and honky-tonk attitude (the cheeky “Weed Instead of Roses,” barn-burning set closer “Winning Streak,” which showcased Monroe’s ace backing band).
Little Big Town brought out video screens and wind machines befitting its belated ascension to chart success (16 years and six albums into the band’s career), and its set was heavy on songs from last year’s Pain Killer. Although LBT’s lush four-part harmonies are what make its music unique, they’ve been de-emphasized as the group has released more successful, pop-oriented singles, and singer Karen Fairchild has become the dominant voice. Live, however, she shared the spotlight with her bandmates, bringing their voices back to songs that have pushed them to the background. Still, the group sounded best on older tunes like “Bones” and “Bring It on Home,” as well as a lovely a cappella version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
On Sunday night I ventured into the Gold Buckle Zone, a gussied-up ballroom in the MGM Grand conference center, for an NFR afterparty headlined by country-rockers Blackberry Smoke. The crowd was a mix of die-hard Blackberry fans who sang along to every song and indifferent cowboys and cowgirls who might have wandered in after checking out some boots in the retail area. Although equipped with six different bars, the Gold Buckle Zone clearly wasn’t meant to be a concert venue, and the sound was so muddy singer Charlie Starr’s vocals were often drowned out. It did improve a bit over the course of the band’s performance, and those hardcore fans were treated to a full 100-minute set of Blackberry’s heavily Lynyrd Skynyrd-influenced Southern rock. The band was set to return to do it all again two days later, another gift to country-music fans courtesy of the NFR.