Country 2 Country

Gig Review: CMA Song Writers Series – Kix Brooks, Brandy Clark, Sam Palladio, Jessi Alexander & Jon Randall – The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

Last year I could only listen in awe as people regaled stories of how great the likes of Striking Matches were at the CMA Song Writers Series, a now traditional event that takes place the Friday before Country To Country (C2C) kicks off. I say traditional, but now C2C has been announced as a 3 day festival in 2016, starting on the Friday, the future of the CMA Song Writers Series is unknown. I can only hope the sell out crowd last Friday was proof enough that it should be continued, and scheduled for the Thursday before C2C starts next year.

Speculation and uncertainty aside, I wasn’t going to miss such a well regarded night of music this year, and as soon as Brandy Clark was announced I booked tickets. Brandy sat right at the very top of my wish list of artists to come over to the UK so her involvement was a dream come true. Friday March 6th was to be my only flirtation with C2C this year, at least up until that very date when a few plans changed, but that’s another story for another time.

I think coming from a background of rock music, from the 60s through to the 80s and some of the 90s, the concept of song writers, known and utilised by many acts in a genre, is quite alien to me. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and say I didn’t really know who Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall were, or any of the other big name song writers in country music. I did know of Brandy Clark as a songwriter, but only because I was such a huge Kacey Musgraves fan and Brandy’s co-write credit of Follow Of Your Arrow was well publicised. I came to know much more about Brandy when she released her debut album 12 Stories, and Sam Palladio I knew from the Nashville TV show and seeing him support Striking Matches last year. Kix Brooks was also new to me, knowing of Brooks and Dunn, but not their music.

Kix Brooks was the host of the evening, and within minutes my ignorance of his career melted away as he felt like an old friend, such was his warming personality and engaging delivery of his stories. One such story told of how he’d been chatting with a guy who wanted to propose to his girlfriend on stage at a Brooks and Dunn show and had been chatting back forth with Kix leading up to the concert to get everything organised. When it came time to get them on stage it seemed both the guy and his future fiancee had both changed their minds and were mortified at the mere thought of joining Kix. Being the strong personalty that he is, Kix got them up, got him to propose and the gig continued. It wasn’t until the next day that he got an email from the original guy wondering who it was that Kix got on stage, because it wasn’t him and his girlfriend!

Kix Brooks - CMA Song Writers Series - The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

Kix Brooks is a performer through and through, and his voice has moments of tenderness and others where the gravelly tones tell a story of many years on the road. You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone

 was my particular favourite of the four songs he did, and his songs and stories were enough for me to want to check out more of his work, a familiar trend for the evening.

Brandy Clark was the most familiar to me, having played her 12 Stories album a lot over the last year, and she added another level of charm with her unassuming presence and an aura of someone who feels utterly blessed to be in the position she is. She was softly spoken as she played Mama’s Broken Heart with a minimal introduction, but opened up a lot more when talking about her second song, which we soon realised was to be Follow Your Arrow – the song she co-wrote with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, the latter of which went on to record and make it famous. I say famous, but I think it’s more well known in the UK than the US, as Brandy seemed to think it wasn’t a big hit and was pleasantly surprised to see we both knew the song and sung a long with her.

Brandy Clark - CMA Song Writers Series - The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

As brilliant as her album is, Brandy Clark is an artist that is even better to see and hear sing live. Her voice is flawless, and though it’s a cliche I no doubt overuse on this website, Brandy does get lost in the music when she is on stage. Though she didn’t play Stripes as I was hoping, I was pleased to hear Get High, which led to Kix joking we were all potheads as well as drunks, as he’d mentioned earlier. I don’t think anyone on that stage was expecting to be playing to an audience of people who like country as much people back in the States.

I already knew from seeing him last year that Sam Palladio was as much a musician in real life as his Gunnar character that he plays on screen in Nashville, so I knew what to expect. He kicked off with Fade In To You and If I Didn’t Know Better, both from the Nashville show, and I still marvel at his ability to get those high lingering notes with such ease and control. As delicate as some of those moments were, he put absolutely everything into Lightning Bones, one of the three of his own songs that he sung. It was a rockier number with a lot of soul that saw Sam play his guitar to within an inch of its life.

Sam Palladio - CMA Song Writers Series - The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

Even though Sam was a musician before his acting break on Nashville, he still seems quite unsure of his own songwriting talents, something he has absolutely nothing to worry about. Jessi Alexander said what we were all thinking, in telling him to cut an album so that we could all buy it. Well, she actually said download it, but I still physical copies where possible, so I’ll take a CD thanks Sam, or even Vinyl if you’re feeling adventurous. It was the second time I’d heard Wake Me Up In Nashville and the story that inspires it tugs at your heartstrings, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s yet to hear it – just go see him live when the opportunity arises.

Jessi Alexander was the one person I came out of this show marveling at the most, and she’s every bit as good as any artist making waves in the charts today, and then some. The voice, the poise, the guitar playing and the undeniably world class writing ability – that’s the important part, but she’s also a pretty lady too, so absolutely no reason for her not to be played hourly by country radio and TV stations the world over. She sang a couple of songs she’d written for Blake Shelton, Drink On It and Mine Would Be You, both of which went to number 1 in America, but it was her Lee Brice track that had me welling up.

Jessi Alexander - CMA Song Writers Series - The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

I Drive Your Truck is the song inspired by of a guy who was on the radio talking about his son who had died overseas fighting in the services. The interview was on Memorial Day and the interviewer asked what he was going to do that day, to which the father said he was gonna ‘drive his truck’. It was one of the co-writers, Connie Harrington, that heard the radio interview and immediately pulled over and phoned Jessi. They actually went one step further and when the record went to number 1 then tracked him down to tell him ‘we wrote this song about you’ and invited him to the number 1 party, which he attended. It’s obvious just from the way she tells stories, why she’s such an amazing songwriter.

