11 acts, 4 hours, 1 big party: The 2016 iHeartCountry Festival

There may have been 11 country music acts on the bill at the third annual iHeartCountry Festival at the Erwin Center Saturday night, but it was clear from the get-go that the show belonged to Miranda Lambert.

Miranda Lambert performs at the 2016 iHeartCountry Fest Saturday, April 30 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. (Suzanne Cordeiro/Austin Amrican-Statesman)
Miranda Lambert performs at the 2016 iHeartCountry Fest Saturday, April 30 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. (Suzanne Cordeiro/Austin American-Statesman)

The seven-time Academy of Country Music Female Vocalist of the Year winner’s name was on the lips of every performer at the four-and-a-half hour marathon set. In between each act, interviews with each performer played on the Erwin Center’s dual screens. Whenever Lambert’s face popped up or another performer mentioned her name, the near-capacity crowd went nuts.

Lambert was also the only female headliner in a lineup full of men. The anticipation was palpable from the beginning, when host Bobby Bones quipped, “For once, the men will be satisfied after the women,” much to the chagrin of co-host Brooklyn Decker.

Native Texan Lambert took the stage at 11 p.m. with “Fastest Girl In Town” and didn’t let up for the next 30 minutes. Her set was the most energetic of the night, mixing uptempo hits old and new. “Baggage Claim,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon,” “White Liar” (which also saw the night’s only use of a steel guitar) and “Gunpowder and Lead” made the clear point that Lambert answers to nobody but herself and does not suffer fools. Judging by the fan reaction, that was exactly what they came to see. By the final bridge of “Gunpowder,” the whole arena was singing along with “His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”

Before Lambert performed, though, fans were treated to a lineup of today’s biggest country stars.

See photos of the event here.

Bro-country harbingers Florida Georgia Line promptly got the night started at 7 p.m. with a pyrotechnics show during “This Is How We Roll,” their 2012 ode to drifting through the countryside while listening to “a little Hank, little Drake” on the radio. Their five-song set consisted mostly of songs they’ve performed at iHeartCountry before, like “Cruise” and “(That’s How We Do It) Round Here.” When the duo took a break from singing about partyin’, they played their new single “H.O.L.Y.,” a piano-driven ballad attempting to mix the carnal with the divine. They even got the audience involved with light-up bracelets during the song.

As an opening act, they got the crowd sufficiently excited. Say what you will about the value of their songs or about bro country in general, but Tyler Hubbard and Bryan Kelley know how to command a stage. There might not be much substance to their songs, but they showed a lot of style Saturday night.

Speaking of style, the biggest crowd moment besides Lambert or Florida Georgia Line belonged to Zac Brown Band. The eight-piece group is well-known for genre-busting, and their set reflected that mentality, crossing from country to reggae to EDM. But their biggest moment came from performing a song that wasn’t even theirs. Once the opening sermon to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” started, the whole arena started jumping. It was the most energetic the crowd would be until Lambert started playing.

Moving through genres was a theme for the night, as there was a significant absence of twang from this year’s lineup. Most artists focused on singing rather than playing, with the exception of Keith Urban. His five-song set consisted mostly of all-new songs from his upcoming album “Ripcord.” He displayed his guitar virtuosity by playing both bass and six-string on the nostalgic “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

Many of the other acts followed a familiar pattern: sing about girls, partying and drinking, and reference Austin as much as possible. This is a party, after all. The winner for the Austin reference prize goes to Thomas Rhett, for sneaking the city’s name into the end of his No. 1 hit “Die A Happy Man,” much to the audience’s delight: “If the last show I ever got to play is this one right here in Austin, I would die a happy man.” Rhett was also the most successful at blending traditional country with the genre’s more current trends. Right after the tenderness of “Die A Happy Man,” he took off into the crowd for the “Low Rider”-sampling “Vacation.”

