The Lonesome Highway team share some thoughts on the 2017 C2C Festival
C2C is a yearly event and getting stronger every year. It is probably the occasion that totally unites Ireland north and south under the banner of country music. I would say that 80% of the audience were from anywhere above a line drawn from Dublin to Galway. The 3 Arena was jammed from the start while the Sunday World pop up stage provided an opportunity for local talent to showcase under the watchful eye of country guru Eddie Rowley. Saturdays singer Una Healy strutted her stuff as a solo act and did a fine job of it. The one drawback was the occasional performer singing to a backing track which had an unfortunate whiff of karaoke.
Friday night Maren Morris was the opening act, a five foot nothing ball of energy who leaned closer to Taylor Swift than Tammy Wynette in her music, but the crowd were with her all the way. On the other hand the second act was Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives who ticked every box for me and even a few that I hadn’t expected. I got a buzz seeing Marty keeping the spirit of Clarence White alive with the famous B-Bender that I got to hold backstage when Marty played the Helix a few years back. Check out Steve’s accompanying review of a superlative performance.
The main act of the evening was the Zac Brown Band, an amazing unique outfit, all tattoos and assorted hats with an audience-electrifying set that had the crowd bouncing all over the hall until an ill thought out backdrop of the Union Jack to their cover of The Who’s Baba O’Riley brought boos and a slow handclap from part of the audience. I was too taken with a set that was a lot more to my taste and softer than on their last visit to be bothered by this lapse in an American grasp of European geography. No disappointments there for real Zac Brown fans and even a totally unexpected Bohemian Rhapsody cover had the crowd screaming for more.
Saturday opened with another newbie to me, Cam, a bubbly blonde in rhinestoned ripped jeans and a bright yellow top looking for all then world like a young Dolly Parton. She is a very appealing stage presence from California whose songwriting career and fine voice will ensure her place in the country-pop field for a long time. Cam was a fine opener for the next performer whom I managed to interview before the show.
Jennifer Nettles is back to her solo singing career with last year’s release of her second solo album Playing with Fire after film work and a stint on Broadway in the musical Chicago. She jumped straight in and worked the full stage, constantly interacting with the audience. Her set list that covered her full musical history so far, with songs from her magical time with Sugarland, her last two solo albums and a smattering of new stuff which kept me well pleased for her hour on stage. She is a seasoned performer who is fully confident in her good looks and musical ability and hopefully will grace our stages for many a year to come.
Next came the songwriting powerhouse that is Chris Young. With a full band behind him, he dominated the stage and seemed genuinely pleased with the singalong performance from the crowd. Young’s songs have the ability to hit the same nerves that that any great honky tonk heartache song from Nashville ever did. I enjoyed his sincerity and melody which, like most of the experienced acts this time, was a lot more acoustic and less electric that previous visits.
Then a white-hatted and Telecaster carrying Brad Paisley burst on stage with a set of tunes that had his now familiar guitar breaks which added to the album versions of his hits. I have seen Brad almost every time since I first saw him supporting Reba in (the then) Point Depot back when God was a boy and he looks as young now as he did then. His performance was supported by the most engaging graphic backdrops of the weekend and boy, did he do his homework properly, right down to a Google Maps zoom in to the 3 Arena saying "We Are Here" and his joint USA/Irish Tricolour backdrop hit exactly the right note with the audience. He was joined on stage for a selfie-taking interlude by Chris Young while duetting on I’m Still a Guy. He had previously stunned the crowd by taking the guitar he had just played, signed it, added a little shamrock and then handed it to one shell shocked audience member. It’s very hard to comment on a Brad Paisley concert as he is country when he’s country and then the demon guitar slinger inside takes him off on a tangent. I’d prefer if he stuck to my style of country but that might be bloody boring and we would have nothing to crib about. Let’s just say the Brad Paisley is unique and an absolute gentleman who deserves to be allowed to tote his guitar in whatever way he like as long as he keeps coming back and blowing the crowds away.