Jessi’s last song was one she said was was recorded by Joe McElderry, and being that we are Miley Cyrus fans in our house, I immediately connected the dots and worked out it was The Climb she was talking about. I’m a big fan of this song anyway, but to see it sung by its creator, and with such passion, well it just took my breath away.

Jon Randall was the last to play each time, and he said that it was tough having to go after Jessi and her number 1 hits every time. However, being one of Dierks Bentley’s buddies and song writing partner meant he was no stranger to successful songs himself. Because I was sat on the left and Jon was sat far right on the stage, and with him wearing a cap, the lighting I meant I never saw his face all night (the camera had a better zoom than my eyes!). I didn’t need to though, as the emotion in his voice and the passion in his playing shone through on their own, and like Jessi I am sat there wondering why he’s not a huge star in his own right.

Jon Randall - CMA Song Writers Series - The O2 Indigo, London – March 6th 2015

One secret weapon Jon does have in his arsenal is that of being the co-writer of Whiskey Lullaby, with songwriting legend Bill Anderson. It’s a song that was cut by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and won CMA Song of the Year in 2005. Jon’s singing of this was the highlight of his participation for me, being that it’s an incredible song and he along with wife Jessi Alexander sung it effortlessly and sublimely. Jessi and Jon accompanied each other throughout each others sets and added an extra layer of depth to the performances.

You may remember I mentioned Striking Matches earlier? Well I’d heard a whisper that they may turn up, and they did just that, singing one of the songs from their new album, namely Make a Liar Out Of Me. As much as I like the lyrics and vocals that they provide, it’s always the guitar wizardry I look forward to most in their performances and they didn’t disappoint. I saw them play 3 times last year but I think they’ve actually managed to take things to an even higher level. I get visibly excited watching them do things with a guitar I have never seen before, grinning from ear to ear as they seemingly grew extra arms to do what they almost impossibly appear to do. They played just the one song, but I have their London gig in May to look forward to seeing more. This video of their performance is from Nashville Over Here who has lots more videos on his YouTube channel.

The whole evening was breathtakingly good from start to finish, and the combination of acoustic music with superb singer / songwriters is unparalleled. I think, even more than the big arena performances, it’s become my favourite part of Country To Country, and live music in general, and I dearly hope it returns again next year.

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Country to Country 2015 – The Lineup, The Pop Ups & My Thoughts

Yesterday, at a special launch event at The O2, the lineup for Country To Country 2015 was announced. This was something I was supposed to be at, along with the Lady Antebellum gig that followed it, but an eye infection kept me at home. Time to put the violins away and on with the lineup…

Country To Country 2015 - The Lineup

Country To Country 2015 – The Lineup

My Thoughts

I had a feeling we were going down the bro-country / spring break route, as that’s a trend that seems very popular on country radio in the US these past few years, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so all encompassing. It’s never been a secret that I dislike the music of Luke Bryan, and I feel the same about Jason Aldean. Florida Georgia Line I don’t dislike as I do the other two, but they do very little for me. Lady Antebellum are a band I used to like, and Hello World in particular, but I hated Golden, and their latest album doesn’t seem much like a return to form.

That’s the four biggest acts, and half the weekend on the main stages I have no interest in seeing, and wouldn’t actually stay to watch. I do like Brantley Gilbert but we saw him at Country to Country in 2012. I haven’t heard his latest album, who some tell me has him fully embracing the bro country regime too. I will listen eventually, as I like to make my own mind up. Kip Moore I don’t know and Brandy Clark is the only one that interests me. In fact she interests me a lot, and was one of the few artists I’d publicly said I wanted to see at C2C.

So where am I going with this? Well, with a heavy heart I sold my early bird tickets today. I say heavy heart, because I enjoyed last year so much, and especially sharing it with some of my best friends. But this lineup, for my tastes, just doesn’t warrant the £312 the tickets cost. I can understand why Country to Country have booked these acts, and it’s quite a coup to get so many big names, but I think the lack of variety is a little baffling, as is the inclusion of so few females. There is still one slot to miss, so maybe good news will come in the form of someone like Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert or Lee Ann Womack, to redress the balance. Lots of friends in the country community are happy, and for them I am happy too, but this year I’ll give the arena a miss.

Pop Up Stages
While I may not be interested in the main stages, I’ll still be going to see the pop up stage acts. Anyone would be a fool not to, especially as they are free to see. If they do decide to charge an entry fee I’ll still be going, as they were as much a highlight of last year’s festival as the main acts. Not staying into the evening does mean my 6 year old son can come, and he’s excited to see and meet Dexeter, Ward Thomas and Hannah Jane Lewis, so he says.

As for me, I would love to see Dexeter perform at The O2. It was at last year’s Country to Country that I met them, and want away with their Brighter Skies EP, and a promise to catch them live, as I’d missed them over that festival weekend. See them live I did, a few times, at festivals, London gigs and some even more intimate settings. This band has worked so hard since March, and with talent and an admirable attitude, have cultivated quite a following, who funded their upcoming album in just a number of days. They deserve, maybe more than any other, to be invited back to play on the pop up stages, hopefully the Brooklyn Bowl stage.

Of the acts I have seen already, Ward Thomas are an act I will never tire of seeing, and will have seen them 5 times before next year’s C2C, in less than 10 months. They were another act I never saw at this year’s festival, along with The Shires, who I will be seeing with Ward Thomas on their Homegrown Tour in Milton Keynes next month. I saw The Shires back at their showcase with Cassadee Pope in London, and am keen to witness their impressive vocals again.

Hannah Jane Lewis is the one of the people who actually made me aware of the UK scene, with the release of her music video for 17 Again at the start of the year. It’s obvious from hearing her new songs when she supported Jill and Kate, that she has grown as a writer and a singer, and on the verge of finishing her 2nd EP, she seems an obvious choice to come back.

At the risk of going on and on, let me also request Frankie Davies and Liv Austen – two exceptionally good singer songwriters, as well as Alex Hart from my old stomping ground in Devon. It’s a bit of a crime I’ve gotten this far into the article without mentioning Jess Roberts, who may be the UK’s answer to Ashley Monroe, and is absolutely mesmerising to watch perform. McKay, Laura Oakes, Paul Carella, Lisa Redford and the list goes on.