The casual observer would be forgiven for feeling like the rest of the night’s acts blended together. The show also featured Lee Brice, Chris Young, Brett Eldredge, Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell and host Bobby Bones’ band The Raging Idiots, one right after the other on a rotating stage. Other than Young and Brice, there wasn’t much distinction between the middle part of the show.

Young’s new single “Think of You” with Cassadee Pope is currently at No. 3 on the country charts, on its way to No. 1, and after seeing it performed live, it’s clear to see why. The powerhouse combination of Young’s deep baritone and Pope’s soaring vocals together on a breakup ballad is one of the better duets on country radio today.

Brice, on the other hand, showed off his new duet with Jerrod Niemann, the summer-ready “A Little More Love.” The energetic pairing came midway through Brice’s set, giving a jolt to the audience members who weren’t expecting any more guests.

Swindell, Hunt and Eldredge manned the stage admirably, but by the time they performed it felt like they were just being place holders until Urban and Lambert came out to play. Eleven acts is a lot to get through in four hours. The show could have done without Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, as they were the most unnecessary of the entire lineup. They were also the only group to play both iHeartCountry Fest and the show’s earlier Daytime Village show.

All in all, the marathon set was an accurate representation of country radio today: little female representation, lots of style over substance, lots of songs about drinking and partying and a lot of real good times. But, just like country radio, if you’re willing to listen through the whole marathon, you’ll find a few gems. Next year’s show, if there is one (and I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be), should be interesting.

The show was streamed live through AT&T and will be broadcast on the AT&T Audience Network on May 13 at 9 p.m. EST. Check out the top five moments from the show here.


The 5 best moments of the 2016 iHeartCountry Fest

The third annual iHeartCountry Fest just finished at the Frank Erwin Center, but the show’s 11 acts will surely have fans talking for a while. Whether it was the opening pyrotechnics of Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert’s closing set or Zac Brown Band’s blistering musicianship, there was something for everyone at this year’s show.

Miranda Lambert arrives at the iHeartCountry Fest red carpet at the Frank Erwin Center Sarutday, April 30.
Miranda Lambert arrives at the iHeartCountry Fest red carpet at the Frank Erwin Center Sarutday, April 30. (Jake Harris/Austin American-Statesman)

Below are the top 5 moments from Saturday night. Be sure to look for a full review online tomorrow.

5. Florida Georgia Line makes the audience pay attention

Say what you want about the value of their songs or about bro country in general; this border-crossing, genre-bending duo knows how to put on a show. For their first song, “This Is How We Roll,” they brought out the pyrotechnics. Two songs later, the iHeartCountry fest veterans revealed why they had planted a white light-up wristband in every seat for fans to wear. During their new single “H.O.L.Y.,” (an acronym for “High On Loving You”) the wristbands lit up, forgoing the need for cell phone lights or, y’know, actual lighters.

The crowd ate it up, and the band used the gimmick during their set closer, their first No. 1 “Cruise.” If the audience wasn’t paying attention at first, they were by the end of the set.

4. Cassadee Pope joins Chris Young onstage for “Think of You”

When former “The Voice” winner Cassadee Pope stepped on to the red carpet Saturday, the biggest question on every reporter’s mind was: Will she sing “Think of You” with Chris Young tonight? The reporters (and fans, to rapturous applause) got their answer three-fourths of the way into Young’s set, when Pope walked on stage. The ensuing duet showcased both singers’ powerhouse vocals. No wonder it’s on its way to the top of the country charts.

3. Keith Urban shows off his guitar skills

It’s no secret Keith Urban is a great guitarist. Of the current crop of mainstream country artists, there aren’t many solo acts who are better at playing the instrument, except for Brad Paisley. Urban put his skills on display during “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” starting off slapping the bass and then switching to a six-string guitar halfway through the song.

He ended the song with a blistering guitar solo, naturally.

