The high, concrete underbelly of Interstate 190 in downtown Buffalo was a festive pre-concert scene on Saturday night before the 18th Annual WYRK Taste of Country. There were the usual things: beer pong matches and their subsequent sticky spills, grilling, and singalongs to car stereos – loud country songs that soon would be heard live.
There was also the tall guy in nothing but his plaid boxers, cowboy boots and sunglasses. "I lost a bet," he said, forced into his role as greeter of passersby. On Washington Street there were two women wishing everyone "Country cheer!" and shaking hands.
Toyota trucks and cars (event underwriters), and the ECMC mobile mammogram unit were stationed on the sidewalk outside Coca-Cola Field as the crowd streamed by. Inside, vendors sold $20 LED light-up cowboy hats, proceeds benefiting the ECMC Foundation. After dusk these glowing hats resembled throngs of stationary fireflies.
Among songs on the pre-concert recorded playlist and blasting through the stadium p.a. was Maddie & Tae's "Girl in a Country Song." Watching several enthusiastic ladies singing along to the ultra-catchy tune, a question hung in the air: Where were the girls on the all-boy country lineup?
WYRK staffers took the stage noting that Taste of Country began as a fan appreciation night, growing into what it is now: 25,000 revelers at a big yard party. As is tradition, the show begins with the national anthem, this year sung by Gionna Mariano of Pendleton, who won a contest for the honor, accompanied by signer/interpreter Brianna Messana of West Seneca.
Eric Van Houten and band performed first. Van Houten, also of West Seneca, began with "Locked and Loaded." His seven-song set was full of rock guitar blasts and WYRK shout-outs – to Wendy Lynn specifically, the station's "brand manager and afternoon drive time" jock.
"Are you guys feeling good?" Van Houten asked. "I would not be on this stage if not for WYRK. I've been coming to Taste of Country for 10 years and now I'm onstage! It's insane," he shouted midway through his set.
Talking to him backstage a few minutes after he'd tossed his last pick and bolted down a loading ramp, he said of his first Taste of Country appearance, "I tried to do what I could, it was humbling. It was 100 percent amazing. I'm heading back to Nashville, but I'll be back here for Wingfest and then for Jam in the Valley."
About Van Houten, Wendy Lynn says: "He's a real artist. I first approached him at one of his local shows and said 'Here's what I would do, I'm not the Holy Grail, but I would move to Nashville.' And he took my advice." Van Houten stayed backstage, enjoying the show and greeting friends and fans during Michael Ray's set.
Ray hit the stage in a Buffalo Bills cap, also praising Lynn and WYRK for "the sold-out country party on a Saturday night." He mentioned that he'd made some new friends and then he brought eight Buffalo Bills onstage, all singing, taking some photos, and smiling widely. During "Get to You." Ray handed his mic to Bills' center Eric Wood, who did a stellar turn as lead singer.
Good ol' party boy Randy Houser ripped up the stage in front of the now-100 percent capacity crowd, crazed for his "How Country Feels," and then into the Trace Adkins cover "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." Supersonic sets by both Justin Moore and Rascal Flatts blasted the big ol' yard party into the country stratosphere.