Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
he one thing that could be controlled over the three-day Windy City LakeShake country music festival was the weather. With thunder, lighting and rain in the skies on Saturday night, Brad Paisley was forced to cancel that night.
But Saturday's loss was Sunday's gain because he ended closing the inaugural fest with a set that was also by far the most traditional country sounding music of the day. That's no surprise when your "competition" is previously scheduled headliner Florida Georgia Line, plus RaeLynn, Frankie Ballard, Thomas Rhett and Randy Houser.
Indicative how far today's country has strayed from its roots, the first time a pedal steel was played was not until about 7 p.m., four hours after the event started on Sunday with Houser. Sunday's sounds were guitar heavy and big sounding in general.
Hit laden though all may be, Houser comes the closest to going for a country side As for the others...don't think so.
So it was the delayed headliner who made the case for country as we knew it. No surprise there. Like the others, Paisley was all about the guitar - his own (and he trotted out a bunch of them) - but, by and large, he didn't opt out for rock sounds. Instead, he focused on technique and often twangy, lighting quick runs. He was and is among the creme de la creme of country guitarists without overdoing it.
Having a chockfull of songs - some serious, some humorous - doesn't hurt either starting with the catchy "River Bank" and "Water." Paisley seemed to have the water thing going, later playing "Beat This Summer" and "Perfect Storm" back to back.
Paisley often utilized fiddle as well as pedal steel, and they weren't window dressing either.
He also paid homage to Chicago in several ways. He turned in a decent cover of Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and incorporated the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Black Hawks into his lyrics ("Sweet Home Chicago") and video. A number of other acts, including Florida Georgia Line and Rhett, commented on the Hawks or quickly doffed a jersey to apparently align with the local crowd in an easy way to get applause.
Paisley relied a bit to heavy on acts participating in the show by virtual video as Alabama ("Old Alabama") and Carrie Underwood ("Remind Me') participated.
With a lot of songs to choose from, 90 minutes of Paisley seemed to shortchange the artist. But give Paisley a lot of credit for coming through a day late, but far from a dollar for your money's worth short of quality.
Florida Georgia Line provided the good times and the connection with rap in their set, starting with the the hip hopping "Every Night" where Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were bouncing their way through the song. They, like many performers, took advantage of a center stage that reached out into the audience for greater intimacy. Everyone took advantage of it with good reason.
Hubbard proved to be more the focal point of FGL vocally and in comments. Kelley is actually the better singer, though Hubbard more than held his own. "Dirt," the most different FGL song, proved to be worthy.
With a summer night to entertain the crowd, FGL had no trouble doing that. Whether they are making songs for the ages with songs like "Sippin' On Fire," their recent chart topper, or their megahit, "Cruise," is highly debatable, but there do entertain.
Randy Houser skirts the line between rock and country. One could easily argue that he learned his musical chops at the School of Hank, Hank Jr. that is. Houser came out rocking
with his first big hit "Boots On."
Ballard made a case of himself as a hot sounding serious rocker. The heavily tattooed scorched on lead guitar and an energetic set that spoke to the youthful crowd.
While "Helluva Life, a song about the life of a musician on which Ballard declared, "the song is important to me," suffered from a bit too much of a bottom heavy sound, he had the crowd singing. And while others paid homage to various pop acts, Ballard brought it home with "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," song from fellow Michigander Bob Seger.
Ballard made a good case for himself.
Rhett has enjoyed a chunk of hits, which are of the soulful side. He's a good singer with songs that tend to fill the same musical turf. He is not a forceful personality, but seems to be growing into the role of hit-laden singer. That's a good place to be.
RaeLynn was the only female on the main stage and once again showed her sassy side. She's growing as a performer with decent songs. She has a hit, of course, with her set closer "God Made Girls,' but she is the type of singer, given a good stage presence and obviously appealing to those of the same sex, who seems like it shouldn't be the last.
While the main stage had the big acts, the Next From Nashville stage indicated by name that it may have hosted the Next Big Thing.
Well, that ain't necessarily so. Kelsea Ballerini was, by far, the biggest name, and she closed out the smaller stage with the largest crowd that any of the acts by probably about five-fold. It helps to have a hit single - "Love Me Like You Mean It" - on your hands at the exact same time you are playing LakeShake.
Ballerini's style was in keeping with most of the other acts on the bill - they are far more pop stylists than country. Ballerini was buoyant since she just found out this very day that her single went to number one, so she was singing with an extra bit of glee.
She threw in a few covers, one of Little Big Town's megahit "Girl Crush," which she sang okay, but added nothing to the original. And in underscoring her leanings, Ballerini did a medley of songs including Britney Spear's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "Bye Bye Bye" by 'N Sync.
As for other acts on the side stage, they seemed to fight a losing battle with the mix because vocals often tended to be buried. And Logan Mize, who has a new EP out on Sony Nashville, had to fight with Rhett unfortunately. the sound from Rhett's set carried over so much that he could easily be heard throughout Mize's good set, highlighted by the closing "Can't Get Away From a Good Thing,"
Cam is a perky Californian whose seems to be pushing the fashion aspect of her presentation with bright clothing and hot yellow high heels. Seth Alley opened with a muddied set and songs that didn't grab. Courtney Cole, a New Orleans-based singer, didn't have the best vocal outing.
With so many acts each day, chances are there was something for everyone. It was just for the country traditionalists, they had to wait a long time on Sunday, but Paisley came through.