Day three started with for me with Dan + Shay an act who belong on a pop, not country stage. They rapped their way through a set of unremarkable songs that left me hugely unimpressed. They were followed by Hunter Hayes, who somehow reminded me of Marty McFly in Back To The Future as he followed his guitar all across the stage like a young Chuck Berry. His undoubted instrumental skill and positive songwriting performance leaned towards Brad Paisley but without much country pedigree, but he finished his set with a heartfelt thanks to the world of country music which he said had given him the home that he had been unable to find in any other genre. This young fella is a handsome and talented lad who I think will mature into a Chris Young/Eric Church type singer songwriter as he moves ahead.
Darius Rucker is the former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman who has settled comfortably into country. He had the audience eating out of his hand from the first note as he chatted more to the audience than any previous acts. I was moving around too much as a photographer to manage to jot down the setlist but as Darius said what does it matter when a song is either good or bad? “Everybody loves a good song” he said “and this is a really good song” as he launched in Friends in Low Places to thunderous reaction from the crowd. Maybe his monitors weren’t too great but once or twice was a little off key. But the crowd just didn’t care as the standing ovation at the end showed. I reckon he can come back as often as he likes and will fill any venue in town. His set covered pop, funk, and country, and just like his most enjoyable Christmas album, he was a treat for my mature easy listening ears.
If you are a country fan in the true traditional sense of the word then to have C2C wind up with country royalty like Reba McEntire was a treat well worth waiting for. She came on stage in very tasteful boots, black leggings and a shimmery sequinned navy blue top and took us on a guided and chronological tour of her life from her earliest times with a doting cowboy dad right through to her current and very listenable twin CD set of gospel songs. Each song got a full down home intro as though she was having a one to one chat beside the fireside back home. There were plenty of visual back drops to support her performance. and the audience knew all the songs. The highlight for me was a duet with Jennifer Wrinkle, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist on the huge hit Reba originally recorded with Linda Davis, Does He Love You, which just about tore the house down. Reba might have hit a bump in the road when she suggested a life-style change for the audience with her current single Back To God.
Her set ran for well over an hour and she left the stage to an audience on its feet screaming for more. Just when it looked as if an encore was not forthcoming, the house lights dimmed and the screen lit up with the opening scene from one of her very early videos and at that stage on strode Reba as Fancy in a red mini, all rhinestones and tassels and a super look that sent most of the male hearts in the crowd heading to the cardiac critical zone. Reba certainly knows how to wow an audience and while she played as traditional as she needed to, her more recent offerings had soaring guitar breaks that were the equal of any of the earlier bands on the bill. A truly fitting finish to a strong festival. I fully enjoyed a weekend where the highs outweighed the lows; the increase in the number of acoustic instruments might signal a revival of more traditional country.
Review by Ronnie Norton
This weekend of all things country is a very positive and progressive step in the country music calendar and has been running in Dublin since 2014. Blending the old with the new is always a worthy concept, even if it runs the risk of not pleasing everybody. Everyone will have certain favourites among artists due to play over such a weekend and the joy of it all is that over 72 hours, between London, Glasgow and Dublin each artist is given a wide exposure to big crowds and potential new fans.
Friday night in Dublin kicked off with Maren Morris, an up and coming new talent, who has been releasing music since she was barely a teenager. Her major label debut, Hero, was released last year to wide acclaim and she operates in the area of country-pop, with a nod to some hip hop/soul influence as well. She can certainly sing, as she displays in the quieter moments of a set that unfortunately drowned out much of her vocals with overly loud and booming beats and heavy bass. She plays her hits for the younger members of the audience who respond with great energy and sing along to I Could Use a Love Song, My Church (with Beyonce sample of Halo), Drunk Girls Don’t Cry, I Wish I Was, How It’s Done and Sugar which all serve to start C2C with a bang.
Next up is the wonderful Marty Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives comprised of top notch players Chris Scruggs on bass, Harry Stinson on drums and Kenny Vaughn on guitar. They proceed to tear up the venue with a set of tunes that display real premiership quality and musicianship of the highest order - a real band in other words! No gimmicks and no flash, just honest playing and talent.
