Back in the early '80s, Brian O'Connell was a teenager in Rolling Meadows who lived for the February day when the Tribune ran the summer schedule for Poplar Creek. He'd plan his summers around those concerts, because music was his everything. And now that he's running country-music touring for concert promoter Live Nation, it still is. So putting together shows such as Saturday's Country Throwdown is right where he wants to be.
"Everyone I knew wanted to be rock star, or a Cub, but I knew I couldn't be either," he laughed. So he took a job DJing for the Ritz in Macomb, Ill., then moved on to booking bands at the Western Illinois University student union. But it was when he says the music world was "on the verge of Garth (Brooks)," that he found a niche in country. After getting married (in the Wrigley Field Stadium Club), he went head-first into the concert business, and eventually landed in Nashville in 2000. He's been behind the biggest country shows ever since. Even Saturday's headliner, Eddie Montgomery, from Montgomery Gentry, knows how hard O'Connell has thrown himself into the music.
"You can be in country music because it's a business or because of a passion," says Montgomery. "Brian's in it for the passion. I reckon he'll always be right in the middle of it," he said. "I love that man."
Nine solid hours of live music is nice, but sometimes you need to grab a beer and a hot dog. This band-by-band breakdown of the throwdown will help you find the best times to stay put and to sneak away.
Jack Ingram: Take Texas music, give it some Nashville polish, and you have Ingram's handful of radio hits. His live show isn't quite as spectacular as his records, though, so no rush getting to your seat for this opener.
Little Big Town: Fans of four-part vocal harmonies will love this country band, makers of hits such as "Boondocks" and "Bring It On Home," but if you like getting carried away by the power of a front man, this may not be the band that moves you.
Jamey Johnson: Johnson's bringing country back, in that outlaw way that he does better than most, but that doesn't always get played on the radio. All the more reason not to miss his never-the-same-show-twice act, especially songs such as "High Cost of Living" and "In Color."
Montgomery Gentry: Since it debuted in 1999, this headlining duo has never strayed as much as an inch away from Southern-rock style. The pair's concerts showcase that killer sound all the way from 2001's "She Couldn't Change Me" to 2008's "Roll With Me."
Emily West: She can go from songbird to song-belter during the same tune. She has very good dynamic range for such a young talent. Knock-out pretty, too.
Heidi Newfield: Proving guys are not the only ones with gritty vocals, Newfield has a sound with a rocker's edge, but tunes such as the heartfelt "Johnny and June" keep her songwriting just country enough.
Jonathan Singleton & the Grove: Bluesy voice and solid songwriting that is less straight-up country and more on the soulful side of things.
Ryan Bingham: Former bull-riding rodeo cowboy turned Oscar-winning singer-songwriter (for "The Weary Kind" theme song from the film "Crazy Heart") will do more than pique your interest. It will get you hook, line and sinker.
The Lost Trailers: A band poised to revel in mainstream country success if there weren't so many other bands vying for the same thing.
Eric Church: Gravel in his voice and a devout following that treats him like some kind of deity make Church a must-see.
Eli Young Band: On-the-way Texas foursome that alone is worth the traffic headaches, parking struggles and long restroom lines. Best bet of the side stages acts, by far.
Where: First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 South Ridgeland Ave., Tinley Park
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Price: $21-$41; 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com