There may have been 11 country music acts on the bill at the third annual iHeartCountry Festival at the Erwin Center Saturday night, but it was clear from the get-go that the show belonged to Miranda Lambert.
The seven-time Academy of Country Music Female Vocalist of the Year winner’s name was on the lips of every performer at the four-and-a-half hour marathon set. In between each act, interviews with each performer played on the Erwin Center’s dual screens. Whenever Lambert’s face popped up or another performer mentioned her name, the near-capacity crowd went nuts.
Lambert was also the only female headliner in a lineup full of men. The anticipation was palpable from the beginning, when host Bobby Bones quipped, “For once, the men will be satisfied after the women,” much to the chagrin of co-host Brooklyn Decker.
Native Texan Lambert took the stage at 11 p.m. with “Fastest Girl In Town” and didn’t let up for the next 30 minutes. Her set was the most energetic of the night, mixing uptempo hits old and new. “Baggage Claim,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon,” “White Liar” (which also saw the night’s only use of a steel guitar) and “Gunpowder and Lead” made the clear point that Lambert answers to nobody but herself and does not suffer fools. Judging by the fan reaction, that was exactly what they came to see. By the final bridge of “Gunpowder,” the whole arena was singing along with “His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”
Before Lambert performed, though, fans were treated to a lineup of today’s biggest country stars.
Bro-country harbingers Florida Georgia Line promptly got the night started at 7 p.m. with a pyrotechnics show during “This Is How We Roll,” their 2012 ode to drifting through the countryside while listening to “a little Hank, little Drake” on the radio. Their five-song set consisted mostly of songs they’ve performed at iHeartCountry before, like “Cruise” and “(That’s How We Do It) Round Here.” When the duo took a break from singing about partyin’, they played their new single “H.O.L.Y.,” a piano-driven ballad attempting to mix the carnal with the divine. They even got the audience involved with light-up bracelets during the song.
As an opening act, they got the crowd sufficiently excited. Say what you will about the value of their songs or about bro country in general, but Tyler Hubbard and Bryan Kelley know how to command a stage. There might not be much substance to their songs, but they showed a lot of style Saturday night.
Speaking of style, the biggest crowd moment besides Lambert or Florida Georgia Line belonged to Zac Brown Band. The eight-piece group is well-known for genre-busting, and their set reflected that mentality, crossing from country to reggae to EDM. But their biggest moment came from performing a song that wasn’t even theirs. Once the opening sermon to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” started, the whole arena started jumping. It was the most energetic the crowd would be until Lambert started playing.
Moving through genres was a theme for the night, as there was a significant absence of twang from this year’s lineup. Most artists focused on singing rather than playing, with the exception of Keith Urban. His five-song set consisted mostly of all-new songs from his upcoming album “Ripcord.” He displayed his guitar virtuosity by playing both bass and six-string on the nostalgic “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”
Many of the other acts followed a familiar pattern: sing about girls, partying and drinking, and reference Austin as much as possible. This is a party, after all. The winner for the Austin reference prize goes to Thomas Rhett, for sneaking the city’s name into the end of his No. 1 hit “Die A Happy Man,” much to the audience’s delight: “If the last show I ever got to play is this one right here in Austin, I would die a happy man.” Rhett was also the most successful at blending traditional country with the genre’s more current trends. Right after the tenderness of “Die A Happy Man,” he took off into the crowd for the “Low Rider”-sampling “Vacation.”
The casual observer would be forgiven for feeling like the rest of the night’s acts blended together. The show also featured Lee Brice, Chris Young, Brett Eldredge, Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell and host Bobby Bones’ band The Raging Idiots, one right after the other on a rotating stage. Other than Young and Brice, there wasn’t much distinction between the middle part of the show.
Young’s new single “Think of You” with Cassadee Pope is currently at No. 3 on the country charts, on its way to No. 1, and after seeing it performed live, it’s clear to see why. The powerhouse combination of Young’s deep baritone and Pope’s soaring vocals together on a breakup ballad is one of the better duets on country radio today.
Brice, on the other hand, showed off his new duet with Jerrod Niemann, the summer-ready “A Little More Love.” The energetic pairing came midway through Brice’s set, giving a jolt to the audience members who weren’t expecting any more guests.
Swindell, Hunt and Eldredge manned the stage admirably, but by the time they performed it felt like they were just being place holders until Urban and Lambert came out to play. Eleven acts is a lot to get through in four hours. The show could have done without Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, as they were the most unnecessary of the entire lineup. They were also the only group to play both iHeartCountry Fest and the show’s earlier Daytime Village show.
All in all, the marathon set was an accurate representation of country radio today: little female representation, lots of style over substance, lots of songs about drinking and partying and a lot of real good times. But, just like country radio, if you’re willing to listen through the whole marathon, you’ll find a few gems. Next year’s show, if there is one (and I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be), should be interesting.