2. Zac Brown Band pays homage to Prince

On a night where most of the sets consisted of a lot of new songs and little looking back (Merle Haggard didn’t even get a mention), Zac Brown Band energized the crowd with a rousing rendition of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” The crowd lost it at the first “Dearly beloved…” and didn’t calm down until the final guitar solo was over.

Of course, ZBB isn’t the first country group to perform a Prince tune in the wake of his death. Many have done so in the past week, but this performance felt more like a celebration than a mourning. And it wouldn’t have fit coming from any other band— the tune felt right at home in ZBB’s hands.

1. Miranda Lambert shows the crowd what she’s made of

When she entered the media room for the red carpet Saturday night, Lambert refused to answer any questions from the media, probably because many of those questions would have revolved around ex-husband Blake Shelton’s new relationship with his former “The Voice” co-host Gwen Stefani. After watching Lambert perform, the reason for her silence became apparent. She let her setlist do the talking for her.

Blaring through hits old and new, Lambert played the following songs: “Fastest Girl in Town,” “Baggage Claim,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon,” “White Liar” (which also saw the night’s only use of a steel guitar) and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Miranda Lambert answers to nobody but herself, and she made that abundantly clear on stage.

Judging by audience reaction, Lambert was the biggest draw for this year’s iHeartCountry ticket. Her specific brand of badassery is fun to watch, and she looked like the performer who had the most fun Saturday night.  She left the audience in good spirits as the arena’s near-sellout crowd made the mass exodus onto Red River Street.

A lot more than just those five moments happened Saturday night. Be sure to check back later for a full review of the show.

Ariana Grande puts on fast-paced, all-in show at Erwin Center

Ariana Grande opens her show at Erwin Center Tuesday night. Suzanne Cordeiro/for American-Statesman
Ariana Grande opens her show at Erwin Center Tuesday night. Suzanne Cordeiro photos/for American-Statesman

Ariana Grande came into the Erwin Center ready to put on a high-energy show that didn’t hold back. She started with a video talking about the show she wanted to give, which lead to a countdown to the start of the show. The crowd of mostly preteen/teen girls and their moms went wild. Then she appeared, rising out of the stage to a screaming crowd singing the hit she shared with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj “Bang, Bang.”

» See more photos from Ariana Grande’s show

There were fireworks, there were well-muscled male dancers. It was a spectacle of dance, music and pyrotechnics.

Throughout the night, Grande and her dancers constantly appeared and reappeared in what could have been described as a giant game of Whack-A-Mole or Hide-and-Go-Seek. Her fans loved the surprises. For “Best Mistake,” she appeared on a giant cloud. For “Right There,” she arrived on a chandelier that dropped her down onto the stage and rose back up. For “My Everything,” she in a black dress sat on a white piano with a pianist, all of which rose from beneath the stage. For “Love Me Harder,” she stood on a platform above the stage. She created a night club scene, a haunted romantic castle and more.

Ariana Grande perfromed in concert at the Frank Erwin Center as part of 'The Honeymoon Tour'
Ariana Grande performed in concert at the Frank Erwin Center as part of “The Honeymoon Tour.”

The former Nickelodeon star was out to prove that she was all grown up and could mount a large stage show. And she did, through 19 songs including an encore. The crowd sang and screamed along with her. They also became part of the show.

Grande, who is known for wearing headbands of cat ears, had light up cat ears for sale for $40 a pop. Buy them, download an app and scan in a code, and your headband and the headbands of the girls around you would change colors in rhythm to the music. About a half-hour before the show started, a video played of Grande explaining that she wanted to involve the audience and that they should all go out and get the ears before the show.

This created an uncomfortable moment during which parents had to decide if they would get back in the merchandise line and shell out another $40 or if they would leave their kids feeling not part of the show. It ended up being a pretty cool effect visually, but $40 is a lot to ask parents to shell out when they already paid for tickets to be part of the show.

Grande is known for two things musically: singing runs in the upper register of the human voice and dance music that includes large rap sections.

