Live Review: 3nd Annual Local CountryFest

Mychael David at Local CountryFest

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

3rd Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 29, 2019

This popular annual event draws more fans every year while presenting the very best local country music. Organized and promoted, as always, by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, this year’s 3rd Annual Local CountryFest lived up to the high expectations attendees now have of it.

I’ve reviewed this event every year so far (see my reviews of 2017’s 1st annual and 2018’s 2nd annual), and I look forward to next year’s year number four, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This year, Backyard Swagger performed on the Corral Stage as the gates opened. Then the performances moved to the main stage, featuring short sets by Meghan Lynch, Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy, Taylor O’Connor, Tim Buono, and Matt York and full-length, full-band sets by Lyssa Coulter, the Jake Ash Band, Mychael David, the Darren Bessette Band, Annie Brobst, and No Shoes Nation.

Magician Steve Charette at Local CountryFest

Steve Charette; photo by Geoff Wilbur

But first I’d like to talk about the venue. Indian Ranch is very cool. It’s big enough for a big stage show but small enough that every seat feels intimate, definitely compared to most other decent-sized outdoor concert locations. The venue is also home to The Indian Princess, a riverboat that gives tours of the lake, a campground, the very nice Samuel Slater’s Restaurant, and a banquet hall/function facility. Yes, I’ve only ever attended concerts at the amphitheater, but the entire grounds seem well worthy of future visits.

With so many artists performing, I’ll keep each review quick, drop in a band photo, and move on to the next, especially since the posting of this review has been so delayed that I have to lean almost strictly upon my notes. Hopefully it’ll be enough to give you a sense of each band’s performance.

I arrived a little late, but I did catch the last couple of songs of Backyard Swagger’s Corral Stage set. Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy then performed the national anthem on the main stage before yielding the stage to Lyssa Coulter’s full band performance.

And on the grounds, attendees were treated to the magic stylings of Steve Charette, who was as impressive this year as he had been when I first saw him perform during the 1st Annual Local CountryFest.

Backyard Swagger at Local CountryFest

Backyard Swagger; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Backyard Swagger

Before the national anthem, Backyard Swagger kicked off the day’s music with a performance at the Corral Stage as fans filed in. Their fun rendition of “Man I Feel Like a Woman” was being performed as I approached. The group also delivered a lively rendition of “Little White Church” with kick and punch, a version of Maren Morris’ “Rich” sporting a fun, funky rhythm, and a performance of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that showcased Miriam Smith’s blistering fiddlework. Backyard Swagger closed its set with “Any Man of Mine,” a tune ideal for Diane Ferullo’s voice, driven home by the band’s booming rhythm section.

Lyssa Coulter at Local CountryFest

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

After Ayla and Rob delivered “The Star-Spangled Banner” to kick things off on the main stage, the Lyssa Coulter Band launched into its set. Lyssa Coulter has been a mainstay at Local CountryFest, moving up the performer food chain each year. This year, she finally landed a main stage, full-band, full-set performance, and she not only owned the stage this year with her full-band, eight-song, main-stage performance, but she delivered with some serious charisma and vocal talent, leaving no doubt that she’s a bona fide front-line New England country act.

Lyssa kicked things off with “Whiskey in the Twilight,” a tune that showcases her best vocal qualities, those that are most identifiable, a great opening song choice. Lyssa’s sensitive vocal quaver worked well on the heartfelt “Maybe Tonight.” Her “Should’ve Said No” cover was energetic. “By Myself” sported an emotional, moving wail. Indeed, Lyssa’s originals are always the songs best-suited to her voice, as if they’ve been written with her unique strengths in mind.

And, speaking of originals that utilize Lyssa’s vocal skills, she closed the set with “Curisin’,” her summer single. This is one of those upbeat, catchy, teen-movie-friendly numbers. And this one, in particular, has a catchy, playful guitar line. Lyssa has established herself as a marquee local talent in her lane. I really dug this set.

Meghan Lynch at Local CountryFest

Meghan Lynch; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Meghan Lynch

Pop-country singer Meghan Lynch – from Boston but now based in Nashville – followed with an acoustic set. I wish my notes were more detailed, but the short set was fun. She kicked things off with “Wild Guess,” sung with a heartfelt vibe. She followed it with original “My Greatest Mistakes.” Meghan closed her set with an energetic, bubblegum, pop-country, fun number “Party Girl.” The quick four-song set was over too quickly. Here’s hoping Meghan will be back again next year.

