Nashville star Chris Young gets the crowd going on the opening night of Country Thunder at Prairie Winds Park on Friday. MIKE DREW / POSTMEDIA
MIKE BELL, CALGARY HERALD
More from Mike Bell, Calgary Herald
First some mehs. Some murmurs. Some mumbles. Plenty of grumbles.
And then, eventually, the roar of Thunder.
Friday night at the inaugural Country Thunder music festival in Calgary was one that understandably began a little quietly and with a few hiccups that are to be expected with a first-time endeavour of such a massive undertaking, but ultimately proved to be worth the wait for a C&W-mad city thanks to the mood of the masses and the talent assembled almost from top to bottom.
But first let’s get those grumbles out of the way after some praise.
The site Prairie Winds Park in the city’s northeast really is a spectacular one that could and should be used more often. The layout that organizers chose was almost perfect, with the smaller Country 105 stage and the massive Mainstage and its viewing area separated by a giant hill, the sound phenomenal.
Food options and booze booths were plentiful and spread around the park — the entire thing licensed save for the space, including that hill which many people chose to perch upon, between each stage.
The problem, however, was that to purchase anything on the grounds required you to first buy coupons, with lineups in front of the handful of ticket booths ridiculous bordering on stupid, and at least an hour of your time as the afternoon wore on.
If you wanted to purchase beer and liquor, another long, long lineup was required to get an age verification bracelet — initially relaxed for those over the age of 25 and then later helped out by security wandering down the throngs and doing the IDing themselves. And then, later in the night, acquiring sustenance and suds was just as frustrating of a wait.
To the credit of the 17,500 in attendance, people, while obviously annoyed, were in good spirits and seemingly forgiving.
Again, good music will help that. It just took a little while to get there.
Things kicked off in the sunny summer mid-afternoon while many were shaking off the shackles of the work week, the bowl in front of the big stage slowly filling as Sasky-bred duo Foxx Worthee started things up just as gently.
The vocal pair of Crystal Smith and Nicole Perkins, backed by an efficient and capable crew of players, put on a set that was mildly engaging and, probably, perfect for the time of day, the crowd in front of them.
Saskatchewan’s Jess Moskaluke performs at Country Thunder at Prairie Winds Park on Friday. MIKE DREW / MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA
The Betty and Veronica, Stevie and Christine of contemporary prairie country mixed originals, such as I’ve Never and Even the Devil, with competent covers, such as Tennessee Flat Top Box, Good Hearted Woman and Shake the Sugar Tree, with please-don’t-even-attempt-them takes on Jolene and Hallelujah for something that was mildly entertaining. Harmonies fine. Tempo not bad.
Stage presence? Sure. Songs hit and miss.
Actually, the reliance on tunes of others was, early on, something of a dispiriting tone-settter, especially when it came to second mainstagers Petric. During their hour to shine, the Manitoba band built around brothers Tom and Jason Petric performed elements, snippets or full versions of everything including Queen’s We Will Rock You, Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away, Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Sam Hunt’s House Party and U2’s With Or Without You.
It was easy, it was pandering without any payoff and it seemed designed to distract from the fact that musically, vocally and in the showmanship department their own skills are remarkably forgettable.
Oddly, if you wanted some true, original talent in the afternoon, you had to head over to that sidestage. Perhaps it was the briefer, 30-minute showcase times, but those who graced it seemed intent on leave a lasting impression.
Kicking things off was Cochrane native Sydney Mae, who was wonderful. Unassuming and with a voice that alternated between fresh and innocent and knowing and smoky, the young acoustic strummer and singer, who was backed by talented electric mate Adam Wheeler, came off as a country Mary Lou Lord.
Her material, tracks such as It’s Gonna Be Okay, And So I Sing and the gorgeous He Gets Me, resonated and remained. It was unfortunate that there weren’t more people there to witness it, but it’s only a matter of time before fans and the industry are flocking to her gifts.
Stony Plain’s Mark Times and crew The New Romans were almost as good. More roots-rock than trad or new country, they delivered a raggedy half hour of thirst-inducing tunes about drinking and smoking too much and 5 O’Clock Shadows. And even the cover they hauled out, Cadillac Ranch, was punchy, cool and excellently dishevelled.
Slicker, more polished and ready for her closeup was third-up on the mainstage, Saskatchewan’s Jess Moskaluke. She is a star. On the rise. With no limits. Her voice, her presence, her songs — all of it equals someone who should have no problem finding American ears when she finishes conquering her own country.
She shimmied and Shania-ed her way through such songs as the sultry Night We Won’t Forget, the post-glowing Used, the true Good Lovin’ and the winsome As Good As It’s Ever Been, originally recorded with Calgary cowboy Bobby Wills, absent from the stage this night, but there tomorrow.
Before that, though, the party was just getting started on this Friday night, the whisper was bubbling up to something more, and something pretty excellent by way of Nashville Star, Tennessean Chris Young. For the festival, he is the perfect get — big, just on the cusp of being massive and possibly unattainable. And deservedly so.
Young is putting the traditional and the twang back into country music, and doing it with skill, style, passion and heart. When a man name-checks Conway Twitty in song — even breaking into I’d Love to Lay You Down during said honky-tonkin’ tune, I Can Take You There — and explains he worked with Vince Gill on his new single Sober Saturday Night, you know where his allegiance lies.
