Review: Luke Bryan helps Country Thunder leave a wonderful lasting impression

Luke Bryan wows the crowd at day 3 of Country Thunder at Prairie Winds Park in Calgary, Ab., on Sunday August 21, 2016. Mike Drew/PostMedia

Kim Blevins understands the tried, trite but true statement that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

But she thinks that by the time the final note would have been played on Sunday night during the inaugural and sold-out Country Thunder that Calgarians would be left with a lasting impression that would make them ready to return for a second helping.

Which is why the director of marketing for the music festival, which took place this past weekend in the city’s northeast Prairie Winds Park and wasn’t without its birthing issues, confirmed that the event would return next year for an Aug. 18 to 20 repeat showing.

“Absolutely,” said Blevins early into Sunday’s festivities when asked about a repeat appearance of the festival.

In fact, tickets are now on sale from the website, (www.countrythunder.com/festivals/country-thunder-alberta) and were available on-site before this year’s show had even come to a close. And before evening headliner Luke Bryan had even played his first, highly anticipated tune, it was already announced that Blake Shelton had been booked for the sophomore Calgary Country Thunder.

Again, it might be a surprise to those who were put off by the rocky start to the weekend, with Friday’s show marred by long lineups for everything from age-verification bracelets to purchasing the tickets for all of the food and beverage vendors on-site to actually acquiring those refreshments. Blevins, who has worked with Country Thunder for the past 12 years, including with the Craven Country Jamboree in Saskatchewan, blames such factors as being tasked with putting on an inner-city festival as opposed to a camping event, such as Craven, as well as factors out of their control including the construction “that they’re doing to this beautiful park.”

Things had improved greatly on Saturday, with added beer vendors spread throughout the site to alleviate some of those lines, allowing people to enjoy the music.

On Sunday, things seemed to be running even smoother, with the 17,500 country music fans at the northeast park having an almost uniformly positive experience — helped in part by the one thing organizers couldn’t control, the amazing weather.

Everything else, well, Blevins, chalks that up to a learning experience.

“Any time you do something new you think you know what you’re doing and sometimes you just have to learn on the go,” she said.

“And that’s what we had to do this weekend. But I’ve gotta say the people who have come to the show have been incredibly patient and incredibly welcoming to us, and we’ve just tried to improve day after day and I think we’ve done that.

“And it’s turned out to be a fantastic weekend.”

Angela Kernaghan agreed. The 32-year-old mother of three from Revelstoke, who was attending with some girlfriends, admits she was put off by Friday’s staging but wound up being impressed with the reaction to those first night complaints.

“I will come back,” she said simply, while waiting for poutine from one of the food trucks on-site. “It will be better next year … they’re going to learn.”

And ultimately Kernaghan and most everyone else in attendance weren’t about to complain about the musical lineup, itself, with such rising and established stars as Linday Ell, Big & Rich, Chris Young, Tim McGraw, Bobby Wills and Chris Janson.

Sunday was no exception, the B.C. native admitting headliner Bryan was the reason she’d made the three-hour trip and ditched her family for the weekend.

Before he took the stage, though, there was a full day of programming that was as breezy and easy as Sunday morning, afternoon and evening, albeit perhaps a little more homogeneous and less exciting than previous days.

It kicked off with Louisiana new country singer Courtney Cole, whose set was passable — she with a strong, not entirely distinct voice, and material that had little impact, rolling off your consciousness like a puff of dandelion. Tunes such as Ladylike, Flying and Cool were catchy enough, but fairly frivolous.

The most notable part of her set was her insistence, during a backstage interview broadcast on the big screen before she stepped on, that she wanted to be a positive role model for young women. Yes, there were a lot of tunes dedicated “to the ladies” but it was also somewhat submarined by her track Free 99, which featured awkward country rapping and the message that a girl should never have to pay for drinks if she’s pretty.

And, kids, that’s one to grow on!

Courtney Cole opens up the main stage at day 3 of Country Thunder . MIKE DREW /  MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

Half-Calgary contingent Autumn Hill hit the big stage next — the sidestage once again inhabited by up-and-coming talent such as lovely vocalled local Lauren Mayell and Edmonton’s excellent The Dungarees who, sadly, as on previous days, were all but ignored by most festival-goers, something that organizers might want to fix for next year.

Again, fans were more concerned with those more well-known acts, such as the CCMA- and Juno-nominated duo of 403-born Tareya Green and her eastern mate Mike Robins, a pretty superb guitarist when he wasn’t harmonizing sweetly with his partner.

They, too, delivered a fairly irrelevantly entertaining hour of country-pop, with light, likable songs such as Can’t Keep Waiting, Good Night For Going Nowhere and Mixtape — a pretty spectacular single that had been on hold as a duet for Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow before being handed off to the Canadian duo who made good use of it.

Fellow Canucker and former puckman Chad Brownlee was of a similar vein, albeit less memorable or interesting. Moving little, showing zero presence, making songs such as Hood of My Car, Listen, Just Because and maudlin The Fighters — introduced as the “substance” in his show — merely background sounds for those seeking beer and a bite to eat, and little more. Honestly, if there were more to say, it would be. But. Nope.

Chad Brownlee performs at day 3 of Country Thunder at Prairie Winds Park in Calgary. MIKE DREW /  MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

There’s a great deal that could and should be said about Nashville’s Dustin Lynch — buy me a round or two and we can talk — but for the sake of brevity, sanity and family values, let’s just conclude that if you were looking for a reason to summarily dismiss contemporary country radio, he’s Exhibit A.

His set was so utterly forgettable, his songs so preposterously banal — She Cranks My Tractor, To the Sky, Seein’ Red and another litany of crimes against the cover song including Pour Some Sugar On Me and Friends In Low Places (country artists: Stop it, stop it, for the love of God, stop it!!!) — and his stage persona so harf-arsed and lazy that if you made it to the man he’s been spending the last two years warming up for then you are of a hearty stock. Or a huge Bryan fan. Or being paid.

Which brings us to that man.

Bryan was the reason most were there, and his Sunday, closing slot was all that organizers hoped it would be. The Georgia-born superstar was, well, a superstar and a perfect show-closer.

The only artist with an setup much larger than what was supplied — stairs onstgate actually do make for a show — Bryan and his band had the crowd in their hands from note one.

“Who’s ready to get frisky on a Sunday night?” he asked and the response was a resounding hell, yeah.

Kayla and Gerard Rice came all the way from Goose Bay, Labrador to see Luke Bryan perform at day 3 of Country Thunder at Prairie Winds Park in Calgary. MIKE DREW /  MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

It’s odd, because he’s actually a fairly nondescript entertainer but with an pretty relatable aura about him that makes you want to stay and party, makes you want to keep drinking and having fun even though Monday morning is mere hours away.

His songs help, of course, although indistinguishable from the majority of other Top 40 country — still catchy, hummable, sometimes anthemic. From Rain Is A Good Thing and Kick the Dust Up to This Is How We Roll, Drunk On You, Move and Play It Again, his material was welcoming and inclusive and comfortable on every level. It was nice. Very.

Much like the man, himself, and the mood he managed to create in a park that had seen its fair share of something else on this weekend.

It was a wonderful last impression.

And, Country Thunder hopes, a lasting impression.

mibell@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/mrbell_23