The Jake Ash Band at Local CountryFest

The Jake Ash Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Jake Ash Band

I was psyched for this. I’ve been following The Jake Ash Band for a while, and this was my first chance to catch them live. They did not disappoint. They kicked off with “Five Star Dive Bar,” complete with driving guitar, great storytelling, and reminiscing vocals. Catchy, this song sounds like it’ll grow on you. Next up, on “Easy on the Eyes (Hard on the Heart),” I really liked the way the piano line prominently drove this song. My notes even tripled use of this word for this song: catchy, catchy, catchy. “Sweet Babies” had a raucous energy with a great use of vocal pause-and-punch. The band’s October 4th release, “Tequila Season,” followed. Then catchy, hooky, fun, guitar-crunching “Wedding Ring Money.”

After a powerful, edgy, bluesy-rocking country numbers (whose title I didn’t glean), the JAB launched into “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Mountain Music” before closing with original “25 Again,” a powerful song, “on 11” from beginning to end, followed by a frantic close. It’s obvious why it’s a fan favorite, a terrific way to close a set, leaving the crowd buzzing.

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy at Local CountryFest

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ayla Brown and Rob Bellamy

The next acoustic set featured this exceptionally well-matched duo. On set-opener “Always Have a Home,” as throughout the set, Rob’s deep textured voice was complemented by Ayla’s softer, sweeter tone. The “white space” was as musically important as the guitar, at least in this acoustic arrangement. Next up was a cover of A Star is Born‘s “Shallow.” On this powerful ballad, Rob’s rich voice kicked things off, followed by Ayla’s warm, also-rich voice. “Built That Way” was about the purest country song there is, about praying, patriotism, and working hard; it was delivered powerfully and sincerely, as they have the requisite vocal chops for this song to hit home the way it was intended. Ayla and Rob closed their set with “The Honeymoon Phase,” a fun, clever, light-yet-lyrically-interesting, catchy tune.

Mychael David at Local CountryFest

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Mychael David

The marquee old-school country voice of Central Massachusetts for quite some time, a singer with an impressive national pedigree, Mychael David took the stage next for a long set with his full band. Sporting a deep, powerful, timeless country voice and endless talent and surrounded by some of the region’s best musicians, a Mychael David full-band concert event is always a treat.

The band opened with “Even the Man in the Moon is Crying,” followed by “Folsom Prison Blues” – so much axe talent in the band, they totally rocked this! In fact, it’s such a great fit, the band included “Folsom Prison Blues” on Mychael’s most recent album, Heroes & Honkytonks.

Next up was “Smoke and Ash.” As here, Mychael’s old-school, rich country voice can carry a set. Always. Anywhere. But Howie Swett’s wailing riffs put this song over the top.

After a cover of “Country Roads” that nailed that pluckin’ country energy, the band rolled on to “Some Gave All.” This ballad “to veterans and to those who never made it back” is always a misty moment during a Michael David set. This swaying, sad ballad was punctuated by Mychael walking through the crowd shaking as many veterans’ hands as possible. A true, sincere, patriotic mid-set moment.

After uptempo “That Ain’t My Truck,” the band closed its set with “Goodbye is Still Goodbye,” a country rocker driven by an energetic guitar line and subtle hooks, complementing Mychael’s rich vocals.

Taylor O'Connor at Local CountryFest

Taylor O’Connor; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Taylor O’Connor

Taylor O’Connor’s short acoustic set was next. Showcasing serious twang for a Grafton girl, Taylor delivered a solid cover of Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” featuring vocal tempo and pace changes. Next up was “Reset Button,” an original that highlighted Taylor’s nice, tuneful voice. Finally, Taylor’s performance of “Wine Again” impressed; there was a bit of an emotional warble on this song that really delivered the goods.

Darren Bessette Band at Local CountryFest

Darren Bessette Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Darren Bessette Band

The Darren Bessette Band followed, opening with “It’s a Long Way Down,” a song that prompted me to note “rockin’ country, tight band, great vox.” That about sums it up for this crowd-pleasing assemblage of consummate country music pros.

I was particularly impressed by original “Tail Lights,” an old-school country music hall type of song. It sported a steady rhythm, but the guitar line was active, giving the soundbed character to complement Darren’s expressive vocals.

Cover songs ranged from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to Eddie Rabbitt’s “Driving My Life Away,” delivered flawless and timeless. And the set closed with “I Love This Life.” A great set of crowd favorites, showcasing this talented band.

