Country Thunder fans from across the Valley were out in droves Saturday night to attend the Country Thunder Launch Fest, located in a grass field adjacent to the Tempe Center for the Arts. The first annual Launch Fest was established to announce the lineup for next spring's Country Thunder, provide live music, and tide over Country Thunder fiends eagerly awaiting April to arrive so they can binge on four days of two-stepping, flannel cleavage, double-fisting beers, cowboy hats and Jack Daniel's.
Shortly after 7 o'clock, Country Thunder sponsors from 107.9 KMLE walked on stage to announce the lineup. The video screens next to the main stage rolled a promotional clip showing three headlining artists: Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, and the Band Perry. With each name announced, the crowd roared to life, cheering on the artists on the screen. And that wasn't all of them.
The video montage continued, rounding out the first wave of performers: Colt Ford, Sawyer Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Craig Morgan, Joe Diffie and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
In addition to the lineup announcement, Launch Fest offered an array of activities and fun for anyone involved. A mechanical bull and corn-hole game boards were set up inside the main entrance.
Attendees wandered the grounds to visit a line of beer tents, cowboy hat vendors, raffle booths, and several local Phoenix food trucks, including Tom's BBQ (where I found one of the most delicious creations I saw, called a BBQ Sundae and featuring mashed potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, pulled pork, cheddar cheese and a cherry on top all layered in an ice cream sundae cup.)
This was not an everyday typical music festival. For the majority of the event, the speakers played an array of classic country songs, both past and present, while fans danced and mingled in groups while visiting and drinking beer.
One of the more eclectic gatherings I've seen at a country music event roamed free at Launch Fest, from men in Renaissance robes handing out flyers, to a troop of girls wearing hunter orange vests and camouflage pants, while performing two-step routines to Shania Twain. Also on the large video screens to either side of the main stage, football fans could watch their college teams throughout the day; the largest rivalry in the desert was in full swing on this night as fans dressed in both ASU attire and U of A gear, rallied their fellow fans, and booed their opponents, in preparation for the upcoming game.
The majority of activity took place right around the 7 o'clock hour, when the KMLE representatives took the stage with a group of fans and raffled off a truck by having contestants each pop a balloon in unison to reveal a piece of paper inside and determine the winner.
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The choice for the two winning contestants was either a new truck or $5,000 in cash. The first man to come forward with a winning ticket was handed a microphone and asked what his choice would be.
While carefully eyeing the crowd, the man slowly leaned backward and turned his attention to his wife standing behind him to ask her what he should pick. After putting his balls back in his sack, he turned around and said he would take the truck.
Next, was the lineup announcement immediately followed by the main stage headlining act of the night, Chris Janson. Sprinting out on stage wearing a leather jacket and a trucker hat, Janson had the crowd in front of the stage cheering him on as he asked, "Arizona, are you ready to have a red-necking, boot-stomping good time?"
Janson's talent on the harmonica is unmatched, and he wailed away into the Tempe night while bouncing up and down during his 45 minute set that included such songs as "White Trash" and "Better I Don't". At one point, after another impressive harmonica showcase, he thanked KMLE and Jesus before playing "Cut Me Some Slack."
Partway through Janson's set, a few football fans begin to panic once they realized the music had run past the kickoff of the ASU game. When Janson walked off stage at 8 o'clock, the worry was laid to rest as the video screens switched back to broadcasting the rivalry game.
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The rest of the night was split between fans watching football and cheering on their respective teams, and a few more main stage performances from local Arizona country bands competing in a Battle of the Bands contest to determine their own time slots in April's Country Thunder in Florence.