Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 30, 2014
Nine of the hottest hitmakers in contemporary country music paraded across the Erwin Center stage Saturday night as the iHeartRadio Country Festival made its grand debut in a four-hour show that was streamed live via CMT.com.
With acts ranging from party-rockers Florida Georgia Line to pop-leaning trio Lady Antebellum to youthful sensation Hunter Hayes, the lineup sought to appeal to a broad demographic of mainstream country radio listeners. If the show made no attempt to connect with the left-of-center country with which Austin is most associated – no Willie cameos here – the turnout affirmed that plenty of Austinites prefer their country right down the middle.
Quite a few concertgoers came in from out-of-town or even out-of-state; tickets were given away nationwide on Clear Channel stations. Still, the hollers that arose whenever a performer altered the lyrics of a song to namecheck Austin (as many did throughout the evening) made it clear this was still a heavily hometown audience.
A smart call was leading off with genre-busting hot item Eric Church, whose new disc "The Outsiders" topped both the country and pop charts upon its release last month. It made sure the crowd was all-in from the very start, and Church set a decisive tone. He opened with the new album’s hard-rocking, mission-statement title track and closed with his popular anthem "Springsteen," into which he wove a verse of Bruce’s "I’m on Fire." In keeping with the short-sets structure of the evening, he played just five songs, but he made them count.
Jake Owen followed with less substance but a sound and style that played well in a big venue. The Erwin Center was filled up even in the sections behind the stage; concertgoers in those seats had no view other than on display screens, but just being in the house for the event was apparently enough motivation.
The show’s lone clear weak spot – upstarts Dan + Shay, who proved not quite ready for prime time – followed before Lady Antebellum quickly turned things around, delivering the highest-quality musical performance of the evening. Though some of the more testosterone-fueled acts on the bill have been drawing more attention of late, the trio of of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood proved they’re still quite capable of owning an arena stage, singing first-rate songs with a flair for showmanship that took a back seat to no one on a night when most acts had big-production trump cards to play.
Florida Georgia Line followed with what may have been the most anticipated set of all, judging from the crowd reaction and the duo’s soaring popularity in the past year. Tyler Hubbard and Bryan Kelley command the stage almost to the point of becoming cartoonish, and three of their six numbers were similar in theme: "It’s Just What We Do," "(That’s How We Do It) Round Here" and "This Is How We Roll." The crowd ate it up in the moment, but this act doesn’t yet seem built to last.
Fresh-faced 22-year-old Hunter Hayes got just four songs but deserved more, balancing energetic pop numbers with tender ballads and charming the crowd with a genuine gratitude just for being on the bill. Displaying talent on both guitar and piano, he showcased his No. 1 single "Wanted" and top-5 hit "I Want Crazy," and he was the only artist humble enough to thank the stagehands for their considerable workload in preparing the Erwin Center for a nine-act show. This kid is going places, and fast.
The final three acts may have been the climax for some fans, though they felt like a denouement in some respects. In the context of the whole show, Carrie Underwood stuck out as an oversinger, not an uncommon trait among American Idol winners. That said, the diversity of her songs’ subject matter sparked interesting crowd commentary: Among the Tweets that ran across the bottom of the video screens when she segued from "Jesus Take the Wheel" to "Before He Cheats" was one that read, "Only Carrie Underwood can go from singing about Jesus to destroying someone’s car."
Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan closed the night with a one-two punch that covered the final hour and especially pleased female fans who swooned over their stage moves. Aldean brought Florida Georgia Line back onstage for "The Only Way I Know," a song he had recorded with Bryan and Church. Bryan’s seven-song night-capper was highlighted by a loud-and-clear audience sing-along on "Drink a Beer," a song that’s deeper in sentiment than its title would suggest (addressed at least in part to Bryan’s loss of two siblings).
There’s no word yet from Clear Channel (which runs iHeartRadio) on whether this will be an annual event, whether it will stay in Austin, or whether it will expand beyond an evening concert. A representative said before the show that the company wanted to see how things went this first year before making future plans. Saturday’s event certainly seemed successful enough to warrant another round, at the very least.