Thursday, January 19, 2006

Montgomery-Gentry and Miranda Lambert play countryfest's wet and wild affair

SARATOGA SPRINGS - They were still counting heads, many of them covered by wet 10-gallon hats, Saturday night after the rain-soaked audience enjoyed a day filled with music at WGNA's annual Countryfest.
The rain didn't lessen the enthusiasm of either the performers or audience, however.

With attendance figures estimated to be around 27,000, organizers said Saturday's concert could be the largest gathering in the 10 years the festival has been held at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway. According to city police, there were nine arrests stemming from the event.

Country music newcomer Miranda Lambert appeared early in the afternoon, performing a set highlighted by the nostalgia-tinged 'Me and Charlotte Talking' and her newest single, 'Bring Me Down.'

When the Texas-born musician strummed away at her cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Bad Moon Rising,' it seemed like the 21-year-old performer was daring the silver-streaked clouds to give a performance of their own. Sure enough, the sky opened up, soaking the crowd.

'I love the rain,' she replied, undaunted. The crowd seemed to agree. With no shelter from the storm, they settled in for the daylong festival and resolved that they were just going to get wet.
Dierks Bentley followed, heralding the event as 'one big wet T-shirt contest,' and offered tips to aspiring songwriters in the crowd.

'There's a couple of things you need in a country song,' Bentley instructed. 'Ex-girlfriends. Cold beer. And pickup trucks.' Then he performed a set that alternately longed for, lamented and loved all three, delivering tunes from his new album, 'Modern Day Drifter.'

Then it was Trace Adkins' turn. He kicked off his set with his 1997 song 'Big Time,' reminisced about a decade of playing endless honky-tonks to get to the biggest honky-tonk in the Northeast, and hit an emotional peak with his ballad 'Arlington,' culled from his new CD,
'Songs About Me.'

Among the most creative looks in the crowd were the swatches of confederate flags redesigned into halter tops, mud-drawn face designs that served as temporary tattoos and one particularly enterprising man who strolled through the crowd collecting dollar bills and attaching them to the straps of the women's brassiere he was wearing.
Judging by the take, for him, it was a good day.

Others sloshed through the wet grounds and consumed things like battered mushrooms,
Texas Tornado Chips and a variety of barbecued meats served up from propane grills.

The Kentucky-born duo Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry headlined the event and performed a raucous set powered by a six-man band pumping behind them. Taking the stage to Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back in Town,' Montgomery whirled, stomped and riled up the crowd, swinging a microphone stand over their heads like it was a scepter.

The duo performed their tunes 'Gone' and 'Speed' as smoke rose from the stage, adorned with a red, white and blue backdrop.

Gentry plucked a mandolin as the duo performed 'Scarecrow.' It was perhaps the day's most pertinent song. 'Seven days a week out here in this heat,' they sang, 'a gentle rain my only friend,' as 27,000 others sang along with them.

words and pictures by Thomas Dimopoulos text published in The Saratogian, July 2005.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Keith Urban live at Saratoga: Too early for beer, Too late to Sleep.

SARATOGA SPRINGS - It was too early in the day for beer and too late to go back to sleep.

By the time the sun rose over the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway Thursday morning, the restaurant perched high above the harness track, was already filling up with country music fans.
It was 6:10 a.m. when Sean McMaster and Richie Phillips, morning hosts of WGNA Radio station, turned on the microphones.

'Hello? Is this thing on?'

The crowd swelled from the intimate gathering who assembled at dawn to include several dozen fans as the morning wore on. They came to hear music and to be part of the live radio broadcast announcing the lineup of performers for this year's Countryfest.
In its 11th year, the event has grown into the biggest one-day country music festival in the Northeast. This year's affair will include Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Terri Clark, Sherrie Austin and Craig Morton. The festival takes place July 10 at the raceway. In the past, about 25,000 people from all over North America have come to party at the one-day festival.

Fans had come in the pre-dawn darkness to be part of Thursday's announcement party.
The morning hosts meanwhile, played tunes, read horoscopes and took in the atmosphere.

