The 2019 Taste of Country packed ‘em in at Sahlen Field on Friday, with a multi-act mini-festival that simultaneously celebrated modern country music’s strengths while highlighting some of the quandaries the form faces.
Mostly, though, it was nothing but a big ol’ party, with five country artists providing the soundtrack, Budweiser providing the liquid courage, and Sahlen’s providing the American summer-style dinner.
About 26,000 fans helped the country radio WYRK FM-sponsored Taste of Country fest turn 20 this year, and they were given what turned out to be pretty much perfect outdoor concert weather – a little cool and a touch breezy, but no rain – in which to do so.
Gates at the Buffalo Bisons home field opened at 4 p.m., and by then, the downtown area surrounding the park was already packed with fans in gig-appropriate country music attire partying hard in parking lots and getting into the spirit of the event.
Rising country star Jillian Eliza hit the stage promptly at 5:30 with a short but well-received set, and then it was off to the races with the elder statesman of this year’s TOC, Joe Diffie.
The Oklahoma-born Diffie is 60 now, and he had a tough time with the upper reaches of his sturdy country melodies during his set, but with the help of a band of seasoned vets – among them Buffalo-born drummer Michael Grando, who received a warm welcome home from the crowd after Diffie’s introduction – he turned in a satisfying performance laced with many of the 13 country No. 1 hits he’s amassed since breaking through to broad acclaim in 1990.
The depth of Diffie’s influence on the current crop of country-rockers was noted when Diffie mentioned the Jason Aldean hit “1994” which is essentially an ode to Diffie, one that name-checks him and cites several of his songs in its lyrics, all in an ode to a bygone era – a sort of look back on the soundtrack of youth not unlike, say, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.”
Diffie was whimsical but clearly honored as he discussed the song and the influence he’d had on Aldean and others. “I guess that means I got old,” he laughed. “And that’s good.” Diffie and the band then played their own version of the song.
Diffie later did a spot-on impersonation of Willie Nelson that I’m not sure too many people caught, which underscored the fact that country music has perhaps lost touch with some of its roots. Diffie and his band’s performance would prove to be the only one on the bill that truly traded in old-school country tropes. The rest of the lineup was largely indistinguishable from a modern rock or pop show – think Bon Jovi with a cowboy hat and plentiful references to pickup trucks and “drankin’.”
Lee Brice was next up, and by the time he hit the stage, I noticed that the general admission area on the field was becoming more densely populated by the minute, and that the sea of partiers in light-up cowboy hats was having trouble embracing the concept of personal space that I was raised to consider good manners.
So I moved back, but still had plenty of opportunity to take in Brice and band’s fiery performance, which blended Southern rock and pop ballad forms and thrilled the assembled with a pair of tunes that seemed to serve as their own personal anthems – “Parking Lot Party” and “Drinking Class,” both treated as opportunities for raucous sing-alongs.
Brett Eldredge was next, and it was clear that a good portion of the crowd was there primarily for his set, which went the furthest in embracing contemporary country’s love for formulaic pop-based structures.
Eldredge, like every other performer on the bill, was backed by a killer crew of musicians who happily moved from power-ballad forms to an energetic cover of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” as well as Eldredge hits like the party anthem “Lose My Mind,” and the mid-tempo “Somethin’ I’m Good At.” By this point, Sahlen Field had been virtually transformed into a full-on production, a la one of Darien Lake’s Country Megaticket extravaganzas.
Headliner Luke Combs – at 29, the youngest artist on the bill – proved Eldredge was in some ways a warm-up act, for the crowd erupted from the moment he took the stage, despite the fact that they’d been hitting it pretty hard for hours by that point.
Tunes like “She Got the Best of Me,” a country radio No. 1, “When it Rains it Pours” (thankfully, it did neither) and “Beer Never Broke My Heart” (lol!) thrilled the crowd, while also underscoring the fact that modern country has become depressingly formulaic, even when it’s well-played and energetic. It’s not at all a stretch to lean on the old cliche, “It all sounds the same.”
But what do I know? Twenty-six-thousand fans can’t all be wrong.
Taste of Country with Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice, Luke Combs and more
June 14 at Sahlen Field