A Festival Veteran (Who is Also a Business Consultant) Reviews the Inaugural FairWell Festival


July 2023 marked the first FairWell Fest at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds, just north of Bend, Oregon. C3 Presents, backed by live-entertainment-behemoth Live Nation, proved they weren’t messing about with their inaugural line-up of country and country-adjacent performances. And disappoint they did not— the performances all weekend long surpassed expectations. Three stages across the expansive festival grounds provided us abundant opportunities to stumble upon new artists from the lengthy list of renowned performers. When not totally entranced by the music, we could zoom out to the views of the Cascade Mountain range sitting beyond the stages, lending to the outdoorsy allure of the setting.

The location itself plays a part in the attraction of the weekend, with Bend and the broader Central Oregon area being known for the extensive outdoor activities available right out our front door. This differentiates FairWell from country-festival staple Stagecoach, where there’s not a whole lot to do in the Indio-Palm Springs area other than trying to beat the heat if you’re lucky enough to be near a pool (or otherwise hunker down in some A/C) until you head into the grounds for the day. While the 90+ degree temperatures are about the same for the two events, being able to easily add in a few non-concert activities to your weekend is a major plus at FairWell.

Yes Marge, there was a Ferris Wheel

The Main Stage at sunset

The regional attraction of FairWell was seen in the turnout. The three-day destination festival saw some 60,000 attendees, with an astonishing 30,000 alone for Zach Bryan’s Saturday night headliner set. Those are staggering numbers for a first-year festival; for reference, Redmond (the closest city to the festival grounds) has a population of merely 35,000. And that prompted some of the local concern when news broke earlier this year about FairWell fest hitting the Central Oregon scene. Termed “Bendchella” by less-than-approving locals, there was criticism from groups that the area didn’t have the infrastructure, nor did they want to support a festival of this size (and maybe there’s a point to be taken here, more on that below).

The Music

Day 1:

Friday doors opened at 4pm, which was later than most other three day festivals yet a great move – allowing attendees to minimize the midday heat on Day 1. Despite the drive from our place to the festival grounds only being 17 minutes according to Google Maps, it took us over an hour to get into the festival grounds due to a backup on the freeway exit and a bit of a disorganized line for parking. Luckily a free shuttle was available from multiple points in the parking lot to bring people closer to the festival grounds entrance. The Brook and The Bluff, currently holding a key spot in my daily rotation, was scheduled at 4:30pm, and unfortunately due to the traffic backup we missed their whole set. We tried to keep spirits high despite that snag and bounced to the Infamous Stringdusters at the Crooked stage. Immediately the high-energy, stomp-clapping tone was set for the weekend and all morale was restored.

Morgan Wade was a force to be reckoned with, wonderfully standing out from her female country-music counterparts with her muscle tee (muscles included) and tattoo-sleeved arms. No blonde hair and white cowboy boots here. You may know Wade from her hit “Wilder Days”, but she has so much more going on than just that pop-country single. She was one I added to my “dive-deeper” list.

Morgan Wade

Oklahoma-grown Turnpike Troubadours brought the house down under the stars on Friday night. Needless to say the group is back in full swing now, despite their 2019-21 hiatus. It’s unclear if it was because of the size of the band or the size of the crowd compared to earlier sets at this stage, but unfortunately the sound system for the Troubadours wasn’t to their favor. We were standing about as far back from the stage speakers as you could get without being in earshot of the soundstage monitors, and the sound was muffled. At one point, the lead mic went out for a clip of the song as well.

Unfortunately, the minor flaws of Day 1 culminated with gridlock traffic in the parking lot. The happily-accepted shuttle from earlier was nowhere to be seen, and neither in the evening darkness was any signage directing people back to the parking areas from which they were shuttled. Once we finally found our car, we were greeted with gridlock traffic for the single exit available. It took us nearly 2 hours to get home, from the time we exited the festival grounds to pulling into our driveway.

