We don’t often get the opportunity for do-overs in life.
We are, however, given plenty of chances for make-betters or improve-upons or even apologize-fors.
In the case of Calgary’s inaugural Country Thunder music festival there were two such opportunities remaining after Friday’s rocky start.
In the paper, on social media and elsewhere, the event and its fresh reputation around these parts took a sock-and-knob beating for its opening day, with fans bemoaning everything including two-hour lineups for food and beverages, the tickets to acquire such items, the running out of those particular goods, the wait for folks to relieve themselves of aforementioned refreshments, and, worse, the hindering of those with limited mobility who needed to do the same.
Not that it mattered, really, as organizers announced early Saturday that the entire weekend was officially sold out.
But it was all fair game and all valid. When you pay that kind of money for an experience and that experience is, charitably speaking, sub-par, then, yeah, you’re going to vociferously run it through the ringer. Even if it is a first time local staging of the event and they’re just finding their footing here. Doesn’t matter. There’s no discount given for effort.
The one thing, though, that very few people could argue with was the opening night lineup, which featured spectacular sets by Mainstagers Saskatchewan star Jess Moskaluke and the remarkably fresh traditional sounds of Chris Young, as well as party-enders and -starters Big & Rich.
So, organizers of the first of hopefully an annual event had some work to do in the former department and needed to maintain or exceed expectations when it came to the talent side of what they were offering on Saturday at the fest’s northeast site of Prairie Winds Park.
Again, let’s get that out of the way first before we turn to the reason everyone was ostensibly there, the onstage entertainment. Late into the afternoon and early evening of the day — which kicked off with the gates swinging open at noon, first music at 1 p.m. — the lineups were much, much less. They were made so by everything from security wandering the park and handing out those proof-of-age bracelets required to consume, to beer vendors set up throughout the park separate from the main booths.
The entire site was also now entirely licensed, and will be Sunday, with those in front of the sidestage not feeling the need to buy and consume only there, free to purchase anywhere and wander.
Small steps, but they made a noticeable difference.
Perhaps, also, helping was the fact that those who might have been in attendance on Friday knew what to expect, what to plan for and were better prepared like Country Thunder, itself.
In the case of the music being served, the expectations should have been for that of a relatively high to fantastic quality. And it was delivered again.
Right from the start.
Opening the entire afternoon was hometown guitar hero Lindsay Ell, who’s been residing in Nashville for the past seven years. Happy to be home and proud to show off how far she’s come, how sensational of an artist she now is, the superstar-in-waiting put on a set worthy of a closing, headlining slot.
She is the complete package — a great songwriter, an almost peerless player, a woman gifted with a voice that’s part incorrigible angel and devil with a shy, sly smile, and a stage presence that has her on the same trail as Randy Bachman, Keith Urban or any of the other artists who have seen her promise and helped bring it along.
Ell was able to show off all of her sonic sides, from poppy and catchy new single All Alright, the passionate acoustic number Not Another Me and the hard and heavy State of Emergency, to covers including an electric version of Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive, a chill-inducing play on Bieber’s Love Yourself and a super bluesy and funk-toned take on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.
It was a happy and rewarding homecoming for all.
Once again, the second stage was also stocked with some area players, including another Calgary gal who kicked things off and outta the park, Trinity Bradshaw. Yes, she’s of East Coast origin, but the artist now makes the city her home and she, too, makes it proud.
Her set, far too brief as it was, featured the powerhouse singer and her pretty tight, taut little band hammering through original fare such as 40-proof cautionary tale Never Drinking Again, Luke Bryan co-write Lay Some Lovin’, Love Is In the Middle of Us and Good Times, along with well-chosen covers Goodbye Earl and a fun, full-on disco-pop offering of Walk the Moon’s Shut Up and Dance (and, OK, another probably ill-advised version of Jolene, but this one much more successful than Foxx Worthee’s the night prior thanks to those powderkeg pipes).
The rest of the afternoon on that stage was stacked with Alberta talent including Domino, Drew Gregory, Amy Metcalfe and TwoShine County, all worth checking out, all worth keeping an eye on as they move forward in their careers.
Back on the Mainstage was a man who has already gone so far, a time-tested veteran who puts on one helluvan entertaining performance that displays those years, the songs and, more importantly, the expertise to get a crowd going. The not-quite-ready-for-Branson Neal McCoy was a great mid-afternoon entry into the Thunder experience.
True, his was also a cover-heavy time on the boards — Michael Jackson’s Man In the Mirror, Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, Donna Summer’s Last Dance and others — but unlike Petric from Friday night, it wasn’t an admission of lack of talent or originality, it was part of a finely honed stage show that seemed an instant reading of the crowd in front of him and an ability to follow the fun wherever it might lead.
