Some came out dressed for the weather. Others came out dressed in their Sunday best (in country concert terms, that means lots of dresses, denim, plaid and cowboy boots). Minus a temperature that was a few too many degrees, the more than 15,000 in attendance couldn’t ask for much better evening as the Red, White & Boom Music Festival came to a close Sunday night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The majority of concert-goers may have been there to see the hugely popular country duo Florida Georgia Line or Cole Swindell, but the first few acts did their part to get the crowd warmed up in distinctly different ways.
Opener Canaan Smith once again showed flashes of the rising star promise he displayed opening up for country rocker Brantley Gilbert at Rupp Arena back in January. His 30-minute set, which showcased a knack for occasionally groove-indebted, harder-edged country rock and a solid set of arena-worthy pipes. Throw in a few rock star antics, including swigging a bottle of bourbon in a toast with the crowd and taking a sledgehammer to a bass drum, and you’ve got a performer who literally went out swinging and possibly won over a few early arrivals.
The crowd was loosening up when California native Jon Pardi treated onlookers to a mix of more traditional country and Southern rock. With a band that featured fiddle and pedal steel, he started and ended his set with tunes worthy of a honky-tonk line dance, including his charming closer and No. 1 single “Head Over Boots” that inspired the first huge sing-along of the evening. The table was set for a big night at the first ever third day of Red, White & Boom.
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This year, Red, White & Boom moved from dates around the Fourth of July to Labor Day weekend, boosted its star power and expanded from two nights to three. The first two days of the country fest attracted 14,000 fans each, which was on target for the first year with big changes, according to festival director Michael Jordan.
“Central Kentucky deserves a major music festival,” he said. “We are thrilled to see the state supporting our vision.”
The year’s defining country concert moment may well have revealed itself as the festival began Friday night when Kacey Musgraves, flanked by a stage filled with neon cacti and band members with literal suits of lights, eased into a version of “Crazy” that turned the familiar tune into an uneasy, cowgirl lament colored by harmonica and the star-of-the-moment’s subdued but eerily arresting vocals.
But hold your horses, buckaroos. We’re not talking about that Patsy Cline hit. This was the 2006 Gnarls Barkley single of the same name, a soul-brewed confession that Musgraves turned into what could only be described as a whole other kind of crazy.
Not country enough for country, you say? Please. Musgraves shelled out country cunning by the barrelful. It’s just that much of it was beautifully askew.
Friday night headliner Eric Church kept the party going with a different intent, going very electric. His set boasted a huge sound that ran from metal-esque thunder and precision to anthemic, heartland inspired rock ’n’ roll. But Church’s songs retained a pronounced country element, whether it was through the Rolling Stones-style honky-tonk drive of “Drink in My Hand,” the way his band coated the country picking of “Cold One” in iron-coated riffs or the folkish deflation that dominated the storytelling singing of “Give Me Back My Hometown.”
Church was also in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on an initial visit to Red, White and Boom a decade ago, before launching into the title tune of his debut “Sinners Like Me” album.
Saturday night headliner Jason Aldean also reflected on his first visit to Boom, a rain-soaked affair when he and the fest were much smaller deals. But bad weather turned in the fest’s favor Saturday, as Tropical Storm Hermine canceled Sunday night headliner and support acts Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell’s scheduled show in Atlantic City, N.J. So the artists were in Lexington Saturday and both joined penultimate performer Thomas Rhett for previews of the fest’s Sunday night finale, FGL performing its own “Round Here” and Swindell joining in on “Get Me Some of That,” which he wrote for Rhett.
Rhett himself, best known for stirring ballads, turned his set into a Saturday night dance party. But it was ultimately Aldean’s party, sampling his greatest hits including “She’s Country” and “Joe Diffie,” as well as selections from his new album, “They Don’t Know,” out this week.
As the crowd, spilling from the outfield and into the ball park infield and stands, sang along in the glow of Aldean’s stage lights, the revved up, rescheduled fest seemed like a very good idea.