Once again, the C2C Festival rolled into Dublin City to deliver 3 days of music, 12 very different acts and a very big advert for the wide range of tastes that defines Country music in this modern age.
The 3Arena venue is appropriate for the size of this event and the logistics around band turnover and stage performance timings are all handled with the utmost professionalism. Given that this event has been running since 2014 you would expect nothing less as it has grown in popularity and size.
The very diverse mix of fans from all corners of Ireland and beyond, add to the colour and spectacle but if you look below the surface, there are many reasons why this juggernaut should not deliver. The over-priced, warm beer in plastic containers and the poor selection of food over the course of the weekend make the event somewhat lacking in key areas.
Also, the pairing of established Country acts with young, upcoming hopefuls does not always work as the gap in interest between sections of the fans that attend is too wide. This manifests in excessive noise levels during the performances and the ignorant, boisterous behaviour by some groups of fans (clearly the worse for wear), takes away hugely from the enjoyment of the experience overall.
I understand that groups travel for the entire weekend and stay at local hotels. However, treating the 3-day event as an excuse to dress up in Cowboy hats and boots, wear overpriced t-shirts and shout at ever increasing volumes above each other is not my idea of fun.
There is incessant checking of mobile phones, taking endless selfies and recording snippets of the performers that will, in all probability, be deleted when sobriety returns. Maybe the realisation dawns just how much more enjoyable it would have been to just listen to the music and watch the acts perform in the moment? Somehow I doubt it.
Emmylou Harris summed it up perfectly during her set, that was marred by incessant loud chatter and just bad manners by groups of fans, when she asked "Does anybody remember Country music?" It is such an appropriate comment when one realises the manner in which this music genre has grown from the margins to become mainstream and it incorporates new tricks such as loops, click tracks, rap, electronic beats syncopated into the rhythms, sharing more with urban beat music than anything resembling the original roots of rural struggle and the simple dreams of the common folk who struggled to make a life. The simple messages are still there buried deep in the lyrical sentiments of some songs where God, Family, loyalty and doing the right thing are still purveyed as the polemic.
The festival kicks off very early and the hassle in getting to the venue on time is very evident as the initial small crowd continues to grow while the early acts perform.
Luke Coombs is a young Country artist making his name at the moment with a hard-working band of musicians who turn-in a solid performance in backing his strong vocals. It's all baseball caps and beards and there are quite a few lookalikes in the early crowd. Luke has a debut release and sings mainly from this as songs like Beer Can, One Number Away; When It Rains It Pours and his breakthrough single, Hurricane are very well received by the younger audience that seem to know all the lyrics as they sing with great enthusiasm. Coomb's remarks that " Growing up in the States you would never think that there were this many Country fans". His is a popular performance and sets the tone for the rest of the night.
Kip Moore follows with a really confident and hard-hitting set that really works the crowd in an impressive display of catchy rock-oriented numbers and a personal dynamism that leaves no doubt as to his abilities to win over an audience. He has a real charisma and over eleven tracks, he visits all three of his releases to date, as his 5-piece band play with a real cutting edge.
Songs like Wild Ones, Beer Money, Just Another Girl, Last Shot, Come And Get It and More Girls Like You clearly go a long way to winning new admirers in the crowd. A fine acoustic version of his song Hey Pretty Girl is performed with great confidence and the final song, a stripped-down acoustic version of Guitar Man, closes what has been an impressive performance.
Sugarland has just reformed as a working duo over recent months, having taken a break while Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush pursued solo projects. Having released 5 albums over a period of six years, Sugarland is very much defined by the wonderful vocal talents of Jennifer Nettles. She is a confident and consummate performed and strides the stage with a bravado and an élan that carries everyone along for the ride. The 6-piece band are all very competent musicians but the fact that this is their first live performance after a 5-year absence is somewhat evident at moments during a set that runs for 15 songs and covers all the popular chart hits in the career of Sugarland thus far.
