By 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the Altamont Fairgrounds was covered in a sea of empty plastic Coors Light beer bottles and half-eaten food.
It was all that remained after WGNA’s Countryfest tore through town for its 15th anniversary. From before 11 a.m. to the last strains of headliner Trisha Yearwood’s final song, the beer flowed freely and the sun pounded down on the estimated 30,000 festivalgoers in attendance.
The heat remained an overlying concern throughout the day, with temperatures reaching or exceeding 80 degrees. But according to WGNA Marketing Director Selena Dutcher, for the most part, the sun didn’t end up ruining too many people’s days.
“We’ve had some EMS calls from heat exhaustion,” Dutcher said. “But we have more than enough water; the Altamont Fire Department is hosing people down if they choose, and we have misting tents. … Compared to years past, [the number of EMS calls] has been lower.”
The number of drunken incidents was also down from past years, as alcohol was banned in the fairground parking lot for the first time.
“I think if you talk to anybody involved, the elimination of alcohol in the parking lot has made this a more enjoyable day for everyone,” Dutcher said. “And if you ask people, I’m sure it didn’t make a difference in their day. There was less drunken rowdiness. When you gather this many people in one area, you have to look at what’s best for the greater good, and this was defnitely for the betterment of the concert as a whole.”
Many fans on hand
The lack of alcohol in the parking lot didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits, especially with plenty of booze to be consumed inside. By noon, the assembled crowd had become an almost impenetrable wall of people standing, shuffling about, lying down or sitting in lawn chairs.
Those in front claimed their spots early. Deanna Trumble and Ben Randall, both 21, of North Adams, Mass., made the drive to Altamont in the wee hours of the morning, arriving at the venue at 3 a.m.
“We got barely any sleep,” Randall said.
Early in the day, a rumor seemed to be going around that country superstar Garth Brooks would be appearing with Yearwood to sing their duet, “In Another’s Eyes.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Garth Brooks show up with Trisha Yearwood,” Randall said when asked which performer he was looking forward to the most. “I doubt it’s going to happen, though.”
Ed Heins, 45, a security guard from Schoharie, had also heard something about a possible duet.
“Someone said Garth Brooks was going to be here,” Heins said. “They’ve got that duet going; it’s great.”
Brooks did not make an appearance, but anyone who was disappointed by this was really missing the point. Yearwood took the stage rather inauspiciously compared with the loud announcements from WGNA DJs that each of the other acts received, but she didn’t need it. Blasting into “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love,” from her 2007 album of the same name, she captivated the remaining audience members with her powerful voice and charming personality.
Yearwood stuck with more up-tempo numbers, such as the driving “XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl)” and “Nothin’ About You is Good For Me.” The latter was one of numerous tracks Yearwood played off her immensely strong “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love” album. And although she did slow things down for a few ballads, including the hit “How Do I Live,” her strengths remained fully on display, more than making up for any perceived momentum loss.
Yearwood’s set in many ways kept with the precedent for hard-driving, hard-rocking country that was set by previous acts throughout the day. And rocking was the key word, from Billy Currington’s back-to-back covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” to Phil Vassar’s striking solo run-through of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
But Eric Church perhaps took the hard rock cake, closing out his set, the fourth of the day, by quoting riffs from Texas thrashers Pantera as introduction to his final number, “Before She Does.”
This unlikely tribute closed out Church’s amazingly strong set; he was second only to Yearwood in terms of performance, with his hit “Sinners Like Me” receiving the loudest response of the day up to that point.
If Church was the breakout surprise, then Vassar was hands down the most instrumentally talented, showing a finesse on the keyboards that none of the day’s other band leaders matched on their respective instruments.
He was also one of the most energetic acts, jumping on top of his piano and leading the crowd through a sing-along of “Carlene.” Like most of the day’s acts, Vassar was strongest on upbeat rockers such as “Baby Rocks” and “Six-Pack Summer,” the perfect anthem for the crowd, who obligingly cheered with gusto.
Currington, who took the stage between Church and Vassar, delivered a strong set that covered most of his hits, including “Tangled Up,” “Why, Why, Why” and “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right,” which he revealed to be his favorite song. But by comparison, Currington seemed a tad more uptight than previous acts Church, James Otto and Ashton Shepherd, though he finally loosened up a bit for the closing covers.
Shepherd and Otto both delivered strong sets of their own. Shepherd was a little bit more of a “classic” country act when compared to her rocking counterparts, although she did shake things up with “I Ain’t Dead Yet” and her single, “Sounds So Good.” Otto set the rock precendent early with a cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and his own originals “You Don’t Act Like My Woman” and “Ain’t Gonna Stop.”