PROVO — The Stadium of Fire, held Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, began reverently and built to a deafening roar.
"Tonight we begin on a serious note," host Chad Lewis said while introducing the evening's first act, a musical rendition of the Gettysburg Address, part of a tribute to the Civil War.
Immediately after, the Stadium of Fire Chorus began singing "God Bless the U.S.A" while a group of paragliders flew into the stadium, carrying the American flag.
"That's what I call getting things off to a flying start," Lewis said.
The National Anthem was then sung, first by a video of a 13-year-old David Archuleta singing on the Stadium of Fire stage and then by Archuleta himself, who took over the duties from his younger self after a few lines of lyrics.
Archeleta, a Utah native and American Idol runner-up, was greeted warmly by his home crowd, but the real volume came when headliner Brad Paisley took to the stage, greeted by screams and a storm of camera flashes from the crowd.
Kayla Johnson and her grandmother Annette Reid attended the event together, wearing matching cowgirl hats and Brad Paisley t-shirts.
"He's one fine looking man," Kayla Johnson said.
Johnson's and Reid's admiration for Paisley went beyond mere looks. Reid said his music "makes you feel good" and Johnson said his songs have emotional depth.
"His music, I think, it's more heartfelt than other country songs," Johnson said.
Sara Torgerson and her son Aaron stopped at the event to see Paisley on a road trip from their home in Whitefish, Mont. to Reno.
"I like his humor," Torgerson said. "He's obviously a very good entertainer and guitarist, but I like anybody that can laugh at themselves."
Paisly didn't say much during his performance, focusing instead on his music. When he did address the crowd, expressed his gratitude for members of the armed services and his love for the United States.
"We're gonna stay here as long as they'll let us and then watch the greatest fireworks display in the world," Paisley said.
Paisley's act alternated between high energy and melancholy songs. Before one slower song, Paisley asked how many people in the crowd were in love, drawing cheers from the audience.
"Well, this is the song where you kiss her," he said, leading into his song "She's Everything."
Troy Houghten, of Draper, and his children Tayler and Tate had attended the event once before, but were extra excited to see Paisley perform.
"We actually came for Brad Paisley this year," Houghten said. "We're big country music fans so that was just a plus."
Tate said he liked the fireworks, while Tayler was more encompassing in her praise.
"I like it all," she said.
Before Archuleta and Paisley took the stage, the three finalists from the Stadium of Fire Talent Search performed. Provo-based rock band, The Whits, country music quintet Artie Hemphill and the Iron Horse Band and 11-year-old Eve Asplund all did their best to woo the 40,000-plus crowd for a $10,000 prize.
Artie Hemphill and the Iron Horse won the competition. Initially, the winner was meant to be chosen by text message votes from the audience but before the announcement, Talent Search host Stephen Jones said the system had been overwhelmed and broken. Instead, the finalists were named off and selected by the volume of cheering from the crowd.
Shortly after the announcement, the sky erupted as hundreds of fireworks were lit off around the stadium.
The event was part of America's Freedom Festival, which includes of number of events around Provo. Earlier Saturday, as part of the city's Colonial Days at the Crandall Historical Printing Museum, guests were put in the stocks for a photo opportunity, saw performances of Native American drumming and hoop dancing and learned about everything from spinning wool thread to print pressing copies of the Declaration of Independence on hand made paper.
Grant Iverson, also known as "Wounded Wolf," consistently drew curious spectators at the event where he was forming lead bullets from metal scraps. He chatted with the passers-by about the melting temperature of lead – 620 degrees – and its boiling point – 850 degrees – while molding shiny spheres over a small fire.
Colonial Days continues on Monday, along with Freedom Days, the Balloon Festival and the Grand Parade. For more information on event locations and times visit www.freedomfestival.org.