Tim Buono at Local CountryFest

Tim Buono; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tim Buono

Tim Buono’s short set was next. He opened with a laid-back country song (whose title I missed). My favorite song of Tim’s set was his original “Anyway,” with soulful emotion dripping from every syllable – an absolute must-hear! And he closed his set with a cover of Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” again featuring emotional vocals, almost seeming like they the words themselves were about to crack. Whew!

Annie Brobst Band at Local CountryFest

Annie Brobst Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

The Annie Brobst Band was next. As has been the case every time I’ve seen this world-class outfit, they owned the big stage, delivering a big concert performance. They kicked things off with energy via “You Either Love Me Or You Don’t.” Next up: “Still Water,” a song whose dancing rhythm guitar live added character and motion to this catchy, mid-range number. Oh, and the cool vocal bridge added even more character.

After “Change of Heart,” Annie and band went whiskey – original “Whiskey Colors,” a dynamic personal favorite delivered with a catchy use of stop-starts and a funky bass bridge and “Whiskey Glass,” which featured crowd engagement. Then went wine. New original “Red Wine On My Mind” sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, a singalong-able tune that builds to power and even features a little guitar shredding. Well done.

Then, after “Love You More,” Annie delivered “Ghost,” a smooth, rich, full song to close the set.

Matt York at Local CountryFest

Matt York; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Matt York

The last acoustic mini-set of the day belonged to Matt York. He opened with an energetic, fast-strumming, country story-song growler, then a strummer with a deep growl. He closed with a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Fit to Kill and Going Out in Style,” delivered engagingly with that all-knowing, smirky vocal edge. Exceptionally well done.

No Shoes Nation at Local CountryFest

No Shoes Nation; photo by Geoff Wilbur

No Shoes Nation

Local CountryFest closed with a set from No Shoes Nation, the Kenny Chesney tribute band that’s a huge local draw with its tight musicianship and near-flawless delivery of Chesney’s hits.

The band opened with “Reality” and closed with “Beer in Mexico.” Highlights in between included “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” which had the crowd swaying, and “Boston,” an obvious local favorite. Also, my personal favorite Kenny Chesney tune, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” Across a set that spanned more than a dozen songs, No Shoes Nation wrapped up a day of great local country music with an energetic, funny, very true-to-Chesney set.

No Shoes Nation at Local CountryFest

No Shoes Nation; photo by Geoff Wilbur

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Local CountryFest – this concert has quickly become a must-attend annual event on the local music calendar.

Live Review: 2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 23, 2018

The 2nd Annual Local CountryFest, organized and promoted by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, seems to have quickly become an annual pilgrimage for local country music fans. I really enjoyed last year’s inaugural event (as you recall if you saw the review) and had been looking forward to its follow-up. This year, another decent-sized, fully engaged crowd came out to see a line-up that included a significant portion of the area’s top country artists. Decent fall weather served as the backdrop for a show structured with short acoustic performances interspersed between the full sets to keep the audience engaged. Lyssa Coulter performed on the Corral Stage while the crowd was filtering in. Then the performances moved to the main stage, featuring short sets by Liz Bills, Steve Robinson, April Cushman, Lyssa Coulter, Mychael David, and Tom Revane and full sets by Tequila Bonfire, Back Rhodes, Timmy Brown and Black Diamond, Annie Brobst, the Houston Bernard Band, and Scarlett Drive.

Lyssa Coulter at the Corral Stage; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The venue itself is one of the coolest places to catch live music outdoors in central Massachusetts. The big stage at the Indian Ranch campground sees a lot of big-name acts that country music fans (and classic/southern rock fans) would enjoy each summer. At one edge of the concert grounds is a dock where you’ll see The Indian Princess, a riverboat that gives tours of the lake. You know I love unique concert settings, and this is a cool place for a show.

With so many artists involved at Local CountryFest, I’ll write a quick paragraph or two about each band, drop in a photo – I hope I have decent shots of all of them – and move on. I’ll save fuller artist reviews for when I catch their live shows or review their recordings.

I arrived during the last few notes of Lyssa’s Corral Stage set, just in time to join the crowd for Scarlett Drive’s performance of the national anthem to kick things off, quickly grab a cheeseburger, and hear Liz Bills’ opening set on the main stage.