The natural, old-school showman admitted early on that he and his superb band had no setlist and were doing it all off-the-cuff. They took the stage and played, fittingly, the Beatles’ Come Together before delivering a great hour that included The City Put the Country Back In Me, I Like It Loud, The Shake and They’re Playin’ Our Song, along with jokes and cussin’ from McCoy, some interaction with the crowd via borrowing a selfie stick and filming himself, and just a generally good-natured and upbeat time in the sun for everyone.
Following McCoy was another old pro, American songwriter Phil Vassar. The man has hitted for a multitude of artists over the past two decades, including Alan Jackson, Mr. McCoy and evening headliner Tim McGraw.
As an artist, in his own right, he’s had success, but hasn’t been as active or as acknowledged of late. Onstage on this day, he put in a pretty good showing that was more Bruce Hornsby or Barney Bentall than Bruce Springsteen on the side of heartland rock.
Vassar, most of the time standing at his piano, was a mild, AC entry into what was to come, with songs such as Baby Rocks, flyover nostalgia tune In A Real Love, a light, straight-up cover of the Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) and a far-too-obvious dispatching of Billy Joel’s Piano Man.
It was nice. Not remarkable. But pleasant and enjoyable.
Things remained on the easier side of the street with yet another deserving Calgary Mainstage act.
“Man, oh, man, is it good to be home,” said current CCMA king Bobby Wills soon after taking that stage as if he was walking into his local.
And, just as Ell had, the singer-songwriter received a great deal of love in return from the full site of folks. His set, however, was not as rockin’ as his citymate’s, but just as entertaining thanks to his incredibly natural and likeable delivery, style and material — a flat-out good guy despite that black hat on his head.
Songs such as Undressed, Somebody Will, So Much For Taking It Slow, Show Some Respect and Never Didn’t Love You were a soothing aloe vera treatment for a day spent in the blistering sun.
And one that was likely needed, as around this time, the want for drinking and, consequently, the lineups that facilitate just that, again began to build to a level that might have annoyed those who were at the back, that close but that far from imbibing.
If they weren’t, likely they were after Chris Janson took the stage — a man who seems as much of a corporate boardroom concocted spokesperson for getting lit up as Spuds MacKenzie.
Where the last night’s Chris was a picture of class and classical country, the stringy, grinning, toothy, harmonica-playing Janson is the exact opposite: a purveyor of dumbed-down, contemporary trailer-rock and hick-hop, who sings about being an unabashed redneck and all of the rednecky things that rednecks do. (Hell, fittingly he took the stage several minutes late because there was a dumptruck blocking his way — how rednecky is that?)
Presumably that doesn’t include much of that there book-learnin’, as his understanding of exactly where he was performing on this night had been nailed-down to, vaguely, “north country,” and more specifically, “Canada!” — a piece of knowledge that he was obviously very proud of, incessantly sharing it with the crowd throughout his set.
And that set, again, sure, for the majority it was high-energy, party-time, aw-shucksy music — Save A Little Sugar, Power of Positive Drinking, Corn and, yes, White Trash — that was like Free Bird chum to a sea of Skynyrd-screamers.
Which, perhaps does show a sense of smarts, as the reportedly now-sober artist (see opener Back In My Drinkin’ Days) and his fiery, backing trio played to that part of the crowd, goosed them up and gave them what they wanted on a Saturday night, including a jukebox medley of Merle tunes, some Hank, Willie, Johnny, Jerry, Bruce and other covers that anyone with or without a pulse could sing along to.
It just wasn’t all that interesting or memorable or in a direction that you should pray mainstream country music is headed.
Closing things out on this second night of Thunder was the aforementioned Mr. McGraw, who is, simply put, all pro (save, maybe, for his Janson-like understanding of geography). His was a set of exactly what fans would hope for and expect. Old and new, as he promised to provide, the songs were equally as familiar and pleasing.
In his first handful of minutes, the Louisiana veteran reeled off decade-spanning faves such as How Bad Do You Want It, Where the Green Grass Grows, I Like It, I Love It, California and Southern Girl casually, almost effortlessly.
In fact, he didn’t even bother singing half of each of those songs, holding the mic out to the crowd who had no difficulty and no problem filling in the missing words.
McGraw, again, made many in the crowd forget the other stuff and focus on the music, for the remainder of this, the second night of Country Thunder, anyway.
There’s still room for improve-upons and make-even-betters.
And, possibly, even set things up for next year and that do-over they might just deserve.