Overlooking the raceway, a mix of mottled snow and infield green framed a rider in red windbreaker who bounced along in a sulky around the track.
Birds flew into a blue morning sky. An American flag waved from atop a pole.
What brought people to the raceway on this morning was the purely American invention of country music.

'Outside the window, we're watching the snow melt. It's spring, baby!' announced Richie,
looking out over the track, his signal carried from the microphone, through a thin coil wire
and out over the airwaves where anyone who cared to listen could hear his words.

The fans enjoyed the morning eggs and orange juice, French toast and sausages - all for $1.07 - copying the station's call numbers. Many keept an eye on the clock as it neared opening time
for the gaming rooms.

The first gaming facility in the state sat waiting with its 1,323 video gaming machines, their names ranging from the mystical (Enchanted Forest and Magic Garden) to the obvious (Reel 'em In, Loco Loot and Cash-a-doodle do), just in case you were to forget where you were.

With the clock inching closer to 10 a.m. lines started at the doors to the machines. But not before they left with the sound of the twangy tune in their spirit and looking forward to
that day in July to celebrate their music.

SARATOGA SPRINGS- 'Are y'all ready to partyyyyy?' Paratrooper turned country music performer Craig Morgan sounded the rallying cry early in the afternoon as he sang his songs about America and about the 'good Lord above.'

Six acts appeared on stage Saturday at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway in WGNA's annual Countryfest celebration, drawing more than 20,000 fans.

When American Idol star Josh Gracin got stuck in traffic, Australian-born performer Sherrie Austin took over the task of opening the day with the national anthem, then delivered a set of her own countrified hits.

With the gates open at dawn Saturday, the grounds of the raceway quickly filled with fans ranging from low-rise jeans-wearing youths to groovin' grannies in 10-gallon hats. Families sprawled along the half-mile track with lawn chairs and blankets. Many in the brigade of bare bellies were turning a sun-scorched cherry-red by day's end.

And while vendors manned food tents that read French fries, London broil and turkey legs, this was a day of celebrating American music, despite the fact that half of the day's six acts hailed from elsewhere.

Terri Clark, the first female Canadian singer to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, launched into a medley of tunes from an upcoming greatest hits album. After performing 'When Boy Meets Girl,' she said she was going to do a song especially for those in the crowd who were in love. 'If you're not in love, then it's a good time to go pee and use the beer tent,' she quipped. 'And I guarantee you, you'll find love in there.'

Clark also dropped snippets of popular songs of music's past. She covered Warren Zevon's
'Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,' Rod Stewart's rock classic 'Stay with Me' and parts of Neil Young's
'Heart of Gold' and the Allman Brothers' 'Jessica' as she clanged on a cowbell and did a
Chuck Berry-like duckwalk across the stage.

Then she hoisted a toast to Saratoga with a bottle of Tequila and belted out her party song
'I Wanna Do it All,' much to the delight of the crowd.

Keith Urban led his band of barnyard stompers through a rock set that alternated with softer acoustic moments. He connected with the local fans by telling them he had spent the early part of the day on his motorbike taking in the sights of the Spa City.

He payed tribute to Johnny Cash with his rendition of 'I Walk the Line.' When he sang
'I'm going to love somebody like you' during one ballad, it seemed at least half the crowd thought Urban was singing directly to them.

Mike Bennett, guitarist for area band Bluecreek, kicked off the day's activities at 11 a.m. and was impressed. 'It was a real rush. For 20 years, you're playing in local bars, and to play here to all these great people on a great day is awesome,' Bennett said.

It was left to Brad Paisley, part-time actor, recreational fisherman and full-time celebrity since bursting onto the country music scene five years ago, to close the show. Paisley, who lives in a small Alabama town - population 200 - took the stage overlooking a swarm of fans. He strapped on a blue Telecaster and led his six-piece band that included a banjo, pedal steel, fiddle and a red, white and blue bass guitar.