Liz Bills; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Liz Bills

You know we’re big fans of Liz Bills here at the Blog, most recently reviewing Liz’s eponymous EP. Liz’s powerhouse voice lends itself to psychedelic rock, whether hard rocking, as is often the case when she takes the stage with Analog Heart, or a more jangly version, still ’60s/’70s-rooted, in a more acoustic setting. And, while she’s not a pure country artist, I’m glad she was included at this event, as she has become one of the area’s top voices, and her style should appeal to the rocking side of a lot of the area’s country music fans. Liz’s short set showcase both the power of her voice and her range, with the power being represented by “Born to Wander.” She closed her set with one of my favorite songs from her EP, “The Bomb Song,” which is janglier and more airy, showing off the folk-rock edge of Liz’s style. The song selection this afternoon was a great sample of Liz’s singing and performance skills.

Tequila Bonfire; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tequila Bonfire

The first full set of the day came from the 2017 Worcester Music Awards winner (and perennial nominee) for Best Country Act, Tequila Bonfire. I hadn’t seen these guys before, but they lived up to their reputation of providing a rockin’ country good time, kicking things off with “Let the Games Begin,” a song that adds a unique vocal vibe to an otherwise straightforward modern country sound.

Other standout songs of the set were the band’s powerful rendition of “Life is a Highway,” more mid-tempo rockin’ performance of Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key,” and their fun cover of Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You.” Tequila Bonfire has the chops and knows how to engage the crowd on a big stage; I can easily see why they’re a regional favorite, and deservedly so.

Steve Robinson; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Steve Robinson

A late addition to the bill, we were lucky to have Spotify top 100 artist Steve Robinson join the event. I’m not a chart-follower or I would have known to be excited about his inclusion at the event. He has a memorable tone to his voice, and that heartfelt, achy, strong vocal that’s clearly meant to be a radio (and live) favorite. All three of his songs were the sort that kept my attention, but I was particularly impressed with “Little Piece of Me,” for which my notes simply say “dig the sincerity!” Yeah, it’s one of those songs. Steve closed his mini-set with a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Rockstars.”

Back Rhodes; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Back Rhodes

The next band on stage was another whose name I had seen repeatedly but whose shows I hadn’t yet made it out to, so it was a pleasure to catch Rhode Island’s own Back Rhodes. I’d describe their lane on the country music highway as a traditional country music foundation with a modern country twist. Featuring a fiddle and banjo in the line-up and led by deep vocals, Back Rhodes has the tools to pull it off.

They kicked their set off with Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinking” and closed it with a rousing rendition of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” One tune that stood out for me during the set was the band’s new song, “Big Spender.” Featuring an old-school country foundation, the song was full-on new country whenever the band kicked things up a notch. There were subtle little musical hops and kicks, especially late in the song, that are the sorts of details that give a tune a memorable style. With their unique country brand, Back Rhodes is an interesting band to keep an eye on, and clearly already a fun band to see perform.

April Cushman; photo by Geoff Wilbur

April Cushman

The next short set featured the soft, lush vocals of April Cushman. Very warm and easy-to-listen-to, April’s voice and style would be equally well-suited to an intimate listening room or a big stage. The one song I noted, in that it showed the breadth of April’s range, was her rendition of the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Her performance displayed a sort of rolling power in the vocals but remained soft and appropriate for its acoustic guitar accompaniment of this particular performance.

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Timmy Brown and Black Diamond

Though I had heard about Timmy for quite some time, last year’s Local CountryFest was the first time I saw his band live. If possible, and I’m not sure it is, the band is even tighter this year. No one can whip a New England crowd into a frenzy quite like this local boy can, and his performance once again amped up the energy at this year’s concert. Two-time New England Country Male Artist of the Year, Timmy relied on a mix of well-considered covers and hard-driving originals for this set. (Notice what they have in common.) Covers included “Leave This Town” and, notably – I told you he could whip a New England crowd into a frenzy – a terrific rendition of “Sweet Caroline” that really showed off his rich, deep voice.

Timmy’s originals are so familiar-sounding that they often feel like songs I’ve known for a long time, particularly within the context of his set list, which means he’s always playing to his strengths. Timmy’s songs range from the down-home country of “Leave This Town” to the crowd-pleasing party song “How We Drink Here.”  Timmy closed his set with a laid-back, nostalgic-sounding, everyday, relatable, crowd energy-lifting tune, “Lil Bit,” one you’d stylistically expect to hear on country hit radio. It’s always a pleasure to catch a set by Timmy Brown and Black Diamond. They’re a tight musical act, and their performance is a guaranteed good time.

