It’s cyclical: Every few years, country music looks for another star or two to step up as an arena headliner. A few years ago, Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert certainly looked like likely candidates. They were knockouts as opening acts, they kept building their profiles on the radio and they were selling out shows in smaller venues.
Even though Bentley has racked up 10 No. 1 country tunes and Lambert has collected about every country award imaginable except entertainer of the year, the reality is that neither has become a bona fide arena headliner. Instead, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan emerged as country’s next big box-office stars.
On Friday at Xcel Energy Center in front of maybe 10,000 people, it was evident why neither Lambert nor Bentley has landed at the top. In short, he tried too hard, and she didn’t try hard enough.
For each of them, it was their fifth appearance at the X but Lambert’s first as a headliner. She topped a bill at Target Center in April 2012 and, frankly, she was more impressive then than on Friday. However, she was hardly an accomplished arena performer back then either.
Performing on the last weekend of her Locked and Reloaded Tour with Bentley, Lambert, 29, seemed tired at the X, and it felt like she Skyped in — she uses lots of video clips — her performance. For most of her 85-minute set, there was no strut in her step, no fierceness in her face and no viciousness in her voice. This is the country star who made her mark by firing back whenever her man done her wrong.
In other words, Lambert forgot about the entertainment quotient. She played this like she was in a suburban honky-tonk, not in a big-city hockey arena. Her concessions to making this a show were her pink guitars, pink microphone and lots of video clips (her childhood, her music videos, Twin Cities landmarks and logos of all local sports teams save the Lynx).
When the tough girl got tender, she finally showed why she has won the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year trophy the past three years. She got all fired up for “Over You,” the ballad about her husband (country star Blake Shelton) losing his brother in a car accident. Then, on the incendiary breakup song “Your Mama’s Broken Heart,” she injected attitude into her voice and body language.
Lambert didn’t have much to say other than a little pep talk on being who you are before she sang “All Kinds of Kinds.” Sometimes, though, the song says it all, which was the case of “The House That Built Me,” her award-winning ballad about her parents.
In his opening set, Bentley, 37, featured all the requisite country touchstones — beer, sex, hockey, trucks, his wife, his newborn son — but when a dude asks for women to toss bras and tank tops onstage in the middle of “Come a Little Closer,” it felt like a party animal pandering to a Friday-night crowd. Clichés don’t an arena headliner make.