Over the past few years, the Party for a Cause has been a relatively minor adjunct to the various events surrounding the annual Academy of Country Music Awards. But after ACM decamped to Dallas last year, the organization marked its return to Vegas by upgrading the Party for a Cause from a sort of glorified tailgating event held in a parking lot to a full-on three-day country festival that could easily stand on its own apart from the rest of the ACM festivities.
It was still pretty much held in a parking lot—the frequently misidentified Las Vegas Festival Grounds, also home to Rock in Rio, on the north end of the Strip across from the SLS. Taking up what looked like about two-thirds of the entire space, the festival spread out nicely (in comparison to the cramped, difficult to navigate Route 91 Harvest country festival, held in the fall at the smaller Las Vegas Village at the other end of the Strip), with two stages, a couple of carnival rides and a plethora of overpriced food vendors.
In another contrast to Route 91, Party for a Cause dedicated a substantial portion of its lineup to female artists, with Friday’s bill entirely focused on women. I showed up early to catch singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, whose brief set (not quite 20 minutes) featured a few promising songs from her upcoming second album and a solid, rootsy take on John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” (paired effectively with Clark’s own “Big Day in a Small Town”). Following Clark’s second-stage set, the performances switched over to the main stage (the two stages never overlapped), kicked off by up-and-coming singer Cam, whose debut Untamed was one of the best mainstream country albums of 2015. Cam wasn’t quite as impressive live as she is on record, but her often contemplative, low-key songs probably weren’t the best fit for a daytime slot on the Strip.
Duo Maddie & Tae (“Girl in a Country Song”) and Kelsea Ballerini (“Dibs”) fared better at the glossy, audience-friendly production, even if it made their performances a bit less distinctive. Maddie & Tae pandered to pop sensibilities with an atrocious version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” while Ballerini looked awkward in a green sequined romper—although her tears after being presented with the ACM New Female Vocalist of the Year award following her set seemed entirely genuine.
The highlight of the first day was country veteran Martina McBride, one of the few people on the festival bill not currently all over country radio. The audience was a bit slow to warm up to McBride’s more subdued performance, but after she belted out “A Broken Wing,” the applause was so loud and sustained that she appeared genuinely moved. McBride was the face of pop-country for many years, and while the genre may have moved on, she’s as talented a singer and performer as ever.
Headliner Carrie Underwood closed out Friday with a typically over-the-top set, although the limited stage setup at the Festival Grounds didn’t allow her to bring in her customary elaborate production. Still, her American Idol-winning voice was enough to captivate the audience, and she got in one of the day’s best surprises when she brought out Miranda Lambert to join her on their hit duet “Somethin’ Bad.”
On Saturday, the emphasis shifted back to the beer-swilling bros who still dominate country music, although one of the biggest recent country success stories was able to shake things up a bit. Chris Stapleton’s set was the opposite of the polished styles of most of the weekend’s other performers, with a loose, bluesy feel and an emphasis on musicianship over hooks. He even managed to turn “You Are My Sunshine,” with co-lead vocals by his wife Morgane, into a gritty blues number. Still, plenty in the audience sang along to songs like “Traveller” and “Fire Away,” and Stapleton later cleaned up at the actual awards, leaving with six trophies.
Saturday headliner Dierks Bentley has steadily grown into a country superstar over the last several years (he co-hosted Sunday’s ACM awards ceremony with Luke Bryan), and his set reflected that elevated stature, with its emphasis on crowd-pleasing hits (“Drunk on a Plane,” “What Was I Thinkin’,” new single “Somewhere on a Beach”) and parade of impressive guest stars, including Maren Morris, Eric Paslay, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and New Orleans jazz virtuoso Trombone Shorty. Bentley combines a party-friendly attitude with a level of personal expression, a balancing act that encapsulates current mainstream country music—and makes him the ideal face of a celebration put on by the literal country-music establishment.