The Fourth of July was a perfect day for a concert, at least in Varysburg.
The sky was a deep blue dotted with fluffy wisps of clouds, the temperature an ideal 70-ish degrees around 6 p.m. The lack of rain had kept the campgrounds and venue entrance clear and mud-free, and the food trucks, beer tents and vendors provided all you could want in terms of refreshments.
The Jam in the Valley music was good, too, especially openers Sean Patrick McGraw and LoCash Cowboys. Headliner Hank Williams Jr. brought his signature style, instrumental talents and distinctive country/blues growl, but there were two things missing: full versions of his songs and a fun concert atmosphere.
Things were looking up when Williams started things off with “Country State of Mind” and “Keep the Change,” then launched into the former Monday Night Football theme “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” He showcased his prowess on one instrument after the other, from guitar to piano to some amazing, old-school fiddling. “La Grange” had people on their feet, but he only played it for a minute or so. “Kaw Liga” and “Outlaw Women” were also played, but their slow-moving melodies didn’t do much for the crowd.
Hope that some of Williams’ more popular fare would get the airtime it deserved again surfaced when he broke out into “Tear in My Beer,” the quintessential country ballad originally recorded by his father. But he turned it into a medley – after a few bars, he transitioned into “Good Ol Boys” by Waylon Jennings and then “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. He played “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” and “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” but again, not all the way through, and not with any real energy or spark.
Williams then hit notes of ZZ Top and sampled Merle Haggard and Aerosmith, which finally got the crowd on its feet and dancing. But as my father, a longtime Hank Jr. fan, said, “If I wanted to hear ZZ Top, I would have gone to their concert.” Ending it all was the most bawdy, give ’er hell song in his repertoire, “Family Traditions.” Though it was an obvious crowd favorite and spurred quite the sing-along, it was too little too late, as far as a good atmosphere goes. With that, the show ended.
Perhaps in a more intimate venue, a less traditional performance would have been appropriate. But in front of thousands at a three-day outdoor concert, Williams should have brought the goods – and good time – he’s known for. He failed to greet the crowd or acknowledge the region in any way, and he also didn’t connect the show to the Independence Day holiday being celebrated – it was a missed opportunity to connect with the audience, which streamed steadily toward the doors throughout the show.
The two openers seemed to know their crowd much better than Williams did. Dunkirk native Sean Patrick McGraw played a 45-minute set full of country favorites and a few of his own songs. A strong, classic voice propelled him through selections like “Summer Country Kind of Night,” which he personalized with a funny reference to the Buffalo area, as well as “I’m That Guy.”
Following him was Nashville duo LoCash Cowboys, comprising Chris Lucas and Preston Brust. Clad as they were in backward baseball caps, scarves and sleeveless denim vests, these guys looked more punk rock than country, but they proved they could do a little bit of both. They covered Keith Urban’s “You Gonna Fly” and Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah,” both of which they co-wrote. The latter, especially, had people up out of their seats and ready for more.
The rest of their set was an unexpected but thoroughly entertaining mix of everything from Cee Lo Green to Def Leppard to Motley Crue. They ended with the upbeat “I Love This Life,” an appreciation of simple, small-town pleasures that was a perfect match to the holiday weekend-minded revelers in the audience.