GEORGE, Grant County — A giant mass of star spangled bikini tops and sweaty dude backs globbed toward the gates. “Go Cougs!” chants broke out for no apparent reason. Inside, thousands of people traipsed across the Gorge Amphitheatre’s familiarly dusty fields, braving blisters and unrelenting heat to see their favorite country artists, and discover new favorites, at the ninth annual Watershed festival.
Remember music festivals?
The shoulder-to-shoulder crush around the stage. Girls bopping atop their guys’ shoulders. Laid-back lawn people in beach chairs justifying overpriced beers, because whatevs, it’s a festival.
All those music festival hallmarks from simpler times (2019) came roaring back in a big way on Friday when Washington’s premier country fest marked the state’s biggest concert (by a country mile) since the pandemic hit more than a year ago. And boy, were fans thirsting for a good time, eager to let loose after a tumultuous 16 months of lockdown restrictions that forced the concert industry into an extended hiatus.
“It’s been a long time, baby,” headliner Tim McGraw said later, summing up the mood of the day. “And you know what happens when it’s been a long time. You let it all go, and we’re gonna let it go hard.”
Amid a wavering festival market, Watershed has remained a top draw in the Northwest, consistently selling out the 27,500-capacity venue in recent years. On Friday’s opening of the three-day fest, only limited VIP tickets remained and it sure felt like a sold-out affair by the time country star Russell Dickerson sprung onto the main stage. Social distancing was more or less impossible, but no less so than sitting in the bleachers at a Sounders game among a comparably sized crowd.
Asked ahead of the show if any COVID-19 safety protocol would be implemented, Live Nation, which controls the Gorge and White River amphitheaters, said only that it would comply with state guidelines. However, state requirements on outdoor venues and indoor facilities under 10,000 capacity were dropped at the beginning of the month and there was nothing noticeably in place at the Gorge. Throughout the day, I spotted as many masks as I did “Drunk Wives Matter” T-shirts: one.
Everything seemed to be as it was before the pandemic, including the landmark venue’s unbeatable scenery.
Whether all this sounds like a much-needed return to normalcy or a little jarring is in the eye of the beholder. But half way into Dickerson’s good-time set that bounced between day-drinkin’ bro-downs and tender ballads, it was clear from the blown-up grins on the Jumbotrons and hillside dance parties that thousands of overjoyed fans were having one of the best weekends they’ve had in a long while.
“I knew it was gonna be lit, but I didn’t know it was gonna be this lit. Woo-hoo!” Dickerson exclaimed after romping through his breezy hit “Every Little Thing.”
Dickerson seemed a little gassed at times, understandable for a guy working the catwalk as hard as he was and wearing jeans in 100 degree heat. Water lines were predictably long, and empty tallboys became refillable water bottles for more than a few fans.
Following Dickerson’s “RD party,” which found the singer challenging a front-row fan to a game of beer pong and pouring cold ones down his bandmates’ throats, country-pop queen Kelsea Ballerini reset the energy with fun and stirring songs about crying homecoming queens and hating nightclubs.
With her unwavering golden voice and understated charisma, Ballerini didn’t need to lean on country’s can’t-miss party tropes to command the massive crowd, which she seemed a little in awe of, noting how she played Watershed’s smaller Next From Nashville stage for up-and-comers years ago. Still, her wine-drinking anthem “Hole in the Bottle” went over as well as an impeccable pinot with medium-rare rib-eye.
Though she has her share of turn-up tunes, Ballerini was at her best compassionately singing about small-town social dynamics (“Half of My Hometown”) and duetting with her husband, Morgan Evans (who performs Saturday), on the sort of mushy romance number she disavowed during her whimsical “I Hate Love Songs” just minutes earlier.
But it was hard to top McGraw, who unified a crowd that ranged from teens to boomers, moving through three decades of hits with a workman’s precision. The chiseled country titan emerged in the middle of a dark stage to a roaring crowd, easing in with fiddle-laced heart-warmer “Just to See You Smile.”
Stalking the stage like a sleeveless tiger in boot-cut jeans (which may have been painted on), McGraw dusted off a number of ’90s gems, from the vivid storytelling of “Don’t Take the Girl” to country rocker “Indian Outlaw,” sprinkling in a few newbies off last year’s “Here on Earth.”
It’s been more than two years since the Columbia River canyon’s been filled with the sound of a bowl-filling crowd singing in unison, and fans were happy to oblige the second the chorus hit on McGraw’s classic “Live Like You Were Dying.” You’d have thought the 20,000-some fans had sat in on a rehearsal.
It was as if no one had missed a beat.