The sheer variety of cowboy hats out there is astounding. There are hats with glitter, with rhinestones, with flashing LED lights and with feathers gracing their bands. There are pink hats, straw hats, Confederate flag hats and even some hats made out of beer boxes.
All those and many more were on display in Buffalo Friday night as 25,000 country music fans from all over Western New York – a record-breaking number of people gathered for a one-day event in Buffalo, according to WYRK’s Clay Moden – flocked to Coca-Cola Field to take in the 2013 Taste of Country.
The biggest draw of Taste of Country is just how many performances you get for the ticket price. Although former Hootie and the Blowfish front man/current country sweetheart Darius Rucker shared top billing with pop-rock-country queen Sheryl Crow, Rucker was the unquestioned star of this show. Newcomer Jana Kramer, the group Gloriana and crowd favorite Rodney Atkins rounded out the package.
As a glorious bonus to the diverse and impressive lineup, the breezy 70-degree evening melted into a cool and comfortable night, a welcome contrast to last year’s rain- and wind-soaked spectacle.
Kramer was a delight, clearly ecstatic to be there. Though much of the crowd was still waiting in line for admission outside and filtering into the park, that didn’t stop 2013’s ACM Top New Female Artist from charging through a brief and energetic set that included her chart-topping single, “Why Ya Wanna.”
Next up was Gloriana, a band that makes good use of the complementary sounds of its trio of lead vocalists, Rachel Reinert and upstate New York natives and brothers Tom and Mike Gossin. Their half-hour performance included their first hit, “Wild at Heart,” and their most recent and first platinum-selling song, “Kissed You Goodnight.” Though Reinert’s voice seemed overpowered and was hard to hear in a few songs, the crowd shouted and clapped its approval after every song. The group ended with a fun cover of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.”
Following a between-sets intermission in which one overjoyed member of the audience won a Ford F-150 pickup truck, the good ol’ boy charm that is Rodney Atkins took the stage. His songs are the stuff of classic, honky-tonk country sound, and the audience roared for more. He fired through some of his most popular hits, including “Farmer’s Daughter,” “These are My People” and the lighthearted “Cleaning This Gun.”
He also included some of the older favorites that rocketed him to country music stardom, such as “If You’re Going Through Hell” and the adorable “Watching You,” which both amassed widespread sing-alongs in the audience. All the while, Atkins looked like he was having a blast, and the crowd returned that enthusiasm right back.
Next up was Sheryl Crow, who was solid, if not spectacular. Although her set was enjoyable and her voice as youthful and strong as ever, her performance felt a little out of place sandwiched between all of the traditional country sound the other acts embody. The genre-defying singer-songwriter looked comfortable onstage, offering the crowd a smorgasbord of her most well-known work, including “Easy,” “Favorite Mistake” and “Real Gone,” which was featured on the sound track of the animated movie “Cars.” She finally got the crowd response she was looking for with “First Cut is the Deepest” and brought Gloriana back on to accompany her in “Strong Enough.” Crow ended with “If It Makes You Happy” and “Soak Up the Sun,” the latter of which provided a fitting, summery conclusion to her set.
And then – the moment the crowd had been waiting for the entire night. The stage background turned bright blue, with a fluorescent green lifeline, like that on a heart monitor, pulsing across it. As the seconds ticked by, the line’s pulse grew louder, stronger and more frequent, and the crowd’s buzz of anticipation grew with it. And as the band made their way onstage and Rucker picked up his microphone and launched into “Heartbreak Road,” the crowd – as they say – went wild.
Rucker, clad in a simple red T-shirt and a camouflage baseball cap, looked simply delighted to be in front of his Buffalo fans. He didn’t give them a chance to slow down, continuing right into his hits “Alright” and “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and then into a surprising but immensely well-received cover of “Space Cowboy” by the Steve Miller Band. He slowed it down just a bit with the cleverly written “Come Back Song” and a thoughtful, soulful performance of “It Won’t Be Like This for Long,” which he dedicated to the victims of the recent Oklahoma tornado.
He took a shot onstage for “country radio, for giving me a new life,” while the crowd cheered him on. Rucker then offered the audience some of his Hootie and the Blowfish hits to great applause before bringing the rest of the evening’s lineup back onstage for a rousing rendition of the rowdy Hank Williams, Jr. classic, “Family Traditions.” The call back onstage was obviously unexpected for the other acts, but they looked like they were having a ball.
Rucker ended with his immensely popular cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” which sent the crowd into a sing-along so enthusiastic that it almost overpowered the band. It was a perfect end to what, for a country fan, was one heck of a night.