Rock On The River capitalizes with country music in ‘pivotal year’

Country star Tim Hicks engages with the crowd on Friday during Rock On The River at the Mountjoy Historical Conservation Area. While rock remains the focal point of the musical festival, country music was a welcomed addition for many attendees.

JORDAN HORROBIN/THE DAILY PRESS

Dane and Carly Freake did not attend Rock On The River in any of its first three years. But when they heard country star Tim Hicks was in this year’s lineup, they bought tickets as soon as they could.

On Friday, they stood front row in the VIP section at the Mountjoy Historical Conservation Area (Participark) to watch Hicks’ 13-song set, singing a healthy majority of the words along the way.

“I mean, when else are you going to see someone like that in our hometown?” Carly said.

The answer is, well, never. Rock On The River, which took place Friday and Saturday at the Participark, is a music lover’s best bet to find big-name artists – especially now that mega-festival Stars and Thunder flamed out after two years.

While Rock On The River remains true to its rock-n-roll roots, there is ample opportunity to grow the event by dipping into other genres and appealing to a broader audience. Organizers heard such requests from residents, which is why a few country artists were added this year for the first time.

Roughly 3,500 tickets were sold, according to TFEC chair John Olavesen, making this Rock On The River the biggest one yet.JORDAN HORROBIN/THE DAILY PRESS

The injection of country music was strategic, as the three selected artists– Maddie Storvold, The Road Hammers and Tim Hicks – were given the three earliest timeslots on the main stage Friday evening.

Tim Hicks, a pseudo-headliner, was finished by 8:45 – a full two hours before the night’s actual headliner, the Sheepdogs, began. The reason, according to Timmins Festivals and Events Committee (TFEC) chair John Olavesen, was to see if country fans cared enough to show up a little early.

“We were getting a lot of requests for country,” Olavesen said. “So that’s why we thought we’d try it out early on Friday and this way we’re able to determine by the crowds if it’s a success or not.”

It sure looked like a success, with well over a thousand fans of all ages packed against the metal fences to watch Hicks, a St. Catharines native. He wore a faded black t-shirt, a black ball cap and ripped jeans during his high-energy set, which was heavy on electric guitar and light on twang.

“The number one thing I hear from people who aren’t country fans is, they say, ‘Tim Hicks, I’m not a fan of country but you’re alright,’” Hicks said with a laugh before his show.

In a way, that made him the ideal element for Rock On The River’s country music litmus test. His musical influences growing up ranged from Blue Rodeo to AC/DC. Then again, he does sing about trucks, stronger beer and greasy John Deere caps, too.

After Hicks – and to no one’s surprise – the crowd size, energy and excitement grew in a way that showed why rock music remains the focal point of the event (it’s in the festival name, after all).

Tyler Connolly, lead singer of Theory, performs the headline set Saturday night.JORDAN HORROBIN/THE DAILY PRESS

On Friday, The Trews played a versatile set that included a surprise cover of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, while The Sheepdogs’ lead guitarist Jimmy Bowskill shredded solos with such flair they looked like out-of-body experiences. On Saturday, Red Sun Rising lead singer Mike Protich delivered exceptional vocals (and perhaps the best set of the weekend), while Theory ended the night with a slew of old radio hits.

But by adding country music, TFEC appeased a new group of fans who helped make this year’s Rock On The River the biggest yet in terms of ticket sales (roughly 3,500 total) and corporate sponsorship.

That bodes well for the direction Olavesen hopes the festival will continue trending ahead of next year’s five-year anniversary, whether that means adding a third day, expanding the country music selection, pursuing bigger names or otherwise.

“I know TFEC had a five-year plan, where we wanted to really, that fifth year everyone wanted to really step it up,” he said. “This year’s going to be a really pivotal year to see how big that fifth year will be.”

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