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Country cruise: There’s way more to ACM week than the annual awards show

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Hats off: Hunter Hayes played the Party for a Cause Festival at the Orleans.
Chris Polk, Getty Images

The Academy of Country Music Awards have so thoroughly taken over Vegas that the ACM organization has trademarked the phrase “The Week Vegas Goes Country” to describe the array of activities surrounding the awards broadcast. For country fans who didn’t want to pony up the ticket prices for one of the televised ACM events, there were still plenty of options to experience the range of music that the ACM brought to town.

On Friday night I headed down to the Fremont Street Experience to catch Sunny Sweeney as part of the free ACM Weekend shows. As is often the case with free concerts on Fremont, the crowd was a mix of interested fans and curious gawkers who stopped to see what the fuss was about. Sweeney, the first act of the night, won over much of the crowd thanks to her affable charm and rollicking, attitude-filled songs. Aside from radio single “From a Table Away,” Sweeney isn’t particularly well-known, but she managed to inspire pretty strong audience participation on a couple of songs.

The Fremont shows overlapped with the multi-pronged ACM Experience at the Orleans (both ran Friday and Saturday), and I made my way over there on Saturday to see the last few acts on the daylong bill of the Party for a Cause Festival, starting with 21-year-old country whiz-kid Hunter Hayes. Hayes is a strong singer and an even better guitarist, and watching him reminded me of seeing blues prodigy Jonny Lang in his early days (complete with contorted guitar-solo face). Hayes’ set alternated between bluesy jams and middle-of-the-road adult contemporary; with his pretty-boy looks, guitar heroics and sensitive-dude ballads, he’s like a country version of John Mayer.

Country-rock group the Eli Young Band followed with a set of meat-and-potatoes Southern rock that lacked Hayes’ charisma and musicianship, but it was solid in a bar-band sort of way. I wandered off to check out the wares in the ACM Expo tent, which included everything from $500 cowboy boots to gloriously tacky Western-themed furniture to the chance to invest in both rodeo bulls (starting at $10,000) and actual Texas ranches.

The evening’s headliner was Dierks Bentley, whose music encompasses both party-themed bro-country (“Am I the Only One,” “Sideways”) and elegant Americana (“Up on the Ridge”). His set was geared mostly toward the former, which was fine with the beer-soaked crowd. Bentley brought a female fan onstage to pretend to play his guitar, introduced his band members by showing embarrassing childhood photos of each one and generally played up the show’s good-time atmosphere. He threw in a few surprises as well, bringing out Sheryl Crow for a duet on “Picture” (with Bentley taking up the Kid Rock parts) and Crow’s own “If It Makes You Happy,” and introducing Tim McGraw to award a new home to a returning military veteran and his family (disappointingly, McGraw didn’t stay to sing). None of these moments will end up on TV, but for the crowd in attendance, they were just as memorable as the ones that will.

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