Looking out at the crowd, he dedicated one tune to 'all you rednecks like me who won't be able to find your truck tonight' as fans held up signs saying 'Brad - let me sing 'Whisky' with you,' 'Gone Fishing' and 'Can I Have Your Hat?'

During the show, Paisley threw out guitar picks, covered ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man' and shared relationship tips he said he picked up from 'Dr. Phil.' And when he played his hit 'We Danced,' many did just that, swaying happily into the night.

pictures and words by Thomas Dimopoulos
text published in The Saratogian, July, 2004

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Charlie Daniels' big country ropes in music fans

SARATOGA SPRINGS - There are some a few things you can count on at the annual Country Music Festival every year -
cowboy hats, American flags, smoke, and people.
Lots and lots of people.
(photo at left by thomas dimopoulos)

Twenty-thousand music fans descended upon the Saratoga
Raceway on Saturday for the day-long annual Countryfest music marathon.

Some of country music's biggest stars took the stage during the early evening hours.

Doors for the festival, presented by WGNA-FM, opened at dawn, but the show "officially" kicked off at 11 a.m. with regional favorite the Boot Hill Band, followed by national acts Steve Azar and Mark Wills.

"So far, my favorite is Mark Wills," said Colleen Quinn, who made the trip to the Spa City from Pittsfield, Mass. "His songs are hot, but he needs to work out some," she said, laughing as she waited for Sara Evans to take the stage.

There was lots to do while waiting. A variety of food and beverage vendors lined the track's perimeter. For kids, there was a climbing wall and a Rain Room to cool them off.

"Y'all can get up and dance if you want," Evans said as she came on stage introducing an upbeat country rock song to the audience, which is from her soon-to-be-released CD "Restless." Her happiness was infectious. A relatively new star on the country music scene, she is also a new mom.

"I want to be successful, but I also love being a mom," she said. "I believe I was born to sing and have a family. I really have the best of both worlds."

As she finished up her set with a rhythmic rendition of the Doobie Brothers song "China Grove," she exited the stage to where her 4-year-old son, Avery, and 5-month-old daughter, Olivia, were waiting in the wings - the young girl gurgling in delight as mom scooped her up and "zoomed" her through the air.

One of the main in-between-set attractions was the WGNA walk of stars, where fans could meet and greet their musical heroes. Amongst the faithful ready with cameras and glossy photos was News 10 chief meteorologist Steve Caporizzo and his wife, waiting their turn to meet Charlie Daniels in his big red Liberty Coach.

As a distant quarter of the sky threatened with gray clouds, Caporizzo offered advice. "That is north," he said, pointing to where the silver clouds were accumulating. "That's where the rain is."

As luck would have it, once he stepped away to meet Daniels, the sky opened up and showered the fans with rain. When Caporizzo emerged a few moments later, the sun magically reappeared.

Charlie Daniels had some magic up his sleeve as well, hitting the stage in a trot with fiddle in hand. He used its bow like a magic wand, blessing the masses as far across the track as the eye could see. Behind him, his band pounded, riffed and banged away with tight precision. Alternating between his fiddle and a sunburst Les Paul, Daniels drew the biggest cheers for his reading of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was beamed across the track on the large video screen as the fans dug Daniels' gospel, shook to his barrelhouse boogie and mimed along to his rabble-rousing prose. He closed his set with a "Star-Spangled Banner" finale, fiddle style, then invited Sara Evans and Mark Wills onstage for a breakneck speed version of his 1979 hit "The Devil Went Down To Georgia."

"Did you see that? Now that's what you call a 10th anniversary magic moment," said WGNA's Dick Stark after all had exited the stage and exhilaration hung in the air. People in the crowd waved American flags above a sea of cowboy hats - black , white and safari straw. "Now, the question is this: How do you follow that?" Stark said.

It was up to headliner Lonestar to tackle that. And from the moment lead vocalist Richie McDonald asked the crowd, "How y'all doin' Saratoga Springs?" he won them over. He led the Texas-bred quartet into a string of the group's hits from "I'm Already There" to "Amazed." He dedicated the tune "Not a Day Goes By" to "all the folks lost on Sept. 11."

