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Country Throwdown realizes hits and misses

Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, Irvine, Cal., June 19, 2010

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

Alabama once sang that if you want to play in Texas, you've got to have a fiddle in the band. One wonders how the first annual Country Throwdown festival might have gone over in the Dallas-land because not one single performer on this multi-performer bill sported a fiddler.

However, this particular country show traveling show is also the brainchild of Kevin Lyman, who also gave the world the mainly-punk Warped Tour, so there's likely more rock and roll than country in that man's promotional blood.

As with any day-long show, there was both good and bad music to be had. Although Montgomery Gentry headlined the event with their populist, albeit many times simplistic, country-rock anthems, Jamey Johnson stood head and shoulders above the pack. Acting the part of a mountain man poet, Johnson mixed his own fine songs, such as In Color and High Cost of Living, with one excellent set-closing cover, Give It Away.

Johnson nearly sabotaged his own victory, however, by bringing on a series of special guests, which included Little Big Town and Heidi Newfield, to perform. But his deep honky tonk voice and smart lyrics were factors too strong to ever be defeated by any misguided altruism. Granted, it's great to see how much admiration others have for Johnson. But with that much talent, it's more than just okay to be a little selfish with the stage time.

The big surprise of the day was Little Big Town. On radio, this quartet sometimes comes off a little too slick and formulaic. But the way it hit those intricate vocal harmonies live, on fine songs like Little White Church, was a wonder to behold. Fine singing was as equally applied to pain (Wounded), as pride Boondocks, which made it impossible to walk away from this performance unimpressed.

Eric Church hit the stage to a soundtrack of AC/DC and then naturally rocked like his classic rock heroes, while all the while still praising Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. And isn't that the sort of guy we want for our budding alt.-country stars?

Although Waylon didn't rock quite this hard, Church nevertheless captures the true spirit of outlaw rock. It is this spirit that sets Church apart from a pretender like Jason Aldean, who knows how to make it loud, yet somehow completely misses the heart of the matter. Songs like Hell On The Heart are as smart as they are true to life. As Steve Earle taught us many years ago, it's alright to get noisy so long as there's also verifiable substance.

Once upon a time, Jack Ingram was on his way to rivaling Steve Earle as the alt.-country everyman. But his gabby set, which celebrated country music chart positions more than actual songs, was a huge disappointment.

Early in the afternoon, both (the soon-to-be defunct) Lost Trailers and Eli Young Band played music for folks to find their seats by, but gave little reason to get excited about said music.

In between main stage acts, trios of songwriters performed acoustically while the roadies did their job. Both Sarah Buxton and Jedd Hughes sounded great, even though they only got one tune each. These same performers also played at a makeshift Bluebird Café earlier in the day. There was also a side stage, which sported performances by both Emily West and Newfield. Although Newfield got a main stage shot during Johnson's set, this recent Stagecoach main stage performer really should have had her own slot along with the big boys and girls.

It was disappointing to see such a small crowd, with both the terrace and lawn sections sparsely populated at best. But after a few tour dates had previously been completely cancelled along the way, it was good to at least have this promising mobile festival come to this town south of Bakersfield.