There were a couple of unofficial mascots at FarmBorough 2015 who threatened to steal the spotlight from country’s brightest headliners: the dude waving a giant American flag throughout the entire festival who gave Mel Gibson in The Patriot a run for his money, the guy who basically wound up crushing a beer can with his bare hands and took an impromptu Natty Light shower in an attempt to out-shotgun Dierks Bentley during an onstage challenge, the grade-school girl who knew every single damn word to Luke Bryan’s set and watched from her dad’s shoulders, etc. That said, the talent at FarmBorough shined, even though Mother Nature did her best to dampen the brim of the various Stetsons parading across the main stage. From the moment Ruthie Collins made her home state proud to the flaming finish of Bryan’s set, here are our favorite live-music moments from FarmBorough 2015.
Bentley’s been big on FarmBorough since day one, having helped organizers announce the event at a press conference earlier this year and continuously singing the praises of Live Nation and the country festival model itself to the press. His enthusiasm was evident from the start, jumping between hits like “Sideways,” “Am I the Only One,” and “5-1-5-0” and slowing things down with “Tip It on Back.” Tipping it on back himself, Bentley’s set solidified him as the artist you most want to have a beer with — or, er, spill your beer with — as the performance included challenging that fan to the shotgun competition, and the banter he shared with his captive audience held that playful tone throughout the night. He got in on the cover-song action with Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” shared the wide range of venues his beat-up guitar had seen for “I Hold On,” and even bragged on his bluegrass background by showing off the dobro in his band. By the time he launched into goofy hit “Drunk on a Plane” to close the show, it was hard not to be sold on Bentley’s boisterousness.
If only everyone could look as cool, calm, and collected while singing about cosmic turtles, rocking New Balance sneakers your grandpa would covet, and having more fun than the festival’s population at large. Simpson — one of 2014’s most celebrated country champions, a Pazz + Jop applauded singer/songwriter for last year’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and an overall badass on the twang appreciation front — soared through his high notes with ease and made a dreary festival tent feel as intimate as a packed nightclub. The torrential downpours of Saturday did indeed work in his favor, as Simpson’s stage offered up the only dry square footage in all of Randalls Island Park that afternoon, but he poked fun at it by double-checking with the crowd that they were there, in fact, to hear him and his band play, and not just seeking shelter from the rain. Simpson’s band was easily the most superlatively able at FarmBorough, with guitarist Laur Joamets and keyboardist Jeff Crow peeling off solos with aplomb.
Nashville by way of Fredonia, New York’s Ruthie Collins had a small crowd for her set closing out the Next From Nashville stage — she was, after all, dueling for attention with radio chart-climbers Dustin Moore and Randy Houser at various times. But those who skipped out on the 26-year-old’s performance missed a set that sampled from the best of traditional country and bluegrass as well as the more contemporary. Collins’s playful energy onstage with her band, coupled with her technical skill on the banjo, made for a refreshing run through tracks like “Vintage,” from last year’s debut self-titled EP. She joked with the crowd about “Get Drunk and Cry” (“This was not my best moment!”) before launching into her most popular track, a cover of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” While the album version of the song samples Williams himself, Collins had her bandmate perform the sampled vocals while her own performance grew more powerful with every measure of the song. Rounding out the set with a Nineties country medley, Collins’s renditions of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” and Jo Dee Messina’s “Lesson in Leavin’?” proved that she’s as practiced in pop country as she is in the classics. She revealed herself as one to watch, whether the masses of FarmBorough chose to do so or not.
While Lynch has a few hits under his belt — “Cowboys and Angels” and “Where It’s At,” along with the more recent “Hell of a Night” — his set predominantly was a study in country classics as he jumped from cover to cover. He got his Diffie on with “John Deere Green,” channeled Diamond Rio with “Meet in the Middle,” and even got folks dancing with Drake’s “Just Hold On, We’re Going Home.” From the way he bounded around the big stage, it was clear he had as much fun as anybody at the festival, and the heavier instrumentals his band provided lent a refreshing rock edge to the performance that made both its covers and originals all the more distinctive.
Two words (that have nothing to do with Elvis Presley, we swear): Rhinestone Hips. Dwight Yoakam has been covering that flow with a cowboy hat and crooning his heart out since 1986’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., and his live show is just as honed as one would expect from a guy who simply can’t stop peddling his nearly three decades of hits around. Yoakam just released his first record in three years, Second Hand Heart, and he and his drum-tight band didn’t make a single out-of-sync step or strum as they strutted and swaggered down various cuts from a record fans had been clamoring for.
