It was a packed house tonight – and packed grounds, for that matter – to see Jason Aldean and special guests Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett at the Marcus Amphitheater.
And when I say packed, I mean packed. Like sardines. Sweaty, drunken sardines. Lines for the bathroom snaking for yards and yards on every level of the amphitheater. Thick crowds of people bottlenecking as they tried to make their way out. Macho dudes in cowboy hats holding hands, trying not to lose each other on the way to the shuttle bus. Packed.
But it was also the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen at Summerfest yet – this year, and maybe even last year, too. Crowds or no crowds, these folks came to party.
Traffic prevented us from getting to the grounds in time to catch Thomas Rhett, which I really regret. This up-and-coming singer-songwriter’s own singles like "Something To Do With My Hands" are charting well, and he also co-wrote Aldean’s "1994" and Florida Georgia Line’s "Round Here." He’s clearly one to watch. Hopefully he’ll come back to Milwaukee and I’ll get to see him some other time, but I have to assume he gave a rousing performance, since the energy was really high when we did arrive.
I think the crowd at the amphitheater was here just as much to see Jake Owen as to see Jason Aldean, although the latter might be more recognizable mainstream as a crossover artist. Owen is a talented, personable performer (who gets extra points for not looking awkward when he ditches the guitar for a solo – a surprisingly rare thing, actually) and he charmingly inserted copious references to Milwaukee and Wisconsin in the lyrics of his songs.
Also, he knows the whole "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" opening rap, which he cleverly performed in the middle of his summer anthem "Barefoot Blue Jean Night." I almost died of happiness.
Owen started things off with one of his biggest current hits, "Anywhere With You," and moved into the catchy "The One That Got Away."
"You know you’re in Milwaukee when you see guys with two beers in two hands," he quipped, as those in the crowd who were double-fisting howled in approval.
He was able to make the yawning amphitheater space feel surprisingly intimate with his performances of "Alone With You," "Pass a Beer" "Summer Jam" and "Eight Second Ride." But I thought his strongest moments were in performing his first Top Ten country hit "Startin’ With Me" and his 2009 single "Don’t Think I Can’t Love You."
In fact, it’s songs (and performances) like these that I can point to when people ask me why I love country music. Not only are they examples of dynamic songwriting, but they express emotions that are messy, genuine and even a little dark. They have a realness and a depth that I often feel is lacking in even my favorite pop songs.
Aldean brought this same depth to his performance, although he has an edgier vibe than Owen. Aldean isn’t just a crossover star; he is the sound of modern Southern rock. His music has the same folk roots as Owen’s but is laced with a more pronounced layering of drums and guitar. His encore alone featured enough shredding of the electric guitar (and enough strobe lighting) to send you into an epileptic seizure.
Aldean got started with the upbeat "Crazy Town," an ode to Nashville’s aspiring country stars, followed by "Take a Little Ride" and "Tattoos on This Town." His performances of "When She Says Baby" and "Amarillo Sky" were both prime examples of how he marries sentiment and rock overtones. His "Fly Over States" was a big hit, and I have to think that it might be because we Wisconsinites are so used to being called by that name.
In fact, he addressed the love our state has for country music before performing "Nothin’ Town" by talking about his youth in rural Georgia and saying that the two had a lot in common. He waxed poetic on the bonfire parties of his youth (Lord knows we Wisconsinites love ourselves a bonfire) and drinking Milwaukee's Best, or Coors "if we got paid that week."
The highlight of Aldean’s set was "Don’t You Wanna Stay," his 2010 collaboration with Kelly Clarkson. The performance featured a strikingly lifelike hologram of Clarkson (I definitely thought it was her until the screen disappeared, and I don’t think I was alone, either, judging by the enthusiasm of the crowd). Another great moment was when he shared old photographs of himself and his bandmates before performing "1994" (he claims he had the Bieber haircut a decade before J.Biebs, and he’s right).
He finished up with "She’s Country," nicely utilizing the jumbotrons to show video footage of girls describing exactly why they’re "country" – a cute moment that the crowd really enjoyed. And then he shotgunned a beer, gave the rock n’ roll sign and left the stage.
Doesn’t get more country than that.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.