Countryfest returned to the outdoors for its 20th anniversary Saturday.
After taking over Pearl Street and the Times Union Center in Albany last year following several years at the Altamont Fairgrounds, WGNA-FM’s annual festival moved to the Schaghticoke Fairgrounds for the first time. The event sold out before Saturday, with WGNA brand manager and on-air personality Jake Thomas estimating more than 15,000 people in attendance.
From before the first acts began playing at noon, to the end of headliner Darius Rucker’s set shortly after 7:30, the fairground was packed with vendors and revelers. A few scattered showers and some clouds helped to keep things relatively cool throughout the day.
Overall, longtime festivalgoers were pleased with the new location and the return to a fairground setting. Tom Yushak, 29, of Shushan, was attending his fourth Countryfest, although he skipped last year’s festival.
“This is a nice venue,” he said. “It’s a little smaller and more contained with the fans [than at Altamont], but that way you’re closer to the action.”
Another Countryfest veteran of seven years, Timothy Biagini, 24, from Adams, Mass., echoed the sentiment.
“The whole point of Countryfest is that it’s outside, where you have a good time,” Biagini said. “It’s too much for this place. It’s not bad — I’m glad it’s outside again, but they should definitely bring it back to Altamont.”
Thomas was overall pleased with the way the festival went over, and is hoping to return it to Schaghticoke next year. “I am hoping we can hang our proverbial cowboy hat here for years to come,” he said.
Former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Rucker hasn’t yet fully shed his alternative rock past, as evidenced by two countrified Hootie songs, “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Hold My Hand,” shoved into the middle of his headlining set. But numbers such as opener “Heartbreak Road” and the ridiculously catchy “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” proved that he’s a credible country belter.
His hour-long set varied from a fun cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Joker” to the bluesy new single “Radio.” And his Hank Williams Jr. cover, “Family Tradition,” which spotlighted his backing band, the Carolina Grey Boys, on an extended acoustic jam, was as country as the day got.
The day’s other ’90s rock survivor, Sheryl Crow, felt a bit more out of left field. Her upcoming album “Feels Like Home” is her first fully country effort, and songs like “Steve McQueen” and the breezy single “Easy” lived up to the billing. But her big hits — “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy” and especially “Soak Up the Sun” — couldn’t shed their sunny pop exterior, even with the added twang from her backing band.
Her new song “Shotgun” was easily the best thing she performed. The song married a bluesy guitar riff to Crow’s earnest delivery, hitting the right spot between her two musical sensibilities.
Third-billed Easton Corbin brought a big, shiny pop rock sound to the stage, opening big and bold with “All Over the Road” and “Lovin’ You is Fun.” “A Little More Country Than That” helped to remind the audience what genre of music he was playing (as if they’d forgotten), while “Where I Come From” played later in the set got the most rousing singalong of the day.
The festival started out with local artists Skeeter Creek, The Back 40 Band and Chelsea Cavanaugh, before up-and-comer Joel Crouse took the stage for a short set of bright, pop-like material. Greg Bates upped the ante, bringing some grit to the upbeat “Go Time” and the slow-burning set closer “Did it For the Girl.”
Mark Wills started out strong, hitting a high point on “Jacob’s Ladder” before launching into a medley that seemed to slow things down a bit too much. He quickly rebounded, though, delivering fine performances on new song “Looking For America,” “Don’t Laugh At Me” and especially “19 Somethin’” to close out strong.
Joe Diffie’s mid-festival set was something of a mixed bag — although he hit some great vocal highs on songs like “So Help Me Girl” and energetic new single “Girl Riding Shotgun,” his between-song banter threatened to derail the momentum. He was at his best when he brought Wills back for a duet on “Ships That Don’t Come In,” a slow-burning ballad with a killer climax.