Saddling up to some laid-back shows during NFR

Tim McGraw at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Photo: Adam Shane

At one time, the country concerts around Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo were just a way for fans to let loose after spending the day at the rodeo, but over time they’ve evolved into a stand-alone attraction that appeals to a much wider demographic than the rodeo itself. They’ve also proliferated so extensively that anyone looking for some entertainment on a given night has almost too many options from which to choose. I made it to three shows during the latter part of NFR, checking in with a couple of big-name acts and one Canadian genius I thought would never get to Vegas again.

On record, Lady Antebellum is one of the least exciting country acts around, and its success has come thanks to a lot of bland, inoffensive singles that play very well in waiting rooms. But when I saw the pop-country trio at last year’s Route 91 Harvest festival, I was impressed by how much livelier the act can be in concert, and the December 7 show at the Chelsea also found the group more engaging onstage. At times the band (which has mostly been on hiatus for the past year) seemed a little too loose, fumbling through some songs that had clearly not been extensively rehearsed. But their camaraderie felt genuine, with banter about buying each other Christmas presents and how their lives have changed in the past decade. They played the requisite hits (“Just a Kiss,” “Bartender,” “Need You Now”), the efforts to get the somewhat subdued audience to sing along were endearing, and even the sloppy-as-hell version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” had some charm to it.

The next night, I headed to the Gold Buckle Zone at the MGM Grand’s conference center for a free performance by brilliant, underrated Canadian singer-songwriter Corb Lund, whose last Vegas appearance, six years ago at the Bunkhouse, was so poorly attended that he spent most of the show just getting hammered. Lund was in much better shape this time around, and even if most of the GBZ crowd was just there for the beer and the rodeo highlights, a layer of dedicated fans packed close to the front of the stage. Given the Canadian flags and homemade signs from Oklahoma and Colorado, chances are very few of them were from Vegas, but it still meant Lund found a warm reception for his literate, funny and sometimes heartbreaking songs about rural life in the West. “We’ve been trying to get this gig for quite a while,” he said at the beginning of the show, and hopefully the turnout means MGM will invite him back next year.

Two nights later I was back at the MGM for a very different kind of show, an arena concert from superstar Tim McGraw, although like Lund and Lady A, McGraw put on a remarkably relaxed and chummy performance for his audience of thousands. Also like Lady A, McGraw has been off the road for a bit, and he joked about being out of shape and not remembering the words to his songs, but there was nothing to indicate that McGraw and his eight-piece band were in anything but top form. He ran through his sometimes sappy (“Live Like You Were Dying”), sometimes obnoxious (“Truck Yeah”) hits, delivering each one with a strong voice and plenty of energy, along the way giving shout-outs to friends and family in the crowd. He ended the show promising to see fans on next year’s Soul2Soul tour with his wife Faith Hill. It’s not currently scheduled for Vegas, but maybe the couple can add a date during 2017’s NFR. Everyone else will be here.

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