MGM Resorts executives have already announced plans to move next year’s edition of the Route 91 Harvest country-music festival from the Las Vegas Village (the former parking lot across the street from Luxor) to the similarly named Las Vegas Festival Grounds (the home of Rock in Rio, at the north end of the Strip), and it was clear from this year’s October 2-4 edition that the attendance and attention warrant the shift to a bigger venue.
Country fans crowded the Village (so clogged with lawn chairs and blankets that at times it was nearly impossible to maneuver) for sets from mainstream stars including headliners Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw, and the lineup looked a lot like a country-radio playlist—short on female artists and heavily skewed toward a slick, pop-oriented Nashville sound.
That was clearly fine with the enthusiastic crowd, and the main-stage acts I saw had no trouble getting people to cheer and sing. On Friday afternoon, I watched energetic country-rockers A Thousand Horses, whose sound falls somewhere between Dierks Bentley and The Black Crowes, lead a sing-along to their hit ballad “Smoke” (somewhat predictably, they also covered the Crowes’ “Hard to Handle”). They were one of a small number of acts at the festival that departed slightly from the Nashville formula, something festival organizers seem reluctant to embrace.
Country-folk group Sundy Best, which performed Saturday on the beefed-up second stage (a welcome improvement over last year’s poorly programmed, poorly attended version), also brought a bit of diversity with their low-key, back-porch sound, anchored by drummer Kris Bentley’s unique use of a cajón drum.
Mostly, though, it was predictable, bombastic pop-country, albeit executed with skill. Slick adult-contemporary trio Lady Antebellum sounded livelier in concert than on its bland, overproduced albums, and there was some genuine emotion in the group’s last scheduled performance before an indefinite hiatus. Urban followed Lady Antebellum with a Saturday-night headlining set that stretched beyond two hours, and the audience showed little fatigue despite the long day.
Urban may idolize Bruce Springsteen, but his music is more Bryan Adams, straightforward, middle-of-the-road pop-rock with a bit of country flair. Urban is a talented guitarist, which he proved on several lengthy mid-song solos, but like too many mainstream country stars, he has terrible taste in covers (there was no excuse for a nearly 10-minute version of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”). Still, the audience ate up the obvious classic-rock covers as eagerly as it did the country-radio hits, proving that the organizers and performers at Route 91 know how to deliver exactly what their fans are looking for.