And, again, he has the talent to back it up, taking the torch from those two, as well as other classic abiders like Dwight Yoakam.
And he’s one helluva charming showman, too. Casually reeling off hits and soon-to-bes, such as Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song), Voices and Neon, where he cannily replaced Santa Fe with the name of this burg, he owned the big stage, begging and ready for something bigger.
And his band? Damn. Their take on the old Zed Zed’s Smart Dressed Man and Young’s own Save Water, Drink Beer were blistering, possibly even harder than the original in the case of that cover.
And it, and Young’s entire set, were the fuse to deliver, the setup for that big bang, the roar that arrived by way of Big & Rich.
They are a party, a hillbilly rock show, and they are a lot of fun. The pair of Big Kenny and John Rich put on a good time, give fun and genuinely seem to have fun.
They kicked off, naturally, with a rousing, raucous and rippin’ version of Comin’ to Your City, greeted by a sensational reaction from the somehow nicely buzzed despite the lineups audience.
They topped it with Wild West Show, which could, in other hands, come across as patronizing at best, utterly racist at worst, but the inclusion of local First Nations dancers and the band’s genuine appreciation of their skills made it a pretty entertaining spectacle.
Which is what they are, with some catchy, memorable songs to go along with that, and, yes, even a pretty excellent cover of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance added into the festivities.
By press time, a possible appearance by Saturday night headliner Tim McGraw for his guest shot on B&R’s latest single Lovin’ Lately had yet to happen.
Pretty sure if it did you would have heard the reaction anywhere in the city.
Perhaps have mistaken it for thunder.
Country Thunder, Calgary's newest weekend music festival, gets underway at Prairie Winds Park
JUSTINA CONTENTI, SPECIAL TO POSTMEDIA
This weekend Calgary will be hit by a different kind of storm than the ones it’s been weathering this summer.
It’s called Country Thunder.
The new music festival has rolled into town and unsurprisingly it came with boots on.
Country Thunder is the city’s newest weekend-long music festival and it will be taking Calgary back to its western roots.
Until Aug. 21, the festival will occupy Prairie Winds Park in Calgary’s northeast with two stages, food and drink vendors and a variety of other festival type activities.
“(This weekend) is going to feature some really exciting country music, we’ve got some great artists coming up,” said Kim Blevins, director of marketing for Country Thunder Music Festivals.
The setup of the festival features a fully licensed mainstage area where viewers can grab food at one of the food trucks, grab a drink at the bar and set up a lawn chair or blanket on the grass to watch the shows, in theory.
However, as it is a new festival, organizers may still have a few kinks to work out, with festival attendees waiting Friday in lineups to buy drink and food tickets for at times more than an hour.
Friday night’s headlining acts were Chris Young and country rock duo Big & Rich, and the lineup is solid all weekend with artists such as Neal McCoy, Bobby Wills and Tim McGraw taking the stage on Saturday and Chad Brownlee, Dustin Lynch and Luke Bryan rounding out the main stage lineup on Sunday.
The smaller Country 105 stage will feature a number of up-and-coming artists along with the likes of Drew Gregory, Tanya Ryan and The Dungarees.
Blevins said while they are expecting about 20,000 people to walk through the gates every day, the festival is not sold out.
“We are just telling people to come down. Northeast Calgary has welcomed us with open arms and Prairie Winds Park is an absolutely beautiful place,” said Blevins.
“We’re open for business, there is going to be beautiful weather and we’re going to have lots of great entertainment.”
Calgarians Lynn Stevenson and her daughter Nicole Woods and granddaughter Dylan Woods said so far they were really happy with the event.
“The weather is great, we couldn’t ask for a better day,” said Stevenson.
The tickets were a Christmas gift for Dylan last year, who has been waiting since then to see some of her favourite country artists.
“The ticket lines are a bit crazy,” said Nicole, adding that although they have never been to a country music festival before, they have attended a number of country concerts in Calgary so they were excited to try something new.
“This (festival) was good because it’s at home and there was Luke Bryan and Chris Young here, so that made it for me,” said Nicole.
“Saturday might be a shorter day because we are coming mainly for Tim McGraw but Sunday’s lineup is insane … so Sunday will be a full day event.
Albertans are no strangers to country music festivals with the family friendly Big Valley Jamboree (BVJ) running into its 25th year, the wild Craven Country Jamboree just next door in Saskatchewan and the Calgary Stampede in town which brings a multitude of country artists to the city.
Blevins said while the feel and the experience of being at Country Thunder will be similar to those festivals, a city festival is always unique.
“Because there is no camping here, our guests will be able to come and enjoy the entertainment then they are able to go home at night and actually sleep in their own bed,” said Blevins.
Full- or single-day passes for the festival are still available online or at the gates. There are also backstage experience tickets for sale for those who prefer flush toilets and a reserved standing area in front of the stage.
With limited parking in the area, organizers are recommending that festival goers take the LRT or other public transit to the park.
Country Thunder Music Festivals is a U.S.-based company that also organizes festivals in Arizona and Wisconsin as well as the Craven Country Jamboree held in Saskatchewan.