This is by no way a complete list and don’t be offended if I haven’t mentioned you! There’s so much talent in the UK that slots on the pop up stages could be filled four times over. I’m very much looking forward to immersing myself in the amazing atmosphere once again, seeing old friends and making new ones, whist discovering some incredible new talents.

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Country 2 Country 2014 – One Week On and it’s Pop Up Mania

This time last week I was is enjoying the second day of Country 2 Country, just getting ready to watch Striking Matches, to be precise at the time of writing this. So here I am 7 days later, and what effect, if any, has attending Country 2 Country had on me?

While it was the main stage acts that I paid to see, given that the pop up stage acts were free to all, it may be somewhat surprising that it’s those pop up stage acts that have left thew biggest impact on me. There’s no denying I was blown away by the likes Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley and the Dixie Chicks, but it’s not these juggernauts of country music that have occupied my mind this past week. Over the course of the two days I saw quite a few acts on the pop up stages, and it brought to my attention just how much talent there is, right here in the UK.

Of the 28 acts that were on offer, I saw just 8, and 6 of those ply their trade in the UK and you can read about the ones I did see here. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube I’ve caught up with a lot more of the acts that performed last weekend, and without fail have been bowled over by just how good they are. The homegrown country music scene is bursting full of great signers, songwriters and musicians – they just need more exposure. I’ve found myself listening to and watching a ton of performances, both new and old, from acts I saw and those who I missed out on too.

It’s one thing to watch videos on YouTube, after all, that seems to be how the new generation consume music these days anyway, but what next? It hasn’t stopped there for me though, as I’ve also been looking at live dates, to see if I can watch as many of these acts in person as I can. I met the band Dexeter last weekend and have been listening to their EP this week, with a view of going up to the Midlands to see them perform. Being in North Hertfordshire it won’t be the longest drive know to man, but would I have considered it had Country 2 Country not crossed out paths – probably not.

Closer to home Lisa Redford is performing at the music shop I frequent for Record Store Day, just 3 miles from my house. How could I not to go to that? Thing is, had I not seen her at Country 2 Country last Sunday I wouldn’t have known who she was, and probably wouldn’t have gone, no matter how close it is to me. Ward Thomas are a band that played last weekend, and though I didn’t see them, I became more aware of them, and just this morning listened to them on Radio 2. Now I am keen to buy their EP when it comes out in April and see them live at the next opportunity.

Gary Quinn is someone I knew of before Country 2 Country, and since seeing him live, where I really enjoyed his set, we have chatted on Twitter and I have bought a ticket to see him perform a StageIt show. I’d never even signed up to StageIt before he announced his gig, but what a great way for fans to see live music without travelling to locations that are too far away. It has cost me just $5 which equates to £3.03 for a 30 minute set – a veritable bargain I’m sure you’ll agree.

Hannah Jane Lewis is someone whose music I knew the best before Country 2 Country, and I reviewed her self titled EP here. It was however Country 2 Country that gave me the opportunity to see her perform, twice, and now know she’s every bit as good live as she is on her EP. As such I’m considering going to see her play this coming Wednesday at The Water Rats Theatre. This is a venue that just happens to be near Kings Cross, which is the station the train from my town goes to, and at £5 it’s almost too tempting to resist. If I get over my cough, yeah poor me, then I will do just that. She has another gig in London the month after, so either way I’ll get the chance to see her perform again, and maybe grab an interview too if I’m lucky.

If we are talking non UK talent then Jill and Kate have a mini UK tour in June and will be playing The Bordereline in London – another gig from a Country 2 Country artist that I am strongly considering going to. Just a few hours after I wrote this it was announced that the aforementioned Hannah Jane Lewis would be supporting Jill & Kate – 2 pop up stage acts appearing on the same night! Tickets are available here. Of course there are also Striking Matches who I hadn’t even heard of before last weekend, wowed me, have just signed a record deal and will release an album later this year. I’ve since bought their EP and single on iTunes and will be first in the queue to get the album, along with everyone else who saw them.

So struck with the quality of the pop up stage acts, I have even been having thoughts of organising a festival to showcase all this talent as I want as many people as possible to experience the great music I have discovered. I’m not sure how that will happen and I think it might be better on the hands of the guys at UKCountryMusic.net, whose promotions guy Andy I have been pestering with the idea of a UKCMFest relentlessly!

These are just a few, there is a thriving country music scene in the UK, and that’s something that I only recently had my eyes opened to thanks to the Country 2 Country pop up stages. Imagine if every other country music fan in the UK knew about all these great acts too – how long before we’d hear more of them on the radio, see more of them on tour, and see more of their albums in shops? I’ve taken it upon myself to spread the word as much as possible about the great talent on offer – so expect more posts, more tweets and more Facebook updates about these acts in the coming weeks and months. It’s pretty exciting that I can see so much great country music in my own country, all year round.

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Country 2 Country 2014 Review – Day 2: Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry & Chris Young

When I woke up at 6am on Sunday morning it was after just 2.5 hours sleep, but as someone who doesn’t drink tea or coffee I didn’t need to wait for a caffeine boost, so adrenaline kicked in and the second day of my Country 2 Country weekend commenced. You can read all about my pop up stage experiences here and review of day 1 on the main stage here. Now it’s time to get into the main stage acts that performed on Sunday, as the last few hours of Country 2 Country 2014 played out.

Taking the stage first was Chris Young in a set that seemed to last far fewer than the 45 minutes it was allocated. He was good though, very good, and I’d love to see him come back for a full tour. While he sung and played with passion and an almost ever present grin, the sound set up once again let us down as his vocals were drowned out by the guitars some of the time, something that I complained about during Martina McBride’s set the night before.

