Kacey Musgraves and her luminous band performing for Red, White and Boom last night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.
We still have all of the fall and a hefty chunk of winter to go in 2016, but the year’s defining country concert moment may well have revealed itself last night as the Red, White and Boom Festival began its weekend-long run at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. It came when Kacey Musgraves, flanked by a stage filled with neon cacti and band members with literal suits of lights, eased into a version of “Crazy” that turned the familiar tune into an uneasy, cowgirl lament colored by harmonica and the star-of-the-moment’s subdued but eerily arresting vocals.
But hold your horses, buckaroos. We’re not talking about that Patsy Cline hit. No, this was the 2006 Gnarls Barkley single of the same name, a soul-brewed confession that Musgraves turned into what could only be described as a whole other kind of crazy.
Not country enough for country, you say? Please. Musgraves shelled out country cunning by the barrelful last night. It’s just that much of it was beautifully askew. Want songs of domestic togetherness? There was the Musgraves original “Family is Family,” a dinner plate full of in-house dysfunction. Want back porch philosophy? There was “Biscuits,” a kitchen table answer to existentialism (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”). Want honest-to-goodness country music curve balls? Then you should have heard how a declaration of independence like “Step Off” melted into the light summery reggae strut of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” There was also the set closing cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” that was initially delivered like an elegant country death threat before blowing up into a hullabaloo. Naturally, Musgraves’ own boots lit up for the occasion. They were even brighter than her band members’ suits.
Eric Church during his headlining set for Red, White and Boom.
Headliner Eric Church kept the party going with a differently festive intent. In what he claimed was his final concert of 2016 (don’t worry, he has already announced a major 2017 trek starting in January where he will be one of the first arena-level country acts to tour without an opening act), the singer and songsmith went very electric. His set boasted a huge sound that ran from metal-esque thunder and precision to anthemic, heartland inspired rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly enough, Church’s songs retained a pronounced country element, whether it was through the Rolling Stones-style honky tonk drive of “Drink in My Hand,” the way his band coated the country picking of “Cold One” in iron-coated riffs or the folkish deflation that dominated the storytelling singing of “Give Me Back My Hometown.”
But Church was also in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on an initial visit to Red, White and Boom a decade ago before launching into the title tune of his debut “Sinners Like Me” album. Similarly, he sifted through a grab bag of oldies at the onset of the show (“The Outsiders,” “Country Music Jesus,” “How ‘Bout You” and the aforementioned “Sinners Like Me”) before setting into the sparse, country-folk tinged title tune to 2015’s “Mr. Misunderstood.”
The whole repertoire – new tunes, old tunes, fiercely rocking electric fare and more elemental country works – were performed with ample gusto and, more importantly, a relaxed sense of joy. It was the work statement of a star artist luxuriating more than ever in the artistic freedom his music has accorded him.
The program began with late afternoon/early evening sets from Cam and Maren Morris, which meant three of the bill’s four featured acts were women. Take that, bro country. But both performances seemed incomplete. Morris came across as an astute song stylist, but an often unremarkable singer who really didn’t show much by way of dynamics or range until “Once” and “Second Wind” cracked the set open.
Cam, formerly the West Coast folk-pop artist Camaron Ochs, was the exact opposite – an artist with a commanding vocal presence but a largely shopworn selection of songs that didn’t really stray from formulaic and at times pandering country-pop (one tune, “Fireball Whiskey,” encouraged the audience to “be your drunken self”) until “Burning House” meshed in more streamlined country sentiments to close the set.