Country To Country 2015 - Review

Last year I was unable to attend the Country To Country Festival due to recent eye surgery. I invited Laura Baldwin, a young, aspiring journalist, to cover the Festival in my absence. She did a fantastic job, coming up with what I consider to be the finest C2C 2014 write-up that I’ve seen (and I’ve read quite a few). So this year I invited Laura again to cover the Festival, and she’s stepped up to the plate with an outstanding, honestly written appraisal of the main arena concerts … read on and see if you agree 

C2C Review

As Dierks Bentley closed his emotional set at last year’s Country2Country Festival, he promised to tell his friends Luke, Jason and Miranda ‘that country music has a new home in London.’ Buddies Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean took Dierks up on his recommendation, taking their first steps onto the European stage to lead what was widely hailed as a ‘Bro-country’ event at the O2. Whilst Miranda didn’t make the trip (surely a hot tip for the future), Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack more than held their own amongst the boys. Lady Antebellum were the one act to bring an eclectic audience together as they closed the most successful C2C Festival yet.
Following a wonderful contribution to Friday’s Songwriters event at the O2 Indigo, singer-songwriter Brandy Clark moved to the main arena to kick off Saturday’s show. In songs such as Get High and Take A Little Pill she tackled gritty, down-to-earth subjects through good-humored stories, a wry smile often lacing her lyrics. Her soft tones and easy on the ear melodies caught the attention of the audience, however, her stage presence seemed more suited to an intimate club than the cavernous O2. Brandy broke from her debut album 12 STORIES to perform acoustic versions of two of her best-known, number one hits—Better Dig Two (The Band Perry) and Mama’s Broken Heart (Miranda Lambert). These spirited chart-toppers sparked a great reaction from the crowd who were perhaps unaware of her successful songwriting background. A tender rendition of Hold My Hand, was followed by a heartfelt reference to Lee Ann Womack as ‘one of my favourite acts of all time,’ before she closed with Hungover.

Sam Hunt was the first to take to the Satellite Stage, a new feature at this year’s C2C that provided emerging artists with the opportunity to perform short sets whilst the main stage was prepared for the next act. This format worked well—Sam was cool, calm and confident as he and his guitarist, Tyrone Carreker, punched out three hit singles from his number one debut album MONTEVALLO: Break Up In A Small Town, Leave The Night On and Take Your Time. His distinctive, rap-infused style was well received by an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom left their seats to get closer to the action and gather around the small stage.

Country great, Lee Ann Womack bounced onto the main stage looking radiant in a bold floral dress and red high heels. She was in no mood to play second fiddle to the boys revving their trucks in the wings and promised to turn the O2 into ‘a big Texan honky-tonk.’ Emphasising what she described as her ‘hardcore’ country roots, Lee Ann pulled the ‘churchy’ All His Saints from her latest album THE WAY I’M LIVIN’ before dipping into the treasure trove of her back catalogue with gems including Never Again, Again, Twenty Years And Two Husbands Ago and I May Hate Myself In The Mornin’ chosen ‘because it is just so country.’ Accomplished bluegrass musician Aubrey Haynie was a notable member of Lee Ann’s superb band. His skilful fiddle playing on Don’t Listen To The Wind complemented exquisite vocals that rang effortlessly throughout the O2. The emotive Send It On Down alongside Solitary Thinking led a section where bluesy undertones created a reflective mood. Lee Ann ended with a beautiful combination of crowd favourite I Hope You Dance followed by the upbeat Ashes By Now. The song’s defiant message seemed appropriate for a country star determined to show that she remains at the top of her game.

