93Q's "A Day In the Country" Feat. Eli Young Band, Easton Corbin, Joe Nichols and Aaron Lewis Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion July 6, 2013
Thirteen thousand pairs of cowboy boots, quite a few itty-bitty shorts, and a bunch of dudes in surfer-cowboy duds lined the rows at the Woodlands Pavilion this past Saturday for 93Q's annual country-music festival, aptly named "A Day in the Country." Given the name of the event and the attire of choice, I was fully expecting a day of fiddles and twangy choruses, but when I walked up to the gates well after the starting time of 2 p.m., it was not good ol' country music I heard blaring from the pavilion, but the '90s alt-rock music of Staind.
That's right, Staind. Aaron Lewis, Staind's former front man and current solo country artist known for such hits as 2011's "Country Boy" (featuring Charlie Daniels, George Jones and Chris Young), was not singing his country tunes at the close of his set, but was instead pulling from Staind's catalog.
It's not that Lewis playing "It's Been Awhile" was a bad thing; I much prefer the Aaron Lewis of his Staind days to this newfound-country-musician thing, but it seemed a little odd (or awesome, depending on your vantage point) to play on a ticket billed as such a purely country event.
That's basically how the day went, though; "A Day in the Country" was a little less country, a little more rock and roll. It kind of became a country-mouse-meets-city-mouse kind of show.
Up next, after an infinitely long break between sets, was Joe Nichols -- or as I like to think of him -- the dude who graced us with the country classic, "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off." Sporting a plain white tee and some skintight jeans, it was easy to see why this alt-country stuff is growing in popularity.
From the moment Nichols took the stage, there was something strangely and utterly likable about this guy. He ran through his catalog -- playing hits like "The More I Lie" -- much to the delight of a crowd all singing along in unison. But it's more than just the music that these fans find interesting about Nichols -- he's got a personality that shines well past the stock tequila-and-antics themes in his music. He's just a really charismatic performer.
That country-star persona was most evident when Nichols and company covered, of all things, Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," done to the tune of, well, some good ol' country music. It was too awesome, not because that song ever needed to be covered by a country musician, but because it was done with major tongue-in-cheek humor.
Nichols prefaced the cover by saying that since everyone else is jumping on this country-rap bandwagon, he might as well throw his hat in the arena. And throw his hat in he did; all the shorty-shorts and cowboy boots jumped up to dance along with the song that should never have been, and it was actually kind of cute. Nichols definitely knows his biggest selling point is his personality, and he uses it well.
Flash forward to Easton Corbin, the next performer to take the stage, right before headliner and partial Tomball natives the Eli Young Band. The lineup choice made no sense to me once Corbin took the stage; his placement next to country giants like Eli Young was just asking for a ragging on the poor kid. He's not ready for the near-headlining spot. If Joe Nichols was the epitome of personality, Easton Corbin was somewhat resemblant of a wet blanket. He tries hard enough, but something doesn't vibe.
All of the songs in his set, which was quite twangy and very much rooted in old-school country, ran together at points, presumably because they are all slower, couples-skate ballads. Even when the tempo was sped up, they still collided against each other, leaving it difficult to tell where one began and the other ended.
After a few Merle Haggard shoutouts and some traditional tunes, Corbin busted out with a cover of Gary Allan's 2007 megahit, "Watching Airplanes." It was a pretty decent cover; and Corbin definitely has the vocal chops to hang with the big boys, but he seems uncomfortable in his own songs, yet surprisingly comfortable in a borrowed ditty.
Strange but welcome; it was finally something to sing along with, but it's probably never a good sign when your most memorable song is someone else's.
One "Chattahoochee" and an annoying Brooks and Dunn cover to close out Corbin's set, and we were on to the show's headliners, Eli Young Band. The crowd was pretty geared up for the near-Houston natives by this point; being out in the sun from about lunchtime on will make the 10 p.m. hour seem quite late, and EYB is more popular than they've ever been at this point. Plenty of "Crazy Girl" shirts dotted the audience, which had grown to a sea cowboy and trucker hats and beer cans by this point.
When EYB took the stage, it wasn't front man and partial namesake Mike Eli who drew my attention -- it was James Young, the uber-charismatic guitarist and other half of the namesake that had all eyes on him. Young, with this crazy mess of hair tucked beneath his newsboy hat, is such an interesting guitar player that it's hard not to be drawn to him immediately. He is all over the stage, rockin' out in a way that only the newer, alt-country musicians can get away with, and it just fits their style so well.
Young was up and down the length of the stage before the group had run through the first half of their opening song, "Always the Love Songs," off 2008 album Jet Black and Jealous. EYB tends to open with this song, and I suppose it makes sense -- it must mean quite a bit to them, seeing as how it was their first Top 20 hit -- plus it's got this sense of being about where the band grew from; the song narrates a time past where a group of friends sang around the bonfire, and how it's always the love songs that they remember.
EYB is kind of that band singalong band; they grew from a group of college friends playing local Denton haunts to headlining a huge pavilion in the nation's fourth largest city, and it must be quite a thought to look back at those small-town memories.
And while onstage, Mike Eli makes it quite clear he still holds close those small town roots. He's the typical country front man, with nods to Tomball and country-boy anecdotes between songs, and it's pretty endearing -- especially when you factor in the fact that his hometown is just a stone's throw from Houston. Every story about the roots of their songs received a roar of approval, especially from the ladies in the crowd.
It was a standout little tale that led the way for the rest of the night; Eli spoke about how they're a band that tends to write "love-hate songs," the kind of song that is about being in love and getting pissed about being screwed over. It was actually kind of funny; they really are that kind of band, and it was refreshing to see them own up to it. It's what has brought them from those college bars to giant venues, and it's what the next song they launched into, "Even If It Breaks Your Heart," was all about.
As they played out the rest of their set -- a rushed version of a headliner spot, thanks to those long breaks between performances -- it was obvious they were quite happy to be that love-hate song band. It's written across the faces of the band members that the songs mean quite a bit to them; even when they performed a cover of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers song, "Learning to Fly," they did so with these huge grins and a ton of energy, so it hardly felt much like a cover. They closed out their set with the songs the audience would expect; it certainly wouldn't be an Eli Young concert without hearing "Crazy Girl" and "Drunk Last Night," two of their bigger radio hits.
The night, overall, was an abundance of that new-school, alt-country music; nothing more, nothing less. It's certainly what one would have expected from the lineup, and most of the acts were solid, even if they weren't quite my speed. I was surprised at the amount of covers I'd seen from the bands throughout the night -- there were at least six in the time that I was there, but perhaps that's what those die-hard country fans were looking for. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll, still done up with some boots and a cowboy hat for good measure.
Personal Bias: I've thus far been an '80s and '90s country fan through and through, and I've been stubborn in my acceptance of the current state of country music, but I think I'm coming around quite nicely at this point. Immersion therapy seems to be working.
The Crowd: Young(ish), lots of tattoos (that was surprising), surfer cowboys, and country girls in short-shorts.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I'm a little more country tonight" -- I suppose that was true, if country meant a Dos Equis and a tank top.
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