Day 2:

If Day 1 was the trial run, Day 2 was the real deal. Things were far more buttoned down. Doors opened at a sweltering 12pm and people took it to heart. Maybe it was the residual parking trauma from the day before or because the countdown to Zach Bryan was officially on, but people did in fact show up early and started funneling into the ground under the noon sun. It seems only first timers at Stagecoach and other festivals start that early. Those who had battled through Friday parking knew better for Saturday, and nearby street parking became the hot commodity that filled up way before the front row parking even had much to show for itself. Even the Applebee’s and 7/11 parking lots down the road were starting to fill up, much to the likely chagrin of the junior managers on duty.

We started our music adventures of the day with Rayland Baxter at the Crooked stage, and he blew the crowd away. Standing at an impressive 6 foot 5 without his Stetson, he rocked the socks off of all the barefoot dancers in the grass. You might recognize his song “Yellow Eyes”, but Baxter’s storytelling in “Mr. Rodriguez”, “Willy’s Song” and “Olivia” should not be overlooked. As anticipated, the heat was no joke. Baxter had to pause his set at one point to help direct the medic team to someone who had gone down battling heat exhaustion. Around the metal barriers, the festival crew started tossing water bottles into the crowd, which kept the energy high.

Band of Horses and then Charley Crockett were back to back at Crooked, so we stayed put at this stage through the afternoon – except for sheltering in some shade and refueling with some chicken tenders (naturally) between sets. Crockett’s distinctive Texas-to-New-Orleans-infused look and drawl is second to none, and the same goes for his story of becoming a musician. Crockett also leans heavily and skillfully into storytelling in his songs, with tracks like “The Man from Waco”, “July Jackson” and “Tom Turkey.” My favorite is the hit “Welcome to Hard Times,” the title of his second record.

Next up was Sheryl Crow, who has truly never looked better – if that’s even possible for her. Picture: blonde hair blowing in the breeze, “Soak Up The Sun” roaring and the sun beginning to set behind her. It was hard not to be captivated. She looked so good we started questioning how old she actually is, and as I’m sure you’d agree from the pictures, 61 is treating her well.

Shreyl Crow

As Sheryl’s set started to wind down, it was in-or-out commitment time for Zach Bryan’s show. It was already packed, and if we left now we would never be able to make it back to our current spot. We were already mentally in it for the long haul, and hunkered down for the hour in between sets.

Despite only three years on the scene, Zach Bryan has reached unbelievable popularity – and deservedly so. While he’s certainly gotten his reps in the 170-something concerts he’s played since 2019, he delivers an engaging and charismatic performance alongside his band.

A quick tangent on Bryan, since I wholeheartedly believe he deserves the fame and fortune he’s received: Bryan served in the Navy for 7 years before diving head-first into his music career. The 26 year old rose to fame by going viral for his song “Heading South,” which he recorded on his phone outside his barracks back in September 2019. He has since put out over 80 songs, has been climbing the charts and won 2023 “New Male Artist of the Year”  by the Academy of Country Music.

Zach Bryan

If you’ve seen Bryan in concert before or seen a recording, you know that every fan sings every word to every song for the entire two-hour set. It is a shared experience in and of itself. After playing the first few chords of “Heading South,” Bryan paused and asked the crowd in the front to part in the middle. He invited a fan named Andrew up to the stage to sing with him, and Andrew rocked it so much that Zach gave him the floor. The video capturing the whole thing has since gone viral on TikTok (video linked here).  Zach closed the night out with a ten-minute rendition of his hit “Revival” (one of my favorites); during each chorus he introduces a member of his band who hits a solo on through the next chorus. Trust me when I say you no longer need a gym membership after you jump-dance through that entire song.

We had gotten lucky with street parking so we were able to make it home decently. We did not want to risk the wrath of any junior manager looking to earn his stripes by calling the local tow truck. Unfortunately it seems like Friday’s car backups were only magnified on Saturday night, from what was posted online afterwards.

