If you didn’t know it was Taste of Country night in Buffalo on Friday, you only had to get within a six-block radius of Coca-Cola Field before the sea of cowboy hats, oversized belt buckles and serious parking lot pre-gaming clued you in.
The Taste of Country, an annual institution in the Queen City, returned with a 2018 lineup mixed with chart-toppers, rising stars and reality-show winners.
There were two distinct vibes at the Taste. There was before the sun set, when the crowd was split between those who ventured inside to secure a good spot on the field and take in openers Kate Mallen and Danielle Bradbery while some serious tailgating was going on outside of the stadium.
Then there was after the sun set, when the home of the Buffalo Bisons was transformed into the most electric atmosphere you’ll find at a country music show this side of the Mason Dixon Line.
The Taste of Country 2018 had a serious reality-vibe going with both “The Voice” and “American Idol” represented.
Bradbery, who took home the top prize on "The Voice" in 2013, got things started with a quick set featuring new music from her recent album, “I Don’t Believe We’ve Met.” Though the 21-year-old didn’t offer much of a stage presence, the voice that found television success shined trough, particularly on her newest single, “I Can’t Stay Mad at You,” a fun little tune that felt like an autobiographical recount of the pitfalls of dating.
As the shadows crept across the field and the temperature began its gradual descent, Scotty McCreery took the stage to a packed house and quickly reminded everyone why he was the winner of Season 10 of "American Idol."
McCreery was at his best when paying homage to a diverse mix of country music legends, covering a bit of Alan Jackson, Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty. But, as it was on television, it was his "aw shucks" down-home charm that connected with the audience, as McCreery shared stories from his life.
One of the elements that makes the annual country music festival so interesting is the eclectic mix of concertgoers. While the fan base of Thomas Rhett and Chris Janson might swing to the millennial side of the pendulum, one scan of the crowd revealed plenty of seasoned citizens partying hard alongside the sea of 20-somethings.
And, despite the protest from an older couple in the right field corner that there was, “a lot of hanky-panky going on,” the crowd was, by Taste of Country standards, pretty mild.
Though Thomas Rhett was billed as the headliner, it was Chris Janson, the man best-known for penning hits for some of the biggest stars in the business, who stole the show.
Like McCreery, Janson went deep into covers, ranging from sampling Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” to a surprisingly solid offering of Billy Joel’s classic, “Piano Man,” showcasing his skills on the keyboard and harmonica.
Janson’s passion for his craft, his humble love for the career he has, was infectious, from his country covers to his rousing rendition of one of the biggest hits he has written, “Truck Yeah,” for Tim McGraw, Janson couldn’t stop smiling.
When he talked about how incredible the event was, it felt genuine. By the time he left the stage, following a sing-along of his hit, “Buy Me a Boat,” he had the crowd pumped and ready for Rhett.
Though it felt a bit anticlimactic after Janson’s over-the-top-set that saw him showcase his considerable talents on the drums, guitar, keyboard and harmonica, Rhett, in faded jeans and a black satin jacket, took the stage shortly after 10 and gave the crowd what it came for – a set peppered with several of his chart-topping hits delivered with the smooth, seemingly effortless bro-country vibe going on.
Any other night, Rhett belting out his platinum-selling hit “T-Shirt,” or his latest chart-topper, “Unforgettable,” would have been the pinnacle of the night. But, despite a worthy effort, it was Janson’s night to own the stage in Buffalo.
In the end, the 2018 Taste of Buffalo offered a little something for everyone. Though the guitars will soon be replaced with gloves and the bass with bats as baseball returns to Coca-Cola Field, for one evening, Buffalo was a city where country was king.
Taste of Country, featuring Thomas Rhett, Chris Janson, Scotty McCreery and Danielle Bradbery
Friday night at Coca-Cola Field