A thunderstorm, not heat, was the main obstacle facing this year’s WGNA Countryfest, but the music prevailed.
Sure, those who stayed at the Altamont Fairgrounds all the way to the end of headliner Montgomery Gentry’s set at roughly 8 p.m. Saturday were left cold and damp, as the skies opened up with a downpour that lasted for nearly an hour. But no one could be considered miserable. By the end of the set, the rain had subsided and any bad moods were tempered by Montgomery Gentry’s high-energy set.
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For most of the day the sun was out, although ominous dark clouds foreshadowed what was to come. And a cool breeze helped cut down on the oppressive heat of Countryfests past.
“The weather’s been great; there have been very few EMS calls,” said Selena Dutcher, WGNA marketing director. “We’ve had very few issues in the crowd as well. Everyone’s excited; everyone’s having fun.”
The crowd, just shy of 30,000 according to Dutcher, met or exceeded other years. “This event just takes on a life of its own every year,” she said.
From 10 a.m. on, the Fairgrounds played host to young, old, male and female, all in various states of dress (or undress) and inebriation (at least one unfortunate, sick attendee partied a bit too hard early on). For many, it was their first time at the event, such as Kyle Seymour, 25, and Laura Fitzgerald, 22, who traveled from Burlington, Vt..
“I haven’t seen any of the bands before,” said Seymour, who was looking forward to Montgomery Gentry’s performance the most. “I don’t know too much about [opener] Sarah Buxton, but the rest I’m a fan of.”
Joel, 56, and Lynn Manke, 52, of Clifton Park, were at their first Countryfest with their kids.
“Our kids come here every year; they’re off and about,” Joel said. “They kept telling me that they have such a good time.”
“And we just got into where we really like country music,” Lynn added.
The couple was also looking forward to Montgomery Gentry, but didn’t seem too impressed with the rest of the lineup — which also featured The Lost Trailers, Heidi Newfield and Jason Michael Carroll.
“Last year was a lot better as to who they had,” Joel said.
Dancing in the rain
Luckily for the Mankes, Montgomery Gentry’s 90-minute set was worth the wait. The Kentucky duo were in fine form right from opening number “The Big Revival,” and kept the audience singing and dancing along through the rain.
The two had stage presence galore. The always-rowdy Eddie Montgomery spent most of the set swinging and twirling his microphone stand around in his trademark fashion, while Troy Gentry pranced about with guitar in hand, playing yin to Montgomery’s showy yang. The two have an easy rapport that was clearly visible onstage, and with all the grinning, back-patting and embracing going on, it was hard not to get caught up in their joy.
The music took the audience the rest of the way to rocking country bliss, with hits such as “Back When I Knew it All” and “Some People Change” firing things up early on. Montgomery and Gentry took turns sharing the lead vocal, although Montgomery seemed to handle the lion’s share, his throaty baritone giving life to the slower patriotic ballad “Something to Be Proud of.”
Highlights included the 2002 hit “Hell Yeah,” juxtaposed right after with the duo’s current single, the fist-pumping “Long Line of Losers.” The set kept climbing with “What Do You Think About That,” featuring some tasty double guitar leads straight out of ’80s metal, and “One in Every Crowd.” By this point nearly everyone in the crowd was singing or shouting along gleefully.
While Montgomery Gentry took the cake for stagemanship, each of the opening acts provided something different to enjoy. Carroll, who took the stage at about 4:30 p.m., was perhaps the most satisfying vocally of all the performers.
His voice can leap from a deep, rich baritone to a solid tenor at the drop of a hat, a talent he displayed again and again on songs such as “Anywhere U.S.A.” and the rousing “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead.”
His set featured more piano-driven numbers than any of the other acts, including the ballad “Hurry Home” and a moving rendition of “Alyssa Lies” off his 2007 debut “Waitin’ in the Country.” But when Carroll rocked, he showed his true colors — the scarves draped from his microphone stand were no accident, as he later confessed to being an Aerosmith disciple before launching into a cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run.”
The song ended with Carroll dangling from the scaffolding of the stage (it’s a good thing there was no lightning, after all).
Newfield, up before Carroll, wowed not with her voice but with her harmonica playing, which managed to be technically strong while maintaining a tossed-off energy on songs such as “Can’t Let Go” early on in the set.
Her best came with “It’s a Heartache,” a tender, pleading ballad performed mid-set, and closer “Johnny and June,” her breakthrough hit off her 2008 album “What Am I Waiting For.”
For those looking for something a little less polished, The Lost Trailers offered plenty of grit with their southern rock-influenced set. Although the group inexplicably opened and closed its set with hit “Holler Back,” off the 2008 album of the same name, the rest of the set was a rough-edged, rocking powerhouse.
The band climaxed with “Gravy,” a song dedicated to Willie Nelson.
Buxton was perhaps the lineup’s weakest link, with a young-sounding voice that grew hoarse rather quickly. However, when she was on she fired up the crowd early in the day with her hits “Space” and “Stupid Boy.”