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Swift, Sugarland, Jewel kick off CMA Fest

LP Field, Nashville, June 5, 2008

Reviewed by Jessica Phillips

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CMA Fest kicked off its nightly concert series at LP Field with some of country music's brightest rising stars, led by Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler.

Teen sensation Swift just might be country music's more credible and mature version of Britney Spears. Swift's image and commercial songwriting ability has opened doors for the newcomer that few country artists have been able to walk through. Although her vocals are sometimes questionable, she generally sounded strong and sure of herself. Storming through "Picture to Burn," (featuring a drumming duet between Swift and a band mate), "Our Song," and a few album cuts, she showed a confidence and natural presence of performers twice her age.

Jennifer Hanson (daughter of Alabama' band member Larry Hanson), who just released her second disc this week, and Luke Bryant offered acoustic performances, with Hanson singing her self-penned "Leave the Pieces" (a hit single for The Wreckers), and Bryant doing the instant crowd favorite "All My Friends Say."

Montgomery Gentry steered into their usual machismo-rock vein with the hits, "Gone," "Something to be Proud Of," and the current hit, "Back When I Knew It All" from their new disc out on Tuesday.

Pop-turned-country singer Jewel may have earned some country-rock cred with her Janis Joplin-esque performance of "Love Leave Me Alone," and her current single, "Stronger Woman," but it was her late nineties folk-pop hit, "Meant for You," finally got the crowd singing along. She has an interesting voice and a strong stage presence, but it will take a few more hit songs to get the country audience to really sit up and pay attention.

CMA Fest is never without its surprise guests and performers, and Thursday night was no exception. Pop princess Jessica Simpson visited to briefly talk about her upcoming album and radio single, "Come On Over," before gushing that she "should have made this (country) album six years ago."

Chart-toppers Rascal Flatts were the surprise performers, getting the mostly-filled stadium on its feet with a slew of recognizable hits, including "Take Me There," "Me and My Gang," and the new single, "Every Day." Although not particularly memorable performers, the band knows how to choose great songs.

Pickler, with her energetic, vivacious persona and bird-like vocals, has obviously taken a page (or two) from Dolly Parton's book. She pranced through "Don't You Know You're Beautiful" and "new single Things that Never Cross a Man's Mind," before putting her golden (not red) heels to use for a version of her debut hit, "Red High Heels." Curiously, she did not perform "I Wonder."

In typical unexpected Sugarland-fashion, the duo crowd-surfed over the audience in two huge plastic bubbles before taking the stage for "All I Want to Do." Nettles' simple, stunning performance of "Stay" got the first spontaneous standing ovation of the night, as the crowd sang empathetically to every word. The duo's love of live performing was accented by Nettles' sometimes exaggerated and bouncy onstage performance, breezing through "Baby Girl," "Something More" and the bluegrass-inspired "Run."

Thursday night was a welcome start to the LP Field shows, providing what CMA Fest attendees have come to expect - star artists, good music and plenty of surprises.