Chris Young at  Country 2 Country 2014

Chris Young at Country 2 Country 2014

I am most familiar with his recent A.M. album so was pleased to hear Aw Naw, which is a great song to hear live, and sure to become his anthem. Who I Am With You saw him slow the tempo down and show us that he’s not all rock, though the high energy numbers did dominate. It was a very different way to start off the evening than the previous day, but a lot better as it got everyone pumping and wanting more.

Up next were The Band Perry, who along with the night’s headline act were one of the bands I first started listening to when I decided country music was where my heart lay. Their pop infused country tunes make them very accessible and they have had more success than many in transcending country music in the past few years. Kimberley is the consummate show woman and moves around the stage with confidence and poise. I didn’t have any problem hearing every single word of every song as she belted out hit after hit, with a voice that I’ve heard few get close to. While she is without doubt the leader of the group, her brothers Reid and Neil are given the spotlight too, whether that be to play their instruments, or in the case of Fat Bottomed Girls taking the lead vocals, but please don’t ask me to say which brother it was.

The Band Perry at  Country 2 Country 2014

The Band Perry at Country 2 Country 2014

It wasn’t just music though, as we got more stories and chat than probably any other act of the weekend. As engaging as Kimberly is, it does come across as quite rehearsed, but we can forgive her that, with delivery as entertaining as she provides. I wanted to hear Pioneer, Done, Chainsaw and If I Die Young, and I got all of those, but would I get the song I liked the most? Absolutely, and not only that but Better Dig Two closed the set, in magnificent style. They used every inch of the stage and played to all sides of the arena. This was more of a show than any other act at Country 2 Country, but the music was of the highest quality too, and after Chris Young the energy and vibe just kept getting better.

What ever goes up has to come down, we all know that. It was the mood of the arena that seemed to plummet when Rascal Flatts played. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty people signing along and obviously enjoying their music, but a noticeable percentage weren’t, myself included. I think the best way I can describe how I felt is that I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t keen on Gary LeVox’s voice, and his on stage antics often made me cringe and seemed below an act of their standing. My friend Mark, whose photos are used in this article, said they didn’t resonate, and he nailed it with that. They are a huge band, with massive record sales and a large following, but we can’t all like everything, and they just weren’t for me. Looking on the positive side, it gave me some much needed rest, as I stayed seated for the whole set until they finished with the song from the Cars film.

Rascal Flatts at Country 2 Country 2014

Rascal Flatts at Country 2 Country 2014

Let’s get things back on track and talk about Brad Paisley, the main event of the night and the act I was most looking forward to seeing all weekend. Well rested I jumped to my feet as soon as he came on stage and grinned from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat as he started off with Southern Comfort Zone, one of my favourite tracks on his Wheelhouse album. Now I knew Brad was a great guitar player, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good he was and how much he featured guitar solos in his live shows. Blisteringly good may not cover it, as he played all over the stage and shredded the night away. As a massive guitar fan this made me very happy indeed, and seemed to have the same effect on the rest of the audience.

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

While I would have liked to hear more songs from Wheelhouse that would have requited a 3 hour set, and it’s understandable that he play a greatest hits style show for this crowd, and with a back catalogue of such high quality nobody can complain. Chris Young came out to sing Outstanding In Our Field with him, as presumably the original collaborator on the song Dierks Bentley had moved on from his Saturday night set in London. We also had Kimberley come out and sing Whiskey Lullaby in a beautiful rendition that gave us one of the more tender moments of the evening. Thankfully that was the end of the guests as I had feared after these two that Rascal Flatts may come out for a song – sorry Flatts fans, but that wouldn’t have been cool.

We had one purely instrumental number which was accompanied by some hilarious Star Wars / Star Trek animations on the big screen, and some world class guitar playing from Mr Paisley. At one point Brad disappeared, and appeared on the smaller stage that is located towards the back of the arena. There we got acoustic versions of Online and I’m Still A Guy, as a military operation unfolded in front of me. Security guards were placed a few feet away all along the alleyway towards the stage, the one that my seat and barrier in front faced. Were we about to get another hand slapping opportunity much like we did with Zac Brown the previous night? The answer was no, as though Brad did come past us, his minder’s blasting of my arm out of the way told us an unequivocal nobody touches Brad Paisley. That is understandable, given that he had his guitar still, round his neck.

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

Mud On the Tyres, Ticks, Water – the hits just kept coming, and with interjections of that famous Brad Paisley humour which had the whole crowd in stitches. Though I didn’t get to hear my favourite Anything Like Me, Mona Lisa Smile went down like a 10 year old classic, and not a song that had only recently been played on radio here in the UK. In fact the woh woh woah woh part went on way after Brad left the stage and continued until he came back and joined in. The he gave us Alcohol as an encore, and what better way could there be to end a Brad Paisley concert? He even played is guitar using a beer bottle on the fret board, before throwing the bottle across the stage to one of his crew. In fact kudos to this guy as he had to catch a guitar at the start of the evening that Brad launched into the air from the centre of the stage to the side, and the guy caught it, thankfully!

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

Brad Paisley at Country 2 Country 2014

I was absolutely blown away by Brad Paisley. Sure he was the one I was looking forward to the most going in and had high expectations, but his blend of country rock and Jedi guitar playing had me in awe. Earlier Chris Young put himself on the map as someone who I wanted to see again, The Band Perry showed why they are such a hit around the world and Rascal Flatts played too. But the night belonged to Brad Paisley, as the aforementioned woh woh woah wohs continued into the toilets, the men’s anyway, and on the tube back into London. Then it was finished, and Country 2 Country was over for another year, but what a way to go out.

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Country 2 Country 2014 Review – Day 1: Zac Brown Band, Dixie Chicks, Dierks Bentley & Martina McBride

I felt like I’d already got my money’s worth with all the amazing acts I’d seen on the free to see pop up stages, so by the time it came to go into the arena I was absolutely buzzing with excitement. At this stage in the day my phone decided it would pick up no data connection, so I had to use my wife’s phone to tweet everyone, as I knew their enjoyment relied on knowing what I was up to.

