(First published on blogcritics.org)
The Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival (perhaps the world’s longest music festival name) brought joy, country music, fun and surprises to the Las Vegas Strip, September 30 to October 2. This was the third edition of this concert. I attended the first Harvest Fest in 2014 as a fan but this time decided to cover it from the media tent. I got up close with some of my favorite entertainers and pushed the boundaries of my photography skills.
The three-day event provided excitement each day, taking place at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds. This gives Route 91 (named after the old name of the Vegas Strip) the feel and experience of a traditional music festival like Stagecoach or Crudefest, but you can sleep in a Vegas hotel instead of your camper.
Day One – High Energy and Crazy Hair
Locash opened on day one. The name of the band didn’t ring a bell, but when I heard them sing the currently popular “I Know Somebody” and the edgier “Truck Yeah,” I had the first of several “Oh, that’s who sings that” moments.
Photographers working the festival are herded into something called the pit, an area around the edge of the stage between the performers and the fans. The general rule was that you could take pictures during the first three songs, then return to the media tent. The only time during the entire three days that this didn’t work like clockwork was when Jana Kramer (“Why Ya Wanna,” “I Got the Boy”) performed.
The lady brings so much raw animal energy to the stage, that I forgot about counting songs. At a certain point I felt a gentle push from one of the security people, looked around and realized that I and several other photographers had overstayed out time. I was mesmerized. Maybe this is why Kramer is on the current season of Dancing with the Stars.
Next, Billy Currington sang his hits including “People are Crazy” and “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer.” Most of the crowd at Route 91, was equally skilled at consuming the golden liquid. This was the first time in five years of writing about the entertainment industry when I was offered free beer in the media center. I’m probably not as good as Currington at drinking beer, but I practiced. I also practiced eating pulled pork, freshly made corn dogs, and turkey legs. Route 91 might be fattening.
Toby Keith headlined Friday night and brought the Bayou, Bakersfield and Vegas with him.
Besides singing all his hits, he took time to honor his inspirations. Keith invited Eddie Raven on stage to perform with him. Raven had a recording career peaking in the 1970s and 1980s during which he brought the sound of the Louisiana bayou to country. But, he is perhaps better known as a songwriter, penning hits for Keith, Waylon Jennings, Brenda Lee, the Oakridge Boys and many more. Keith and Raven performed Raven’s 1984 hit “I Got Mexico.”
Keith also paid tribute to another of his heroes, Merle Haggard, one of the creators of the Bakersfield sound. Keith recalled how thrilled he had been to meet and work with someone who had inspired his musical career. Haggard’s family invited Keith to sing at his funeral earlier this year. Keith lamented that he only had six minutes to honor the man. “I could have used six hours,” he said. He shared the medley of songs with the Route 91 audience.
Lastly, while singing “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” Keith was joined on stage by Carrot Top. Why? Because Vegas.
Day Two – Rock and Roll and Patriotism
Lindsay Ell led off Saturday and lent support to my theory that rock and roll is alive and living in country music. Ell can play guitar with the best of them and created guitar riffs that could make Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen jealous.
Ell was followed by Martina McBride, who charmed the crowd with a combination of her classic hits and some new songs. I found her performance touching, and it was the only time during the festival during which I was usually smiling, swaying and laughing, that I almost teared up. McBride did keep the rock and roll ball going with a fun performance of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”
Nearly all the artists had moments when they proclaimed their love for America. Tyler Farr (“A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” “Redneck Crazy”) followed McBride and inspired an unexpected moment of patriotism. In introducing his song “C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.,” he asked the audience to give him some “hell yeahs” in response to one of his comments about America. The crowd complied, but on their own, they morphed the “hell yeahs” into a chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A.” Moved, Tyler turned to his band and said, “That’s why I love country music.”
I heard the U-S-A chant several more times before the weekend was over.
Brad Paisley headlined Saturday night and brought the humor and craziness for which he is known. Paisley’s production staff created awesome videos which played over the main stage. They also made it look like Paisley called Carrie Underwood and had her sing “Remind Me” with him over her cell phone. It probably wasn’t real, but it sure looked it.
During one of his songs, Paisley used the video from a South Park episode he was featured in. He also brought back Ell from the morning to play guitar with him while he sang “Alcohol.” Farr, who pretended (maybe) to be drunk, also sang a couple of songs with Paisley. Paisley teased him for always getting the words wrong when they sing together. Rather than leave the stage after that the normal way, Farr dived off the stage for some crowd surfing. I was worried about him, but the fans carried him around for a while and then got him safely back to the ground.
What impressed me most about Paisley was how he treated his fans. He took selfies with fans’ phones, and, after taking a selfie with Farr, altered the lyrics to “I’m Still a Guy” to “There’s guys these days taking selfies.” He had a group of fans towards the back of the stage at a bar to watch his performance up close. Best of all, he autographed a guitar and gave it to a young girl in the audience, telling her, “I expect you to learn to play that and replace Taylor Swift.”
Day 3 – Girls Night Out and a Boy Band
Although McBride sang “This One’s for the Girls” the day before, Sunday night was definitely ladies’ night at Route 91. The guys did get to appreciate some female talent with Brooke Eden (“American Dreamin’”) who opened the day and the charmers from Little Big Town, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman.
I love Little Big Town’s sound and songs, but they talked too much between songs. Sing more, please.
The girls, however, got Dan + Shay, David Nail, Dustin Lynch, and (pause for the screaming) Luke Bryan.
But there was more. During Dan + Shay’s time on stage they had several guests: the guys from Boyz II Men. They walked around the stage and runway which jutted into the audience and handed out roses to the ladies and joined Dan + Shay in singing “I’ll Make Love to You.”
Luke Bryan appeared to close out the night. Some fans had been waiting by the stage all day with their Luke Bryan hats and shirts. During his show, he brought back out Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch to sing with him. The crowd loved it, especially when Bryan and Lynch teamed up on “Play Somethin’ Country.”
At one point, while photographing all this, I found myself standing between the gyrating Bryan and his fans. I’ve never heard such screams. It was like the films I’d seen of Elvis Presley. But was Elvis country or rock and roll? Maybe there’s not such a big difference.
For info on the next Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival, September 29 to October 1, 2017, check their website or Facebook page. Even if you don’t consider yourself a country fan, this event should be on your bucket list. And if you don’t like it, I’ve heard there are some places in Vegas you can gamble.