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Where’s My Corn Dogs? The Old 97’s County Fair, Dallas, Texas, April 16, 2016, Reviewed

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The inaugural Old 97’s County Fair had mixed results as an event. Booked at the Main Street Garden Park in downtown Dallas, the theme promised fair food, a ferris wheel, midway games, and vendors. There were two small food vendors, but the fair theme seemed more like window dressing than a realized vision. The poor planning immediately arose for the VIP ticket holders, who were promised drink tickets, a food voucher, a t-shirt, and a grab bag of goodies. There was no organization to the VIP experience and the advertised shaded area for viewing was behind the stage. The food voucher was non-existent and the items beside the t-shirt were not distributed in an organized fashion – the few items that I saw stacked in a corner (a Koozie and a Frisbee) looked tackily cheap. Whoever was in charge of the VIP experience failed pretty miserably.

Still, it was about the music, including eight acts that started at 1:00 and went throughout the night. The sets were relatively short – most lasted about an hour and the crews did a good job of changing sets. As an alternative country show, they could have named the event “ More Songs About Whiskey and Heartbreak.” The curtain jerker was local Dallas singer/songwriter Madison King. Madison is good in a singer/songwriter environment, but needs more experience in fronting a band. Her vocals didn’t project strongly enough over the instrumentation, but it was a solid set. Former Slobberbone frontman Brent Best was next, with a collection of self described “slow, depressing” songs that alternated between being moving and unintentional comedy. His number about a young boy stabbing his father to death because his mother had opined that “the only good man is a dead man” was the most surreal moment of the day.

Country punk Nikki Lane looks like a distaff Joey Ramone and has an attitude like a spunky, young Loretta Lynn – an updated Loretta who could “talk shit” and give her ex-husband the finger while removing her wedding ring. She mainly performed original material but also covered Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (how many young country artists would know that one?) and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” with unannounced guests/Texas artists Jonathan Tyler and Robert Ellis. She was by far the highlight of the singer/songwriter sets. Lane was followed by Justin Townes Earle, who acted as though performing for an hour was interrupting his chance to grab a grilled cheese sandwich. Earle has written some very good songs, but sluggish attitude toward performing will not benefit him in the long term.

The show then moved to the rock bands and Deer Tick was simply phenomenal. Ian Patrick O’Neill played with such a level of energy and rock ‘n’ roll clamor that he looked/sounded like he could be in The Replacements. With a short set, the quality of the songs never faltered (they did take a weird turn in covering “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues). Deer Tick are in that sweet spot, being veterans in a sense with several albums and years of touring but still being young enough that they want to tear the house down. The Memphis band Lucero was next and they were well received. Their records never knock me out, but for an alt country act, the sing along factor is remarkably high. Dozens of fans in the front were yelling out every word of every song, to the point where I thought that lead singer/frontman must be the tattooed, gutter version of Jon Bon Jovi. They played a solid set that fit well between Deer Tick and the Drive-By Truckers, who both destroyed the place.

The DBTs started and finished their sets with unreleased songs, both strongly political in nature with the closer having lyrics about Ferguson, Missouri and Trayvon Martin (the band had a small “Black Lives Matter” sign posted on the stage). Otherwise, they ripped through some of the best material of their deep catalogue with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley alternating leads on every song. Cooley was a bit lazy as a singer early in the set, but had righted himself by the time they performed “Shit Shots Count,” one of the best Rolling Stones rips you’ll ever hear and the teenage sexual angst anthem “Zip City.” Hood included some of his best rockers in the set – “The Righteous Path,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Lookout Mountain.” Beyond the material, it was that ferocious Drive-By Truckers sound that was the highlight of the day – that deep rumbling that emulates the Earth quaking then erupts into volcanic explosions during the guitar heroics.

Whether intentional or just another day at the office, the Drive By-Truckers created a crater that the Old 97’s couldn’t crawl out of. They sounded positively quaint in comparison, but are always well received as hometown heroes. I left about forty minutes into their set, both from a sense of exhaustion and knowing that nothing was going to match what I had already witnessed.

Overall, the Old 97’s County Fair provided the opportunity to see several highly regarded acts with a larger, more appreciative crowd than most could have drawn individually. As Ice Cube might say, it was a good day.

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