TWIN LAKES, Wis. -- It's hard to say what the Country Thunder crowds loved more: Big & Rich's explosive pyrotechnics show or Keith Urban's show-must-go-on work ethic throughout a heavy thunderstorm.
The two headliners kicked off the first two nights of the country music festival that runs through Saturday (July 22). The festival is a mecca for country fans from all over the Midwest, including the whole Chicagoland area. It's a very casual event, where you can grab a funnel cake and a beer before listening to arena-worthy artists on a gorgeous summer night.
On Wednesday night (July 19), Urban hit the stage and immediately took off running down the 75-foot catwalk, playing "Days Go By" when he arrived at the end of the walkway. He kept all 30,000 fans' eyes on him, not on the threatening skies. Still, he joked that they were crazy for coming out to a festival like this one. Yet he was the one who kept singing and playing even as it started to rain.
It rained so hard during Urban's set that water was pouring off his guitar. He got through "Where the Blacktop Ends," "Raining on Sunday" and "You Look Good in My Shirt." By then, it was pouring so hard, he couldn't help launching into Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain." He didn't talk much about his recent marriage to actress Nicole Kidman, although he laughed out loud during "You're My Better Half" when he sang the line, "They say behind every man is a good woman/But I think that's a lie."
But before Urban took the stage, LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert warmed up the crowds with their radio hits. Rimes, in her first performance since undergoing minor surgery to treat a leg infection, looked and sounded like the flawless and well-seasoned vocalist she is. She opened with more-pop-than-country sounds on "Something's Gotta Give" and "Big Deal" and then went into a seamless collection of songs that made her famous, like "Blue" and "How Do I Live". But in an out-of-character move, she did a very sultry, bluesy and long-winded take on "Summertime," making the George Gershwin standard sound more Janis Joplin than Patsy Cline. And then she put her own spin on Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." She spent most of her stage time walking up and down the catwalk in short shorts and high-heeled sandals. As for her recent surgery, Rimes said, "I won't go into the gory details. Let's just say I'm feeling a lot better."
American Idol winner Carrie Underwood gave her all in a 15-song set. Wearing the newest look on country catwalks, Underwood's pinstriped short shorts were paired with high black boots and layered gray tanks. She also added skull-and-crossbones bling to show she's not the goody two-shoes fans may think they know. She opened with "We're Young and Beautiful," a song with lyrics about taking advantage of youth and good looks, both of which she has plenty. Her turn on stage gave her the chance to show off some acoustic guitar playing. Seated on a stool, she did more soulful takes on "Don't Forget to Remember Me" and "Inside Your Heaven." And while Underwood admitted she's no Axl Rose, she did do a cover of Guns N' Roses' "Patience." It was her way of stepping out of the country box, she said.
It looks like Miranda Lambert, another reality-show success story, has traded her past for a future as a live performer. The biggest crowd reactions came from hits like "Kerosene" and her current single, "New Strings." Many of Lambert's fans at Country Thunder even planned on following her to New York for Monday's (July 24) performance on Good Morning America.
By Thursday night (July 20), all the rain had gone. But when Big & Rich took the stage, there was fire -- real flames shooting from the floor to the top of the stage ceiling. Other special effects included explosions of light and confetti punctuated their every move. Starting with "Comin' to Your City," and going through favorites such as "Wild West Show" and "Big Time," Big & Rich gave the audience 90 minutes of their cult-like country music. No one even seemed to mind when John Rich called the fans "cheese-eatin', beer-drinkin' country music lovers." Wearing pants handmade for him by his grandma, Rich strutted around every inch of the stage talking about what makes their music so special. "I feel like Miss America," he said. And then he introduced Big Kenny as "my partner in rhyme -- and the universal ambassador of love." Only Big & Rich could create such a contrast: talking about love on a stage that looked like the fiery depths of hell. Big & Rich's segment also included a guest appearance by Cowboy Troy to sing and rap "I Play Chicken With the Train."
Gretchen Wilson had the job of warming up the crowd for Big & Rich. And the fans were ready for her -- screaming, standing and singing along to every word. She did her hits, like "All Jacked Up," "Here for the Party," "Politically Uncorrect" and her new single, "California Girls," and then covered songs from her influences, like Loretta Lynn ("You Ain't Woman Enough") to Heart ("Barracuda"). Wilson even brought a few of her bandmates down in front to play a couple of jazz and bluegrass songs unplugged.
Earlier, the MuzikMafia took a turn on the stage, giving fans a feel for what jam nights were like in Nashville clubs when Wilson and Big & Rich teamed up with their friends to explore new musical vistas. The idea of the MuzikMafia is to bring a family of artists together to make music. And they did. As Wilson has said, "We are together what none of us could be alone." But with no radio airplay, the songs performed by James Otto and others were virtually unknown by the fans at Country Thunder. And while the Mafia is a proven launching pad for country music careers, an outdoor stage at a huge mainstream country-pop festival probably isn't the best place to showcase obscure material.
Starting Thursday's music was a too-short set from Keith Anderson, who sang a slew of his own stuff, like "Pickin' Wildflowers," "XXL" and his current hit, "Every Time I Hear Your Name." But since he's a songwriter, he told fans what happened after he wrote a country music party anthem. He said he got a call that an artist was interested in recording it but wanted to change the lyrics a little. Anderson initially refused. He explained, "Then this guy says, 'Just so you know, it's Garth Brooks.'" He then caved in, and the Garth Brooks-George Jones duet, "Beer Run," was born.
Throughout the festival, there were chances to bid on seats up on the stage and meet-and-greets with the artists. An auctioneer hopped up on stage and sold the passes to willing, and credit-card-ready, fans. The going rates? Two passes to meet Keith Urban went for $4,100. Other winning bids were $1,050 for Big & Rich and $850 for Gretchen Wilson. The money raised will help local children's charities.
The Country Thunder festival continues Friday night with performances by Phil Vassar, Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley. Saturday's lineup includes Tracy Lawrence, Trace Adkins and Travis Tritt.