Jason Aldean, Colt Ford, Joe Diffie, and Tyler Farr - Country Thunder - 4/13/14

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Joe Diffie, Tyler Farr, Colt Ford, Jason Aldean Country Thunder 2014 4/13/14

As Country Thunder closes out, the tried and true aficionados remain: They're the groups who've done this before, who have more alcoholic stamina than all your friends combined, who will wake up at 5 a.m. on Monday morning to decamp and head home. Everyone is slightly more subdued, a little windburned and exhausted, leaving only the diehards to stick it out to the very end.

You'd be right in assuming a lot of the remaining attendees are college kids, as there was a steady stream of families with their trailers and RVs leaving the campground all day long. With just the younger audiences around, earlier acts like Gordon Bamford and Joe Diffie seemed to get a bit of the shaft, but both, especially the latter, still know how to put on one hell of a show.

Diffie, an active country musician for the past 23 years, is often credited as a novelty act but he has the chops to prove otherwise. With a healthy dose of stage banter and full-blown country swing tunes, the enthusiastic yet thin afternoon crowd ate up Diffie's antics. Something also has to be said for a musician who keeps his Gibson acoustic strapped to him for a whole set and gets that same guitar high in the live mix -- Diffie is a songwriter first and foremost and never lets the crowd forget it, naming off his many recent collaborations a few times throughout his set.

The most endearing moment of Diffie's slot came with his version of "Girl Ridin' Shotgun," a song he penned with the unfortunately-named "hick hop" act Jawga Boyz. Where a Jawga Boyz member would have rapped, Diffie went at it alone, rapping out of the verses before quickly switching back into troubadour mode. A self-deprecating intro to the song, in which Diffie joked that "this could go wrong pretty quick," added even greater appeal to a moment that would have seemed kitschy in any other context.

Tyler Farr, while a popular act in his own right with singles like "Redneck Crazy" and "Whiskey In My Water" under his belt, maintains that cookie-cutter country act feel, no matter how strong his stage presence is. That in mind, he is an solid performer and seemed to bring out a lot more of the crowd than earlier sets, but this could also be attributed to the wonderful weather and falling air temperatures or his featuring of Diffie, Colt Ford and Jason Aldean throughout his set. Either way, Farr can play to a younger crowd well, but he's just not as strong as some of his more established counterparts.

A quick disclaimer: I'm all for musical experimentation. In small doses, especially in country music, it can work: Eric Church's prog-metal foray on "The Outsiders," Jack White teaming up with Loretta Lynn for "Portland, Oregon," Jason Aldean's spoken-word, semi-rapped "Dirt Road Anthem." However, for someone like country rapper Colt Ford to create an entire career around that genre is beyond me.

Maybe it's because I'm a rap fan and can appreciate a nuanced delivery, good breath control and an exuberant performance, but even at a festival like Country Thunder, Ford was nothing short of ostentatious and provided not one of those three traits. Some of his best crowd reaction came during a cover of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," even though everyone in our camp cringed the whole way through it. Country Thunder is trying to diversify, and kudos to the booking agents for the attempt, but Ford just fell short -- if anything, I would have loved to see Diffie in his time slot instead.

The rockstar of the event, Jason Aldean, took the stage with a ravenous crowd awaiting him. Because it was the last night of the festival, after all, the energy seemed to be a little lower than it was for fellow headliner Miranda Lambert the night prior, but Aldean is very, very good at ramping it up as his set goes on.

From "Take A Little Ride" to "Dirt Road Anthem" to an alternately-opened "Amarillo Sky," Aldean boosted spirits quickly. His stage presence, when he's really laying into it, calls to mind Garth Brooks at his prime -- hat low, leg cocked back, guitar held like a weapon. Aldean was neither the best singer of the weekend -- that would go to Craig Morgan -- nor the most engaging -- that would go to Miranda Lambert -- but he's still a wildly powerful performer in his own right, expounding on his strong suits with his catalog and a great band behind him. Even if judged solely by crowd reaction alone, Aldean was the right choice in closing out yet another four days of beer-soaked, twang-tinged debauchery in the desert.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Country Thunder 2014 in Florence, AZ.

The Crowd: Felt much younger than the day prior: More kids stumbling around like zombies, not as much whoopin' and hollerin', fewer homemade stripper poles and beer bongs in sight. The women, as always, were still gorgeous.

Overhead in the Crowd: We watched a pair of very drunk girls try to two-step in the gravel just inside the entry gate when one invariably dropped the other. "She gone down! She gone!" became the battle cry of half the guys watching the debacle. We all applauded, vocabulary deficiencies or not.

Personal Bias: I got to watch the sun go down, sitting in the bed of a truck, talking to a girl with a cold beer in my hand as George Strait played in the background. It's safe to say that Country Thunder is my happy place.

Taught by a Redneck: Learned how to open a bottle of beer with either a can of Copenhagen or a truck hitch this weekend. Also learned that a good, slim flask is an invaluable item at Country Thunder, and thereby can make you a lot of new friends.

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