Back at the Satellite Stage an excited crowd gathered to get close to actor-cum-singer Sam Palladio. Starring in the hit TV series Nashville has catapulted Sam to the forefront of the UK’s country music drive. Fans of the show sang along to soundtrack favourites Fade Into You and If I Didn’t Know Better. Self-penned Lightning Bones felt rather untidy and strained but Sam’s performance was saved by his engaging storytelling in Wake Me Up In Nashville, a touching song inspired by his granddad. 
Carefully penned, traditional and reflective offerings from Brandy and Lee Ann were soon sidelined when the boys from Florida Georgia Line ignited their testosterone-fuelled set. Fast and furious, they raced around the huge stage, launching themselves from speakers in vests that showcased an extensive collection of tattoos. The volume was turned up and the seats shook—FGL were driving C2C down a dirt road to a different country music destination. Their adrenaline-laced anthems were performed against a backdrop of videos rotating the unashamed triumvirate of Bro-country appendages; girls, beer and trucks. Tyler’s powerful, rock-like vocals and Brian’s tireless enthusiasm soon worked its magic on Festival goers who were up on their feet and singing to catchy hits Round Here, Stay and Get Your Shine On. The more thoughtful Dirt provided a moment of respite with the crowd lighting up the O2 with their mobile phones. It was a brief breather; the boys quickly returned to familiar up-tempo numbers This Is How We Roll and Sun Daze before a sing-along performance of their 2012 breakthrough hit Cruise. FGL muscled out their crowd-pleasing repertoire with impressive energy and a punchy, distinctive style that showed why they’ve rocketed from university friends to main stage headliners in such a short time.

Excitement was high in anticipation of some hip-shaking magic from current CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan on his first trip to the UK. He appeared on stage wearing his signature tight jeans, t-shirt and Buck Hunter cap, his Colgate smile winning over the audience even before he started to sing. That’s My Kind Of Night was a safe start and pressed play on a conveyor belt of country hits. Crowd favourites  All My Friends Say, Someone Else Calling You Baby and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye were joined by the more recent Crash My Party and Rollercoaster. Luke dedicated songs to ‘whiskey drinkers’ (Rain Is A Good Thing), ‘farmers’ (Shut It Down) and ‘UK country girls’ (Country Girl Shake It For Me). Standing in the shadows of London’s Docklands, these references seemed a long way from the land of spring breaks and Georgia peaches. Nevertheless, the O2 was receptive to Luke’s infectious southern charm. The intensely personal Drink A Beer was the most poignant moment of the night with the crowd joining in the chorus and holding up their drinks in solidarity. Drunk On You cleverly re-booted the tempo and teed up a lively finish with I Don’t Want This Night To End. It was a crowd-pleasing close and proved why Luke Bryan, on his first trip this side of the Atlantic, was given top-billing.

Sunday was National Women’s Day, a celebration that was clearly not in the diaries of C2C organisers when the weekend line-up was planned; the first three main acts were 30-something, male solo artists from Georgia. 
First up was Kip Moore. He played to his strengths, opening with Reckless (Still Growing Up) and Come And Get It, songs that exercised his rock-style and distinctive vocal rasp. Kip’s authenticity is his strong suit; he’s done the hard yards, co-written every song on his deluxe album UP ALL NIGHT and clearly appreciates his breakthrough as a solo artist. It seemed important for him to connect with the audience and he certainly succeeded. Crazy One More Time and Hey Pretty Girl were set highlights and Kip finally let loose on Beer Money, taking out his earpiece to soak up the crowd’s admiring reaction and shouting ‘let me feel it in your heart.’ As his confidence grew, he delivered a nod to his UK audience through a safe acoustic cover of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger before closing with the rocky Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck. Buoyed by their reaction, Kip extended his audience love-in by pledging to stay in the main lobby until he had met everyone that wanted to join him. He was true to his word and eventually left the O2, no doubt with a new set of fans in tow. 
Ward Thomas were rewarded for their popularity on the pop-up stages last year with a deserved upgrade to the main arena. Hampshire twins Catherine and Lizzy jumped onto the Satellite Stage barely able to contain their excitement. Through well-written songs, impressive vocals, impeccable harmonies and infectious energy, the girls demonstrated their versatility and potential. A pacy Push For The Stride was followed by the fun story behind Town Called Ugley while Cartwheels showcased the twins’ softer and mature side. Ward Thomas might have taken selfies to capture their moment in the O2 spotlight but they left the appreciative audience with the sense that performances in front of large, admiring crowds will soon become part of their musical life. 