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

Though I missed all but the last 30 seconds of Lyssa’s as-the-crowd-files-in performance at the Corral Stage, I was fortunate she had this three-song spot later in the show. 2018 New Act of the Year award winner at the New England Music Awards, Lyssa’s voice has a characteristic warble when she hits some of the softer notes, and she showed it off particularly well on her originals. Notably, “Whiskey in the Twilight,” a very young-feeling pop-country song that showcased her stylistic calling card. Lyssa’s mini-set also featured a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” the sort of cover that seamlessly fits with her young, light, poppy country music style.

Annie Brobst; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

Nobody. Simply nobody. Owns a stage better than Annie Brobst does. And musically, Annie’s a one-of-a-kind on the local country scene, too, coupling her identifiable, sweetly powerful voice with her big stage presence to deliver a “strong country girl” persona.

As is sometimes the case at fun concerts, moreso lately it seems, I caught myself grooving to Annie’s set rather than taking notes, but I do believe she opened with the first single from her new album, My First Rodeo, “Love You More.” And she followed it with one of my favorites from the disc, a song with softly rolling strength and power, the more-energetic-than-its-tempo “Still Water.” Annie closed her set heartstring-tugging, memorable “Change of Heart,” one of the songs that showcases the rich side of her country voice.

Running the gamut from heartfelt melodies to rockin’ country, an Annie Brobst set, particularly on a big stage, is a concert event.

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Mychael David

After Annie, Mychael David took the stage to perform a couple songs, solo and acoustic. A local country festival wouldn’t have been complete without this rich, classic, timeless voice that has entertained area crowds since before the local country music scene’s recent renaissance, so even though we didn’t get the treat of hearing his full band – I reviewed The Mychael David Project’s full band show a couple years ago – his two-song acoustic mini-set was still a special treat. He’s flanked by an exceptionally impressive guitarist and bass player in his full band (shoutout to Howie and Pete), so you forget how well he wields the axe himself until you catch a solo gig. But once Mychael starts to sing, no matter what, it’s always about his voice. And he brought that with him this past weekend.

Though he can cut across the country landscape – in many ways, in style and sound, a lot like Garth Brooks – Mychael’s music tends to be underpinned by the more classic end of the spectrum, and he skewed a old-school in this set. He opened with “Put Your Badge Back On,” a deeply emotional storytelling song from his new album, Heroes & Honky Tonks. Then, with a nod to the past, he covered Radney Foster’s “Texas in 1880,” one of those wide-open spaces songs. The set was too short, but it reminded me it’s been more than a year since I heard Mychael perform a full set; I’ll need to remedy that ASAP.

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Houston Bernard Band

The Houston Bernard Band delivered a crowd-pleasing set of big-stage-geared songs mostly culled from their new EP Lucky Man. Powered by Houston’s rich, deep voice surrounded by technically-sound, top-shelf musicians, this was a concert set. Houston Bernard is a headlining act in any country music scene, and I was really looking forward to this show, hoping to be treated to some tunes from Lucky Man, as I’ve listened to the previous disc, Knockin’ Boots, hundreds of times already. So let’s take a run through the band’s outstanding set:

“Wait For It” proved to be an energetic show-starter with a subtle hook I guarantee will get stuck in my head as I give the EP a few listens. “Lucky Man” followed, powered by heavy organ and featuring a cool steel guitar vibe. Next up was “Country Crowd,” a sure-fire, dancefloor-filling crowdpleaser from Knockin’ Boots. “What a Man Should Do” was a soaring crooner, a nice change of pace. “Never Grow Old” combined a comfortable familiarity with a sneaky hookiness. And “We Made Out,” a catchy mid-tempo number, was a great choice for the band’s current single.

Tom Revane Live; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tom Revane Live

You can’t hold a show in Webster without Tom Revane on the bill. A raucous, loud mix of southern/classic rock-meets-parrothead, a Tom Revane set is a guaranteed party event. Unlike most of the short sets, Tom and band performed in full band mode and kept the audience in an entertainment frenzy.