The first of the main stage acts was Martina McBride, but I missed all but 4 songs as I was still in Town Square listening to Hannah Jane Lewis. Of the 4 songs I did catch the sound seemed to be off and her vocals struggled to be heard over the instruments. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t all that impressed, and wondered if I had heard a different singer to the one praised by fans who saw the same performance. It just didn’t wow me in any way and she didn’t seem like a performer with a career like Martina has had.

Martina McBride at Country 2 Country 2014

Martina McBride at Country 2 Country 2014

Dierks Bentley took to the stage next and he blew the roof off the place. A party atmosphere took over the O2 Arena as Dierks and his band played their socks off. I’d listened to his new album quite a lot leading up to the gig, so was very familiar with tracks played from it. I especially liked I Hold On, his current single and a cracking song. Dierks was very humble and seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing, and gave us many stand out memories, including an almost Jimi Hendrix guitar smashing moment.

Dierks Bentley at Country 2 Country 2014

Dierks Bentley at Country 2 Country 2014

He made one woman’s dream come true when he pulled her on stage, slung his guitar round her neck and pout her centre stage while he chugged back on a beer! I wasn’t familiar with some of his older material, but it didn’t matter, as he played with so much passion and energy that I challenge anyone to say they didn’t enjoy his set and come out a Dierks Bentley fan, or even more of one.

Third on stage on Saturday night was arguably the coup of the whole weekend, as the Dixie Chicks came out to rapturous applause from the crowd. Their appearance at Country 2 Country 2014 was one of the last shows on their first tour since 2007, and this seemed to be the true headline band of the night for a certain portion of the crowd. So, how were they? Natalie was fierce and full of passion, while Martie and Emily were serene in their musical brilliance. They played every song anyone could want, that is apart from Travelling Soldiers that two fans near me requested between every song! They even played a cover of Wrecking Ball. Yes, that Wrecking Ball, the one made (in)famous by Miley Cyrus, who was perhaps the influence for Natalie’s almost military style haircut.

Dixie Chicks at Country 2 Country 2014

Dixie Chicks at Country 2 Country 2014

Me personally, the highlight was Not Ready To Play Nice, which may be a predictable choice, but there’s no denying it’s quality and played live it sent tingles down my spine. Natalie didn’t talk that much, though she did have us all sing happy birthday to her son Slade. This did mean we got more songs which nobody was going to complain about, and after they’d finished quite a few people upped and left. They were every bit as good as legend had me believe, this being my first experience of Dixie Chicks live, but hopefully not my last.

A live show from the Dixie Chicks is a rare thing, but to leave before Zac Brown Band was a mistake, a really big mistake. Listening to their albums I’d been of the opinion they would be pretty good, but maybe not the best of the night. They started off solidly, and true to my assessment, but then all of a sudden they started playing what sounded like the intro to Enter Sandman by Metallica, and it was! As covers go this was one of the very best I have ever seen live, and from that point on the performance took off.

Zac Brown Band at Country 2 Country 2014

Zac Brown Band at Country 2 Country 2014

The eclectic mix up of musical influences and genres that Zac Brown Band bring to their live shows makes for an incredibly entertaining show as they played with equal parts ferocity, passion and unquestionable skill. Zac himself looks like he very successfully wrestles bears in his spare time, but has the voice of an angel, a very manly one. He plays his guitar with such vigour that it’s a whisker away from being a thrashing, but again, with such magical results. At one point Zac, whilst still singing, walked around the arena slapping hands with delighted fans. I myself got to exchange sweat with the the big man, but when he got to my wife he stopped, and serenaded to her. Hey, what am I going to do, it’s Zac Brown!

Their encore was a sight to behold as they came out in boiler suits, in the dark, which had been painted to have them show up as luminous skeletons. In these startling outfits they performed the title track from the latest album Uncaged, and then finished the show with The Devil Went Down to Georgia, which was a perfect end to the night and a fitting way to make use of their superb fiddler. Zac Brown Band far exceeded my expectations and delivered a performance truly fitting of the headline act.

Zac Brown Band at Country 2 Country 2014

Zac Brown Band at Country 2 Country 2014

Night one of Country 2 Country was the perfect mix of artists, and even though I wasn’t struck with Martina McBride, I recognise her place on the bill. If I had to pushed to name a stand out act I think I’d say Zac Brown Band, with Dierks Bentley very close behind. It was great to see the Dixie Chicks but maybe it was a little too much about Natalie, or maybe that was just where my attention was focused. I went home a very happy country music fan, how could day 2 live up to this?

Credit to my buddy @FuseMP for the photos – his camera is much better than mine in low light.

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Country 2 Country 2014 Review – Pop Up Stage Acts

Country 2 Country 2014

Last year I went to just the Sunday of Country 2 Country and didn’t realise there would be pop stage acts. This year I went for the whole weekend and scheduled what pop up acts I wanted to see – no seriously, an actual schedule, look! I did keep pretty much to that schedule, with a few exceptions, and even added in a few more performances I hadn’t planned for. On Saturday night I managed a mighty 2.5 hours of sleep, and adrenaline saw me through Sunday, but to say it was one of the greatest weekends of my life would in no way be hyperbole or exaggeration.

If you’ve never been to Country 2 Country, you’ve never seen The O2 transformed into a mini Nashville, with a market area for traders and food stalls, but more importantly 4 pop up stages placed throughout the complex. These stages played host to 28 acts from all over the world and in many respects were the heart of the weekend, providing countless number of highlights.