Miss Me When I’m Gone and The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore kick off with the virtuoso guitar licks of Vaughan, a real highlight as he lifts the performance levels ever higher. I’m Tempted is followed by the old standard El Paso and Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd gets a special airing with the excellent vocals of drummer Harry Stinson. The Special, by Irvine T Rouse, is played on solo mandolin by Marty before he gives a terrific rendition of the Johnny Cash written 40 Shades of Green. Hillbilly Rock and Time Don’t Wait For Nobody close the set in real driving style with plenty of twanging Telecasters mixed with a rhythm that calls to mind a mixture of Tom Petty meeting the Beatles. Marty Stuart has been around since the 1970s and has played with Johnny Cash as well as others in a long career that includes playing traditional country, bluegrass and rockabilly. He is country music royalty and worthy of greater attention.
Friday night finished with the Zac Brown Band who played an impressive 20-song set that includes a number of cover versions such as Baba O’Reilly and Bohemian Rhapsody. Both are performed with great confidence and are proof of the excellent musicianship among the band members. Whether these songs were included to highlight the wide scale of the band’s influences is not known, but they do take away from the focus on the band’s own songs and only served to disrupt the set.
Brown sings with a clear and strong voice that impresses the cheering crowd, who just can’t get enough. Chicken Fried, Homegrown, Free (which includes a tribute to Van Morrison with a section of Into The Mystic), Sweet Annie and Colder Weather are highlights of a long set as well as two new songs My Old Man and Real Thing. Zac Brown straddles a number of musical styles and includes some reggae-tinged tunes that add to the celebratory atmosphere of the night.
Sunday night Dan + Shay kicked off proceedings with a set that included plenty of energy and full-on country-pop. The two lead vocalists are easy to like with their boundless enthusiasm and smiling demeanours as they brought the Dublin crowd with them through a number of songs the younger audience members are happy to sing along with. 19 You & Me and Obsessed are two of the bigger hits and were received warmly. Shay is a strong singer with a soulful delivery and the singers also incorporated an element of rap into some songs. They were high energy, approaching lift off, as all band members bounded around the stage.
They are followed by music virtuoso Hunter Hayes who plays multiple instruments and has been on something of a fast-track for a number of years now. His band is very loud and the initial songs were drowned out by the distorted sound. On some of the quieter numbers he gets the chance to show that he really can hold a tune and is impressive with the quiet confidence of a musician who knows what he is doing and where his career is going. I Want Crazy, Amen, Light Me Up and Yesterday’s Song are all well received and this set goes down very well.
Darius Rucker took to the stage with a quiet confidence born of years as a headliner and within minutes he has the crowd completely behind him as he glides across the stage, working his performance and urging his superb 6-piece band to perform at increasingly high levels. Multi-talented and playing a range of instruments, the band members all impress with their playing and dynamic support for what are excellent songs. The setlist of 17 songs is taken from his four solo releases, together with a few selections from a new release due later this year; plus some old Hootie & the Blowfish material, mixed with a couple of cover versions. Friends in Low Places and No Diggity are included plus a fine version of Purple Rain in tribute to all the music artists who died in 2016. It is old favourites such as Only Wanna Be With You, It Won’t Be Like This For Long, Lighter Up and True Believers that receive most attention as this talented performer brings home a show that had something to please just about everyone.
Reba McEntire has been releasing quality country music records since the 1970s and her status as the queen of country music can only be challenged by the likes of Dolly Parton. At this stage of her career she has more than justified her reputation as a performer of great confidence and her back-catalogue of work stands the test of time. She delves into her past decades of recording across a set of some 20 songs that include many fan favourites such as The Greatest Man I Never Knew, Whoever’s In New England, Little Rock, Is There Life Out There and many more.
Being a traditionalist Reba keeps the performance simple as she moves easily around the stage engaging with her 7-piece band and bringing fine performances from all. Her duet with band member and fiddle/mandolin/guitar player Jennifer Wrinkle on Does He Love You is a real moment where things soar; as is the cover version of the Kelly Clarkson song Because Of You. Her voice is still sweetly strong and full of powerful restraint as she glides through a medley of old songs like You’re No Good/ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter/ Walk On/ I’d Rather Ride Around With You.