Despite the influx of cover songs that peppered the sets at FarmBorough, one that probably should have happened was “Footloose,” because Kip Moore somehow blends the best parts of Ren McCormack and Willard together into one surly, sweet package. Moore — who’s set to release his sophomore full-length, Wild Ones, on August 21 — is the definition of laid-back country cool, a dude who doesn’t really give a shit that he forgot to shave before playing to thousands of people. Besides his all-too-perfect cover of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” tracks from Wild Ones went over beautifully with the crowd, with “I’m to Blame” standing out as a particular highlight.
For someone so new to the scene — despite having been signed to Capitol Records since 2011, she just released her first single to radio earlier this year — Mickey Guyton has played her share of massive stages, hitting dozens of big venues this summer on the road with headliner Brad Paisley. It shows. Peppering her set with several covers, including Patty Loveless’s “Blame It on Your Heart,” she charmed the rain-dampened crowd with sweet, airy banter and tracks like “Why Baby Why” from this year’s self-titled EP. She closed out her set with “Better Than You Left Me,” her debut single, and while the studio recording is impressive on its own, it still leaves you wholly unprepared for the power of Guyton’s vocals. The length and clarity of her high notes and the emotion conveyed in her tone on the song, written by Guyton about a bad breakup, is enough to hypnotize and level the listener all at once.
Stapleton has been flying under the radar with Music Row writing credits for years, penning hits for many arena-packing country champs, including tracks for all three of FarmBorough’s headliners. Stapleton — who sold out his Mercury Lounge show the last time he was in town and stunned with a set on the day of solo debut Traveller‘s release — and his wife, Morgane, stunned the Next From Nashville stage with their hush-a-room harmonies and emotional warmth. While FarmBorough was a lighthearted affair for the majority of the weekend, Stapleton’s intensity and depth were an appreciated anchor, and his set was one that drove home just how beautiful a straightforward, pedal-steel-loving ballad can sound.
If the masses braving a torrential downpour for Saturday night’s headlining set weren’t Paisley fans before, it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t leave converted. Paisley’s vocals were spot-on, and with a catalog like his — he’s had eighteen No. 1 singles — it’s hard to hit a dull moment, but it was his willingness to engage with the crowd despite the weather that made this set a memorable one. “What’s crazy to me is I have to be here,” he said at one point. “You guys don’t. Thank you.” Thanks to the weather, “Riverbank” and “Water” were particularly spirited numbers, while “Ticks” and “American Saturday Night” had folks line-dancing in the mud. Despite the fact that there was a full-service bar onstage, he had no problem slowing things down, and ballads like “Perfect Storm” and “She’s Everything” showed off Paisley’s vocal prowess. He ended early, skipping a couple of verses in set closer “Alcohol,” but after the way he played through the storm (and what the fans had weathered throughout the day), wrapping up felt like a favor rather than a slight, saving fans the inevitable FOMO and allowing them to retreat to safety and warmth fully satisfied.
Bryan’s always been about party-hard, good-time spring break tunes — this is a man whose breakthrough album is entitled Tailgates and Tanlines, after all — and his live show is certainly loyal to the booze that built him. Kicking things off with current single “Kick the Dust Up” and crooning his way through numbers like “All My Friends Say” and “Roller Coaster,” he brought tour openers Dustin Lynch and Randy Houser out for a shot of tequila and an impressive rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” It was one of several covers Bryan pulled out over the course of the set, including Alabama’s “Mountain Music” and bits of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” sprinkled in to his own songs. “Crash My Party” and “Do I” provided the slower pace for fans to really belt it out, but few moments elicited as heavy a response as “This Is How We Roll,” a song he released to epic success as a collaboration with Florida Georgia Line. He closed with “I Don’t Want This Night to End” before reappearing for an encore with “That’s My Kind of Night” and “Country Girl (Shake It for Me).” Was it an all-out performance? Absolutely. Sure, the pier that magically materialized for “Drink a Beer” and the “jacked-up truck” that rose from the ground for the encore bordered on silliness, but if we’re ever going to turn this country radio salad into more of a caprese, someone’s going to have to provide the cheese, right?