Striking Matches at Country 2 Country 2014

Striking Matches at Country 2 Country 2014

I have to start with Striking Matches, who are a mesmerising duo of singer songwriters with an almost inhuman level of guitar wizardry. I arrived a bit earlier than expected so was able to see them within moments of entering The O2 on Saturday, and again on Sunday. They weren’t the only act I saw twice as Hannah Jane Lewis’ full band performance on Saturday was so good I had to see her acoustic set the very next day. Both were superb and Hannah seems like someone who was born to sing, and shines in the spotlight. These two acts came together as I chatted to Hannah as we walked over to see Striking Matches on Sunday. Yes, look at me, mingling with the acts 😉

Hannah Jane Lewis at Country 2 Country 2014

Hannah Jane Lewis at Country 2 Country 2014

It was great to see Maria Byrne who I’d been in contact with before the festival, and who brought a change of pace with her folk/country songs and impromptu joke session. I caught Emma Jade mid Sunday afternoon, and though suffering with a sore throat, that didn’t stop her performing songs such as The Dixie Chicks’ Travelling Soldiers that two girls near me had requested numerous times the night before, when the actual Dixie Chicks were playing. With Jill and Kate we got Christmas in March, and I even got my song request played when they sung Skinny Jeans, just for me, as they’d never play one of their most popular songs without me tweeting them, right?

Emma Jade at Country 2 Country 2014

Emma Jade at Country 2 Country 2014

What these pop up stages did showcase is what a hotbed of country music talent there is right here in the UK. As well as those already mentioned I finally got to see Gary Quinn and Raintown, though the latter only for one song as I turned up too late to a massively packed out Brooklyn Bowl Stage. That one song was enough to make me want to see them again, and I caught most of Gary’s set on Sunday, and saw a guy who I immediately wanted to see performing on an outside stage in the sun. Great songs, great voice and entertaining throughout. Then there was Lisa Redford who caught my attention as I was walking past the Armadillo Stage, so much so that I stopped and listened to her silky smooth vocals and forgot about where I had intended to go.

Gary Quinn at Country 2 Country 2014

Gary Quinn at Country 2 Country 2014

All that’s really just the tip of the iceberg of what was going on, but without cloning myself there’s no way I could experience it all. I do have to point out that astonishingly, all these pop stage acts were free to anyone who came to The O2 over the weekend. That’s free as in no charge, as in it cost not one penny to see these incredible singers, songwriters and musicians perform. Just ponder that thought for a few moments. Amazing, right?

I will be doing some individual reviews of some of pop up stage acts I saw, and I have a bucket loads of photos to share and even a few videos too. If ever you want to experience Country 2 Country but for whatever reason can’t get tickets to see the main stage acts, you have to visit The O2 during the afternoon for the pop up stage acts – it’s almost rude not to.

Credit goes to my very good friend Mark for the Striking Matches and Emma Jade photos, and also for keeping up with my crazy schedule where others fell to the wayside.

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My Country 2 Country 2014 Pop Up Stage Schedule

So after highlighting 6 of the must see acts on the pop up stages at Country 2 Country this coming weekend here, I have added to that and have somewhat of a complete schedule for the weekend. I say somewhat because I actually have gaps on the Saturday. I can’t do anything before Jessica Clemmons at 1pm as that’s when I arrive, but the latter gaps can be filled, and any recommendations will be gratefully received. I could also use that time to eat, drink, shop and just soak in the amazing atmosphere.

My Country 2 Country 2014 Pop Up Stage Schedule

My Country 2 Country 2014 Pop Up Stage Schedule

Be sure to say hi if you see me – I’ll be tweeting a photo myself each morning, so you’ll know how to look for, or avoid. My twitter account is @4000tonashville , and do remember to use the hashtag #C2C2014 on Twitter this weekend, and let’s see if we can get it trending. Most of all, have an amazing time!

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Six of the Best Pop Up Artists to Check Out at Country 2 Country 2014

Unless you have been living under a rock you’ll know that Country 2 Country is the big weekend of country music in the UK, held annually at the O2 in London for the second time this coming weekend. But what is a pop up artist? As well as the big 4 acts from America playing in the arena each day, there are what they call pop up stages for smaller, lesser known acts to play on. These 4 stages are named to coincide with what they are near, which makes sense, be daft to name them after something in a completely different area! The fabulous 2Country.net have created these great graphics that show who is playing on each of the stages on both days. Before you look at those, do head over to 2Country.net and check out the amazing selection of country music being played 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!

Pop Up Artists at Country 2 Country 2014 - Saturday

Pop Up Artists at Country 2 Country 2014 – Saturday

Pop Up Artists at Country 2 Country 2014 - Sunday

Pop Up Artists at Country 2 Country 2014 – Sunday

So, without further a do, here are six of my recommendations of people to check out, and are ones that I’ll certainly be looking out for myself.

Hannah Jane Lewis
If you’ve visited this blog before then this will come as no surprise to you. I was blown away with how great Hannah’s EP sounds and I’ll actually be trying my best to see her twice. She’s with her full band on the Saturday, after which I’ll have to run like Usain Bolt to get to my seat in time for Martina McBride, and then on the Sunday she’s going it alone and performing a acoustic set. In my review of her EP, I said it would be good to hear Hannah play The Worst Way acoustically – consider this my formal request for Sunday.

Gary Quinn
Gary is someone who I have been aware of for a few months due to seeing him mentioned on Twitter but only in the last week or so have I been listening to his album, and actually have a review coming soon, so look out for that. Gary’s music brings a combination of modern and traditional, but most definitely country. You know I bang on about story telling in songs? Gary ticks that box, and is a great weapon to use against anyone who says people from the UK don’t get country music, as I have heard said. I’m particularly hoping to hear I Love To Watch You leave, which shows his cheeky side.

Jill and Kate
It was fellow country music blogger Kasey Stone over at Hitting All the Right Notes who recommended me this duo from Nashville, who actually used to be backing singers for Kelly Clarkson, just a few days ago. When I should have been getting ready for work I instead sat on the sofa listening to their songs on YouTube, as you do. I was struck by how well their voices complimented each other and the variety of songs that show off both their tender and fun spirits. They also get bonus marks for agreeing to sign stuff and I think I have an interview secured for some time in the future.

Raintown
It’s almost criminal that I’ve never listened to any Raintown – they are as synonymous with UK country music as, well, UKCountryMusic.net! Actually, I’m not sure that really works, but what the heck, a plug to a great website is always allowed. Anyway, Raintown are a duo who I have heard mentioned so many times, and even seen active myself on social media, but somehow not yet listened to. Well that’s going to change at Country 2 Country as I’m making sure I watch an act that has been recommended to me quite a few times over the last couple of weeks. So how can I include them if I’ve never heard them? I have a hunch, and I bet after you’ve heard them at the weekend we’ll both agree they deserve their place.

