CHICAGO -- Roughly 31,000 people crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday (Oct. 12). And from the looks of the crowds, they kept right on running to the Chicago Country Music Festival.
For the first time in 18 years, the free festival had its own weekend, instead of being hidden within another summer event in the city. It took two days and three stages on the lakefront lawn outside Soldier Field to make room for all the country music. And by the time Taylor Swift made her appearance Sunday night, the crowd was so thick with country fans and exhausted marathoners, there wasn't one spot left.
Swift opened her main stage show, the last one of the festival, with a steady stream of home movies set to the tune of Rascal Flatts' "My Wish" and the crowd chants of "Taylor! Taylor! Taylor!" The screen showed Swift as a baby, a toddler, a ballerina and getting a guitar for Christmas. And the film led all the way up to her teen years, at which point the movie was over and Swift herself came onstage in a gold sequin shift and black cowboy boots for "I'm Only Me When I'm With You." After thanking everyone for coming -- and Mayor Richard M. Daley for inspiring the festival -- she said to the fans, "Let me see you jump." That was all she needed to say to create a crowd of jumpers for her up-tempo tunes like "Our Song," "Should've Said No" and "Change." (That one's on her new album, and Swift said she wasn't counting down the days until the release at all -- but added that it was 29 days, 36 hours and 14 seconds.)
On "Stay Beautiful," Swift's banjo-mandolin player came out with a resophonic guitar to give the song even more country swagger. And when it came time for "A Place in This World," the band left the stage so Swift could tackle it on her own, acoustically. She told the audience she wrote the song after seeing a TV special about Faith Hill and how she'd moved to Nashville to make it in country music. "That started my obnoxious begging sessions every day until my parents gave in when I was 13," admitted Swift.
Before Swift, Lady Antebellum packed 12 songs into their hour-long set. And it wasn't all just country. There was some U2 ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"), some Tom Petty ("Free Falling") and some AC/DC ("You Shook Me All Night Long"). But they could've been singing anything from any genre and it would've sounded so good. Hillary Scott's sultry vocals, Charles Kelley's soulful voice and Dave Haywood's harmonies give the band a dynamic signature sound. And they did leave room for their own hits, like "Home Is Where the Heart Is," "Lookin' for a Good Time," "Love's Lookin' Good on You," and "Love Don't Live Here Anymore." When it was time to mellow things out a bit, the trio left their four other band members behind and came up to the front of the stage to perform a quiet take on "Slow Down Sister."
The Lost Trailers were also there early to get the growing crowd rowdy and ready for the music. Ryder Lee and his bandmates put fans in that country state of mind with a cover of Alabama's "Dixieland Delight" and their own hit, "Holler Back." Chuck Wicks was there to start the day and charm the early birds with his polished vocal power on "Stealing Cinderella." But in keeping with the theme of the day, he covered a few songs that usually don't get covered. Like Brad Paisley's "Wrapped Around," Eddie Rabbit's "Driving My Life Away" and Joe Diffie's "Pickup Man." Covering someone else's songs seems to work well for the early acts at a festival. As if it's more important to keep the familiar tunes coming, instead of just using the stage to promote your own album.
The two big stages weren't very far apart, so the fest organizers did a good job of making sure no sets overlapped. And while a bit of sound-bleed came from the line-dancing tent, it wasn't so bad that it completely drowned out the bigger artists. The bigger issue was the alcohol. Or lack of it. Because of some nonsense city ordinance, fans couldn't bring beer to the property that housed the Americana stage. So you could drink during Taylor Swift, but not Cross Canadian Ragweed. If they'd consulted a few Ragweed fans before the fest, it might've been a good idea to switch the stages -- or at least the alcohol policies.
But even with a sober audience, the alt-country guys triumphed. Over on the Americana stage, Cross Canadian Ragweed was showing folks how hard country can rock. The band did a 60-minute set with lots of guitars jams and even a bass guitar solo during "42 Miles." For all his bravado and bad-ass presence, Cody Canada really does have an engaging voice. And even though he still had his trademark aviators, wallet chain and the no-hands cigarette dangling from his lips, the shirt, tie and vest made him look that part of a serious frontman. That said, he still had it in him to take a stab at big shot label guys on "Record Exec," which he dedicated to "the other stage."
The Eli Young Band was there, too, with a great range of their own pristine music. "Jet Black and Jealous," "Always the Love Songs" and "Guinevere" showcased Mike Eli's haunting voice and James Young's outstanding guitar and harmonica work. But when it came time for the anger-filled songs, Eli made it clear that's just what songwriters do. "We love what we do," he said. "We just gotta vent once in a while."
Wade Bowen kicked off the Americana stage for the day, with a small crowd but a big ol' voice. He seems to have that elusive Texas thing. The one that you can't quite put your finger on. But in a live show, even 1,200 miles north of Texas, he fires it up and plays with a passion for music. Whether it's songs about getaways or ties that bind, he puts a rich and robust spin on everything.
The festival began Saturday (Oct. 11) with a lineup that included Gretchen Wilson, Luke Bryan, Rissi Palmer, the Randy Kohrs Band, Justin Townes Earle, Tift Merritt and Son Volt.
View photos from the Chicago Country Music Festival.