Opening with the appropriately-named Find The Beat Again, the energy of Nettle and the mandolin of Bush are always to the fore as they perform favourites like Stuck Like Glue, Want To, Little Miss, Incredible Machine, Already Gone, All I Want To Do, Baby Girl, Something More, Want To and the joyous Settlin'. There is a new song, Still The Same, that is well received and will no doubt figure in the charts very soon. However, it is the more thoughtful performances from Nettles that remain in the memory, when she displays her full vocal power and emotion on the songs, Stay and Unlove You. These vocal performances steal the show and confirm where the real power behind this band lies. A welcome return and a performance to remind us that country music always wanted to deliver popular songs that could become radio hits and bring happiness to many...
Headline act, Kasey Musgraves, takes to the stage with a completely new image and in place of the cowboy hats, boots and sequenced outfits she now wears a sophisticated look of a contemporary woman who has taken her place in the world. Her 6-piece band equally are dressed down in black outfits and play in a restrained tempo that reflects the thoughtful and considered set of 18 songs, including material from her upcoming release, Golden Hour.
Kasey speaks of her love of Dublin City and her joy at returning and this is no idle attempt to win over a home crowd as she genuinely seems excited to be playing here again. Her sound has moved on from the tunes that announced her to an unsuspecting public back in 2013 and many of the new arrangements are not what you would call country in the strict sense of the word. Not that this should bother Kasey as her reputation as a considered and talented songwriter is well established. As she grows as an artist she will bring her loyal fan base with her.
The performance tonight does not really peak unfortunately and the set unfolds with occasional lulls in the pacing of it all. Perhaps the crowd are feeling the effects of the previous few hours but there seems to be a spark missing somewhere. Having said that, Kasey gives an honest performance and sings beautifully on songs such as Keep It To Yourself, Stupid, Fine, My Mamas Broken Heart, Late To The Party With You, It Is What It Is and Follow Your Arrow - all firm favourites.
The new songs from Golden Hour are received with polite applause as numbers that will grow into firm favourites over time; Love Is A Wild Thing, Velvet Elvis, Butterflies, Space Cowboy, Slow Burn and Rainbow (sung for her Grandma - her favourite song). Kasey asks the crowd if anyone comes from a small town, to which she receives a big show of hands. She follows by stating that " well you all know that feeling of growing up in a place with shit to do all day" - to which she gets the biggest cheer of the night. A poignant encore of Broken Merry-go-round puts this comment firmly in perspective and you realise that many of these newly crowned stars who have found great success and wealth beyond their small-town dreams still carry that essential DNA throughout their careers.
The second day offers more variety over a four-hour ride that delivers the old tradition, mixed with the new direction that Country music has taken...
Midland open proceedings and this 3-piece group are joined by a drummer and guitar player to augment their live sound. The band has been receiving much cover in the media and produce a set that displays close harmonies and melodic tunes, taken mainly from their debut album, released in early 2018. There are a few cover versions in the set with Tom Petty remembered (American Girl), a taste of John Mellencamp (Life Goes On), plus Alabama's Dixieland Delight. Their breakthrough song, Drinkin' Problem, is very strong and goes down really well with the crowd. Gator Boys, Burn Out and Altitude Adjustment are other strong songs in a short set that help to win new friends and lay the groundwork for a return visit in the future.
Margo Price is the real deal and with two cracking Country releases to her name, she is a welcome addition to the line-up today. Taking the stage with her regular 6-piece band she looks terrific in her white trouser suit, embroidered with red roses and cowboy hat. Playing a strong set, Margo delivers Don't Say It, Do Right By Me, Tennessee Song, Weakness and A Little Pain Never Hurt Anyone, all building up a fine set that gradually wins the noisy crowd over, after a slow start.
Cocaine Cowboys is a real standout with Margo mounting the rostrum to play a second drum kit and really pound out a driving rhythm, while the band members stretch out and deliver extended solos on guitar, pedal steel and keyboards. It is a touch of psychedelic country that goes a long way to confirming her creative muse and individuality. Since You Put Me Down and Four Years Of Chances give added weight to her blossoming talent and the hard struggle to make it as a musician of real value has been completely worth the time taken to get here.
