Maybe it was the humidity, the slow start or the interminably long set changes. Whatever the cause, Thursday night's (June 10) show at Nashville's LP Field that opened the 2010 CMA Music Festival didn't quite generate the snap and sizzle one hopes for in such events.
Photo Credit: Ed Rode
On the very bright side, however, the talent lineup was dazzling, consisting as it did of musical magic by Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean and American Idol finalist, Danny Gokey.
It was apparent throughout that the show's producers were more concerned with shooting a TV special -- of which this concert will become a part -- than with truly energizing the crowd.
In years past, the festival employed side-by-side stages with no special-effects background keyed to individual artists. This enabled an act to set up and be ready to go while another was performing. A positive side effect was that the enthusiasm one act generated tended to carry over to the next, creating a crescendo effect.
More than an hour and 15 minutes of Thursday night's four-and-a-half hour show was lost to set changes. Little wonder, then, that hard-charging Underwood wasn't able to complete her closing set until 12:30, by which time hundreds of ticket-holders had already departed because of the late hour on a weeknight.
Before the concert proper started, the Oak Ridge Boys sang the national anthem and then attempted to warm up the crowd by urging it to sing along with "Elvira." Perhaps it's an indication of how much the demographics of the festival have changed that so few in the audience seemed to know the words of the 1981 hit.
Gokey's set was brief -- just four songs -- but his emotionally defiant "I Will Not Say Goodbye," which he said will be his next single, went over particularly well.
Jackson sang and chatted with his usual back-porch informality, rambling through "Good Time," "Small Town Southern Man" and "Little Bitty" (which the crowd sang along with without being prompted to).
"About this time 20 years ago, I had my first hit," Jackson recalled. He noted that his first single ("Blue Blooded Woman") had stiffed and that he feared it might mean a quick end to his career in music.
But then came "Here in the Real World," which made it to No. 3. "Luckily, this song worked out," he drawled, "and I haven't had a real job since."
He went on to tell stories behind -- and sing snippets of -- "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," "Home" and "Don't Rock the Jukebox," noting that the radio mentioned in the first line of "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The only selection Jackson offered from his current album, Freight Train, was his new single, "Hard Hat and a Hammer." By the time he wrapped up his set with "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" and "Chattahoochee," he had the crowd in his pocket.
McGraw's set was considerably more animated. Wearing a black cowboy hat, a torso-hugging, long-sleeved white shirt and jeans, he paced the staged, clapping his hands above his head, as he breezed through "Real Good Man," "Like a Bird I Sing," "Where the Green Grass Grows" and "Still."
Once warmed up, he jumped down into the audience to touch hands and continue singing. Apart from introducing one new song -- "Felt Good on My Lips" -- he cruised through such tried-and-trues as "I Like It, I Love It," "Something Like That," "Southern Voice" and "Live Like You Were Dying." He closed with his reflective masterpiece, "The Cowboy in Me," and did so with such dramatic force that the mammoth crowd actually hushed to listen.
Clad in a short-sleeved, bright-red shirt and artfully ripped jeans, Aldean strutted through "Johnny Cash" and "Big Green Tractor," the latter of which brought many in the crowd to their feet to clap and sway along.
Next came the melancholy "The Truth," followed by his nod to Nashville, "Crazy Town." Aldean closed with "She's Country" and a stretched-out, house-rocking rendition of his debut hit, "Hicktown."
For the next 15 minutes, host Melissa Peterman of CMT implored the crowd to cheer on cue for McGraw's taped introduction of Underwood for the TV special. He didn't actually introduce her since Lady Antebellum was still to come. But it will appear on TV as though he's bringing her on.
To pass the time between the four takes of the introduction, McGraw sang the first few lines of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." His whimsy may have mystified a crowd that couldn't recall "Elvira."
Once the business of the introduction was completed, Lady Antebellum flashed onto the stage with "Stars Tonight." The trio earned the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening and rode that sonic wave into "Love Don't Live Here."
High above the stadium, a helicopter circled, apparently taking shots of the crowd. Lady A surged on through "American Honey" and its new single, "Our Kind of Love." When it got to "Need You Know," cameras were flashing like fireflies all over the stadium. The group bowed out, to great applause, with "I Run to You."
Because Nashville ordinances forbid fireworks displays after midnight, the festival launched its pyrotechnics at 11:35 p.m., further extending an already long evening. To compound the injury, the fireworks were on the opposite end of the stadium from the stage, requiring fans to turn around in their seats or look over their shoulders.
When Underwood did come on, just a few minutes before midnight, she performed in front of an eye-catching animated neon backdrop keyed to her current Play On album. Underwood was eye-catching herself in a sleeveless white shirt and denim short shorts.
Rocking in with "Cowboy Casanova," she kept up the pace with "Wasted" and "Last Name," before switching into a wistful mode with "Temporary Home." And after rendering her first hit, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" she ramped it up by tacking on the chorus of "How Great Thou Art."
But Underwood's finest moment lay ahead and came when she brought Aldean out to vocally assist her in a fiery, nailed-to-the-wall cover of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City." It put the earlier fireworks to shame.
View photos from Thursday night's concert at the CMA Music Festival.