Faster Horses fest celebrates USA

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. -- Eric Church brought the first day of Faster Horses to a close Friday night with a tight set that focused on the connection between artist and audience, or the relationship between “melody and memory,” as he explained to the crowd during his set-closer, “Springsteen.”

It was a strong end to the first day of the three-day country music festival, which bills itself as the “Party of the Summer” and does a pretty good job of living up to that billing. 
A crowd of more than 40,000 descended on the grounds of Michigan International Speedway beginning Thursday, setting up camp for a weekend-long celebration of country music, summertime and America.

Wynonna Judd, lead singer of Wynonna & The Big Noise, performs on the Main Stage at Faster Horses.

Fans partied hard in the MIS infield and at campgrounds around the site all day and into the night, playing drinking games, yard games and blasting tunes. The mood was purely festive; as one festivalgoer’s T-shirt put it, “I don’t do political parties, I just do parties.”

At this party, now in its fourth year and wrapping up Sunday night, you couldn’t go more than a few feet without seeing an American flag, whether it was on a T-shirt, tank top, pair of shorts, bikini, socks, hat, beer cooler or inked on someone’s skin. Running a close second was Budweiser and Bud Light apparel, with Detroit Tigers gear coming in a distant third.

America was clearly the star of the show, with fans breaking into spontaneous “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants throughout the day. Country music legend Wynonna Judd brought a fan up on stage during her early evening set, and when given the chance to speak, the fan started a “U-S-A!” chant. It’s just that kind of party.

The festival site grew this year to include a marketplace dedicated to goods and services made in Michigan, and there’s also a new village of vendors that includes places to buy cowboy boots, cowboy hats or other cowboy-themed apparel. There’s a general store that sells necessities like toiletries and beer pong kits, and there’s a place to buy something called a “Pouch Couch,” which is like a rectangle-shaped bean bag chair that forms around you when you lay on it. (They looked pretty spectacular, if difficult to get out of.)

Returning attractions include a ferris wheel, giant waterslide and vertigo swing set, along with a human foosball and beach volleyball areas.

And there’s also a fully stocked lineup of country music, which included artists singing songs about good times and drinking which fans devoured while having good times and drinking. Faster Horses holds a mirror up to itself and loves what it sees.

Rochester native Jana Kramer played to her home state crowd early in the day, getting things revved up by asking the crowd, “Y’all ready to pop some bottles tonight?” Jon Pardi followed, celebrating the fans “out here in the land of the working people” and asking rhetorically, “who likes cold beer in Michigan?”

Wynonna was especially feisty during her early evening set, playing up her veteran status by asking the crowd if they were familiar with artifacts such as jukeboxes and compact discs. She developed a back and forth with a fan in the front row wearing a Jim Harbaugh jersey, jokingly threatening to fight him before smiling everything off by flashing her electric smile.

But she wasn’t done talking smack. She singled out Blake Shelton, who used to open concerts for her “back before he became Mr. L.A.,” and said she’s willing to risk going to jail to fight him. She closed her set by singing a crisp version of “No One Else on Earth,” bringing up a fan on stage and rolling her eyes at the fan’s drunkenness. It was tough to tell if she was being very snarky or just Wynonna, but it was a truly entertaining show. “Did we have fun or what?” Wynonna asked as she left the stage. “And that’s why I come to Michigan.”

If Wynonna was proudly old school, Sam Hunt was assertively new school, opening his set with the instrumental from Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” playing underneath clips from the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights.” At one point in his set he followed a cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (which was mixed with his own “We Are Tonight”) with Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” an example of the wide range of influences from which modern country pulls.

Hunt, who performed inside Faster Horses’ smaller “Next from Nashville” stage two years ago, rivaled headliner Eric Church in terms of crowd response and enthusiasm. But Church was all pro during his 90-minute, 19-song set, which was less about the kind of frivolous party anthems that filled so much of the day and more about soul, power and connection. When his band botched the first verse of “Sinners Like Me,” he merrily chided them on stage before restarting the song. “That’s okay for a lot of bands, but we prefer to play it in the right key,” he said, laughing to his bandmates but exemplifying his commitment to craft.

A slight rain fell during Church’s set but it was not enough to harsh the mood of the crowd, which was still staring down two full days of partying. 
Jason Alden headlines Saturday night and Lady Antebellum closes out the festival on Sunday, and then the countdown begins toward next year’s party of the summer.
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