A cover version of Proud Mary, the Creedence classic, is a tour de force and Hurtin' On The Bottle includes a segue into the Willie Nelson classic, Whiskey River, as she brings the set to a close with a great exit that sees her joining the audience to hand out red roses to the cheering fans.
We are then in the company of true Country royalty as Emmylou Harris takes the stage with an understated entrance and no lavish backdrop. She is the true queen of Country music and looks every bit a star as she walks her impressive band through a back catalogue that is packed with so many wonderful songs. The playing is sublime and the balance of sound is the best of the night by, excuse the pun, a Country Mile.
Phil Madeira (acoustic guitar, accordion & piano), Will Kimbrough (electric guitar), Bryan Owings (drums), Chris Donohue (bass) and Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle, mandolin) turn the night into something really special as the play off each other, around the melody and above the rhythm with understated class. Orphan Girl, Making Believe, Red Dirt Girl, Wheels, Michelangelo, Shores Of White Sand all show the pretenders to the crown just what it takes to become a true legend. Cover versions include Pancho & Lefty (Townes van Zandt), Get Up John (Bill Monroe), Have You Someone In Heaven Awaiting (The Stanley Brothers) and Old Five 'n' Dimers Like Me (Billy Joe Shaver). A song she notes that she now feels old enough to play.
Emmylou Harris performs with such sublime grace and honesty and Across The Great Divide and Boulder From Birmingham close the show in real style and this wonderful performance would have been better suited to an appropriate venue people could pay due respect and reverence.
Headlining act, Little Big Town, are clearly the key attraction that most people have been waiting for and they get a great welcome on taking the stage. However, the decision to start their set with Rocket Man (Elton John) is a strange one, even if it displays the excellent harmony singing that these four musicians have honed over many years of singing and performing together.
This band has paid their dues with many successful releases and a touring ethic that has seen them win increasing numbers of fans around the world. They have a commercial, radio friendly sound and favourites like Drivin' Around, Pontoon, Happy People, Front Porch Thing and Little White Church all come and go in a wave of positive affirmations and smiles from all concerned.
It's two years since the band played C2C and they are well up for this return visit. the backing musicians provide an impressive wall of sound for many tracks, over which the members of LIttle BIg Town sing solo slots and join together to harmonise superbly. But it is on the stripped down, acoustic part of the show where they show their true colours and deliver some real quality, with covers in tribute to recently passed legends Don Williams & Glen Campbell. they also play I'm With The Band which includes a section of The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends. The line "I was born with a suitcase in my hand" is very appropriate as it sums up the life of the nomadic musician where despite all their recent commercial success, this band revisit their origins in impressive style. The rest of the show is taken up with a series of further hit songs including Tornado, Day Drinking and Girl Crush. It is all delivered with a style that may stray from strict Country roots but is well embraced and received all the same.
The final night of the weekend and proceedings kick off with Brett Young, a Country Pop singer who comes from California and has an engaging stage presence, which proves to be very popular with the younger members of the crowd. A baseball cap and a winning smile go a long way and this singer has an excellent voice to go with the image. His debut album is featured with songs like Mercy, In Case You Didn’t Know, Like I Loved You and his breakthrough single, Sleep Without You, featured in a snappy set that is very well received.
Old Dominion is a 5-piece band from Nashville and they deliver a rousing set that really lifts the crowd with a sound that is very much contemporary country with strong rock leanings and some hip-hop elements. Matthew Ramsey (lead vocals) is a very confident and personable front-man and Trevor Rosen (guitar, keyboards), Whit Sellers (drums), Geoff Sprung (bass guitar), and Brad Tursi (guitar) play with a fervour and drive that wins many friends. The guitar work of Tursi is especially strong and worthy of special mention.
With two albums and a growing reputation they play, among others, Break Up with Him, No Such Thing As A Broken Heart, Song for Another Time, Nowhere Fast, Wrong Turns, Hotel Key, Be With Me and Written in the Sand. Tight band sound, strong players, a good sense for a clever lyric and a bright future.
