iHeartRadio Country Festival Review

Mainstream country owns Austin for one night only

Last year’s inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival proved successful enough to inspire an even more ambitious second round Saturday night at the Frank Erwin Center. In addition to a total of 11 acts over five hours, the show staged an even more blatant promotional event, prompting both a Yahoo livestream and taping for a two-hour NBC special on May 27.

Tim McGraw (Photo by Gary Miller)

Headlined by Tim McGraw atop a bill ranging from contemporary country superstars Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley to Little Big Town and Rascal Flatts, the concert made obvious the fact that Austin’s role in the event was tangential at best. We provided credibility of location to a lineup that has little reflection of the city’s actual sound or scene. Nevertheless, fans packed the Red River arena with a fervent eagerness that demonstrated the viability, if not demand, for mainstream country that typically bypasses the Live Music Capital.

The Fest offers an ideal format for fans of country radio: 30-minute sets limited to five or six songs of each artist’s hits. As such, it’s a casual sampling of the state of mainstream country, and this year’s talent at least proved a more promising state of the country summit than last year’s maximized bro block of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Jake Owen.

Both years felt like a bid for country music as radio’s big-tent genre, with an emphasis on eclectic appeal most apparent this year as the Band Perry unloaded a cover of Mark Ronson’s smash hit “Uptown Funk” to close their set.

Paisley kicked off the evening highlighting his six-string talents, impressive on the otherwise embarrassingly banal “Crushin’ It,” on which he flung an acoustic guitar to the tech, then flipped an electric from around his back to rip licks. In defense of the West Virginia native, the industry demands every album offer a drinking song, and nearly all the artists here dutifully tapped their equally awful alcohol anthem, from Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking” and Sam Hunt’s “House Party” to Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” and nearly everything from Tyler Farr and Brantley Gilbert.

Farr and Gilbert bent the most towards rock, the former struggling to keep a melody on songs like “Whiskey in My Water,” while the latter drove a near-metal pummel for the ball-cap country crowd. Bentley outshone the first half of the lineup on “I Hold On” and the title track from last year’s Riser, both among the night’s best songs.

The Band Perry injected pop influence into the proceedings, as well as female impact behind Kimberly Perry’s cutting “Chainsaw” and pristine crowd sing-a-long “If I Die Young.” Justin Moore, meanwhile, went traditional via his thick drawl on “Point at You” and “Til My Last Day.” The Erwin Center lit up with phones on the poignant “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.”

Little Big Town’s four-part harmonies buoyed the back end of the night, unloading a horn-braced “Stay All Night” that cut a Little Feat southern funk, and Karen Fairchild delivered current hit “Girl Crush” with a burning, soulful sway. Former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker likewise added soulful touches to the night. Playing co-host for the event alongside Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, he closed by winding through the crowd with his hit version of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” giving the band proper acknowledgement for the tune (though not Bob Dylan).

Before Tim McGraw closed, the Fest bottomed out with sets from Sam Hunt and Rascal Flatts. The former, flown in directly from a show in Houston, offered a short run through innocuous tunes matching his squeal-inducing good looks. For its part, Rascal Flatts was unbearably painful, Gary LeVox’s high vocals more twinged than twanged and the entire set failing to ignite despite the flames jettisoning from the backdrop.

McGraw salvaged a professional cap to the proceedings, including radio personality Bobby Bones leading the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the superstar, who turned 48 on Saturday. The set peaked when Little Big Town’s Fairchild joined McGraw on a duet of “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” from last year’s Sundown Heaven Town.

Although the iHeartRadio Country Festival still feels out of place in Austin, it’s an ideal setting to hold the concert extravaganza: an under-served mainstream country market with national music credibility. And the enthusiasm of the crowd reinforces there’s a demand for popular country – if only for a one night.

Photo gallery.

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