Earlier this month came official news that the Rock Gone Wild festival in northern Iowa-- a four-day metal event featuring the likes of Twisted Sister and Skid Row-- had been unceremoniously canceled. Country singer Jamey Johnson, opening for Brooks & Dunn Friday night at the Iowa State Fair grandstand, had beard and hair enough for the hardiest Midwest glam-metal stalwart. He and a skillful five-piece backing band played an emotive, outsider brand of country, tackling such subjects as breakups and drug use with a lonesome twang and freight train croon, as the 10,000-strong crowd trickled in amid the darkening twilight. Johnson came recommended to me by everybody from hip-hop critics to Springsteen-adoring roots-rock fans, and his breakthrough album, 2008's That Lonesome Song, is as deeply resonant a record as you can expect from mainstream Nashville these days, if not quite as raw or irreverent as forebears like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson-- you wonder how successful Ryan Adams could have been if he had played to average fairgoers instead of fickle indie fans. Still, even if the crowd finally perked up most for power ballad of sorts "In Color", Johnson's biggest hit as a performer, it's one of Johnson's more disappointing songs-- almost like a post-grunge ballad for people who think Pearl Jam and Nickelback are just too darn loud. Lyrically, it's powerful stuff, though, and the final tune of the night, upbeat divorce song (!!) "Give It Away", which George Strait took to the top of the country charts, only underscores that Johnson is a talent to watch.
Brooks & Dunn were a trip. The long-running duo recently announced that they'll be breaking up... sometime next year, after a cash-in tour and hits compilation. It was hard to tell if they still like each other, but I was more curious whether they still like their songs. Kix Brooks, still the one in the black hat and mustache, cops licks from Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others, while redhead Ronnie Dunn's gorgeous vibrato recalls Roy Orbison and Elvis. Their songs show a great business acumen, never failing to throw in a marketable angle, be that beer-commercial sexuality ("Put a Girl in It", where the 10-piece group's backing video-screen-- usually full of cheap-looking screensaver-style visuals-- suddenly shifted to images of buxom young women on Slip and Slides) or Jesus Christ (but you get the feeling they'd sing the praises of Allah if Nashville were located in the Koran belt-- the last thing these guys want is to be called nonconformists). And for the first several songs, at least-- including hit after hit ("Rock My World (Country Girl)", etc.)-- they made it all fun even for a hipster city slicker like me. Dunn, wearing a ridiculous tunic, came across pretty endearingly with a long, rambling pony-buying story that had little point except to shout-out Iowa and to lead vaguely into the next song, "Cowgirls Don't Cry". By that point, though, they'd played three or four snoozers in a row, songs for the many faithful in attendance only, not for skeptical noobs like me, and I decided to let my companions-- both of whom had been up since before 6-- get home for some much-needed rest. After all, we were going to the fair again the next day. And to the farmer's market.
All I know is: When I start my band, we're definitely going to take a cue from Brooks and invest in a T-shirt launcher.
FAVORITE FOODS EATEN AT THE FAIR THIS WEEKEND
Fried cheese curds (extra hot, way better than anything you can find in restaurants)
Pork tenderloin sandwich (my first! I understand this is an Iowa specialty)
Gizmo (beef and sausage in a hoagie... delicious)
Funnel cake with glaze (it's the state fair, after all)
We had to ride our bikes 20-plus miles (round trip) up to Cumming on Sunday just to make up for all this fun. And we placed third again during Bob Nastanovich's trivia night over at the Hessen House. Congrats to O-Trivia Newton John on this week's best team name ever.