Monday, November 13, 2017

Driftwood Festival (Day 1) review: Dana Point, Calif.

Chase Rice was performing “Everybody We Know Does” on Saturday night when he paused to emphasize one verse’s heightened relevance after the mass shooting last month in Las Vegas.

Then the Driftwood Festival headliner told the large crowd, “That’s what country music’s all about. When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Many concertgoers in Dana Point wore Route 91 Harvest Festival hats, t-shirts and “Vegas Strong” slogans in subtle support. Since it was Veteran’s Day, artists like Lit and A Thousand Horses thanked military personnel everywhere. Two local vets were also brought onstage between sets and saluted.    

Alcohol tastings (mostly craft beer, but also wine and vodka) and BBQ food were a big draw at the fest and long booth lines near the sand held steady through the afternoon. At one point, a dozen people line danced in the rear concourse area.

Rice made an immediate impact with a hard-hitting band often reminiscent of Metallica. He opened with the ominous Fall Out Boy-styled “Lions,” from upcoming album “Lambs & Lions, due Nov. 17. The rap-style cadence of “50 Shades of Crazy” went down well. The set fared better when the mood shifted – and actually sounded country - on acoustic guitar-based latest single “Three Chords & the Truth” and another memorable new one, “Eyes on You.”

Sensual hits “Gonna Wanna Tonight” and “Ride” drove female fans crazy. Rice jokingly sang directly to a pal’s girlfriend on the latter while seated on stools. Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” his first big success as a co-writer, drew a hearty response. Later, as the evening wound down, band introductions led into bits of Blink-182 songs.

“This is the most beautiful show I’ve been part of; my heart is bursting with joy,” enthused Frankie Ballard, the Driftwood MVP. Far better than at Stagecoach ’15, the Michigan native emerged to Rufus Thomas’s 1953 Sun Records tune “Tiger Man (King of the Jungle)” and a revving engine sound.

A similar charge ran through his set at Doheny State Beach, featuring ample displays of Ballard’s electric guitar prowess and mighty drummer Travis McNabb (Sugarland, Better Than Ezra).

Standouts included country airplay chart toppers “Young & Crazy,” “Helluva Life” and “Sunshine & Whisky” (all hearty audience singalongs), “It Started with a Beer” (the popular hit off 2016’s underrated “El Rio”) and a fine bluesy medley of the Elvis Presley-popularized “Hound Dog/Heartbreak Hotel.”

Cassadee Pope’s ebullient performance began with one of her best-known songs, “I Wish I Could Break Your Heart.” The audience responded loudly to “Think of You,” the No. 1 recording with Chris Young (done here as a duet with the guitarist), but they were far less attentive to midtempo fare, several unreleased numbers and unfortunately a riveting solo acoustic cover of Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy” – initially done when Pope won NBC’s “The Voice.”
Fullerton band Lit, always solid live, previewed promising new material from a new album scheduled next month, including a thought-provoking “Fast” (whose video did well at CMT), the earthy “Just Feels Right,” “All Eyes on Us” and “Real Good Problem.” 

On the latter tune, Lit leader A. Jay Popoff coaxed co-writer Michael Hobby of A Thousand Horses onstage to sing a few verses. Popoff had no trouble getting the crowd excited, especially during alt-rock hits "Miserable" and the closer, “My Own Worst Enemy.”

A Thousand Horses’ (led by Hobby, pictured below) delivered soulful Southern country/rock with fervor. Locking into a groove from the get-go with “Burn Like Willie,” the foursome seldom let up on the power, from the catchy, newer “Blaze of Something,” The Faces-styled “First Time” and spiritual vibe of “Sunday Morning” to the memorable radio faves “Smoke” and “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial.”

Caroline Jones hosts a SiriusXM radio show, put out the “Bare Feet” EP over the summer and recently toured with Zac Brown Band. The multi-instrumentalist’s pleasant set was most notable for “Worth the Wait,” which nicely segued into Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song” and “Old Blue,” a 19th Century folk ballad where Jones showed off her wide vocal range with producer Ric Wake watching near the soundboard.

Mark Mackay lived up to the unenviable task of playing to early arrivals. The San Francisco native’s current album “Trials and Tribulations” is one of the best indie releases I’ve heard all year.

Backed by a band that included a lap steel player, Mackay dazzled with his electric guitar work. Standouts included the rousing “Mustang,” a John Mellencamp-styled “Settle for a Small Town,” an affecting “I Can’t Stop You” (co-written by country heavy hitter Jeffrey Steele) and winning cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.”

All photos by Kelly Swift. A version of my review originally appeared at

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