The short set list included “Gimme Three Steps,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and “Margaritaville.” The frenzied crowd loved every minute of it. And a not-exactly-country but very entertaining Webster troubadours secured their place in the annals of yet another Local CountryFest.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Scarlett Drive

Headliners Scarlett Drive brought the fun day of the cream of the local country music crop to a rousing, fitting close. Full of energy and doing a great job working the stage, these local country favorites – and reigning New England Music Awards winners for Country Act of the Year – embraced the well-earned mantle of “headliner.” The band opened with “Blame the Whiskey,” a song full of punch, power, hooks, and harmony. Other highlights included “One More Time,” a song with mid-tempo energy and soulful vocals. This could absolutely be a memorable one. And “Quarters,” a rich, plush, guitar-driven country power ballad – one of those songs that’d have an arena swaying with lighters – or phones – aloft.

Toward the end of the band’s set, the delivered a rollicking, energetic, crowd-pleasing rendition of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” Then Scarlett drive closed the show with their original “If You Wanna,” an energetic number that hangs its hat on a heartfelt-flavored vocal. This is one of the many Scarlett Drive originals that’s geared toward a special tone in singer Chris Martin’s voice, supported by the group’s rich harmonies. A great country band in any case, Scarlett Drive’s originals play to their unique strengths. And that’s as it should be. Headliners on this day, Scarlett Drive closed the show out with a flourish.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

One day. Many of the area’s best country music artists. And this really is a golden age of country music in New England, with so many great acts to choose from. This concert was a treat for fans. The acoustic sets between full band sets kept the show moving from beginning to end. And did I say what a cool venue Indian Ranch is for such an event? I love this place. In any case, though I’m still basking in the glow of this year’s Local CountryFest, I’m already looking forward to next year’s. Once the date’s announced, I’m circling it on my calendar.

Live Review: 1st Annual Local CountryFest

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

1st Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 16, 2017

In what is intended to be an annual event, organized and promoted by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, the inaugural Local CountryFest seemed to be a rousing success. With a decent-sized, fully engaged crowd and several of the area’s best country artists, this was a great start to what will, hopefully, become a Massachusetts fall tradition. With Lyssa Coulter performing before the event and during the first two intermissions, special guest Tom Revane, and a country line-up of the Houston Bernard Band, Annie Brobst, Scarlett Drive, and Timmy Brown and Black Diamond leading up to headliner Ashley Jordan, the day was a veritable who’s who of local country music.

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The big-name line-up itself recently received some brand new accolades. Three of the artists – Annie Brobst, Ashley Jordan, and the Houston Bernard Band – were recently nominated for Country Artist of the Year by Boston Music Awards. Of course, from first-hand experience, I knew to expect great things from the two artists I had previously reviewed: Annie Brobst was one of the artists at Nina Pickell’s Behind the Songs event at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston this spring. And, of course, I reviewed Ashley Jordan’s latest album, He’s Crazy, and have reviewed Ashley’s live performances at Loft 266 in Worcester and at The Mill 185 in West Boylston. In any case, the lineup of this year’s inaugural event was loaded with talent.

Steve Charette

Before I get to the music, I should note that I ran across magician Steve Charette both before and during the show. He was on-site to entertain those waiting in line and mingling outside the main stage area – between sets, presumably, since I can’t imagine people wandering far from the music with such talented artists on-stage. I witnessed a sequence of cool card tricks and other close-up illusions. Very cool. (Sorry Steve; I didn’t think to snap a photo of you to include with the review.)

Lyssa Coulter

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

Lyssa performed acoustically at the Corral Stage, accompanied by Rocco Lombardo on guitar, for a half-hour while the crowd was filing in before the initial main stage performer and for about fifteen minutes each during the first two set breaks. Lyssa is a young artist rapidly building a local following, and this was a nice showcase for her skills. Lyssa performed “Leave the Night On” (twice, during different breaks) as it seems to be a cover that suits her. She sounds best when pushing the upper limit of her range; it gives her vocals an insistence and intensity. “Live Like You Were Dying” featured notable guitarwork by Rocco, while Lisa’s voice almost (but not quite) cracked for some cool emphasis. Other covers she performed well included “American Honey” and “Bartender.” The one original I heard Lyssa perform, the engaging, mid-tempo “By My Side,” very clearly hit her vocal sweet spot, as should generally be the case with an original.

In all, Lyssa’s short Corral Stage performances offered quick glimpses of a fast-developing, talented young artist who will just keep getting better. Of course, Lyssa’s star is already quickly on the rise; she was a finalist in the regional NashNext competition this year, an event won by Ashley Jordan.