Bob Harris introduced the next act to the main stage, promising the crowd they were ‘about to rock out in a big, big way.’ He wasn’t wrong. Brantley Gilbert returned to the C2C stage after two years to the sound of throaty motorcycles, setting the tone for his show. A knuckle-duster microphone signposted the road ahead. He belted out Country Must Be Country Wide, Hell On Wheels, If You Want A Bad Boy and My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses over a crashing band driven hard by four guitars that often collided with his vocals. Hit songs Bottoms Up and Small Down Throwdown engaged pockets of fans but despite his ultra-confident stage presence, Brantley didn’t connect with the wider audience. His references to brawls at his shows in the US caused by the themes of Take It Outside and Read Me My Rights fell flat with a family audience, as did his aggressive homily about shooting hypothetical burglars. When he lifted his vest to reveal two tattooed guns that spanned his back, it crowned what felt like a rather self-indulgent, noisy and unfulfilling return to C2C.
UK duo The Shires restored some calm with their laid-back, poppy tunes and polished harmonies. Nashville Grey Skies’ positive take on country music in the UK was particularly relevant; their appearance coincided with news that their debut album BRAVE had entered the top 10 on the UK album charts (the first homegrown country act to achieve this). Friday Night had a fun, Ed Sheeran-like sound before it rolled into a cover of Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. The US based lyrics of State Lines seemed slightly ironic after Nashville Grey Skies but the song was delivered with touching sentiment. Kip Moore certainly enjoyed the performance, encouraging his Twitter followers to ‘check um out y’all!’

Next up was current ACM Male Vocalist of the Year, Jason Aldean. An experienced stadium performer, he delivered a confident, big-ticket show with some pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure. His rich, distinctive vocals were impressive as he called upon material from each of his six albums, all certified single, double or triple platinum. There was no time for romance, Jason was all about Bro-country bromance, favouring the rocking Hicktown, Crazy Town, She’s Country, That’s The Only Way I Know over more mellow classics like Fast, The Truth or Why. The closest the audience got to laid-back were the mid-tempo Amarillo Sky and Fly Over States before drummer Rich Redmond got the chance to show off his famed enthusiasm on the Brantley Gilbert penned My Kinda Party and Dirt Road Anthem.
In a driven show there was no time for idle chat, although Jason did find a moment to make reference to his curious absence from Spotify and iTunes (now fixed) that might have restricted his audience outside of the US. A popular selection of songs from OLD BOOTS NEW DIRT, Jason’s current album that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, included Tonight Looks Good On You, Sweet Little Somethin’ and the fastest selling country single of 2014, Burnin’ It Down. Two Night Town provided a melodious interlude, with Kurt Allison’s cool pedal steel guitar crooning in the background. Jason was certainly here to please although it wasn’t until right at the end of his set that the audience seemed to connect with him in larger numbers. He promised to return and it felt as if he would enjoy a solo headline show much more than being awkwardly sandwiched between Brantley Gilbert and Lady Antebellum.

Mexican waves and a buzz of excitement heralded Lady Antebellum’s arrival. It was clear that some at the O2 had just come to see the headliners—the champagne bars in the arena finally clearing. As regulars this side of the Atlantic, the trio is a tried and tested winner with a UK crowd and were by far the most popular act of the weekend. Accompanied by the biggest band of the festival, Hillary, Charles and Dave put on a typically relaxed but polished performance that had the audience bathing in a refreshing combination of female vocals, soothing group harmonies and accessible country sing-alongs.

After a gutsy start with Bartender and Long Stretch Of Love, the two opening tracks from current album 747, Charles took off his jacket and the crowd felt his intent; the evening was now getting started. The mesmerizing Just A Girl and Lie With Me preceded an anthemic rendition of Compass. This announced an upbeat section extending into sure-fire favourites Love Don’t Live Here, Lookin’ For A Good Time and Downtown. The mood in the arena was infectious, leading Charles to jump off the stage into the audience and challenge them to move to a higher level: ‘it feels like at a 7 and we need to get to an 11.’ Hillary talked of being humbled, saying the experience summed up what they dreamed about as children—the perfect introduction to American Honey and a nostalgic airing of Islands In The Stream.

The band stayed in emotional territory with an acoustic section. One Great Mystery led into an enchanting medley of Dancing Away With My Heart, Wanted You More, Goodbye Town and Hello World, moving songs that the crowd had been yearning for all evening. We Owned The Night was a fitting finale and with confetti falling and the crowd calling for more, Dave came to the piano and played the iconic four-note motif of the sextuple platinum, Grammy Award winning Need You Now, sending the crowd into a dizzying spin a full five years after its UK release. Charles gushed: ‘I want to remember this moment’ and called the band together for a photo with the adoring O2 audience as its backdrop. Lady Antebellum undoubtedly owned the night, bringing C2C 2015 to a truly harmonious conclusion.

Laura Baldwin
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