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Underwood shines, Gill gets crowd dancing in the aisles on WE Fest's opening night

Carrie Underwood belted out hit after hit during her 90-minute set as Thursday night's WE Fest headliner. (Phierce Photo | Keith Griner)1 / 2
Country legend Vince Gill showed off his impressive singing and guitar playing skills this Thursday night at WE Fest. (Phierce Photo | Keith Griner)2 / 2

From hearing those "Church Bells" ringing to finding salvation from "Something in the Water," Carrie Underwood kept WE Fest fans riveted throughout a 21-song (including two encores) setlist Thursday, as the opening night headliner for the 36-year-old country music festival.

Underwood drew from an impressive catalog of No. 1 songs during her 90-minute set, pulling out early chart-toppers like 2005's "Jesus Take the Wheel" and 2007's "So Small" alongside her most recent hits — the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl anthem,"The Champion" and the emotionally raw "Cry Pretty."

 The crowd sang along — and at times, took the lead entirely — on the enduringly popular revenge anthem, "Before He Cheats" as well as her rueful warning against the dangers of a wild weekend in Vegas, "(I Don't Even Know My) Last Name."

In addition to showcasing her always-on-point vocals, Underwood also displayed impressive musicianship when she played dueling harmonicas with one of her bandmates on "Choctaw County Affair," and whipped out her guitar for 2015's "Smoke Break."

Thursday night's show was Underwood's first appearance at the Soo Pass Ranch since 2013 — but as Vince Gill pointed out earlier during his mid-evening set, it's been a much longer gap between appearances for him.

"It's good to be back at WE Fest — it's been a long time," he said, alluding to the fact that his last appearance at the festival was in... 1991.

He's built an impressive catalog of hits since then, as he jokingly inferred when he informed the crowd, "these songs were popular when your grandparents liked them."

But that clear, pure tenor is as soulful as it ever was, as he amply demonstrated with chart-topping, wistful ballads "Tryin' To Get Over You" and "I Still Believe in You" as well as the gospel anthem, "Go Rest High On That Mountain."

And he's no slouch as a guitar player either, as shown on the rocking version of 1993's "One More Last Chance" that he used to open up the set, as well as the playful "Liza Jane" (1991) and 2011's aptly named, "Guitar Slinger."

Another toe-tapper, 1992's "Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away," had some audience members two-stepping in the aisles, while the strains of "Pretty Little Adriana" invoked a more gentle swaying.

Gill's sense of humor also came into play a few times during the night, as he noted how much he'd enjoyed getting to know some of the younger, talented artists he'd met backstage before slyly launching into 2002's "Next Big Thing."

Some of those younger artists who preceded Gill in Thursday's lineup included Dan +Shay, Carly Pierce and Devin Dawson.

The festival continues this afternoon at 3 p.m. with a performance by Rodney Atkins. He will be followed by Tyler Farr at 5 p.m., Chris Janson at 6:30 p.m., Justin Moore at 8:30 p.m. and headliners Florida Georgia Line, who take the stage at 10:45 p.m.

Saturday's artists include Ashley McBryde, The Cadillac Three, Josh Turner, Chris Young and Jason Aldean. Tickets start at $120 for a one-day general admission pass; visit www.wefest.com or call 800-493-3378 for more information.

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