Day 3:

The heat had started to get to us and we knew we wouldn’t make it as long on Sunday if we started as early as we did the day before. The doors opened at noon, but we didn’t enter until 4pm to see Shane Smith & The Saints. This group is newer to the country-alternative scene too, but you may recognize some of their songs from various episodes of the popular series “Yellowstone.”

Right after on the same stage Yola, adorned with iconic orange hair and a purple frock, who took us to church for 60 blissful minutes. Listen to her version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and you’ll understand. It was the addition of acts like hers that made FairWell Fest so appealing. While Yola certainly isn’t a country star, her soulful-alternative sound melds nicely with the country-forward lineup.

Golden hour was in full swing when Mt. Joy hit the main Deschutes stage at 8pm. Unfortunately, Alexander Abraham was scheduled at the same time at the Metolius stage and we weren’t going to be able to make both sets. Whether Mt. Joy got lucky or their manager drove a good bargain, but the sunset ambiance could not have been better and lent itself to the band’s chill indie and little-bit-mystical vibe. I’ve had their most recent release “Bathroom Light” playing on repeat, and seeing it live – just as the sun dipped behind the mountains – exceeded my expectations. They also sprinkled in a couple of covers: “Old Town Road” (Lil Nas X) and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers).

Nathaniel Rateliff started at the Crooked stage the same minute Mt. Joy was scheduled to end at the main stage, and it seemed like everybody had the same strategy in mind to go from one to the next. The floodgates opened and the masses swept from one end of the grounds to the other, just in time for the crowd to perk up with “I Need Never Get Old”– the perfect upbeat song to get people right into it. Nathaniel Rateliff was top of my list for the weekend as a long time favorite of mine, and his crack band did not disappoint in the slightest. Spin praises his “massive, alluring” voice and I’d say that’s a spot-on description. Rateliff is a force to be reckoned with.

“Blue skies, nothing but blue skies…” as Willie is wont to sing

Closing out the weekend was the one and only Willie Nelson. There was a noticeably different (mellower, older) crowd compared to Zach Bryan’s the night before, but that was the beauty of this lineup. In usual form, Willie was cracking jokes and showcasing his trademark double braids. His son Micah, of the band Particle Kid, sang alongside him. Even at 91, Willie can still hold an audience!

All in all, FairWell Fest 2023 made quite a splash and I hope Deschutes County considers bringing it back again. Here is my round-up of takeaways from the weekend, no need for the promoters to hire an expensive business consulting firm:

  • Pros:
    • Scenery and surrounding area – It’s hard to do better than Central Oregon.
    • Layout of grounds – Well-laid out grounds and 3 full stages with no cross-fire sound, audio bleed can really suck.
    • Easy entry, minimal lines – Even at peak entry, we didn’t wait more than a couple minutes to enter.
    • Safety – it was uncommonly peaceful. It was reported there were only 3 arrests during the entire weekend.
    • Overall: much more appealing than Stagecoach.
  • Cons:
    • Parking + Transportation:
      • Nice that they have free parking, but the lack of parking logistics to get people in and out of the lots each day was a huge hassle. Easy to fix next time.
      • There were no shuttle or public transportation options, which in my mind encourages the wrong behavior – whether that be parking in the Applebee’s lot or getting behind the wheel after a few too many beers during your favorite set.
    • Heat:
      • Well into the 90’s everyday
        • Multiple people across different shows passed out from heat exhaustion
      • Not a ton of shaded areas to sit or stand
      • Given the foregoing and the fact that most attendees are visiting from elsewhere (and therefore are not accustomed to this weather) I think it’d be worth considering holding this festival in the shoulder seasons, before or after summer. Additionally, summertime is already such a popular season to visit the area that adjusting it to off-season could drive the same sort of economic stimulus to the area during a time where business isn’t already booming. And that will keep the raised-eyebrows local folks happy as the visiting dollars come to town.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.