Jessica Clemmons
I’ve been meaning to talk about Jessica for a few weeks now, ever since I got her EP What if, but I wanted to wait until we were closer to Country 2 Country, which we well and truly are now. Jessica has just been over in the UK supporting Boyzone, so is already known by many thousands of fans on these shores. Jessica Clemmons has a voice that makes you sit up and take notice and I’m certain she’s going to wow anyone who goes to see her play. Don’t worry if you can’t get too close, she has power to spare, but not in a shouty way as some singers reply on. Single Tonight is the stand out song on her EP which boasts 5 great songs, and is beautifully presented.

Maria Byrne
I’m not just featuring Maria because she has song that includes the words I’ll be gone 4000 miles and alludes to going to Tennessee, though how incredibly apt is it that I’m talking about her on 4000 Miles to Nashville? Maria’s music is a delicious mix of country and folk, that makes me want to lie down in a field on a sunny evening and hear nothing but her songs. Just listening to songs like Keep On and My Sweet Burden and I feel a sense of calm and contentment. Maria’s music is a mood changer, and in a very positive way.

So that’s my 6, but that leaves 22 acts of the 28 I’ve not talked about. If you have any you want to recommend, or you are one of those artists and think I should come see you play, then please either leave a comment or email me and I’ll do my very best to see as many as humanly possible at the weekend.

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Country 2 Country 2014: The Highlight of the Year, and it’s Not Just About The Main Acts

Country 2 Country 2014

Last year I attended Country 2 Country just on the Sunday, but this year I am lucky enough to be going on both the Saturday and Sunday. Dixie Chicks on the Saturday, along with Brad Paisley and The Band Perry on the Sunday are what I am most looking forward to, as these are artists I am very familiar with and especially in the case of the Sunday duo, particularly like. Wheelhouse was one of my favourite albums of last year, in fact I ranked it 3rd in my Top 9 Country Music Albums of 2013, and the thought of seeing Brad play songs like Southern Comfort Zone live is pretty damn exciting. Likewise, seeing The Band Perry perform Better Dig Two is one of the things I am most looking forward to. With Natalie Maines there’s always the prospect she might rant about a world leader, with David Cameron being a prime candidate to receive a few home truths!

Of the other main acts, I recently bought the latest albums from Zac Brown Band and Chris Young and like those, more so Zac Brown Band. That being said, I’ll be hoping they don’t play Overnight, a song that seemed ill fitting for the album both in style and content. Rascal Flatts I know from the Cars soundtrack, but little else! I have heard very little from Martina McBride, and have only heard one song from Dierks Bentley. With Dierks I can’t tell you what the song is, but it was played a few times on Chris Country recently and I remember thinking I really liked it. I don’t think I’ll be invited to join the Dierks Bentley street team any time soon, but I still have more than 5 weeks to get my act together!

That’s the 8 main acts, made up of artists I know and love, some I have dabbled in, and a few for which Country 2 Country will be an education. 8 bands in one weekend is a pretty good tally, especially when they are country music acts and this is the UK, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Just this morning Country 2 Country announced the 27 acts that will be appearing on the pop up stages across the weekend. That means there will be a massive 35 country music acts performing at one point or another on March 15th and 16th – wow. I don’t know the vast majority of these, but I have heard of a few, and have even chatted to some on Twitter, like Hannah Jane Lewis, Raintown and Jessica Clemmons. In fact I have Jessica’s EP to review, so I’d better get on that!

These pop up stage artists are especially exciting, because for the most part they won’t have big music companies behind them, yet, to promote them and bring them to the consciousness of the average country music fans in the UK. I could, and intend to, come away from Country 2 Country having discovered a whole bunch of great new music that I didn’t even know was out there. It’s win win for both artists and fans. Such is the open nature of these pop up stages that I may also get the opportunity to chat to some of them, which is not something you can easily do in the more formal setting of a standard gig venue.

Add in the country market, which last year had some great food and merchandise stalls, as well as representatives from mighty organisations such as The CMA, and this weekend has the potential to be quite awesome. There’s one other thing though…that’s the country music community, many of whom I have the opportunity to chat to on Twitter, and that could be you, yes you who is reading this right now! I know of quite a few that will be in attendance and will get the chance to meet, chat and have a drink with. As someone who is still in the infancy of their country music journey, it’s these people, you, that have recommended artists and songs, and have been the biggest part of my country music learning curve. It will be great to finally meet and put faces to names, some of whom I’d even consider friends, as much as you can be over Twitter anyway!

The country music community, bar none, has been the most accepting and friendly of any I have encountered, and it’s one of the reasons I have plunged head first into a genre of music that was left undiscovered for so much of my life. I can’t wait to be back in The O2, with link minded fans, to see some of the best music in the world today. Country 2 Country is looking like the highlight of the year, and how lucky am I to even have such an event to attend? There are many people out there in the UK who have passionately followed country music for years, and not had anything like Country 2 Country – thankfully they do now.

See you there – I’ll be the one in the chequered shirt and cowboy boots!

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Gig Review: C2C Country To Country Festival – Sunday 17th March 2013

Country To Country 2013

Country To Country 2013

A little over a year after I started to really get into country music and I finally attended my first country gig. Actually better make that 4, well, 3 and a bit – but more on that later. I booked tickets for the inaugural Country To Country music festival back before Christmas, and having to decide between the Saturday or the Sunday, it was Brantley Gilbert and Carrie Underwood that gave Sunday the nod. So fast forward a few months again to the present and with my cowboy hat and boots proudly worn, off the The O2 I went.

Apart from 4 main acts playing in the arena each day there were also pop up stages around The O2 with UK country artists playing, and also a market type affair with food and merchandise vendors. Within a few hundred square feet I could have bought a gun, saddle and a portion of goat curry. I chose neither, and didn’t even manage to acquire a free copy of Maverick magazine.

