DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Even though Rascal Flatts didn’t take the stage until 10:45 p.m., Gary LeVox relished the closing slot at We Fest, the 26th annual camping-and-country festival in northern Minnesota.
“We get to go on last and we get all the remnants of all the alcohol all day long,” LeVox told CMT.com before facing 48,000 fest-goers at the Soo Pass Ranch on Thursday night (Aug. 7). “The more they drink, the better we sound.”
The party spirit was echoed onstage by Jay DeMarcus.
“We spent the last couple of weeks on the West Coast. It wasn’t good,” he announced a few songs into the 110-minute set. “I like being up north. It’s good to be among two-fisted, beer-drinking rednecks.”
Then DeMarcus went into a spiel about all the good-looking ladies and how they primp before they go to a Rascal Flatts concert. You know, put on high heels and mini-skirts. Well, to demonstrate, DeMarcus wrapped a white towel around his waist and pranced around as if were wearing stilettos. It may have been a low-budget bit, but it fit with the lighthearted theme of Rascal Flatts’ Bob That Head tour.
This is a very visual show. Three separate giant video screens serve as a backdrop. Sometimes they stream live video of the performers. (LeVox’s blond stalagmites never looked so ginormous.) Sometimes the screens offer scenes from Rascal Flatts’ music videos or arty nature clips of pouring rain, rippling water or a shining moon to complement the songs. During “Stand,” a barrage of words race across the screen: grace, determination, passion, desire, courage, faith. Clips of violent pro football collisions accompany “Bob That Head.” But most of the time the video screens display dazzling, dizzying geometric explosions, such as a spin-a-paint sunburst during “Secret Smile.”
The whipped cream on this visual lollapalooza is four female dancers — mostly gyrating in slow motion — on a spiral staircase silhouetted behind the middle screen. And the cherry on the top is a photo of Joe Don Rooney’s 2-month-old dark-haired baby, Jagger Donovan, secured on the corner of the body of his guitar.
What about the music? Since this is Rascal Flatts’ second tour in support of their Still Feels Good album, the songs were familiar. They opened with the title tune of their latest CD and quickly turned to “Life Is a Highway.” The dreamy “My Wish” had a young dude in a cowboy hat, cargo shorts and sandals slow-dancing by himself in the VIP section. All three Rascal Flatts stars danced to center stage to harmonize on “Take Me There.” They also huddled for harmonizing on “Bless the Broken Road” and invigorated the fans with “Here’s to You.”
A mournful fiddle introduced “What Hurts the Most.” But the night’s coolest intro had to be for “Me and My Gang” with a clever animated video featuring a character from the Rock Band video game, playing riffs from several classic-rock staples. That was the first encore selection, bolstered by fireworks and confetti (which is always fun outdoors after midnight). Then Rascal Flatts closed with — what else? — the tour-naming “Bob That Head,” which was perfect for, well, head-bobbing but somewhat challenging for those four exotic female dancers at the back of the stage.
After all the hits, harmonizing and eye candy, the show ended with a black curtain descending, with big white letters declaring “Goodnight Y’all.”
Preceding Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean rocked it up, especially on Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Taylor Swift had females of various ages — from preteen to middle-age — shaking an angry finger to “Picture to Burn” and “Should’ve Said No,” during which she bashed a metal garbage can with two drumsticks. Although she mentioned that she’d been up until 5:30 Thursday morning in Nashville making the first video from her forthcoming album, she didn’t preview her second CD. Her only new song was “Change,” an anthem she recorded for the Summer Olympics. Neal McCoy kicked off the festivities at 4:15 p.m. with a set heavy on oldie covers, including “Okie From Muskogee,” “You Never Even Call Me by My Name” and “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”
The three-day We Fest, which is sold out for the third consecutive year, continues Friday (Aug. 8) with Kenny Chesney, Sugarland and Little Big Town. Tracy Byrd will be filling in for LeAnn Rimes, who canceled her appearance because of illness. Saturday’s lineup features Brad Paisley, Wynonna Judd, Dierks Bentley, Billy Ray Cyrus and Andy Griggs & Rhett Akins.
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.