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iHeartRadio Country Festival... Why Austin?

Inaugural Countrypalooza bowed at the Erwin Center Saturday
Doug Freeman, 11:47am, Tue. Apr. 1
photo by Gary Miller
Eric Church at Zilker Park in October for ACL Fest

The question that kept recurring throughout the iHeartRadio Country Festival Saturday at the Frank Erwin Center was “Why Austin?” The show served as the inaugural event for what might be presumed an annual series easily replicated anywhere. Yet why did the organizers, with obvious means to pull off whatever they wanted, choose Austin to launch?

The lineup – consisting of nine contemporary country radio superstars: Eric Church, Jake Owen, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Hunter Hayes, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Dan + Shay – felt like the furthest thing from Austin’s country reputation or credibility. And yet the packed house Saturday made clear there’s indeed a demand for mainstream country in Austin, at least in the blockbuster format presented by iHeartRadio.

In fact, the format was ideal and produced to perfection. The superstar lineup, nearly all headliners in their own right, rolled quickly through brief 30-minute sets, only enough time to plow through five or six of each artist’s most popular tunes. It was essentially country music radio brought to life – all the hits, none of the filler. And of course nearly every song sounding exactly the same, reduced to lowest-common-denominator anthems and sing-alongs.

Hard to argue with such mass appeal.

To ensure the concert started off with full impact, new hotshot and recent ACL Fest headliner Eric Church opened with outlaw swagger. While the North Carolina native plays up the rebel image, it’s hard to take the heartthrob’s boozy, reckless image too seriously. Despite the power chord backing band, rebelliousness and danger went missing almost entirely from his set, which may be the point entirely.

New duo Dan + Shay arrived as the only truly lackluster act, reflected in the crowd’s sympathetic but ambivalent response. The sound for their brief set was either poorly set up or they themselves have yet to figure out how to handle that size stage. Mostly they projected generic rhythms and pleas for the crowd to react.

Lady Antebellum likewise never caught caught fire, despite the Nashville trio’s obvious talent and lighter pop touch. There was a disconnect between the emotional reach of the songs and their plastered-on performance smiles while reeling through them.

To the credit of the four-and-a-half-hour show, every act appeared genuine and sincere in their appreciation for the fans singing along, and their success. There’s something to be said for that even as an act such as Florida Georgia Line can provide no other validating musical points. If you live anywhere along the border of Florida and Georgia, you should be offended at whatever party rock crap this band peddles.

On the other hand, young country pop crooner and Cajun Hunter Hayes demonstrated real potential and emotion via his hit “Wanted,” though closing with a new rocker that felt out of his element suggested his songwriting will likely get bleached chasing after continuous hits. Likewise, Carrie Underwood brought real superstar talent to the stage, complete with wind-blown hair and trembling vocals, yet showed true range in the kinds of songs she can effectively tackle in a way none of the other artists did.

Finally, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan finished the fest with the rocking redneck anthems that mark them already as the next big superstars. Both play their roles to perfection and balance off each other in a spectacular ticket – Aldean brooding and aggressive, Bryan upbeat and warm. Somehow the results remain remarkably similar.

Nearly every song throughout the night was accompanied by full-throated fan participation, young kids and older parents all hanging on every word with the kind of deep familiarity and devotion that most artists will never experience. In this sense, radio still has power beyond any other music platform, and the capability to bring together precisely the right mix of popularity for a greatest hits set.

Though iHeartRadio debuting here in Austin instead of somewhere more Midwestern feels like a missed opportunity, locals can at least be thankful that if these mainstream country radio artists are going to turn their attention our way, we can get them all in one condensed heaping.

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