Brooklyn — Neil Diamond isn’t the first artist that comes to mind when you think about country music. But as the familiar sounds of “Sweet Caroline” pumped through the grounds of Faster Horses on Friday, Diamond’s chorus struck an especially poignant chord.
“Good times never seemed so good,” his song rang out, during an early evening between-performances set from the fest’s DJ-in-residence, Dee Jay Silver, as the crowd roared back the familiar follow-up chant, “so good! So good! So good!”
So good, indeed. Tens of thousands of fans packed the grounds of Michigan International Speedway on Friday for the first day of Faster Horses, the three-day country music festival that extends through Sunday.
But this year’s Faster Horses is more than just a country music festival. It’s the biggest concert event to hit Michigan since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the live music touring industry in March 2020, and it’s a return to the familiar concertgoing rituals of music fans in Southeastern Michigan. So what if it rained most of the day. If anything, that only added to the bring-it-on atmosphere.
“We back,” reads a graffiti-style scrawl written on a wall in the middle of the festival grounds. It’s the unofficial motto of this year’s festival, cribbed from Jason Aldean’s 2019 hit of the same name, and it signifies the return of the fest, the return of live music and the return of normalcy for festgoers.
“It feels great. I feel like I’m back to normal,” said 21-year-old Cassidy Smith of Garden City, who came to Faster Horses with a group of five friends. “Everyone here has good vibes, and I couldn’t have asked for a better time.”
Walking through the masses on Friday, everything seemed, well, normal: the American flags, bikini tops, cowboy boots, ripped jean shorts, sleeveless shirts, tank tops, camouflage, crushed beer cans on the ground, girls hoisted up on shoulders, guys hoisted up on shoulders: all par for the course for Faster Horses, now in its 8th year.
There was little evidence there was ever a pandemic. Masks? Nowhere to be seen. Social distancing? Not a chance, bucko. Fans were pressed up shoulder to shoulder, swaying with the music, raising their Bud Light tallboys to the sky and celebrating that most normal of summertime rituals: enjoying an outdoor concert.
Or an outdoor festival, rather. Concerts and festivals are different animals, and at festivals the crowd is a little looser, a little freer, a little drunker. At concerts fans have to go home afterward, at festivals they go back to their campsite, where the party don’t stop until the sun comes up. It’s a three-day rally, but given the pent-up excitement from navigating through the pandemic and the absence of live music for the last 15 months, Friday’s attendees can be forgiven if they partied like there wasn’t a tomorrow. (There is, of course, two of them to come: Thomas Rhett headlines Saturday’s activities, and Jason Aldean closes out the fest on Sunday night.)
Luke Combs brought the house down with his 100-minute headlining set, which found him performing his hit “When it Rains it Pours” in the middle of a steady downpour. He shotgunned a beer early in his set during “1, 2 Many” and perhaps appeased the weather gods, as the skies cleared by the time he capped his performance with an encore performance of “Beer Never Broke My Heart.”
On his head, Combs wore a blue mesh cap emblazoned with the Ford logo, a nod to both the local economy and the festival’s roots: the name Faster Horses comes from a quote that is attributed to Henry Ford, who supposedly once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
As a festival, Faster Horses has netted a base of fans that come once and return with friends; talk to a few festivalgoers and you’ll inevitably hear stories of fans coming back year after year, each time with a larger group — husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers, sisters, cousins, roommates and new fest friends.
Tyler Welch, 21, of Petersburg was attending his second Faster Horses, this time with a group of about 30 family and friends. He had tickets for 2020’s festival and held on to them during the pandemic and was stoked to return this weekend.
“It’s amazing. After being locked up for so long, being here with this many people, everyone being together, it’s a great time,” he said. Welch wore a Phoenix Suns basketball jersey, and passersby were either saluting him or razzing him about the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA Finals. (“Suns in six,” was his standard line.)
“I prayed the festival would be back this year, and now that it’s here, it’s just super fun,” he said.
Ken Rieger and his brother, Dave, arrived at the festival at 9 a.m. Thursday, when the campgrounds opened, and spent seven hours setting up their campsite, a Caribbean-themed Tiki bar that includes a bridge that extends over two moats. (They won a contest for best campsite at the festival back in 2016.)
Ken was there with 25 friends, a group that has steadily grown since the two brothers came by themselves to the festival seven years ago.
“It’s so exciting to be back here, because it’s like a family reunion,” says Ken, 51, of Pinckney. “A lot of these friends, we only see them here, and so it’s great to be able to see them again.”
Their Tiki bar is open from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., so the Reigers had a big weekend in front of them. But they’ve been waiting a long time for this, so they’re ready. So good, so good, so good.