The inaugural Off the Rails Country Music Fest happened on Saturday and Sunday in a suburban stadium with no mass transit -- no rails, trails or buses to get out-of-towners there. Just a tollway. When AEG Live gave this thing its name, they meant it.
Yet Toyota Stadium in Frisco -- normally the home of FC Dallas -- saw booming attendance during Off the Rails' kickoff slate on Saturday, as baritones Chris Young and Blake Shelton topped the all-star country bill.
The festival chug-chug-chugs along Sunday with heartthrob Sam Hunt and rockin' country provocateur Eric Church scheduled to headline.
Saturday's performers certainly gave it their best. Sole female act Ashley Monroe put her stirring, Pam-Tillis-esque voice to work as folks filed into their stadium seats mid-afternoon. After Monroe, traditionalist Joe Nichols did his adoptive hometown of Tyler, Texas, proud by channeling the country drip and common-man spirit of Merle Haggard. He even covered Hag-associated classics "Big City" and "Misery and Gin."
Denton's Eli Young Band flexed arena muscle, too, on a rendition of Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls." But singer Mike Eli and company didn't need others' hits to make a splash at Off the Rails -- they had clusters of fans singing along with plenty of their own, "Crazy Girl" and "Drunk Last Night" included.
Chris Young, after giving a nod to his formative days fronting the house band at Cowboys in Arlington, connected in a way that we hadn't seen before from the Tennessee native. His tunes "Gettin' You Home," "Voices," "Lonely Eyes" and even the drinking anthem "Aw Naw" packed extra punch.
Maybe Young pushed extra hard because an inspirational country music figure was watching from side-stage. At one point, Young directed the live festival cameras and the crowd's attention to the great Randy Travis, who waved and beamed from his seat.
It was heartwarming to see the all-ages crowd go crazy at the sight of Travis, who's still on the mend after a life-threatening stroke and other health issues sidelined him in 2013.
The low-voiced legend got another moment later when headliner Blake Shelton brought Travis out on stage briefly to bask in the love.
Shelton, naturally, received the most enthusiastic response of the day from the stadium crowd, offering raucous solo hits and on-stage duets with both Monroe and Young.
No, the music on stage at Off the Rails didn't disappoint. But other things threatened to, um, derail the entire experience.
Crowd flow was a huge problem on the concourse level of Toyota Stadium, which was really the only option for moving around. Overly long beer and food lines jutted out seemingly every hundred feet, preventing natural movement for folks trying to get to their sections or to restrooms.
It was possible to spend the majority of one's time in line for something or trying to get around lines. Add to that the fact that Toyota Stadium has very few shaded areas and, obviously, no green spaces. The adjacent food truck fair available to attendees didn't provide much of a respite, either, as it was set up in a parking lot.
Perhaps we're spoiled by more pleasant festival experiences at locales such as Fair Park, the Reunion lawn and Plano's Oak Point park, but we expect more regarding atmosphere, especially when the weather is as accommodating as it was Saturday.
Great performances or not, too much is lost inside a harsh, unforgiving concrete bowl.