Like any good mullet, the party was in the back Friday night on the Wildwood beach.
The sound was muffled; not nearly loud enough for the folks in the main general admission section, behind the gated VIP area but in front of the second stack of speakers blaring the North Carolina singer’s hits to the rest of the crowd totaling near 30,000.
“Turn it up, turn it up!” the fans chanted between songs, with many stomping off in disgust as Church’s vocal wasn’t much louder than the “watch the tram car, please” alert back on the boardwalk. But those who receded into the crowd discovered the audio was much sharper farther away. The only issue, then, was they couldn’t really see the Miller Lite Main Stage anymore, forced to watch video screens that painted the pseudo-outlaw Church in grayscale most of the night. I still have no idea what color his shirt was.
As with all large concerts, what the artist hears on stage is vastly different from what the crowd hears, so Church had no idea as he soldiered through his 90-plus minutes of rock-steady jams like “Creepin’” and “Stick that in Your Country Song,” as well as his party cuts “Drink in My Hand” and “Smoke a Little Smoke.” The set finished appropriately with Church’s biggest hit, a song called “Springsteen,” as fans sang along, backed by the distant screams of rollercoaster riders on Morey’s Pier.
After Barefoot’s maiden voyage in Wildwood was plagued last year by storms and standing water that turned the sand between Morey’s and Adventure Piers into a giant gray puddle, uncooperative weather again disturbed Friday’s all-day music lineup. After a sweltering afternoon that welcomed scores of fans in overalls and stuck-on rhinestones (the day’s theme was “denim and diamonds” — the skies opened up and nearby lightning forced an evacuation of the festival grounds.
Luckily, the storm passed within an hour, only pushing one main stage act, Georgia emo-rap/country hybrid Kidd G, to the second stage later in the night. As the festival continues Saturday and Sunday, the forecast looks brighter.
But rain or shine, this festival needs to find a better way to get its paying customers through the gate. Perhaps it was due to the earlier evacuation, but around 8 pm the line of attendees stretched three blocks down the boardwalk before fans were thrust into an endless, snaking queue on the beach itself. From the back of the line to the security checkpoint took a full 90 minutes — enough time to wolf down a Kohr Bros. Vanilla-orange cone, spoon a cup of Polish water ice, snag an “I Love Dad Bods” t-shirt (one of the tamer options) and maybe even catch a monster truck ride on the sand. Wildwood is a magical place.
Just before Church, Tennessee star Dustin Lynch commandeered the main stage with an hour-long set in full party mode — his latest single literally being called “Party Mode” sure didn’t hurt. From a down-home stage decorated with a lawn chair, plastic cooler and camp lantern, Lynch declared “New Jersey harder than anywhere” — oh parties Dustin, you say that to all the crowds — and picked a fan to wear a beer helmet and chug a Bud Light. Later, a member of Lynch’s five-piece band helped him hand out plastic cups of tequila and sombreros to a few female fans in the front row. As the sun set, casting a beautiful peach-pink sky behind the stage, fans sang along to his hits “Seein’ Red,” “Thinking ‘Bout You” and a bright cover of George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.”
Before Lynch, hair-metal icon (and recovering VH1 reality TV star) Bret Michaels led his own high-octane 60-minute performance. While not exactly a country singer, Michaels played the role, donning a stars-and-stripes cowboy hat as he shifted between country-rock covers “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and Poison hits “Talk Dirty to Me” and “Nothing But a Good Time.”
“I’m here to party and celebrate with our friends,” Michaels said, bubbling over with energy (and promoting Poison’s upcoming participation in a Philadelphia stadium date with Motley Crue). The set expectedly closed with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” with Michaels strumming an acoustic guitar.
Earlier in the afternoon, newcomer Brittney Spencer turned in a sharp 30 minutes, noting how she’s “making (her) own kind of country.” That meant pop and R&B influences as she nailed her poignant single “Sober and Skinny” plus cool covers of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” Spencer said she always gets asked how she, a woman from Baltimore, got into the genre.
“I say ‘have you been to the Northeast? Because I see a whole lot of country music fans right here.”
Barefoot Country Music Fest rolls on Saturday, with pop-country hitmakers Florida Georgia Line headlining the all-day lineup. Georgia star Jason Aldean leads the bill Sunday. And the fest is already booked to return in June 2023, as a new Garden State tradition builds.
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