While Lonestar played, John Reagan was still riding a personal high. Seven hours after his group, the Boot Hill Band, had performed on the same stage as his musical heroes and in front of 20,000 people, Reagan was still shaking his head in wonderment. "You know, I've played in no-name bars and honky-tonks for the past 25 years," the group's drummer said. "This really is the experience of a lifetime."

words and pictures by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, July 2003.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Travis Tritt headlines Countryfest 2002

SARATOGA SPRINGS – On Saturday, they came to celebrate America.

This year's edition of WGNA's Countryfest featured an all-day carnival, a half-dozen musical acts and more than 17,500 country music worshippers at the Saratoga Equine Sports Center.

Area group Vivid kicked off. the festivities in the early-morning hours with a pre-concert party in the parking lot.
"It was awesome,'' Vivid's lead singer, Bev Luse, said later in the day. ''We've played for 20,000 before, on Prospect Mountain for Americade, but this was the best,'' she said before heading out for a club date later in the evening.

The afternoon brought performances from Australian native Keith Urban, who was followed by Collin Raye.
The Arkansas-born multi-platinum artist brought the crowd to its feet with his exaltations - ''Saratoga Springs, youuuu roooock!'' - and a raucous rendition of ''Brown Sugar'' before bidding the crowd farewell. ''Enjoy yourselves. Be kind to each other. God bless the U.S.A.'' while fans in the distant grandstand watched the musicians perform on one of the giant video screens as the sound of guitars echoed and whipped around the track.

On the perimeter of the infield, concertgoers stood 20 deep outside the ''Rain Room'' - where for $1, patrons got to go inside a small green tent and get hosed down with cool water. Others mingled around the food tents for fried dough, subs, hamburgers and - as one sign read - ''Damn Good Beef Jerky.''

There was rock climbing and jumping games, where lines of children waited for their chance to bounce off the interior sides of a huge inflatable blue dog. A T-shirt with one of the stars' faces on it set fans back about $30, while a cowboy hat cost $10. Bandannas ranged between $3 and $5, and one table featured a varied selection of pointy, double-ended ''horns,'' the largest pair of which was labeled $69.95.

Aaron Tippin vaulted up the stage steps as the Pledge of Allegiance was being read, to the final line ''with liberty and justice for all,'' and launched into his song ''Stand for Something'' while the crowd waved red, white and blue flags of all shapes and sizes.
Tippin finished out his set with crowd-pleasing cover versions of ''Taking Care of Business'' and ''Take This Job and Shove It.''

Then it was left to headliner Travis Tritt.
Four cameras fed the images to the giant screens, as Tritt took the stage,
dressed in black and backed by his similarly attired six-piece band. Tritt thanked his fans and strummed his sunburst-colored Les Paul guitar.
''I made myself a promise when I was just a kid,'' he sang. ''I'd mix rock 'n' roll and country, sugar, and that's just what I did.''
A sea of black and white cowboy hats bobbed up and down to the music. The women threw roses, and the men saluted by raising their arms.
The multiple-Grammy Award winner spent most of the 1980s paying his musical dues on the ''honky tonk circuit.'' Today, he has sold 18 million albums.

Tritt sang his hits, striking a particularly appealing tone in a pedal-steel backed cover version of The Eagles' ''Take It Easy.''
He strummed his guitar, jumped up and down and inspired the sun-drenched faithful.
When he sang ''I'm gonna be somebody someday'' to the thousands stretched as wide and far as the eye could see, many in attendance would have said that he already is.

words and pictures by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, July, 2002.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

My Name is Earl cast by Hollywood girl via Saratoga Springs

HOLLYWOOD - Kari Kurto was stressing about the red carpet.
Specifically the one leading into Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium had the Saratoga Springs native concerned that she would trip and perform a less-than-glorious tumble Tuesday night in front all of Hollywood.
Sandra Bullock, Harrison Ford and members of the band Green Day all managed to cross the carpet without incident. But they have had more experience.

