Route 91 Round Up -Day 1
Words by David England
Photos by HelsBels Photography
With the line up just announced for 2016’s Route 91, you may be wondering whether this festival is worth your time & dollars. With new ones springing up all the time, deciding where to go and getting it wrong can be very expensive. Setting it in Vegas with its relaxed drinking policy, a huge amount of hotel rooms and glorious sunshine in early fall is a master stroke. Add in a ten minute cab ride from the airport, direct flights from the UK and you’re on to a winner.
There’s that famous Vegas expression of ‘Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’, the reason for that is consumption. It stays in Vegas because you are too hammered to remember most things. Now usually that doesn’t matter but when you need to write up a review of a festival it makes it very hard indeed. Throwing shapes to Florida Georgia Line and clearing a large space in the seating area when you’re supposed to be taking notes also didn’t help.
Whilst still in its infancy, Route 91 will certainly being laying claim to the best festival on the circuit. The beautiful surroundings at the southern end of the strip, I mean what other festival takes place next to a giant pyramid and a huge gold shimmering tower bathed in glorious autumn sun? It’s a short walk or free shuttle from the main MGM hotels, dropping you right at the main gate, and then taking you home again. Even with 25,000 people there getting a drink, a deep fried cheesecake or the largest barbecued turkey leg I have ever seen took minutes.
Playing out across two stages, main and rising stars, over three days we were treated to some spectacular performances. If there was a roof on the venue, then Jake Owen, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban raised it and sent it spinning into the atmosphere and by now it’s probably passing Pluto.
Kicking Friday off should have been A Thousand Horses but due to a bus breakdown, Gloriana took the stage 30 minutes late. Kicking off with ‘Trouble’ from their new album Rachael and co gave a very assured start. Now a trio since the departure of Kimball, Gloriana have always been on the pop country side of things but Three does seem to edge them slightly away. As if to reinforce this we were treated to a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ along with the John Mellencamp classic ‘Jack and Diane’. Finishing on their biggest single (Kissed You) Goodnight they certainly got the crowd warmed up, before coming back out for a cover of The Beatles ‘Come Together’. With Rachael leaving the band back in January, it seems this could have been one of their last gigs.
With Frankie Ballard clearly flirting backstage with the Think Country team, don’t worry we have the photos, it’s probably just as well we were already slightly behind. With his 50’s retro look and a rock n roll tinged vibe, ‘Glory Days’, not the Springsteen classic, went down rather well, although his cover of ‘Boy Named Sue’ went down even better with crowd. Rattling through ‘Sunshine & Whiskey’ and ‘Helluva Life’ pausing to look out and inform the crowd that “even the shorts are shorter in Vegas” before we got to ‘I’m Thinking Country’. He’s a definite crowd pleaser, picking up where Gloriana left off. It’s the second time I have seen him this year and both times I have really enjoyed myself. With gigs coming up in the UK next month, you need to get yourself a ticket.
Thankfully A Thousand Horses finally rode into town and probably benefited from being slightly late. With the sun low in the sky reflecting off the gold Mandalay Bay and the lights illuminating the edges of Luxor, the southern rockers blasted through their set. As if to reinforce their roots we got the Otis Redding via Black Crowes classic ‘Hard to Handle’. Getting everyone on their feet they quickly launched into ‘Trailer Trashed’, a glorious expression if ever I heard one, before launching into the few first bars of ’Smoke’. I’m pretty sure people down by the Stratosphere must have heard us singing along. Insanely catchy and surely a shoo-in for record of the year. Leaving us with ‘First Time’, the album opener, it seems rather fortuitous that their bus broke down. With the crowd already warmed up, you felt they were feeding off our energy which in turn gave us one heck of a performance.
Although there were checks on what you can (chairs, blankets) and what you cannot bring (alcohol, banners) into the event, it was no surprise when the couple in front of us started to pass round their hip flask. Taking deep gulps I realised that is was tequila, which makes me forget things and with another three acts left it could be a bit of a problem. Still with everyone around us getting drunk, it didn’t seem a problem at the time.
Easton Corbin next up and another one that I had been looking forward to do. With a cover of Kenny Chesney’s ‘She Thinks My Tractors Sexy’ and Toby Keith’s ‘Should’ve Been A Cowboy’ peppering his set in-between the wonderful ‘Clockwork’ and ‘Yup’ and a slightly strange gag on Michael Jackson babysitting. Corbin does straddle a more traditional country sound and is certainly a good entertainer. Still with the tequila and now margarita flowing we heard Alan Jacksons ‘Where I Come From’. Finishing the set on ‘Baby Be My Love Song’ and ‘All Over The Road’, I was a tad disappointed not to hear ‘Are You With Me’.
With the future Country 2 Country performer up next, Thomas Rhett seems to be moving into EDM territory. Kicking us off with ‘Southside’ complete with drum loops, before going into ‘Make Me Wanna’ and a barnstorming cover of ‘Uptown Fun’ it didn’t quite feel like a country concert. Still, the cheeky charm and charisma of Rhett along with ‘Die A Happy Man’ certainly helped the country crowd party. Closing out the set with ‘Get Me Some Of That’ and ‘Crash And Burn’, it was a polished performance and one that I’m looking forward to seeing again at the O2 next month.
Headlining the Friday night was the Florida Georgia Line boys. A divisive act in the country world, but whoever said you need to keep within one genre. With a large circle opening up around us, we’re talking Chernobyl exclusion zone large, quite possibly due to drunken dancing from the group, it was time to get our shine on. If you saw them this year at C2C, then you know they put on a heck of a show. Starting with ‘It’z Just What We Do’ through to the monster smash ‘Cruise’ we were here to be entertained, and we were. With ‘Sippin On Fire’ blending nicely into ‘Bumpin’ The Night’ to the slowness of ‘Dirt’ to the brilliant cover – better than the original – of Black Stone Cherry’s ‘Stay’ this was a 90 minutes of full on entertainment. Usually I try and keep track of what’s played and when but my notes during FGL got worse and worse and worse. As I write this I am trying to decipher all of them but I feel like I need a codebreaker from Bletchley Park. What I am sure of though is the set finished with ‘This Is How We Roll’. Even though I knew he wasn’t there I was still expecting – hoping, praying – Luke Bryan to come out and sing his part, but just like C2C, he didn’t. Coming back out for the encore with ‘Sun Daze’ we may then have got a medley that included ‘Friends In Low Places’ and ‘Chattahoochee’ before the gigantic ‘Cruise’. With that the first day was over. The only task left was to pack up the chairs and begin the long drunken walk back to the MGM.