Saturday night’s concert and patriotic extravaganza is an annual event in Provo, at LaVell Edwards Stadium on the Brigham Young University campus — part of the celebrations of America’s Freedom Festival, which include a parade that is scheduled to start in Provo on Monday at 9 a.m.
The event kicked off with elements not usually seen at concerts: Speeches, a flyover of F-35 fighter jets, Osmond singing the national anthem backed by a choir, and an appearance by the U.S. Army’s Golden Knight skydiving team between Osmond’s brief set and McGraw’s hourlong performance.
Col. Craig R. Andrle, USAF, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, talked about the critical role F-35 jets play to the role of “protecting our freedom.” He also praised the state, saying “Utah’s support of the military is the best I’ve seen in my career.”
For many in Utah and beyond, attending Stadium of Fire is a family tradition, regardless of who the headline act is. Maybe that’s why it seemed like it took the majority of the crowd, except for some closest to the stage, a few songs to warm up when McGraw took the stage. (Compare that reception to most concerts — for example, last month’s shows by country star Garth Brooks last month at Rice-Eccles Stadium — where the audience is loud and engaged from the beginning, entertaining the performer as much as the performer is entertaining them.)
For the first couple of songs, most of the audience stayed seated, and didn’t seem too invested in McGraw’s performance. That changed when McGraw played his hit, “Live Like You Were Dying,” and the entire crowd rose to its feet to sing along.
His “Cowboy in Me” also saw fans singing along, though an accompanying video that played on a screen behind McGraw — which included a brief clip of a couple kissing in a bathtub — didn’t seem to connect with the stadium audience.
McGraw also sang his 1994 song “Indian Outlaw,” his breakout hit — a song that was criticized at the time for its Native American cliches and hasn’t aged well since. It features such lyrics as “Half Cherokee and Choctaw, My baby, she’s a Chippewa” and “All my friends call me Bear Claw / The Village Chieftain is my paw-paw / He gets his orders from my maw-maw.” (Utah is home to eight different tribal nations.)
On the floor of the stadium, young children and families danced, and couples swayed during the slow songs. There also were some breathtaking moments, notably when he sang his 1997 hit “Just to See You Smile,” and most of the 63,000 attending the sold-out show lit up the flashlights on their phones.
McGraw, who played Stadium of Fire in 2016, told the crowd that Utah has the “nicest people in the world” and also got emotional after his performance of “Humble and Kind,” where the crowd not only sang along, but carried portions of the song themselves as he watched. A group of family members in the stands wore matching shirts with the song title; they also held a sign with a photo of Nathan Russell Carr, a Spanish Fork man who died after a trench collapse on a construction site in October 2020. The poster included a touching message, with the hashtag: #inhonorofnatedosomethinggreat.
There was no shortage of red, white and blue pride among the stadium’s audience. That included many men wearing shirts with guns depicted on them, and a young girl wearing a “Back the Blue” shirt (in support of police), among others.
Organizers work to steer the show away from overt political messaging, but that has not always been the case. In past years, conservative commentators Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have served as emcees. Last year, after the show was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, two country artists known for their right-wing followings — Lee Greenwood and Collin Raye — led the bill, though they were joined with Utah singer and “American Idol” alumnus David Archuleta.
After McGraw’s set, a group of fire dancers, accompanied by Utah violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, brought a circus-like atmosphere to the stage. Then came the evening’s highlight, the grand finale for which Stadium of Fire is named: The largest stadium fireworks show in the United States.
LaVell Edwards Stadium shook with perfectly timed fireworks shooting into the air, bursting into color with loud booms. They were coordinated along with large jets of flames inside the stadium, and a powerful arrangement of hit songs — including Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” Katy Perry’s timeless “Firework,” Alicia Keys’ even better “Girl on Fire” and The Trammps’ classic “Disco Inferno.”
The Stadium of Fire event celebrated what Fourth of July has become known for: patriotism, freedom and fireworks.