TWIN LAKES, Wis. — There must have been some mistake. Clearly, Taylor Swift should have been the headliner at Country Thunder USA’s opening night. And yet Carrie Underwood somehow ended up on stage at the end of the night instead.
It’s not that Underwood can’t sing, perform or attract an audience. Those facts are undeniable. But Swift was, by far, the Wisconsin festival’s main attraction Wednesday (July 16). She owned the stage, the crowd and the entire sundown performance. And in her typical fan-appreciation mode, she stayed past closing time to sign autographs for the hundreds of fans willing to miss Underwood to wait in line to meet Swift.
But for those who stayed in their seats and/or lawn chairs to watch Underwood’s set, she certainly gave them plenty to listen to. Her set was just over an hour, but that was time enough to check off almost all of her radio hits. Clad in a short satin jumpsuit and thigh-high black boots, she opened with two rockers, “Flat on the Floor” and “Wasted,” and went on to pick up an electric guitar to accompany herself on “Get Out of This Town.” If those elements didn’t feel very country, she did give the fans little glimpses of that girl from Checotah, Okla. Like when she introduced “The More Boys I Meet” by telling the crowd, “If you can’t find Mr. Right, do what I did and get yourself a cute little puppy.”
“Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” and even her newest single “Last Name” all turned into fan singalongs before she ended her show with “Before He Cheats.”
Swift had a few singalongs of her own during her 90-minute set. But it was her spontaneity and enthusiasm that fueled her energetic show. What Swift lacks in years she makes up for with her crowd rapport. And her distinctive voice that has been vaguely criticized by some in the music industry only seems to be getting better with time.
Dressed simply in a black glitter tank dress and cowboys boots, Swift’s only rock ‘n’ roll moment of the night might’ve been her blinged-out acoustic guitar. She played it throughout the night, putting it down a few times to work the catwalk or let her six-man band shine. At one point during the feisty “Should’ve Said No,” Swift and her fiddle player exchanged their strings for drumsticks and beat the hell out of a trash can as a sort of percussive anger management.
The sincere stories she tells about each song remind you just how young she is, but even young girls can have deep raw emotions. Musing about the song, “The Outside,” she said, “I wrote this one at a time in my life when I didn’t get to look out and see all your beautiful faces. I wrote this about being lonely, and I don’t feel lonely anymore.”
A new trend in country seems to be trading in old, tired covers of the most obvious Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard songs and upping the cool quotient with rock and R&B covers. To that end, Swift did an acoustic take on Rihanna’s melodic “Take a Bow.” She also treated the audience to one new song, “Change,” which has an anthem feel to it — which may be why it was chosen to be part of this year’s Olympics broadcast.
Before Swift’s appearance, there was a showing of quality country rookies and veterans. In fact, Country Thunder’s first of four nights had possibly its strongest lineup, perhaps as an attempt to prove to the world that the music festival is still viable after low ticket sales and other financial woes forced the cancellation of a similar event in Dallas in May. Country Thunder USA presented a successful four-day festival in Arizona in April, but music industry insiders say the rising cost of gasoline is causing fans to become more selective in traveling to concerts this summer. Judging from the lighter-than-normal crowd at Wednesday’s show, attendance was so sparse that entire sections of seats were left stacked because there was no demand for them.
Joe Nichols did his best to entertain the earlybirds, though. Starting out with his well-known solid country tunes like “Size Matters” and “The Impossible,” he reminded people exactly who he was. His voice was at its purest for “She Only Smokes When She Drinks.” And even though it’s not his hit — or even a country hit — the crowd seemed to enjoy his cover of Nickelback’s “Rockstar.” The irony of Nichols singing a song about wanting a life where “the girls come easy and the drugs come cheap” after having just spent time in rehab didn’t seem to bother anyone.
Lady Antebellum, the Academy of Country Music’s reigning top new duo or vocal group, never fails to rock country fans. Whether they are headlining their own club show or singing to a meager festival crowd, they put their collective hearts in it. And the way Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott take turns on lead vocals, sometimes even within a song, always keeps their show fresh. The harmonies on “Love’s Lookin’ Good on You” were textbook perfect, and Kelley’s soulful pipes never wavered.
The earliest slot in the lineup went to Laura Bryna, who put on a sweet show with a stellar seven-man band. Her short set highlighted songs off her debut album, the best by far being “According to the Radio” which was written by a Country Thunder old-timer, Keith Urban.
Country Thunder USA continues Thursday night (July 17) with Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Emerson Drive, Keith Anderson and Ashton Shepherd. The festival runs through Saturday.