Her encore is the Bobbie Gentry penned Fancy and Reba re-appears in a resplendent red dress which has the crowd cheering for more, long after the stage has been vacated by this legendary artist. The weekend has been another success for the organisers and the artists involved have no doubt all made new friends as well as reacquainting themselves with many old ones too. The feast of music is something to just dive into as normal lives and routines are put on hold over 72 hours. The old mixed with the new; the tried and tested wrestled with the fresh and a look into the future of where country music might just be going.
Like one of those old, legendary trains of past country songs, the carriages are full and the route is there for all to enjoy. Time can be a speeding bullet train or a slow ride to a familiar destination. Either way, the journey lies ahead and we all benefit from the experience.
Review by Paul McGee
Marty Stuart C2C Friday
The undoubted highlight for me looking at the 2107 C2C bill was the inclusion of Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. This year’s line-up was again slanted towards the big names and upcoming chart chasers from the major labels. This makes a lot of sense in commercial terms, but it could also mean a lost opportunity if there is no move to introduce both broader and more traditional aspects of the music.
Stuart and his band - Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson and Chris Scruggs - were both superlative and indeed fabulous. Dressed to impress in tailored black Manuel for Marty and pale blue rhinestone suits for the band, they cut fine figures on stage. “Good evening good people of Dublin” was Stuart’s introduction to a set that included old favourites, songs and instrumentals from their new Way Out West album and some essential covers.
What was immediately apparent from the get-go was the tightness and ease with which this quartet played. The musicianship and harmonies were a delight and the sound was crystal clear, thanks to long time sound person Mick Conley manning the desk. Conley not only does the band’s live sound but also records, mixes and masters their studio recordings, and here he gave the audience the best sound of the weekend.
Aside from the songs there were Marty’s stories, which range from playing with Johnny Cash and (separately) Lester Flatt to meeting Ervin T Rouse, the man who wrote Orange Blossom Special, a song Rouse just called “The Special,” Stuart then gave a solo mandolin masterclass on his rendition of the song. All of the Fabulous Superlatives are steeped in the tradition and history of country music, but they also take it to new and exciting places. The 12 string Rickenbacker Vaughan used on the final song, Time Don’t Wait, proved that they could as easily reference the Byrds as they could the sounds of Bakersfield or Nashville. Stuart told us that Dublin was the surf music capital of the world - not so sure about that - but at that moment their guitar instrumental Mojave made it true.
“I’ve come here to have some fun” Stuart told us, adding ruefully as he took a swig from a bottle, he was only “drinking water.” Fun was indeed had by all, including all three members of the band who got individual showcases; “Cousin Kenny” Vaughan played and sang Country Music Got A Hold On Me and Hot Like That, while “Handsome Harry” Stinson’s version of Woodie Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd - with an amazingly long held note on the word Oklahoma - brought him a round of applause and “Professor of Cool” Chris Scruggs sang Dark Bird.
The songs that immediately hit home for long-time fans were Hillbilly Rock, The Whiskey Ain’t Working and Tempted, all given a fresh lease of life by the new line-up and sounding as good as ever. The covers included El Paso which Stuart said they’d agreed to do as a tribute when session hero Grady Martin, who played on the original, was being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, before realising that it was not such an easy song to perform with 468 words and myriad chord changes. Nothing to worry about here as they did indeed do the song justice.
Their Johnny Cash song choice for Ireland was an appropriate 40 Shades Of Green, a song that can sound cheesy in cabaret hands but here they got the spirit of the song just right. On different numbers they switched between acoustic instruments and twin Telecasters. Stuart played the legendary Clarence White’s guitar, illustrating that it couldn’t be in better hands. It is eight years since Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives played the Helix in Dublin and it can only be hoped that there will be less of a gap between this and their next visit, and that the audience, who responded enthusiastically to the music, will be there in force.
Review by Stephen Rapid
C2C Live photography by Ronnie Norton
Lonesome Highway would like to thank PR James Cunningham who made everything easy, MCD’s front of house staff who were both accommodating and helpful and record labels Hump Head, Sony and Universal Music who facilitated us all with interviews.