Lady Antebellum playing a free show on Fremont Street? Seems about right -- for last year.
Careers move quickly in the music business, and the Nashville trio that didn't win the one category it was nominated in last year (for Top Vocal Group) is this year's front-runner, with seven nominations for Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards.
The ceremonies at the MGM Grand Garden are a pricey ticket if you don't have friends at a record label, topping out at $450 for something you can watch free at home. (The 5 p.m. festivities air on CBS, live on the East Coast and tape-delayed on KLAS-TV, Channel 8, at 8 p.m.)
The weekend concerts on Fremont Street continue the old-school spirit of free broadcast TV. "Isn't that the idea, that we come into a city like Las Vegas, which is very supportive of us and we're very supportive of them?" says Orly Adelson, president of Dick Clark Productions, which helms the broadcast. "When the fans come, it's a whole weekend."
Fremont Street Experience officials predict Lady A's show today could draw 20,000 people, making it the largest non-New Year's Eve gathering ever on Glitter Gulch and the biggest in the four-year tradition of ACM-related concerts.
And this was no happy accident. Fremont Street spokesman Tom Bruny says the trio wasn't confirmed for the downtown concert until well after nominations were announced, with Lady Antebellum up for awards including Top Vocal Group, Album of the Year (their self-titled debut) and Single of the Year ("Need You Now").
The group plays at 10:45 p.m. today on an expanded Third Street stage (by Fitzgeralds), after an 8:40 p.m. set by Danny Gokey. The First Street stage (by the Golden Nugget) will be running as well, with music by Emily West at 7 p.m., The Band Perry at 7:45 p.m. and David Nail at 9:45 p.m.
The party continues Saturday night, with Top Female Vocalist nominee Miranda Lambert singing at 10:45 p.m. on the Third Street stage, after the Randy Rogers Band at 8:40 p.m. The First Street stage offers back-to-back performances by this year's three finalists for Top New Artist: Jody+Rory at 7 p.m., Gloriana at 7:45 p.m. and Luke Bryan at 9:45 p.m.
Most of the ACM stars will stick around Monday for "Brooks & Dunn -- The Last Rodeo," an all-star tribute concert that will be taped at the MGM for a separate CBS show airing next month. Tickets are $108 to $208 for the 7:30 p.m. show in which the likes of Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and George Strait will salute the venerable duo of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn before they hang it up.
The ACM Awards ride country music's ever-growing popularity; what once was a niche genre is getting harder to distinguish from any remaining notions of a separate pop world. Lady Antebellum's current single, "Need You Now," is No. 4 on Billboard's overall Hot 100 song chart, sandwiched between Train and Lady Gaga.
Last year's ACM broadcast drew 14.8 million total viewers, a 26 percent gain from the year before. "It's a happy problem," says Barry Adelman, a producer and writer for the broadcast. "We're not trying to fix something that's dipping, we're trying to keep something that's going up going up even higher."
Nonetheless, a key change parallels this year's move by the Academy Awards, which were dipping in annual viewership: expanding the number of nominees for the top award.
There are now eight nominees for Entertainer of the Year instead of five. "It just seems frustrating you can't open the door a little bit more. Five is a restrictive number," Adelman says.
Producer Adelson notes the expansion continues the fan-friendly moves of putting Entertainer of the Year and Top New Artist up to a fan vote. "The Academy's biggest agenda is connecting with their fans," she says.
To that end, this year's stage will place some lucky fans right there next to the stars. And this year's red carpet arrivals will be streamed on the Internet, with fans given a chance to text questions for the stars.
Monday's Brooks & Dunn salute may be interactive as well. The second special follows the lead of last year's George Strait tribute, a "two-for-one" that capitalizes on the available talent (after all, how often do you get all these acts in town at the same time?) and amortizes production costs. "So many of the artists want to salute each other that I think we may be able to pull it off every year," Adelson says.
While Strait watched his tribute from the audience, Brooks & Dunn will be perched close enough to jump up and join in on hits covered by their peers. "They wanted to be part of the action," Adelman says of the atmosphere producers hope will resemble a Nashville "guitar pull." The duo knows who will be there, but they don't know which artists are covering which songs.
Brooks & Dunn also will do their final ACM performance as a duo on Sunday, with fans getting to vote for what song they will play. The two may score one final win as Top Vocal Duo as well. "That's a big moment, win or lose," Adelman says.
Another is likely to be Toby Keith's song tribute to Oklahoma basketball star and jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale, who died of cancer last May.
The producers are vague on many details to preserve the element of surprise, but there are predictable surprises. Taylor Swift will again be called upon for what Adelson calls "an extraordinary performance" to top 2008's "singing in the rain" and last year's magical elevator appearance with an assist by David Copperfield.
And speaking of Vegas star cameos, this year also promises "somebody very identified with Las Vegas," Adelson says. Might that be a certain "Mr. Las Vegas"?
And, though it sounds shameless, both producers tell us to be tuned in for the beginning: a double-whammy surprise in who introduces the show, and in the all-star assemblage that first performs. No, it won't be the same as last year's group performance by Entertainer of the Year nominees.
Hmm. Garth Brooks isn't performing at Wynn Las Vegas this weekend. But Steve Wynn did buy him that private jet and the pilot surely knows the route by now. And who would want to leave that guy out of a weekend like this one?
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.