Mon August 14, 2023

By Jeff Smithpeters


Mark Wills, Georgia Thunderbolts, Mariah Howard run down that evening sun at hottest Melon Fest Saturday night in years

47Th Annual Watermelon Festival The Georgia Thunderbolts Mark Wills Mariah Howard 2023 Watermelon Idol Winner Tj Kyle
Mark Wills, Georgia Thunderbolts, Mariah Howard run down that evening sun at hottest Melon Fest Saturday night in years

Mark Wills, center, performed as headliner to close the 47th Hope Watermelon Festival Saturday night.

Hope was treated to a three-hour concert as the capper to the 47th Watermelon Festival last night as The Georgia Thunderbolts provided roaring Southern Rock, the Watermelon Idol talent contest winner Mariah Howard of Benton sang pretty and Mark Wills and his band, a last-minute but high-quality sub for The Marshall Tucker Band, which cancelled, brought the hits and a diverse set list.

The first act, the Thunderbolts, played for over 40 minutes, mostly cuts from their debut album Can I Get a Witness, beginning with a rousing “Be Good to Yourself” that alerted the crowd this would be an onslaught. Without pause, they proceeded to Can I Get a Witness’ opening song, “Take It Slow,” which didn’t, but what it did do was provide ample chance for the swirling guitar solos, stomping drums, questing voice and exploring bass to show us what makes this band so distinctive. That song’s verse refrain, “You may think that I’m insane,” summed up the thoughts of so many of us persevering through the 98-degree heat in the name of Southern Rock.

T.J. Kyle of the Georgia Thunderbolts sings into the blaze of the ebbing day as his band opened the concert Saturday evening.

“It’s hot ain’t it?” lead singer T.J. Kyle said, before the band surged into the moderate tempo “So You Want to Change the World,” the Thunderbolts’ optimistic answer to The Beatles’ “Revolution.” “I hope you’re gonna,” T.J. Kyle sings. The instrumental breaks, featuring stately sustains by the song’s lead guitarist, was enough to convince it is possible, even if changing the thermostat seemed beyond us.

The band took on the mighty warhorse by the Allman Brothers, “Midnight Rider,” finding new mysteries in it. It strutted through its original, “It’s Alright,” a showcase for the interplay of its two guitarists, Logan Talbert and Riley Couzzart. “Ain’t Got No Money” was another cover song, but one that let T.J. Kyle inhabit the spirit of a one hen rooster.  In “Looking for an Old Friend,” which shows an REM influence (see their “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” which “Looking for an Old Friend” actually seems to answer), amid the slithery slide guitar filigree, Kyle showed his competition for rock vocal power and range is none other than Steve Perry in his best days.

“Dancing With the Devil” was a Skynyrd-flavored cautionary tale about the wages of sin and its lyrics about poking the fire, being burned, wondering why you’re in Hell went together well with the day’s weather. But, as Kyle sang, “If you need some inspiration/call on me and I’ll be there.” We definitely believed. They closed with “Lend a Hand” and did not play their new single.  They could have played another half hour, but who could blame them considering the heat?

As I wrote on Instagram after their turn, The Georgia Thunderbolts blew out the sun, and temperatures began to drop fast by the time Mariah Howard, this year’s winner of Watermelon Idol came out.  The Benton native turned in a tour de force run through “The Goodness of God,” a Christian Contemporary piece calling for climactic high notes at the end.  Her willowy, folky voice met the challenge admirably, featuring cut-offs similar to those of Dolores O’Riordan on “Zombie.” It was a rendition full of choices that brought new life to the familiar song.

Watermelon Idol winner Mariah Howard, of Benton, provided a rendition of "The Goodness of God," that abounded in intriguing interpretive choices.

The anticipation then built for Grand Ole Opry star Mark Wills for about 20 minutes as gear and lighting were set up. When Wills finally emerged from the dark of downstage, he and his band proved they were worth the wait. He played his hits, each so evocative of story and scene, and also brought things down for some touching solo acoustic work. The sound engineering of his and his band’s performance was superlative, with great separation among the instruments and voices. Wills himself was charming, self-effacingly funny and totally engaged throughout.  

He got things started with “Jacob’s Ladder,” “I’m Not Sorry,” then spoke for the crowd when he said he was glad someone turned off that light back there (the sun) because he was feeling like a batch of McDonald’s fries. It was an honor, he said, to play in the stead of the Marshall Tucker Band but unsure of what he’d be facing. He asked for applause from the country music fans. It showed an overwhelming majority of attendees, who then were treated to “High, Low and In Between.”

Next, Wills played his first number one record, which he said he heard had been so many people’s wedding songs and first dance songs, a McCartneyesque piano ballad name of “I Do (Cherish You).”  After this one, Wills credited the Georgia Thunderbolts, “who live just up the road from me,” for a fine performance and congratulated Mariah Howard on her Watermelon Idol win, then acceded to a request for a thrown guitar pick.  “You can’t catch,” Will said.  “Wanna bet?”  It’s not known whether the bet was accepted but we quickly found out the requester could not catch.

Expressing gladness for a fan “blowing up my skirt,” Wills took the band into a new song being considered for the next album, “The Night Ain’t Even Over Yet,” that starts off like a new Mercedes and gets the engine humming nicely with guitars glinting.  “Almost Doesn’t Count,” a mid-tempo lover’s lament is tailored well for Wills’ supple tenor. After this performance, Wills told the crowd the merchandise came courtesy of a partnership with a veterans-owned business.  He said he didn’t like to bring politics to shows, but the next song reflected his belief that this country has “kind of gone off track.”  “Looking for America” evoked closed factories in towns with churches full of people “unafraid to say God’s name out loud.”

Wills and his band played “Wish You Were Here,” “Everything There Is to Know About You,” “Loving Every Minute,” with its pleasantly wandering chord patterns and soaring solos, then told the story of himself at four years old singing a particularly suggestive Conway Twitty song and his mother responding he was not to do it again.

He said the early-80s country era was also special to himself and the band.  “This question,” Wills said, “Has nothing to do with geography or college football.  Do we have any Alabama fans here tonight?” The crowd’s answer was yes, of course, and then began the opening riff of “The Closer You Get,” whose opening verse and first chorus was played then led into “Dixieland Delight,” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).” Wills’ vocal impression of Randy Owen was incredibly close.

Wills went back to his own considerable batch of hits with “She’s In Love,” a yearning ballad Alabama might have produced for their Feels So Right album. Before the next cut, Wills warned those from Illinois they were going to hate it. It was 2001’s “I Hate Chicago,” a not-so-good-natured but well-deserved ribbing of that toddling town prompted after Sara met some guy named Tony, a story the song’s bridge goes further into, followed by the query “Guess where they live now.”

As a guitarist took a break, Wills played gorgeous acoustic guitar as he performed the Dan Seals-Robert McDill song, “Everything that Glitters (Is Not Gold),” with as fresh a voice as if he had just started.  The next tune, by Alan Jackson, “Ace of Hearts” featured Johnny Myers’ galloping rhythm guitar. Next was “Don’t Laugh at Me,” a poignant, bone-lonely Pagliacci dirge about a grief too many of us have experienced.  The closer was the 2002 number one song of the year, “Nineteen Something” to finish an evening in which Wills looked and sounded nowhere close to cheesy and, in fact, in the parlance of those times, more than righteous.