Houston Bernard Band

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Houston Bernard Band

I was quite impressed by Houston and his band. I hadn’t previously heard any of the band’s songs, but the band caught my attention from the initial song, a high-energy kickoff number that from my notes I presume was “You’re All I Need (I Don’t Need Much).” The band’s music is full of energy, country hooks, Houston’s voice – he has a vocal twang on his middle and upper ranges but also a booming deep low-end – and a diversely talented set of instrumentalists. Houston actually worked all of his vocal tricks – twangy high and mid-range vocals and booming deep vox – into the singalong-compelling second song, “Country Crowd.”

Houston Bernard Band

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Ready to Leave” really popped, with strong hooks, massive stop-starts, and an opportunity to strain the vocals for emotion; it’s built for country hit radio. Speaking of country hit radio, though, the band’s catchy song “Yoga Pants” is topically hit-worthy wrapped in great old-school country packaging, replete with a guitar-picking and spoken-word opening.

Those were the first four numbers. At this point, the band had the crowd in the palm of its hand, leading into its Montgomery Gentry tribute, a solid rendition of “Hell Yeah.” Later in the set, a cover medley showed off the great Southern rock voice of the band’s keyboardist and the electric guitarist’s more Southern-rock-meets-the-Eagles voice. Versatility. Eventually, the band closed with the energetic, danceable, rockin’ country tune “Knockin’ Boots” (“knockin’ boots on the dance floor…”) The band’s mostly-original-music set was concert-quality. I’d be excited to discover these guys were opening for my favorite national act. And I see a path to that given the Houston Bernard Band’s radio-ready style and versatility.

Annie Brobst Band

Annie Brobst Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

Annie Brobst owns the stage. Period. It’s hers. And she established that from the very start by leading off with an immediate pop of energy on “I Could Say No.” The first song on her EP, it showcases Annie as the power-country singer she is and, well, boom! Then she moved straight to her mellow side with “Write Me a Song,” utilizing a rich, serious, strong, soft vocal.

Lyssa Coulter and Annie Brobst

Lyssa Coulter and Annie Brobst; photo by Geoff Wilbur

A couple songs later, Annie was joined on-stage by Lyssa Coulter for a duet of Kelsea Ballerini’s “Yeah Boy.” They performed the song with great back-and-forth vocals and duet harmonies; it also served as an opportunity for Annie’s fiddle player to shine.

Next up (I think) was Miranda Lambert’s “Baggage Claim,” recognizably driven by slide guitar and a little sly shuffle in Annie’s vox (and, holy crap!, that powerful punch in some spots). And then… Annie’s softer-again storytelling original “Ghost.”

“Paperweight” bopped along with the banjo adding a travelin’-song flavor to this fun-tempoed number, complete with stop-start attention-grabbing “pops.” And then, following her “bro country” cover, “Bottoms Up,” which she delivered with punch and with featured a great guitar solo, Annie closed with “Still Water.” “Still Water” featured that strong but wistful vocal edge that’s perfectly suited to its slide-guitar accompaniment, and it was driven by a relentless drum line that served as its tempo-mover. A terrific song to close an arena-caliber set.

Scarlett Drive

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Scarlett Drive

I suppose the shortest description of Scarlett Drive is that they’re a fun, jammin’, party-country band with strong vocals and tight harmonies, showing the crowd a heck of a good time. (OK, you got me; that’s not very short.)

The band got off to a powerful start, with driving drums, screaming guitars, and those aforementioned harmonies driving the first song of their set.

Original “Next Train” was an early-set standout, featuring notable drop-down vocals. It was followed by a strong cover of Lady Antebellum’s “We Owned the Night,” sporting funky guitar and three-party harmonies.

“If You Wanna” was performed in the band’s trademark celebratory style, mixing harmonies with vocal runs, guitar punch, and forceful drumming, while “One More Time” showcased that top emotional edge of lead male vocalist Chris Martin’s range, with strong backing harmonies in moments-of-emphasis and a neat electric guitar line snaking its way through the song.

Remaining highlights included “Quarters,” Scarlett Drive’s slow-dance song, one of those anthemic, arena-full-of-lighters numbers, and set-closer “I Blame the Whiskey,” a danceable, fun, energetic, arena-country number.

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond

Another of the Boston area’s big-name country acts that has earned its fair share of notoriety, Timmy Brown & Black Diamond kept things humming, kicking their set off with “Amen,” an arena-filling number featuring crunchy country-rock guitar and textured power vocals.

