July 19, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Crowd-pleaser Tim McGraw closes out day one of Faster Horses

Country music superstar Tim McGraw closed out the first day of Faster Horses with a confident, professional, crowd-pleasing set in front of some 20,000-plus fans on the grounds of Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn Friday night.

Decked out in a Faster Horses T-shirt that later gave way to a red, white and blue tank top, the chiseled veteran delivered a one-hour, 50-minute set full of rockers, ballads and down-home country jams, sing-alongs all. During his set, he brought up two of the day’s earlier main stage performers, Cassadee Pope (during “Diamond Rings and Old Bar Stools”) and Kip Moore (for “It Felt Good on My Lips”), closing his set with his massive anthem “Live Like You Were Dying.”

The performance finished off a spirited Day One at the three-day country music and camping fest, which is growing in its second year. Fans in bathing suits, straw hats and cowboy boots came to party with friends new and old at what many described as a weekend to kick back and leave everything else behind.

At the rear of the crowd during McGraw’s set Friday was Faster Horses founder Brian O’Connell, who was surveying the scene, taking everything in. He wasn’t on a golf cart or stationed at the sound board, he was there, among the fans, watching McGraw, with whom he’s worked for more than 20 years.

O’Connell that day had already been back and forth to Cleveland, where another one of his artists, Jason Aldean, had played a stadium show. But he had to come back to watch McGraw. When McGraw opened his encore with “The Cowboy in Me,” O’Connell beamed, saying it was his favorite McGraw song. At its close, McGraw said from the stage, “that’s for Brian.”

O’Connell’s personal touch can be felt throughout Faster Horses. O’Connell is in charge of country music touring for Live Nation, the concert industry giant, so it’s not like Faster Horses is a mom & pop shop. But it feels like it is, and a relaxed vibe and easygoing atmosphere — free of sponsorship logos or VIP interference — sets the mood at the grounds.

On the site Friday, fans played games of cornhole, Wiffle ball and volleyball while main stage acts such as Moore, Pope and Rochester Hills’ own Jana Kramer – who shouted out her high school and her high school sweetheart from the stage – played in the background. Fans sat in the grass, spread out, on the wide open field in front of the main stage, where Tom Petty was the unexpected winner of the day. Three of the day’s performers took on Petty tunes: Moore did “Learning to Fly,” Pope took on “I Won’t Back Down” and Dan + Shay worked “Free Fallin’” into their set.

At the second stage, dubbed the Next From Nashville stage, fans took in performances from Drake White & the Big Fire (White was as spirited as a rock and roll preacher during the early evening set) and Clare Dunn while seated on bales of hay, not far from a bar decked out in aluminum siding to give it more of a saloon-type feel.

Crowds were so amped up they even partied to the between-acts DJ, and when he hit play on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at the main stage before McGraw went on, it became a huge community moment.

(McGraw did have one flub during his set, saying he was proud to be “at the first year of this festival,” a minor gaffe that was barely a ripple in his set.)

Out in the campgrounds, the atmosphere was that of a four-day college tailgate entering its second day. Country, rock, rap and dance tunes blared from stereo systems as groups of fans played beer pong, danced around campfires and did Jello shots out of novelty syringes. Most campsites had an American flag or some sort of stars and bars representation. Several campsites had stripper poles, one had a karaoke machine. The party raged on well into the night, and as a result Saturday will likely start slow, just as Friday did.

One observation: Aside from snapping the occasional selfie, fans weren’t tied to their phones at Faster Horses. Wandering through the campgrounds, few fans were seen gazing at their screens, checking Twitter for updates. They were giving over to the experience of the weekend and taking it in first hand rather than living it through their screens. Anything they may have missed they can catch up with when they return to the real world on Monday.

Until then, Saturday packs in performances from Darius Rucker, Brett Eldredge, Sam Hunt and more, while Keith Urban will close out the day. Sunday sees Ashley Monroe, Cole Swindell, Little Big Town and more, as well as headliner Miranda Lambert, who O’Connell promises has “something special” in store for her performance. Does that mean a guest star or two? “Maybe six or seven,” O’Connell said Friday night, smiling.

agraham@detroitnews.com
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Tim McGraw and his band performs during the Faster Horses Country Music Festival Friday, July 18, 2014 held at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. / John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News