The people that attended the opening night of this year’s Red, White & Boom music festival Friday may have traded a bit of the summer music festival atmosphere of Whitaker Bank Ballpark for the predictable accommodations and efficient logistics of Rupp Arena.
That being said, the audience was out of Friday evening’s rain and thunderstorms — which had their way with some high school football games — and just as ready for a good time thanks to hit-making headliners Chris Young, Cole Swindell and an almost overstuffed lineup of opening acts.
The long-running festival has always been an outdoor event until this year, when promoters from WBUL-98.1 FM and the Lexington Legends moved it inside to avoid unpredictable weather and provide fans with perks such as reserved seating — last year’s fest opened at the Lexington Legends’ home field under the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. To launch the move, Boom brought in some fest vets for the first night.
Young, equipped with three different mic stands (stage left, stage right, center stage), entered via a revolving door to kick off his roughly 75-minute set with his latest album’s title track, “Losing Sleep.” On this and every other song the Tennessee native sang, whether he played his current hits like “Hangin’ On” or throwbacks like 2008’s “Voices,” Young’s singing gifts were apparent from his vocal runs to his silky smooth baritone.
Other times, he had a bit of a digital duet, replicating the harmonies with collaborator Cassadee Pope on the arena’s large digital screen when he performed “Think of You.”
But some of Young’s most endearing and memorable moments during his set came when it was just his voice and acoustic guitar in the spotlight, thanks to what he played, sang and said in jest. He took a survey of all the single people in the crowd before saying “Y’all are screwed. This is a love song” and performed “Who I Am With You.” He mentioned how he used to play gigs at Mexican restaurant patios and funeral conventions and showed a cell phone video of 98.1 The Bull’s Michael Jordan dancing enthusiastically to a Taylor Swift song at a bar.
He also recalled how he cold-called Vince Gill (his first concert as a kid) to sing harmonies on the heartbreaking song “Sober Saturday Night” and performed a cover of “When You Say Nothing At All” as a tribute to Kentucky-born country legend Keith Whitley. As the concert went past 11 p.m. and the crowd started to dwindle, Young made sure to end on a more festive, up-tempo note with feel-good crowd-pleasers like “Save Water, Drink Beer” and “Oh Naw” before closing with one of his more recent smashes “I’m Coming Over.”
Despite Young’s talent, hits, humor and likeability, the crowd peaked during returning co-headliner Cole Swindell’s hour-long set, and for good reason.
Similar to his showing in 2016’s Red, White & Boom festivities, where he played before Florida Georgia Line, Swindell proved to be a hard act to follow, thanks to an ever-present smile, contagious enthusiasm, genuine appreciation and songs that tend to either veer toward the danceable, contemporary country vein or are serious ballads that strike a universal chord with the crowd.
Swindell was in heavy promotional mode with the recent release of his third album “All Of It,” peppering in newer, upbeat tracks while showing off one of his newest, most personal ballads “Dad’s Old Number” just a few days from the five-year anniversary of his death.
He made sure to include plenty of crowd favorites, whether it was his own hits like the party anthem “Chillin’ It” or the sentimental “You Should Be Here,” or his cover of Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It.”
Swindell’s set also featured the event’s most festival-like moments when opening act Morgan Wallen came out to perform the “This Is How We Roll,” the Swindell-penned hit recorded by Florida Georgia Line. He also managed to salute the troops and first responders during a break in the break-up track “You Ain’t Worth The Whiskey,” resulting in Rupp erupting in a U.S.A. chant.
Occupying the middle spot of the five acts was the evening’s elder statesman Rodney Atkins. Atkins and his band, which featured his wife Rose Falcon on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, took a workman-like approach to his 45-minute set. It highlighted Atkins penchant for a more traditional, mid-1990s-era country sound with vivid lyrical detail, like the proud dad rooting on his football player son in opener “He’s Mine” or reliving moments of him as a toddler in “Watching You.”
While he did pop with excitement with songs like “Caught Up In The Country” and “These Are My People,” the highlight of the set came from a new song and duet with Falcon, an accomplished songwriter and performer in her own right, from his upcoming album. This was partly to do with the couples chemistry, the song’s craftsmanship and the fact they brought their 8-month old son Ryder on stage to adorably coo into the microphone.
The evening got its start thanks to a couple of up-and-coming Morgans. Australian-born Morgan Evans came out with just a guitar but still did a serviceable job getting the crowd warmed up with feel-good numbers like “Kiss Somebody.” This was followed by Morgan Wallen, who offered more hard rock and Southern rock adorned with a denim vest and purposefully sculpted mullet. His brief set included a number one hit he wrote (Jason Aldean’s “You Made It Easy”) along his own tracks “Whiskey Glasses,” “Up Down” and a hard rock medley that showed off his solid backing band while incorporating songs by Linkin Park, Bon Jovi, Eagles and Kings of Leon.
IF YOU GO
Red, White and Boom 2018
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 5 p.m. Sept. 1, Sept. 2
Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535
Online: rupparena.com, ticketmaster.com
Here is the performance lineup for this year’s Red, White and Boom festival:
Saturday: Brad Paisley, Jake Owen, Kane Brown, Chase Rice, Ashley McBryde
Sunday:: Toby Keith, Luke Combs, David Lee Murphy, Tyler Farr, Craig Campbell