Kurto, a 1999 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School, is a casting associate for the new NBC TV show 'My Name is Earl.' Attending last week's People's Choice Awards, she got to see Kelsey Grammer on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium and present the award for Favorite New TV Comedy to her show. It was a nice start to the award season, and a good lead-up to Monday's Golden Globes, where 'My Name is Earl' is nominated for two more awards.

Kurto was born a stone's throw away from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on a day that Liza Minnelli sang on the SPAC stage. A generation later, the 24-year-old lives in the land of cabarets and old chums, where she works at finding people to put on TV and in America's living rooms.

'With 'Earl,' you have the series regulars - Earl, Randy, Catalina,' said Kurto, referring to the show's characters portrayed by actors Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee and Nadine Velazquez, respectively. 'For the other roles, we cast anywhere from eight to 15 people in each episode - a waitress, a guy on the street. Once I scoured the whole town trying to find a male actor with no legs who would be perfect for Earl's world.' She ended up finding that man in People magazine.

Since relocating to Los Angeles, Kurto worked in casting on the TV shows 'Yes, Dear,' 'Come to Papa,' 'Regular Joe' and 'Hot Properties.' There were also several pilots that never got more than a quick look.

'The studios and networks make hundreds of pilots every year, but there are very few that they pick to turn into a series,' she said. 'It's a risky business. But it's pretty exciting when a pilot does get picked up, and it's really rewarding to see that show on television.'

The most recent success for the casting associate is her involvement with 'My Name is Earl.' To be successful in Hollywood, Kurto said, 'It's all who you know. I worked my butt off making contacts. That's how you get things done out here. You just keep bugging people.'

As a teenager growing up in Saratoga Springs, Kurto was involved with drama clubs and took classes at Home Made Theater. And although her high school yearbook lists 'to be "an awesome actress" among her goals, her career aspirations have changed, preferring, she said, to cast others in acting roles.

'I love this side of it, and I get to act almost every day by reading with actors or actresses,' she said.

Her big Hollywood break came in her years at Boston's Emerson College, where she started a casting organization that found actors for roles in independent films shot in the Boston area.

'After I started that organization, that led me to everything,' Kurto said. 'Here I was, this 19-year-old college kid getting a call one day from the VP of casting at Fox, asking me to put some people on tape for a role in the 'Bob Patterson' show,' said Kurto, recalling the show that featured Seinfeld-show alumnus Jason Alexander.

'I did a good job on that and ended up doing an internship with them the following semester in L.A. After I graduated, I was told if I wanted a job I had to come out right then,' Kurto said. 'So I packed my stuff and left within a week and found myself in L.A. I interviewed with (casting director) Dava Waite and she hired me on the spot. We've been working together now for four years.'

Kurto gets homesick for the Spa City and returns a couple of times a year. Her parents owned and operated Bruno's on Union Avenue for most of her childhood. The popular restaurant was known for its Hollywood nostalgia walls lined with posters of Marilyn, Elvis and James Dean, a vintage jukebox, and her dad's red 1949 Buick that sat parked outside.

The contrast between the city where she grew and the one she now calls home is as varied as the as the difference between movie posters on the wall and movie stars in the flesh.

'I've seen Will Smith and David Schwimmer,' she says of the former 'Friends' star. 'But it's all become pretty normal for me. I work on the Paramount Lot where 'Mission Impossible' is shooting, so use your imagination on that one,' said Kurto about the film set that has set paparrazzi scurrying ever since Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes began appearing on European sets together last summer.

Making friends is different as well, Kurto noted. 'Out here you have show business friends, where basically everybody's out to get something from everybody else.'

Her advice to those thinking about making a splash in Hollywood is to get connected. 'It's all about who you know,' she offered. 'Out here, luck is 99 percent of it. It's just being in the right place at the right time.'

Last week, the right place for Kurto was at the Shrine Auditorium watching 'My Name is Earl' go home with the top new comedy show award. She also managed a decent amount of luck on the red carpet.

'I did get to walk on the red carpet,' she reported after the ceremony. 'And I'm happy to admit - I did not trip.'

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian