Brantley Gilbert at Fremont Street (Photo by Kurt Wolff/CBS Local)

The scene on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas is always a party. But the stops really got pulled out during the first of two free country music concerts Friday night. The drinks weren’t free, but the music was, and everyone there was having a blast.

Dubbed the Fremont Street Experience, the concerts are part of the lead-up to the Academy of Country Music Awards Sunday night (8pm ET/PT on CBS).

Two stages were set up right on Fremont Street right under the famous light-show canopy. Flanked on all sides by the flashing neon signs of famous downtown casinos like 4 Queens and Binion’s, artists Love and Theft, Hunter Hayes, Brantley Gilbert, Scotty McCreery, and Luke Bryan made some serious noise. And the crowd ate it right up.

“Any rednecks in the house?” shouted Gilbert from the Third Street stage, before launching into his 2010 single, “Kick It in the Sticks.” Like a lot of his songs, it’s a good-time Southern-rocking tune that would make the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Charlie Daniels proud. And Gilbert, dressed in ripped jeans, baseball cap, and a T-shirt that read “Sin City Sinners,” proved he had the wild energy and hillbilly swagger to really key into that backwoods-party mood and get the crowd fired up.

“Ya’ll know about them dirt roads?” the ACM New Artist Of The Year nominee asked at another point, then launched into another of his hits, “Dirt Road Anthem” (a song he cowrote with Colt Ford).

The band included two guitarists who weren’t afraid to jump up on the monitors when duty called; a bass player with an array of flashy axes; and a drummer sporting a blonde mohawk. They rode hard and kept Gilbert and his songs on that rough, red-dirt line where hard country and rock ‘n roll meet, crack a few beers, and stay up all night.

Scotty McCreery at Fremont Street (photo by Kurt Wolff/CBS Local)

Scotty McCreery at Fremont Street (Kurt Wolff/CBS Local)

Fellow ACM New Artist of the Year nominee Scotty McCreery played the First Street Stage, but you could hear the screams of his female fans blocks away. For having such a boyish appearance (he is still only 19 after all), the American Idol winner has an impressively deep and robust voice, and live on stage he can really belt it out. His set included some vintage country and rock classics, such high energy versions of the old-time gem “Man of Constant Sorrow” and Elvis Presley’s famous first single, “That’s All Right.”

These were mixed in with ballads like his 2011 single “The Trouble With Girls,” which had the ladies up in arms (literally, arms were waving from balconies and throughout the jam-packed streets).

Luke Bryan at Fremont Street (Kurt Wolff/CBS Local)

Luke Bryan at Fremont Street (Kurt Wolff/CBS Local)

Back on Third Street, Friday headliner Luke Bryan hit the stage about 11pm with in jeans, black ballcap, big smile, and an energy level that kept him bouncing back-and-forth across the stage all night. He and his five-piece band (which including a fiddle and a green electric banjo) jumped immediately into some of his best-known songs, kicking out great versions of hits like “Rain Is a Good Thing” and his newest single, “Drunk on You.”

The crowd was singing along to every word, too — even the 5-year-old on her father’s shoulders knew every word and wasn’t shy about belting it out.

– Kurt Wolff, CBS Local

Visit the ACM Awards section at CBS Local.

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