DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- For the 25th annual We Fest, the first call was to Toby Keith. The next one was to Keith Urban for a rare second-year-in-a-row appearance at what's billed as the nation's biggest country-and-camping festival.
Both Keiths fit this party -- sort of a Redneck Riviera on an ex-dude ranch in the north woods surrounded by a bunch of Minnesota's lakes -- like jeans fit Gretchen Wilson. The three-day event officially took place Thursday through Saturday (Aug. 2-4), although Toby Keith technically closed the festivities early Sunday morning after bringing his pyro, a Ford pickup full of hits and a trio of tunes from his latest CD, Big Dog Daddy. In fact, he opened with the Chuck Berry-evoking title tune, followed with "High Maintenance Woman" and then his new single, the straightforward ballad "Love Me If You Can."
Toby's biggest hits -- "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," "Who's Your Daddy?" and "I Love This Bar" -- brought the biggest response and inevitable reprises as 48,000 well-lubricated fans sang the choruses. He acknowledged the absence of Willie Nelson ("the coolest fricking 74-year-old on the planet"), who had been scheduled to appear with him but canceled his tour due to exhaustion.
Insisting that no one should be embarrassed to be patriotic, he gave a shoutout to Detroit Lakes' National Guardsmen (who served longer in Iraq than any other Minnesota contingent). His encores of "American Soldier" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" turned into special moments. During "Soldier," a couple of Marines danced in front of the stage with young ladies who'd swapped their straw cowgirl hats for the Marines' hats. Afterward, Toby and one Marine clinked glasses and downed shots of whiskey.
During the finale, seven or eight Marines spontaneously jumped onto the lip of the mammoth stage and partied like rock stars. The Big Dog onstage stood back and watched with a giant grin on his face.
On Friday night, Urban provided another special We Fest moment when Sheryl Crow surprisingly called him onstage to do the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit." She started singing and figured he'd take the second line but -- oops! -- without rehearsal, Urban didn't know his part. The duo quickly recovered as Urban's sweet guitar licks echoed Crow's singing.
Hardly a fish out of water at a country fest, Crow opened with "Change Will Do You Good" and segued into the Stones' "Satisfaction." She rocked the house with "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and "Soak Up the Sun" (the crowd sang along to her hits) as well as an encore of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." In between, she asked permission to sing half a song and, of course, did "Picture," the hit country duet she recorded with Kid Rock.
Afterward, Crow embraced her 3-month-old son and chatted backstage with Michelle Branch of the Wreckers, who'd performed earlier. In fact, she had her daughter in tow, too, on what turned out to be her second birthday.
Having played We Fest last year with Kenny Chesney, Urban understood the essence of the event. "I wish I was camping out," he told the throng on Friday night. "That's where the action's really at."
Indeed, the 11 campgrounds (with 8,000 sites for 30,000 campers) have guidelines. If you're under 25 and want to party till dawn, you head to Blue Ox or Viking. If you want to retire early, Oatfield is for you. Families generally park at Northwoods and Lake Sallie. Over the weekend, the VIP campground was filled with corporate types and giant RVs with elaborate campsites, including a disco with a dance floor and a massive sound system (playing '80s rock till 2 a.m.). Several campers built -- yes, built with construction materials -- modest-sized saloons to try to win prizes from a radio station.
One of the most popular campground rituals is staged by the Watermelon Patch Gang. On the first day of the fest, the gang takes a bunch of watermelons, carves a hole in each and inserts a bottle of colorful liquor. (Vodka and schnapps work best, says Darren Jacobsen, who carries the title of "senior slicer.") At noon on the final day, the spiked melons are sliced and served. In this, their 14th year, the gang served 32 melons in a record 25 minutes to more than 300 campers. Heck, they even had security guards to keep the lines moving.
Detroit Lakes is a resort town of 7,348, four hours away from Minneapolis-St. Paul and an hour from Fargo, N.D. Even though the We Fest may seem like it's in the middle of nowhere, it has attracted the attention of music-biz bigwigs. Two major concert producers -- Live Nation and AEG Live -- made offers this year to buy We Fest but were turned down. AEG did dispatch seven staffers to Detroit Lakes to do research for their own Stagecoach country fest, which they staged this year for the first time at the site of the Coachella rock fest in southern California.
The big draws on opening night of the sold-out We Fest were Alan Jackson and Carrie Underwood.
"We've played festivals all over the world," said We regular Jackson, who was unusually talkative and quite spirited, "and this is one of the best ones."
American Idol champ Underwood may have the biggest selling country album of the past two years, but she received the most enthusiastic crowd reaction with a cover of Guns 'N Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine." She also did well-received versions of hits by Skid Row and the Pretenders, as well as her new single, "So Small."
We Fest had an unexpected Idol moment when Bucky Covington did an unadvertised five-song cameo during Sawyer Brown's set. Mark Miller produced Covington's best-selling debut. The newcomer did a goofy impression of Miller's dancing and later made a big impression with some fans by making a late-night visit to the VIP campgrounds (though he didn't create the kind of commotion that Big & Rich and Rascal Flatts did last year when they partied with campers).
Sawyer Brown made its record-setting ninth appearance at We Fest as did John Anderson. So if anyone knows the We Fest, it's Sawyer Brown's Mark Miller and Hobie Hubbard.
"This is the first festival of this size we ever played, and it set the bar pretty high," Hubbard said. "It was like playing to an audience seven times the size of our hometown."
Miller added, "This is the mack daddy. Most of the other festivals sprung up because of the success of this."
Editor's note: Jon Bream, longtime music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, covered the first We Fest in 1983.