She provided both, but, even the young 12-year-old fan that I brought was disappointed by the music quality of the show. Instead of bringing on a live rapper to rap the songs, Grande relied on videos of the raps. She hit the upper register often, but at the expense of singing the songs. She relied too heavily on her backing track instead of performing the songs.

While this was a grown-up show visually, especially in her costume and dancing, for Grande to really prove that she has staying power the likes of icons Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, she’s got to ditch the backing track, hire a full band and backup singers to fill in the gaps of the songs when she wants to run vocal riffs.

Slower songs like “Tattoo Heart,” in which is was just her singing without the spectacle, proved that she has a voice. It’s a voice she needs to protect to avoid the thin, strained sound that happened from time to time from overuse.

Still fans could not get enough of her energy, her staged modesty, and flirtations in every wink, kiss blown and tilt of  the head. They were with her from “Bang, Bang” to the encore “Problems” and every “The Way,” “Break Free,” and “Love Me Harder” in between.

Prince Royce performed with Ariana Grande at the Frank Erwin Center
Prince Royce performed with Ariana Grande at the Erwin Center.

The night started with Latin music sensation Prince Royce, who is supporting his English-language album “Double Vision” and the single “Back It Up,” which features Pitbull. Royce didn’t act like he was the opening act. He gyrated around his four female dancers, who were pleasantly not stick-thin. He brought on a young fan to sing to her “Lucky One.” We worried she might pass out right there.

He took multiple opportunities to show off his sculpted abs and arms, explaining that Texas is so hot, he just had to take off his jacket, then his shirt. His fans, of which there were many in the audience, ate it up. He has that star quality as well as the voice to back it up, but the voice, like Grande’s, gets lost in the spectacle. It was a high-energy prelude to what would be the tempo for the rest of the night.

Super fan 12-year-old Zoey Gordon contributed to this review.






Review: Sam Smith tears curtains down and blows the roof off the Erwin Center

What I want to know is where to get giant curtains with the outline of my face on them. When Sam Smith — Grammy winner, platinum-record-haver, mainstream soul revivalist — first spoke from behind such flamboyant drapery at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday night, the audience response came as an ear-splitting scream of catharsis. Then, the curtain came down, and the noise really started.

A few bars into “Life Support,” the unlikeliness of the whole evening struck. For one thing, a babyfaced 23-year-old everyman packed the Erwin Center for a show that at times veered into smooth jazz territory. For another thing, a gay man sang love songs about men and recounted brazenly queer experiences in that same almost-full Texas arena, where throngs usually squeeze in for Longhorns basketball games.

8/15/2015 Sam Smith performs in concert at the Frank Erwin Center.
Sam Smith performs in concert at the Frank Erwin Center. (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/American-Statesman)

Every single person — well-coiffed moms; black, white and Hispanic families; jumping teenage girls; gay men, women and teenagers; an adorable father-daughter pair compulsively dancing in the general admission section on the floor — sang and swayed and shouted. Underestimate the unifying power of radio-friendly ballads at your peril.

For his part in selling those arena tickets, Smith cashed every check his big-voiced reputation has ever written, gushing with appreciation and emotional clarity. On “Leave Your Lover,” the first big hit of the night, Smith’s falsetto was a crystalline mortar shell, the power of lines like “Leave your lover/leave him for me” hitting the stands like a blanket of diamonds at gale force. Smith’s technical ability has never been in question. His songwriting and connection to those big notes, however, has. When Smith sang a scornful kiss-off like “I’m Not the Only One” or a longing come-on like “Lay Me Down,” it was not sexy, really. It was gutsy, it was candid, it was vulnerable. But unlike his forebears in soul, it was not babymaking music, as they say.