Next up were “Dirt on My Boots,” which prominent fiddle accents, and “Tequila Lime & Salt,” a fun – what else could it be with a song title like that? – mid-to-uptempo original. And then “Drinkin’ Problem,” mellow and smooth with a rich, warm vocal texture.

Timmy followed that with “Fly Away,” noting it was a song for his grandmother, and following through with an as-expected sweet, heartfelt song with rich harmonies. Timmy’s vocal was smooth with just a hint of a rough edge, as if it was textured with really fine sandpaper. The band continued with slow-paced twanger “Save It For a Rainy Day.”

Later in the set, the band pandered to the New England crowd by performing an exceptionally well-done rendition of a guaranteed Boston-area crowd-pleaser, “Sweet Caroline,” setting up its closing number, the band’s single “Little Bit.” “Little Bit” seems like one of those songs you’ll sing along to quickly, with an engaging tempo and everyday-life, “real” country feel – one of those everyday American slice-of-life songs. Great way to end the set, and a terrific choice for a single.

Tom Revane Live

Tom Revane Live; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tom Revane Live

Tom Revane and his band were perhaps the closest thing to misfits at this event. Extremely popular local artists who live and perform regularly in and around Webster, they were the locallest of the local bands and brought a group of rabid, very vocal and visible fans to the event, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider them country. They did, however, perform a lively six-song set of favorites – Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano,” “Wagon Wheel” (the sole country song of the bunch), and one more song whose name I failed to jot down before closing, fittingly, with “Margaritaville.” Indeed, simultaneously energetic and laid-back, Tom and his motley crew might best be described as Parrotheads-plus, as they brought an unapologetic party atmosphere to the evening. (“Parrotheads” because of the very Buffett-esque, laid-back party vibe; “plus” because their playlist extends well beyond Buffett.)

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ashley Jordan

That led us to the main event, the headliner of the night, Ashley Jordan. I had only previously seen Ashley perform acoustically, so I was looking forward to this full band performance, a big show on a big stage where she could let loose. And, indeed, with the room to roam, Ashley showed how well she can work the stage and own the crowd as a big-show headliner. Bring on the arenas! But, of course, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Ashley kicked things off with a consistent crowd favorite from her Nothing in Doubt album, a tune about an oh-so-country topic, as she and her band found their groove during the course of “Drink Some Whiskey.”

Next up was a cover I particularly enjoy hearing Ashley perform, her rendition of “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree,” because it allows her to hit some big notes and showcase her vocal power. It also shows off some of her band’s exceptional talent with some fun fiddle parts, and a neat musical move her bass player deploys.

Ashley moved on to one of my (many) favorites from her latest CD, He’s Crazy, the guitar-picking-powered “Blue Eyed Boy,” a song that ranges from sweetness to twangy power.

Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan; photo by Geoff Wilbur

A cover of Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” stood out for its great a cappella opening and its showcase of the breadth of Ashley’s vocal range, from emotional voice cracks to her strong low end and some serious power vocals.

A trio of songs from He’s Crazy followed, from the emotionally powerful “So Far Gone” to a couple of the bigger songs on the album. “Lone Wolf” sports a true power vocal and prominently features the fiddle; its heavy rhythm and power is ideally delivered in a full band setting. And then “Weapon,” the album’s first track, a big Nashville-style production number that features strength and power and an especially cool role for the fiddle.

Ashley then did a pure country version of Maren Morris’ “My Church” before unveiling a new original. I’m not sure of the title, but with a woman-power, Miranda-esque delivery, she treated the crowd to her new song featuring lyrics referencing “just another boy playing games.” It’s a catchy one!

The next couple of songs, both from He’s Crazy, continued the theme. The first, “In Spite of You,” is vocally both sweet and spiteful, soft and powerful. And then the album’s title track, “He’s Crazy,” opened with crunchy lead electric guitar and grew into an arena-caliber country rocker.

Ashley closed the show with a powerfully-delivered cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” that’s really cool with the fiddle part. A crowd-pleasing end to a big set of music from a hard-working local musician whose career ceiling is a starry sky.

That brought to an end the first annual Country MusicFest. The event was well-run and featured a full day of top-notch New England country music talent. Hopefully, therefore, this will be the beginning of an annual local tradition, a showcase where country music fans can enjoy their favorite local performers and discover some new artists, performing in the sort of concert-style, big-event setting for which our best local talent is all ably prepared.