Kelsea Ballerini is a 24-year-old artist who has been getting great success Stateside. With two releases she has a confidence that is clear as she works hard to get the crowd on her side. Her pleasant personality helps her grow into the performance and her songs - Love Me Like You Mean It, Yeah Boy, Unapologetically, Miss Me More, Get Over Yourself, I Hate Love Songs, Legends and In Between are all examples of a Country Pop sound that will bring her increasing admirers for what she does. Influences such as Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and perhaps, The Dixie Chicks run through these arrangements and her voice is powerful enough to drive her 4-piece band and to also sing some solo acoustic numbers which endear her to the crowd.
Faith Hill & Tim McGraw are the headline act chosen to close C2C this year and given their place as Country music’s President and First Lady, it is a fitting honour. They have been dominating the Country music charts since the early 1990s and their Soul2Soul tour has proven to be the most attended tour in any musical genre and the highest grossing American tour in country music history.
Faith Hill is one of the top-selling and most-awarded female artists of all time and has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. Tim McGraw has sold more than 50 million records and dominated Country charts with 43 number one singles worldwide. Their appearance at C2C is in support of their first ever album together, The Rest of Our Life, and they arrive with a 10-piece band, a huge stage production and an incredible visual spectacle. The capacity crowd is really excited as the stage clock counts down the seconds and then, suddenly, we are in the presence of husband and wife duo Tim & Faith who open with a full-on version of the I Knew You Were Waiting (Aretha Franklin/George Michael). The pacing of the show is brilliantly planned with the couple singing seven numbers together in a tour de force of vocal power and sweet harmonies. This section of the show includes excellent new song Break First, plus old favourites The Way You Love Me, Like We Never Loved At All and The Lucky One.
Faith Hill takes the next part of the performance and delivers a set of six songs that are simply breath-taking and spine-tingling in performance. Her vocal range and incredible delivery are something to witness in a live setting and Free, This Kiss, Breathe, Wild One, Stronger (stunning & soulful) and Piece Of My Heart (Janis Joplin) are given everything by this superbly gifted singer. The applause that rings around the arena is prolonged and deserved as she welcomes back her husband to join her on a great rendition of Angry All The Time.
Tim McGraw then takes his solo section and performs a selection of songs, including One Of These Nights, Real Good Man and Shotgun Rider, ending with a terrific performance of the standout, Humble & Kind. It is at this point that the stage goes dark and everyone is expecting the next part of the show to reunite both artists for a storming finale. However, the darkness on stage is replaced by torchlights as stage hands rush to respond to a loud bang as a microphone falls to the floor. It emerges that Tim has become faint and has fallen to his knees while trying to walk off stage. There is a prolonged break while the audience awaits news of events and most expect the show to continue.
Sadly, this is not to be and Faith returns to the stage surrounded by the full band and announces that Tim is severely dehydrated and will not be able to continue with the performance. She speaks of the rigours of a hectic touring schedule and apologises to everyone while promising to return to Dublin in the future. The audience is generous in their support and applause rings around the venue as people mask their disappointment over not being able to witness the concluding part of what has been a very enjoyable and impressive concert. There is a reason why Faith Hill and Tim McGraw have attained their status and the talent and passion is evident tonight for all to see. They played 17 songs over 100 minutes, more than enough to have left everyone satisfied and it is a tribute to their enduring skill as performers that we all just secretly wanted a little bit more.
The cynics among us may find the premise of their show just a little too cloying and adolescent with all the lingering smiles and gentle caresses, especially in front of thousands of people; but that would be entirely missing the point. They carry it all off with such gentle ease and aplomb and it is hardly smething that you could fake in front of so many fans on a regular basis. They perform in an honest and openly sincere way and appear very much in love and in the moment.
A great spectacle, backed by a superbly rehearsed and talented group of musicians. Hopefully Tim recovers well and cuts back on his punishing exercise regime which cannot be healthy when visiting three countries within 72 hours. Until the next time ... and hopefully there will be a next time!
Country 2 Country - Dublin 3Arena - March 9th to March 11th 2018.
Weekend review written by Paul McGee Photography by Ronnie Norton