1. Eric Church (Consol Energy Center, Sept. 14): The clever and hard-driving country rocker was backed by some rugged guys who looked like they were recruited from a rockabilly club and sounded like they were up for anything from honky tonk to heavy metal. The unrelated Kip Moore and Justin Moore added more punch to the party.
2. Zac Brown Band (First Niagara Pavilion, July 15): There wasn't a cowboy hat to be had on the stage, but Grammy's best new artist in 2010 plays country fine without them, as it showed over a diverse and sizzling 20-song set.
3. Vince Gill (Palace Theatre, May 6): Packing a full band that included Grand Ole Opry pedal steel guitarist Tommy White and vocalist Dawn Sears, an inspired Vince Gill ran through a good chunk of his career in a three-hour concert to a largely older crowd. He cracked jokes and offered backstories of what inspired him to write many of his hits.
4. Toby Keith (First Niagara Pavilion, July 27): As usual, Keith brought his rugged, flag-waving, beer-swilling, boot-up-the-butt all-American spirit, topped with a rather wacky self-deprecating sense of humor, a hot band and a fine country baritone.
5. Carrie Underwood (Consol Energy Center, Nov. 27): The all-American girl from Oklahoma didn't come to do dance routines. Instead, she showed off her big Grammy-winning pipes, combining the slickness of pop with some homespun twang on a tricked-out stage. Young Hunter Hayes, nominated this year for best new artist, gave the ladies in the house a different kind of thrill.
First Published December 20, 2012 5:00 AM