Entertained by country’s reigning entertainer of the year – A day at Thunder on the Mountain

June 8th, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Luke Bryan. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

Luke Bryan. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

All eyes were on Luke Bryan last night as he headlined the Friday night (June 7) edition of the ongoing Thunder on the Mountain country music festival last night in Franklin County. And that’s a quite literal assessment — not only did he draw a crowd double of any other performer this far into the weekend, he put on the kind of spectacle that earned him the Academy of Country Music’s most recent Entertainer of the Year award.

I don’t watch a lot of live country music, but I feel confident in saying the video boards, stage walkway flash pots and light show that accompanied Bryan and his large backing band was more intricate than just about anything this region has witnessed in recent years.

It was far from flawless — more on that later — but Bryan was certainly earned the entertaining part of the entertainer title.

His set was one of more than a dozen that took place at the festival, which debuted this year on the Mulberry Mountain event grounds. Thousands more were present for Friday’s shows than for Thursday’s and I expect an even larger crowd for today’s offerings, especially the one by Toby Keith that will end activities on the main stage.

It’s hard to predict activity at the first year of a festival, but this one has the early makings of a headliner festival — side stages get moderate attention, then EVERYONE shows up for the final act of the evening. Some of that has to do with the large day driving crowd, who return home to wherever after the show, but also with the crowd, half of which watches from the stage area fair stoically. They see their shows, then immediately go to their camp or car.

A note to those driving back and forth between the mountain and points north: When I left the venue, they were routing everyone south on Arkansas 23, which no way to get north on that road. That’s fine if you live in Fort Smith or Little Rock, but for Fayettevillians like me, it’s a big hassle. Going south on Arkansas 23, then west on Interstate 40 and north towards Fayetteville on Interstate 540 added at least 40 miles to my route.

With all that said, here’s a look at what I did see yesterday on the mountain:

1 p.m., Todd Snider, Country Pavilion

Cody Canada and The Departed

Cody Canada and The Departed

I like Todd Snider a lot, and he’s one of America’s best folk poets. He’s also an odd fit for Thunder on the Mountain. Musically, he’s not far off. But politically, perhaps so. He also offered a song (one of his better ones, actually) called “Conservative Christian Right Wing Republican” and you can guess what it was about. Todd Snider does not care.

3 p.m., Cody Canada and The Departed, Backwood Stage

I watched Cody Canada’s previous band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, several times, but yesterday was my first time to catch his new project, Cody Canada and The Departed. The group maintains some of his swagger and just-outside-the-mainstream approach, but it’s definitely a different project. This one passes the vocal duties around and seems like a much more free-wheeling setup for Canada.

Kristen Kelly

Kristen Kelly

4 p.m., Kristen Kelly, Main Stage

I’d never heard a song by Kristen Kelly until walking up to the stage to see her perform. I immediately saw the appeal. She’s pretty, and she’s got sass, and that’s a formula proved successful by many a country vocalist before her. She pranced around on the stage built for Luke Bryan and sang the John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery,” made famous first by Bonnie Raitt. Kelly has a few songs that sound like country hits to me, and with a few more, she might be on to something big.

6 p.m., Casey Donahew Band, Country Pavilion

For the past two years or so, every Casey Donahew Band show at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville has sold out. But I’d never watched the Texas country music, so I thought I’d check it out. There with me was the youngest crowd of any set, so by default one of the rowdiest I saw, too. Donahew’s songs dig into familiar territory, but they are delivered honestly, and the crowd sang back every lyric line right along with him.

Montgomery Gentry

Montgomery Gentry

Montgomery Gentry, 7:30 p.m., Main Stage

Of all the sets I watched Friday night, my least favorite came courtesy of Montgomery Gentry. Musically, they were sound, but I never made the connection. And perhaps I was put off by one of their songs, too. The duo and their backing band sang a song that was clean as a whistle, mostly geared toward veterans and the working men and women. Then, near the end of their set, they song a song about breasts. Had all of their songs been like that, I might not have cared, but it was a good degree more offensive coming from left field like that.

Luke Bryan, 9:45 p.m., Main Stage

Luke Bryan descended onto the stage from a riser on his multitiered stage. Video boards flanked all sides of him, and his band was positioned out among the crowd in a cross-shaped boardwalk extending from the stage as the lights went black, and then up again. For nearly two hours following that introduction, fans were bombarded with lights and music and a good dose of Luke Bryan moving like he was starting a striptease act.

Luke Bryan

Luke Bryan

The set includes a list of country hits, from “Rain is a Good Thing” to “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “Crash My Party.” It also included a few distractions along the way, with a mostly acoustic interlude around a piano and a one-verse-long cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

As for Bryan, he was a constant motion machine, bouncing off the sides of the stage, dancing and taking time to interact with fans. He pulled up a young cowboy, signed the young man’s cowboy hat with a pen in his back back pocket, all without breaking the song. He laid on the stage at one point, taking pictures of himself with cell phone cameras that were passed to him by amorous fans.

He pitched the idea of having a raucous time — addressed specifically in songs such as “If You Ain’t Here To Party” — and seemed to be having one himself. But that also led to the night’s nadir. During a section where Bryan and the entire band paused midway through the show to drink a jar full of Arkansas moonshine, he lost the momentum he spent so long forging at the beginning of the set. It took him a few more party numbers before his energy — and as a result, the crowd’s energy — returned.

Many of his songs are thin on substance, with allusions to suntans and shaking booties and the like. But packaged as it was Friday night, it was hard not to be wowed at the spectacle of it all.

Toby Keith will have his work cut out for him. See you all down at the mountain tonight?