Before the music in the arena kicked off with Brantley Gilbert we decided to eat at Frankie and Bennys – big mistake. To say the service was slow would be an insult to those catering staff who pride themselves on being genuinely slow. We waited an hour and ten minutes for our main course and to make use of that time we had to order the same round of drinks twice, almost three times, and asked more times than I can remember for a new set of cutlery. It was an agonising combination of the food taking an age and the staff making Fawlty Towers’ Manuel look like a Michelin Star waiter. The food wasn’t bad when it finally came, though the chips, or fries if you prefer, were cold on delivery.

Even before any of the acts came on we were treated to Whispering Bob Harris welcoming us and it was his job to introduce each act from then on. Bob Harris is the voice of country music in the UK and presents a country music show on a Thursday on BBC Radio 2 from 7-8pm. It was only right having Bob there and nobody else could have filled that role with the same legitimacy.

Brantley Gilbert
This guy was the main reason I was going to Country To Country, as his brand of self described southern rock appealed to me, being a huge fan of rock music for the past 3 decades. I think country is really more of an attitude than a sound these days and probably always has been, so he may be unnecessarily downplaying the country on his resume. While Brantley’s second album is a lot rockier than his debut, they take it up another notch or twelve when playing live. Make no mistake, Brantley and his band are a full on country rock band who even tease the boundary to country metal, should such a sub-genre even exist. The sound set-up wasn’t perfect and it came over too loud at times, but not enough to spoil a very energetic and well received performance. It was great to finally see songs like Country Must Be Country Wide, Kick It in the Sticks and You Don’t Know Her Like I Do performed live that I’d come to like so much from playing the CDs. Such was my appreciation that I went straight to the merchandise booth after the set had finished and bought a Brantley Gilbert Hell on Wheels Tour 2013 t-shirt. That’ll be perfect for Country To Country 2014.

LeAnn Rimes
I’ll hold my hand up and admit that aside from Can’t Fight the Moonlight, I wasn’t sure I knew or liked a great deal of LeAnn’s music, and a few songs into her set I wondered if it night be nice, but just a little dull. However, as if hearing my thoughts, she kicked it up a gear and from then on we got a LeAnn who opened her heart, bore her soul and gave some of the best vocal performances that I have ever had the pleasure to witness. LeAnn seemed genuinely touched at the fantastic response to her music and at one point, after playing a song particularly close to her heart, was moved to tears, briefly. She of course played the songs we all knew, which upon hearing them was many more than just that song from Coyote Ugly as I had previously feared. She even threw in some Janice Joplin and showcased her new single Spitfire. The aforementioned latest single and other new songs she played were really very good, to the point where I’ll be buying her new album when it comes out next month. Don’t think amazing vocals, likable personality and humble nature was all we got though, oh no. To finish her performance at Country To Country, LeAnn Rimes dismissed her band and closed her set with an absolutely spectacular acapella rendition of Amazing Grace. A song so perfect in it’s execution that it made every hair on my neck stand to attention and resulted in a very well deserved standing ovation from the crowd. In just 60 minutes I was turned from being pretty ignorant to LeAnn’s music to a big fan. In fact, I think I’d even go as far as saying that last song was possibly the single greatest vocal performance I have ever heard live. It’s actually been uploaded by someone on YouTube, though the start is missing unfortunately. As great as it sounds on YouTube, it doesn’t do the remarkable performance justice, but it’s something.

Darius Rucker
One of the friends I met up with is a huge Hootie and the Blowfish fan, but I only know Darius from his country music career of the last few years, and especially his 2010 single Come Back Song. I’ve never seen much of him, aside from an appearance on the Lady Antebellum – Own The Night World Tour DVD & Blu-ray, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I did get is arguably the performance of the night as Darius is both a great a singer and a fantastic entertainer who has nice guy written all over him, apart from on his very cool Avengers t-shirt. There was one song in particular, It Won’t Be Like This for Long, which he said was written about his kids and aside from being a really great song, every single word resonated with my wife and I, as we watched in awe of his performance and how much the song meant to us. If you are a parent then listen to this song, I guarantee you’ll think it was written just for you. He threw in a couple of Hootie songs, much to the delight my friend, and even a brilliant cover of The Joker, originally by Steve Miller. Darius Rucker is a man leading a band on the road, and his band are awesome. Such a mix of talented musicians, all of whom Darius likes to make as a big part of the show as possible, in spite of it being is name in lights. I came away from this gig a huge Darius Rucker fan, and not just because he finished off with Prince hit Purple Rain. Yes, you read that right.

Carrie Underwood
This is where the story starts to go wrong, unfortunately so. Carrie is one of the first country artists I listened to and so apart from being a damn fine singer, has a special place in my heart. However, something went awry with the sound, which I later found out affected some people and not others, depending on where you were sat. From where we were sitting her mic and the lead guitar were set up way way too loud, and I’ve seen Iron Maiden perform at The O2 – they were like choirboys compared to this. It wasn’t just loud, it was very trebly and the sound we ended up getting was, and not to mince my words, painful. We gave it six songs, during which we said we’ll give it one more song each time, as people from all over started to leave. It really did become unbearable, and much to our disappointment we had to leave too. We were not alone as dozens of people were leaving at the same time, all complaining about the sound. Apparently, though not to the same extent, this happened on the previous night with Tim McGraw, so something was obviously very wrong with the changes to the set-up they made for the headliner each night. It would have been to great see Carrie’s whole performance, but if we’d have stayed any longer I may have ended up associating the awful sound engineering with Carrie’s music, and I didn’t want that.

In spite of the debacle during Carrie Underwood’s set I thoroughly enjoyed Country To Country. I saw 3 great acts perform live and enjoyed being in a friendly atmosphere of country music fans. Rumours are starting to spread that Country To Country will be returning in 2014. This time I want to attend for both days and I hope the sound is sorted by then too. A fantastic first outing for Country To Country and the start of more country music in the UK, I hope.

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