Smith emphasized often over the course of evening the honesty, personal vulnerability and diaristic nature of his debut album, “In the Lonely Hour.” With repeated assessment of pre-“Hour” music as sub-par, Smith obviously found personal and artistic liberation in recording. That was most apparent in “I’ve Told You Now,” a somber tale of drunk dials gone wrong. The scorching “Nirvana” was a good thesis for Smith’s oeuvre, too: pure feeling on rafter-shaking blast, coming out of a face that wore every insecurity contained in the lyrics.

Though the rafters certainly shook Saturday night, Smith didn’t. Almost a year ago, he brought his stationary soulfulness to ACL Fest, and the uneasy, stagebound shuffling was apparent. Time did not loosen Smith’s boots: a stiffness to “Like I Can” (despite a blistering drum solo) gave way on “Restart” to the same weird, shoehorned-in electric slide tutorial he brought to Zilker Park in 2014. We wouldn’t ask “Crazy”-era Britney for vocal coaching, Sam, and we won’t ask you to teach us how to death drop.

(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman)
(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman)

In a show where weepy ballads were the meat, the flashy, pop-minded potatoes came at the right time toward the end. A roaring cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own” turned into a medley as Smith give his backup singers the stage for their own rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The star took backup duties. “La La La” provided the arena with its most kinetic moment of the night; if Smith is taking career advice, it would be nice to circle back on the next album to the house-inspired electro-pop that made him famous in the first place. The last number before the encore, “Money On My Mind,” broke into CeCe Peniston’s triumphant “Finally,” the welcome return of a trick Smith pulled out at ACL Fest.

The encore’s reliably lush acoustic version of “Latch” caused couples across the arena to latch onto each other. A unifying “Stay With Me” closed the evening out with the kind of kumbaya sweetness that only a bonafide radio juggernaut can. However, the most memorable moment of the night, for this writer’s money, came halfway through the set. Smith, fresh off of that Winehouse cover, explained that the inspiration for his debut album was his unrequited love for a person he had fallen head over heels for. When the singer mentioned that that person was a man, a teenage boy next to me threw his arms up and cheered.

Smith’s show tore down curtains of all kinds, and that’s worth a cheer from a single voice or from an entire arena.

Fleetwood Mac brings it all back at the Erwin Center

Fleetwood Mac at the Erwin Center, March 1, 2015. / Photo by Arnold Wells for American-Statesman
Fleetwood Mac at the Erwin Center, March 1, 2015. / Photo by Arnold Wells for the American-Statesman

“You tend not to honor or respect or trust nostalgia,” Fleetwood Mac’s fellow 1970s Southern California traveler Jackson Browne said last week on the radio program “World Cafe.” “To indulge yourself in just enjoying the music you really loved 30 or 40 years ago only, to limit yourself to that, is to sort of suffer a kind of death. But this guy I met in Italy said, ‘You’ve got this wrong: The most beneficial thing you can do is to go listen to the music that you were listening to when you were first deciding what kind of life you would have, when you were first passing barriers. It’s like a bond, to be connected to that part of your life in which all things were possible and you were really moving out into your life.’”

A sold-out crowd on Sunday night at the Erwin Center clearly shared that sentiment. Though the audience members ranged from teens to retirees, the majority were fans who first bonded with Fleetwood Mac’s music through “Rumours,” the 1977 classic that eventually sold 40 million copies and remains the band’s touchstone. Indeed, 10 of the 24 songs in Sunday’s set came from the “Rumours” album.

That included all of the first four songs: The bone-rattling, bass-driven “The Chain,” which allowed the anchoring rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood to shine; the radio hit “You Make Loving Fun,” which put the spotlight on keyboardist-singer Christine McVie recent return to the band after a 16-year absence; “Dreams,” the Stevie Nicks signature vocal that topped the charts in June 1977; and “Second Hand News,” the irrepressible “Rumours” opening track that epitomizes the livewire kinetic energy guitarist-singer Lindsey Buckingham brings to the band.

