Change doesn’t have to spoil a good thing, as the crowd and bands at this year’s WGNA Countryfest proved.
Although the 19th annual WGNA-FM-sponsored event moved this year from its longtime home at the Altamont Fairgrounds indoors to the Times Union Center for the main concert Saturday evening, the audience that filled about three-quarters of the arena seemed just as fired up as in past years. And the acts on the main bill — headliner Eric Church, along with Joe Nichols, Thompson Square and Josh Thompson — kept the festival vibe of the show intact, rocking the sun-drenched masses for more than four hours.
Festivities began outside at noon, with South Pearl Street in front of the Times Union Center blocked off for the free “festival” portion of the day. A stage hosted local and up-and-coming acts throughout the day, with Dalton, Mass., band Whiskey City, upstate New Yorkers Lost Cantina, and Countryfest perennials The Back40 Band drawing a good response early in the day. Later on, national artist Dustin Lynch — best known for his recent smash “Cowboys and Angels” — hit the stage, while local prodigy Chelsea Cavanaugh played as the crowd began filing into the arena.
By about 3 p.m., it was difficult to move amidst the sea of cowboy hats and drunken revelers. Some embraced the festival’s new digs, including 59-year-old Debbie Britch, who came with her family from Bennington, Vt., for her second Countryfest.
“We just got here, but it looks like it’s gonna be awesome,” Britch said about 1 p.m. “Any time they block off the streets like this, you know it’s gonna be a good time.”
Other longtime attendees were not as convinced about the new location. Joshua Parter, 27, of Albany, said he has been going to Countryfest since he was 18 and was not impressed by the Albany version of the festival.
“It was better in Altamont — a lot bigger, too,” Parter said. “This is horrible. There’s music playing, that radio over there is playing — that doesn’t happen at Countryfest.”
The usual food, beer and clothing vendors also dotted the streets. Kim Anderson, from western wear vendor J.P. North, has been working the festival for a decade and said she saw both positives and negatives to the new location.
“It’s different; it’s better than not having one at all,” Anderson said. “Having it at the fairgrounds was a little more open. But this is better for the Albany area and the retail stores here.”
Tom Jacobsen, program director and operations manager for WGNA, better known by his on-air moniker of Jake Thomas, said he heard some complaints from longtime festival fans about the location this year. The switch was the result of “a disconnection on negotiations with the prior location,” according to Jacobsen.
“After 18 years of being at a full outdoor venue, some people were a little miffed about it,” he said, “but then others were really happy about the pluses to being at this venue.”
Jacobsen estimated between 9,500 and 10,000 attended the ticketed show in the evening — a step down from previous years, although the space limits of the Times Union Center and South Pearl Street were a factor.
With the arena show pushed to a 6:30 p.m. start time, the wait for the headliner was even longer than in past years. But Church and his band made the wait worthwhile, offering up the most varied set of the evening, not to mention the most believable. Throughout, Church tackled Southern rock (“Guys Like Me”), honky tonk (“Jack Daniels”) and everything in between, all without flinching.
It was a wonder it all worked, but Church sold every sound he tackled — helped by an elaborate stage set and the occasional flashpot, enhancements made possible by the venue change.
Josh Thompson opened the main bill with a quick, six-song set showcasing his rough-and-tumble Southern rock chops. Though he spent most of his time onstage name-dropping classic country artists such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, his sound was far more modern — at one point, his thundering band vamped on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” before launching into “Way Out Here.”
Husband-and-wife duo Thompson Square (no relation to Josh Thompson) were up next, keeping things in a modern vein with their jagged-edged set. Backed by a snarling rock band, Keifer and Shawna Thompson kept the energy high, trading lines back and forth on such highlights as “Let’s Fight” and the twisting “I Don’t Wanna Miss You,” featuring an unusual structure for mainstream country music.
Taking the stage right before Church, Nichols swung the evening towards a more traditional country sound, especially on the honky tonk lilt of “What’s a Guy Gotta Do” and energetic set opener “The More I Look.” Nichols and the band spent plenty of time goofing off, taking on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Nickelback’s “Rockstar” with twangy flair, but the band was best on the ballads, hitting just the right feel for “The Impossible” and the one-two punch of “She Only Smokes When She Drinks” and “My Whiskey Years,” priming the crowd for Church’s snarling set.