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John Lamb, Published August 04 2012

Alabama closes up WE Fest

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Saturday’s WE Fest finale brought back more than a few familiar faces to 30 years of the country music festival.

WE Fest founder and former owner Jeff Krueger introduced Alabama, the group he landed to play the first, 10th and 20th versions of the festival.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind that the biggest group in country music came on 30 minutes late once they started “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band),” with the group’s harmonies still strong.

The vocals sounded as good as ever, but singer Randy Owens had technical troubles with his guitar. Still it didn’t seem to spoil the set as they moved into “Tennessee River.”

Owens’ guitar and the full sound returned stronger than ever on “Dixieland Delight,” which featured a rich crowd sing-along and a spirited segue into “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”

Eric Church may have played second fiddle to Alabama on Saturday night, the last night, but he won’t much longer.

After his set, a camera crew followed the singer off stage to show four security guards blocking his path to his bus. Country TV personality Stormy Warren explained the guards would only let Church pass if he agreed to headline the festival next year.

“I’ll be back,” Church said. “And we’ll burn this (place) to the ground.”

Church lit the spark earlier when he strode onstage through stage smoke with just an acoustic guitar, strumming and singing “Country Music Jesus.”

While the singer pays tribute to country icons (“Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”), his roots are as deep in harder stuff.

“I like my country rocking,” he declared in “How ’Bout You.”

He backed up the statement with “I’m Getting Stoned” and “Jack Daniels,” showing a mix of the previous nights’ headliners: the energy of Jason Aldean and the partying appreciation of Toby Keith.

The crowd ate it up, or rather drank it down, especially when he cracked into “Drink in My Hand.” It blew the crowd away, especially with a light show worthy of a headliner and pyrotechnics that rivaled Kid Rock’s from two years ago.

Church showed a softer, more traditional country side with a sweet acoustic “Sinner like Me,” a solo cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s “Country Boy Can Survive,” and “These Boots,” during which he autographed a fan’s cowboy boot.

He closed his set with his chart-topper, “Springsteen,” and proof that Church is a superstar in his own right by getting a sea of cellphones waving in the crowd as they sang along.

Earlier in the day, old friends Sawyer Brown tied John Anderson for most WE Fest appearances at 11. After their standard opener, “Six Days on the Road,” singer Mark Miller announced, “It’s good to be back. We’re going to play you 30 years of music right now.”

At 54, Miller maintains his trademark high-energy performances, moving, dancing and mugging for the crowd and camera.

The group has been around as long as the festival and got its big break winning “Star Search” in 1984.

“I tell my kids we were the original ‘American Idol,’ ” Miller said, launching into classics “Mission Temple” and “Step That Step.”

The band had as much fun onstage as those dancing in the crowd. Different members took turns singing classic rock covers until Miller returned to the mic to sing Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” explaining that the only other time the group performed it in concert was when Alabama was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Miller and company returned for an encore of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and Sawyer Brown’s signature, “Some Girls Do” with Krueger joining the band onstage playing tambourine.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533