Fleetwood Mac at the Erwin Center, March 1, 2015. / Photo by Arnold Wells for the American-Statesman
Fleetwood Mac at the Erwin Center, March 1, 2015. / Photo by Arnold Wells for the American-Statesman

There’s perhaps less nostalgia in “Tusk,” the 1979 follow-up that wasn’t as hit-filled but took more chances, as a three-song passage shortly after the “Rumours”-dominated opening demonstrated. Stage lighting and back-screen images changed dramatically as Buckingham led the launch into “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” followed by the anthemic “Tusk” title track and the dark, mystical “Sisters of the Moon.” It was a brilliant turn toward one of the most fascinating passages of the band’s career.

Buckingham dipped into 1987’s “Tango in the Night” to open a mid-set acoustic section, giving “Big Love” a fresh and illuminating solo treatment on a classical guitar. Nicks then joined him for a transcendent duo rendition of “Landslide,” the song that directly validated Browne’s reflection on how music reconnects you to a pivotal time and place in the greater arc of life.

Indeed, if you first heard the song as a youth in the 1970s, there was no escaping the full-circle emotions that hung in the air as Nicks reached the line, “Even children get older/ And I’m getting older too.” And when she asked, “Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? / Can I handle the seasons of my life?” — those four seasons transposed into four decades, and the understanding that we all managed to handle them in our own way.

“Landslide” was hard to top, but Buckingham did so with “Never Going Back Again,” the show’s surprise highlight and the last number of the acoustic portion. As one of the deeper album cuts on “Rumours,” it carries a little less nostalgic resonance, in part because it’s all about not looking back: “Been down one time/ Been down two times/ Never going back again.”

The last stretch of the main set found the band losing a little bit of steam. Though the McVie-penned cuts “Over My Head” and “Little Lies” were welcome reminders of her return to form, Nicks’ drama-dripping “Gold Dust Woman” and Buckingham’s solo-heavy “I’m So Afraid” felt like indulgences.

The defining rocker “Go Your Own Way” refocused the band as the main set ended, leading into a thoroughly delightful four-song encore that began with “World Turning,” in which Fleetwood took a deserved but thankfully not indulgent drum solo (with Buckingham seated at stage left taking it all in).

Everyone sang along on “Don’t Stop,” the song that became a presidential campaign theme in 1992 and helped plant the seeds for the initial 1997 reunion of the band. “Silver Springs,” the exquisite “lost” track from “Rumours,” followed before stagehands wheeled out a baby grand piano so that McVie could close the show just as she had done at the Erwin Center in 1982, the last time she’d appeared with the band here.

“And the songbirds keep singing, like they know the score,” she sang out on the final chorus of “Songbird,” which floated into the Erwin Center’s rafters as Fleetwood Mac reached another swan song. Nicks and Fleetwood each took a moment to thank the crowd at the very end, but with more tour dates coming up and a new record in the works, something Buckingham had said earlier carried the greatest promise: “At this particular moment, with the return of the beautiful Christine, we begin a poetic, profound and prolific new chapter in the story of this band.”

Fleetwood Mac to play Erwin Center March 1

Fleetwood Mac / Courtesy of the Erwin Center

Classic rock band Fleetwood Mac is coming to the Erwin Center March 1 as part of 28 new dates added to its current “On With the Show” tour, the band announced Thursday morning during a live performance on NBC’s “The Today Show.”

All five members of the band that recorded the landmark 1970s album “Rumours” are on board. Christine McVie, back in the fold after a 16-year absence, rejoins Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.

The Erwin Center played host to a momentous performance by that lineup three decades ago. The group closed out what was at that time the quintet’s final tour on Oct. 31, 1982. Subsequent tours involved replacement members, though all five rejoined again for a stretch in the ’90s before this latest tour.

Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 20, through TexasBoxOffice.com, by phone at 512-477-6060 and 800-982-2386, and via the livenation.com mobile app. Early sales are open to American Express card members Oct. 13-19.

Check out interview and performance clips from the band’s Thursday morning appearance on “The Today Show.”