CHICAGO — It was after midnight, and headliner Jason Aldean still wasn’t on stage.
Not because there was any problem. Not because he was copping some kind of rock star attitude but simply because there were five hours of country music that came before him on Friday night (Jan. 16) at the Mega Winterfest in St. Charles, Ill., near Chicago.
Aldean brought just about every one of his hits to the stage, opening with “I Use What I Got” and then telling the audience, “I know it’s past some of your bedtimes, and I thank you for stickin’ around.” He kept the crowd banter to a minimum, though, so he could run through an impressively long list of familiar tunes for such a young artist. His take on Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” was nice, but it wasn’t nearly as well received as his own stuff, like his sexy, slow “Who’s Kissing You Tonight,” when he asked the crowd, “How many guys here have ever stalked a girl?” With that, he let drummer Rich Redmond dive into a good, long percussion solo.
As the hour-long set crept past the 1 a.m. mark, Aldean continued to pour his rich growl all over rockers like “I Break Everything I Touch,” “Johnny Cash,” “Relentless,” “Amarillo Sky” and “Why.” But even with that kind of energy from the stage, the crowd just wasn’t as rowdy at that hour. So Aldean reminded them, “You’re not at church. You’re at a concert. You gotta stand up.” Ending the show with his brand new down-home roots tune, “She’s Country,” and his debut single, “Hicktown,” seemed to leave the fans with good country music coursing through their veins.
Kellie Pickler, Joe Nichols, Julianne Hough and others helped Aldean usher in this new of country music festival — the indoor, vast warehouse, middle-of-winter kind. This type of gathering may never take the place of the humid, beer-soaked festivals in the hot summer sun, but it gave country lovers something to look forward to in the off-season. Even with the wind chill hovering down around 30 below. The 2,800-seat venue inside the Pheasant Run Resort wasn’t quite at capacity, and there were some sound troubles throughout the night, but the crowd was every bit as enthusiastic as a summer crowd.
Before Aldean’s set, Pickler charmed everyone with her stories and songs and unzipped pants. First, she opened with her latest kiss-off rocker that she co-wrote with Taylor Swift, “Best Days of Your Life.” Then she saved room for “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful” and “Things That Never Cross a Man’s Mind.” But she had to stop mid-set because a fan yelled to her that the fly on her jeans was undone. “You gonna put that picture on eBay? I’m glad I wore panties tonight,” she laughed as she zipped up. Everything she did seemed to be met with chants of “K.P., K.P., K.P.” And when she slowed things down a bit for her poignant and quiet “I Wonder,” she had the one and only standing ovation of the night.
Nichols took the stage before Pickler and was the surprise highlight of the night. Probably because he stuck with sure-thing hits from his seven years on country radio. And this was a Joe Nichols kind of crowd. When he sang “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” about girls having margaritas at the Holiday Inn, he could’ve been aptly describing 90 percent of the audience — the ones drunk with courage, throwing their clothes up on stage. Sitting on edge of the stage for about half of his set and performing on bended knee for the other half, he had everyone on their feet for “Size Matters (Someday),” “What’s a Guy Gotta Do” and “Brokenheartsville.”
But it wasn’t all quirky lyrics and up-tempo beats. He did his 2002 breakout single “The Impossible” and the ballad of the hard-to-get girl “She Only Smokes When She Drinks.” Even the song he performed at Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral, “I’ll Wait for You,” turned into a singalong. Dressed in faded Levis and a chambray shirt, he ended his 12-song set with the rousing “Let’s Get Drunk and Fight.” (It’s a great song about make-up sex that both he and Tim McGraw have played live, but only Nichols has recorded it.)
When it was Hough’s turn on stage, some sound troubles interfered with her otherwise flawless vocals early in her set. But she wasn’t shy about admitting the problem, and she stopped singing for a bit to call out to the sound man, “Can you turn my vocals up?” They did so just in time for Hough to sing her new single, “Hide Your Matches,” and her infectious “That Song in My Head.” Country’s happy-go-lucky sweetheart managed to sing her heart out on “My Hallelujah Song” as well. Her time on stage was short and didn’t allow for too much chatter between songs. But she did say how she felt when she was asked to open on a big tour this year: “Holy crap. I’m going on tour with George Strait.”
Earlier in the evening the Lost Trailers took the stage to do the new (“How ’Bout You Don’t”), the old (“Holler Back”) and the hip-hop (“Gravy,” an ingenious song that Stokes Nielson wrote about growing marijuana to save the family farm).