Safe as milk. That's Dierks Bentley in a nutshell. The modern country-popper played to an overtly couple-y and female crowd last night at RodeoHouston 24 hours after seasoned veteran Alan Jackson threw a flawless night of classic country. In comparison, Bentley almost made Jackson's set feel like a visit to the Grand Ole Opry circa 1952 starring the freakin' Carter Family. Think of Bentley as the Poison to Keith Urban's Motley Crue in this strange new world known as "hair country" where you can gloss over schmaltz songwriting and clunky lyrics with a swift shimmy of your flat-ironed hair and a jiggle of your rhinestone-encrusted Seven jeans. Whatever grittiness they had early on was sanded over by a Hollywood stylist and perhaps an Oscar-winning wife. What's funny about Bentley is how overtly general his music is. He's been active on the mainstream country circuit for seven years, which is long enough to warrant a live album and even a greatest-hits release. It veers from brief flashes of earnest Springsteenesque ruggedry but stays mired in the same aural ghetto you can find people like Sugarland and, most obscenely, Rascal Flatts. He's definitely not as grating as Flatts, because he genuinely sounds like he believes in what he is doing, even if we aren't in the target audience to receive the message.
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Opening with "Sideways" from last year's Feel That Fire, Bentley had the audience by their collective purse handles. He elicited an almost Twilight-style mania with the teen girls and young women, if instead of sexy teenage vampires their object of desire was a toothy guy in shiny boots sipping out of a red plastic cup.
Bentley played up the supposed "largest honky-tonk in the world" vibe of Reliant Center by making toasts and asking us to put down our beers and raise our hands, chatting up all the "little heartwreckers" in the house before launching into the song of the same name. All of Bentley's songs play into the female ideal of how men should feel about them, however irrational the situation may be. Sort of like how you are supposed to want to help them shop for bedsheets, and that you aren't doing it because you are forced to. In real life a man couldn't get away with a song and sentiment "I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes" without sounding like a lecherous drunk or a really rusty date-rapist. In Bentley's hands though, it's pure sexual napalm, to snatch a phrase from Brother Mayer. The soundtrack to looking for the closest escalator in Reliant was his "Free and Easy (Down The Road I Go)" and it's ridiculously hook-laden, sounding more like a song from a film in the Muppets franchise than a chart-topping pop-country single. That's not a bad thing, and neither is having roughly 49,000 girls screaming your songs. What the men don't know and all that jive, we assume.