All-female Friday kicks off Country Thunder

Country musician Miranda Lambert performs on the first day of the Country Thunder music festival, held at Prairie Winds Park in Calgary Friday, August 16, 2019. Dean Pilling/Postmedia Dean Piling/Postmedia

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Lindsay Ell summed up the spirit of Friday at the Country Thunder Festival in a single sentence.

“Thank you for putting me on the all-female Friday lineup,” she said, to a shivering but happy crowd of around 16,000 who showed up on the worst day of the summer — rainy, cold, windy — ready to party.

“That is so badass.”

Ell, dressed in aviator sunglasses, leopard print tights and platform shoes, sporting a Pride coloured guitar with “Moody” tattooed on the strap, looked pretty badass, but on a Friday filled with formidable female voices, the true badass was also the legend among them quartet of headliners, including Ell, rowdy Meghan Patrick and country superstar Miranda Lambert.

That would be 60-year-old Tanya Tucker, dressed all black and sparkly, with a mane of pink hair, a catalogue of hits that stretches back to 1972, and a gravelly, growly voice that lent a whole extra layer of hurt to her sad songs.

Tucker’s soulful hurting voice might have been the only benefit of all-female Friday landing on the coldest day of summer.

“Sorry if I sound like Louis Armstrong,” Tucker said. “This cold has done a thing to my voice.”

She quickly came to terms with it, however.

“Oh well,” she added. “Only time I’ll ever sound like Louis Armstrong.”

To these untrained ears, however, Tucker sounded superb, whether on ballads like “It’s a Little Too Late (to Do the Right Thing Now),” “Love Me Like You Used To,” or on covers of classics like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

She was playful and personal with the crowd, too. Tucker pretty much just pulled up onstage and started the party, including sharing a solo cup full of tequila with audience members, autographing albums during the set, and sharing intimate stories about her life.

She sang one as a tribute to her parents, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

“I’m never getting married — but I do respect people who can get together and put up with each other,” she said.

“I don’t know if anyone could put up with me,” she added.

That is, until her finale, “Delta Dawn” — her first hit, in 1972, when she was 13 years old — which had the whole crowd of 16,000 singing back to her, in a true signature moment of the first all-female Friday in Country Thunder’s history short but melodic history.

Miranda Lambert isn’t short on badassery herself. By the time she hit the stage, around 9:10, the audience was in full party mode (singing along at full throat to Tom Petty’s “Stand My Ground”).

Lambert, dressed in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots, ripped right into an up-tempo version of John Prine’s “(That’s the Way) The World Goes Around.”

Through the first half-dozen or so tunes, Lambert gave an easy demonstration of why she’s a mega-star.

Whether on jangly country-pop tunes like “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” where she turns a washing machine into a metaphor for marriage in a way, or on tunes that were pure country like “Highway Vagabond” (“Daddy was a drifter/Momma died young/I still don’t know where I come from”), Lambert took on the role of the host of a hell of a party for 16,000 people — and she provided five-star entertainment to boot.

All you need to know about Lindsay Ell’s homecoming concert is that shortly after she took the stage at Country Thunder, the sun came out.

That wasn’t part of the show, but it helped to frame the moment, which was a pretty special one for Ell, a Calgarian who grew up jamming on guitar with her dad at every venue that would let her play — she said she even did a set standing on top of the baggage carousel at the airport — before Randy Bachman, no less, announced her to be a guitar hero at 16, around a decade ago.

Ell comes advertised as a country artist — and there’s a definite recognizable western feeling to her music — but she’s a bit of a closet bluesman.

Or maybe not so closeted — she toured with Buddy Guy as an 18-year-old — and you could almost feel her channelling Guy’s guitar ghosts Friday night.

Ell’s guitar playing is her biggest strength — lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan flashbacks there — all of which elevated the music game at Country Thunder.

I think Friday might have been the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and Peter Fonda died Friday, and I kept thinking, Ell could have been right at home at Woodstock.

She also has ballads, the highlight among them being the song she introduced as one she used to perform with dad at various stages around Calgary when they played together — “Strawberry Wine,” which had all the millennial country music fans at Country Thunder singing along to. (And then again on her finale, “Criminal,” the first #1 Canadian country song by a female artist in the past decade.

“I will always wave my Calgary flag,” Ell said. “No matter where I travel in the world.” And then she invited the crowd to join her for a party she’s hosting during CCMA week.

It was a chilly start to country music lovers’ favourite weekend, but despite the cool temperatures, the first all-female Friday was a musical smash.

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