Concert Review: Country Thunder 2011

It’s finally here…ATC’s first concert review of 2011! Last weekend I attended the annual Country Thunder music festival in Florence, Arizona and had one heck of a good time! This year’s headliners included Sawyer Brown, Jason Aldean, Martina McBride, and Toby Keith. This year I got to attend two festival days so here’s my review of the acts I was able to see over the two days.

The main day I wanted to attend was Friday night which included the lineup of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Eric Church, and headliner Jason Aldean. Being a big fan of both Church and Aldean, this was a show I could not miss and both acts didn’t disappoint. We arrived at the festival in the middle of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s set so I wasn’t able to see the majority of their set but I did get to hear their classic hit, “Fishin’ in the Dark.” From what I could tell, the massive crowd was enjoying the band’s set as most of the audience was on their feet dancing along to the music.

Once they ended it was time for Eric Church. Church is somewhat a modern day outlaw in country music. His music doesn’t fit the current mold that you hear on country radio which I think makes him a fan favorite on the road. His hour set included the majority of his singles from his debut “How ‘Bout You” to “Love Your Love the Most” to his current single, “Homeboy.” He did a great job balancing his set list with songs from each of his two albums. Church’s shining moment came during the last song which was his smash, “Smoke a Little Smoke.” The song had the entire audience on their feet and singing along as he lit up a cigar to celebrate the song’s theme. Church did a fantastic job in the last opening spot and definitely got the crowd rowdy for Jason Aldean.

After a quick 30 minute intermission it was time for Jason Aldean to end the night’s festivities. Aldean roared onstage to perform “Tattoos on this Town” off his My Kinda Party album. From there his setlist included nearly every single he’s released to radio from the rowdy anthems like “Johnny Cash” and “Hicktown” to ballads “Why” and “The Truth” to his current single, “Dirt Road Anthem” (songwriter Brantley Gilbert joined him onstage to perform the song). During the middle of his set he was joined by a virtual Kelly Clarkson to sing their #1 smash duet, “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Since the current tour is in support of My Kinda Party, he included cuts off the album like “See You When I See You” and the title track, “My Kinda Party.” After ending his main set with “Hicktown,” Aldean returned for an encore that included a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and the smash hit from 2008, “She’s Country.” It was clear he feels extremely comfortable as a headliner and gave the massive audience one of the best closing sets that Country Thunder has seen. He’s already scored an ACM nomination for Entertainer of the Year and I’m certain he’ll one day win the award from either the ACM’s or the CMA’s.
I was unable to attend Saturday’s shows which included sets by Rodney Atkins, Little Big Town, and headliner Martina McBride, but I was able to see a few of the sets that were apart of Sunday’s lineup. The first act I got to see was the group Gloriana. Their set included all their singles like “Wild At Heart” and their current release “Wanna Take You Home.” Though they have one album out, they chose to have the majority of their set be new songs from an upcoming release, but they did throw in a few songs from their debut album. “You Said” was one of the highlights and so was the set-ending “How Far Do You Wanna Go?” The group is having a little trouble hitting the big time on country radio but their live performances are full of energy and spunk and show that the group has lots of potential.

After Gloriana came Sara Evans, who I must say I was the most excited to see. With a catalog as deep as hers and with the amount of hits she’s had, it was no surprise that her set list was mainly filled with singles. She opened with “I Keep Lookin” from her 2003 album, Restless. From there she jumped into singles like “Perfect”, “Real Fine Place,” “Born to Fly,” and her current career reviving single, “A Little Bit Stronger.” In between she included more hits like “Coalmine,” “Some Things Never Change,” and “I Could Not Ask for More.” She ended her set with one of her career defining hits, “Suds in the Bucket.” During the earlier sets the crowd was fairly scarce and almost non-existence until Sara hit the stage then it grew and only got bigger during her set. Her voice was on point and she showed that she’s one of the best female vocalists country music has to offer. I’m excited to see her back on the road and performing new music.

When I first saw the lineup several months ago, I was a bit surprised that Sara Evans wasn’t occupying the final opening slot before Toby Keith and I was intrigued to see who they’d get to fill that slot. When it was announced that it would be Clay Walker, I knew he was the perfect choice. Like Sara before him, Clay has a deep catalog that could fill more than the hour he was alotted, but the songs he chose represented his career brilliantly. From the opener “Live, Laugh, Love” to “If I Could Make a Living” it was clear the audience would be treated to plenty of Walker’s early hits. He included plenty of 90’s hits like “Rumor Has It,” “Dreaming with my Eyes Wide Open,” “Then What?,” and even his debut singles, “What’s It to You” and “Live Until I Die.” He also included some of his recent hits like “Fall” and his top 10 hit from last year, “She Won’t Be Lonely Long.” I hadn’t seen Clay since probably the mid to late 90’s so I was thrilled that he included most of his early hits in his 60 minute set. He did a fantastic job getting the crowd ready for the Big Dog Daddy, Toby Keith. Unfortunately, I had to work early Monday morning so we left after Walker’s set but I heard Toby put on a great show and closed out the festival with a bang.
Traditionally Country Thunder is usually the kickoff of my yearly concert series and this year is no different. Look for reviews of concerts featuring artists like Easton Corbin, Kenny Chesney, country music legend Loretta Lynn, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and Taylor Swift this year as well as many more as I’m sure more Arizona concerts will be announced soon.

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