Dedicated fans and musicians brought enthusiasm to see a treasure chest of talent. For many of the artists this was the first time in Ireland and the energy displayed by the audience who attended gave a warm glow to the performers and left of variety pleasant of memories. What did we learn from a complete over-indulgence in all things country?
72 hours of music offered up 11 different acts and plenty of talking points surrounding in what direction country is now heading. For the traditionalists who grew up on Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, there was less on offer. The newer wave of country fans shouted their claims for a future with a modern sound and an open approach to influences from other musical genres including commercial pop, hip hop, rap and blues influences. Bands played with backing tracks and loops to augment the sound, which was loud even at the quietest volumes and hitting danger levels when everything was cranked up.
The Eagles sang about a ‘new kid in town’ and at one time this used to be the maverick persona and talent of Dwight Yoakam; all skin-tight denim, Manuel jackets and cowboy hat tipped low; his pointed boots spinning him in a groove that had women screaming for more as he moved his butt to the Bakersfield Country sound of honky-tonk bars.
The new, for those who have not realised it yet, comes from vibrant artists such as Eric Church, Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt. This is a brash mixture of different musical colours with a palette of hard rock influences up against electronic rhythms and looped beats which synch into the soulful pop sounds of radio friendly tunes. It is full of broad new brush strokes - but is it really country?
Perhaps we should not be so purist as we look back to the roots of the genre and instead look forward to the new urban influences that have merged into country music to make it bigger in a crossover scale than it has been before. The young audience at the 3Arena knew all the songs and were happily singing along to each new act as if they were old time favourites and I had to ask ‘what is so wrong in having a good time?’ and bringing joy to people through music – whatever new direction it takes.
The first night of Country to Country shows us exactly how diverse and wide country music is today. On offer are three acts, all hugely enjoyable, but with little in common except the stage they all share.
The menu of artists offered by C2C, and in particular the variety of acts gathered under the country umbrella, is quite refreshing, giving the audience an opportunity to sample acts that might not otherwise be obvious choices. Hopefully C2C will continue to offer such diverse and interesting acts and all will be equally well supported.
Opening act Chris Stapleton is a renowned songwriter who unexpectedly swept the board at last year’s CMAs following the release of his acclaimed debut solo album Traveller. However strong the material on the album may be, it reaches an altogether different level when delivered live.
Stapleton’s band is JT Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums and his wife Morgane (‘’the love of my life’’) on backing vocals and his show is in complete contrast to the acts that follow. The band totally tight, natural and at ease, with the passionate vocals of both Stapleton and his wife out front. Their sound is raw, bluesy and appears effortless and casual as if they are performing their weekly residency at a local club.
Drawing in the main from Traveller, Chris opens with Nobody To Blame and delivers a blistering performance of southern rock, blues and country before finishing with the old George Jones hit Tennessee Whiskey in a set that unfortunately is allocated only forty minutes.
Might As Well Get Stoned rocks out with its ironic Rolling Stones Start me Up riff, More Of You soothes and tempers, and a cover of You Are My Sunshine, which Morgane Stapleton has recorded for producer David Cobb’s Southern Family album, is adorned by striking vocal harmonies and a killer guitar solo by Chris.
Kacey Musgraves is completely different from an entertainment, if not musical, point of view. A mariachi-sounding intro gets her set under way with the stage in darkness with only a glimmer coming from the twinkle lights adorning the rhinestone jackets and trousers worn by her band, The Runners Up, as they make their way on stage. Kacey follows in a sequined outfit, looking every part the Pageant Queen of her opening song.
She immediately has the crowd eating out of her hand with her polite manner (‘’I so love Ireland, it’s great to be back, how many of you were at my show at The Academy?’’) It’s academic that she gets probably two thousand replies of ‘yes’ given that the Academy has a capacity of 500!
The majority of the set is drawn from her second album Pageant Material with Merry Go Round and Follow Your Arrow included from her debut, Same Trailer Different Park. Mama’s Broken Heart, co-written with Miranda Lambert, also features in her sixty minute set. She introduces the beautiful ballad Fine as ‘’my grandma’s favourite song, she wouldn’t let me record the album unless I included it’’ and Late to the Party as ‘’my favourite song on the album’’
Her six piece band are meticulous throughout, though possibly a bit restrained as each song is delivered note for note as the recorded versions, leaving no opportunity for improvisation.
A Kacey Musgraves gig is a show in the true sense; it is slick, it is fun, it is choreographed, it is sexy, it is innately musical and most of all - it is entertaining. And, it works.
Eric Church hits the stage at 9.15pm as the headline act to a loyal and expectant crowd, plays a blistering set (though possibly closer to stadium rock than traditional country) but is none the less engaging for that. From his opener Knives of New Orleans to his final medley of Dancing in the Dark / Springsteen, his show is full-on entertainment, delightfully over the top and a performance by an artist and band that really know how to deliver. Loud and frenetic with smoke machines, overhead visuals and lots of drinking songs, all contributing to a typical Eric Church show.
Church has the perfect ploy on stage in twin guitarists Driver Williams and Jeff Cease as part of his six piece band. Williams, with Nashville largely and proudly tattooed on his arm, prowls around the stage Ronnie Wood style, occasionally sidling up to the more sedate Cease for a double guitar solo.
The set in the main is a journey through Church’s considerable body of work, (‘’No big plan for tonight folks, we’ll just see how the night goes’’.) Obvious crowd pleasing rockers Creepin’ and Talladega are included but Church also has the ability to slow it down with impressive ballads such as Mr. Misunderstood and Like a Wrecking Ball, performed acoustic with only drummer Craig Wright in support.
These Boots feature the customary swinging cowboy boots in the air by some punters, a couple of pairs ending on stage and being autographed by Church. ‘Got down with old James Brown and found New Grass Revival’ roars Church, before he and his guitarists are engulfed by smoke machines at the front of the stage.Church has never made any apologies for his admiration for Springsteen and finishes the set with his teenage romance tribute song complete with Dancin’ in the Dark as the intro.
Pretty remote from traditional country but showmanship beyond the call of duty; if you’re a Church fan, you’ve gone home smiling.
The Following night opened with a superb performance from Ashley Monroe, a Tennessee-born artist and sometime member (with Miranda Lambert and Angeleena Presley) of the Pistol Annies. Monroe recently released of her album, The Blade. She has an attractive country twang that brings to mind Dolly Parton and her 5 man band are really tight and in the pocket of every song. Their ensemble playing is a real joy and the impression is one of a consummate performance from a hot band and a consummate singer-songwriting talent.
Thomas Rhett follows with a live pounding sound that takes no prisoners. It is as much about electronic beats and loops as it is about country, save for a fine rendition over solo acoustic guitar of hit song Beer with Jesus. Rhett works the arena better than any other artist on the weekend by taking to the aisles and engaging directly with the fans, while his band supports his soulful singing and obvious talent to communicate. Highlights are songs like Happy Man and Crash & Burn (written with Chris Stapleton) and the crowd really lap it up.
Dwight Yoakam and his band of 4 musicians take back much of the original country territory with a set that is crammed with short, sharp and brilliantly executed hits. Dwight not only sings with his trademark hard country voice, but looks every bit the country star. Some early sound problems with his amp throws him a little, but his peerless performance and guitar playing take us all back to when he broke on the country music scene in the mid 1980’s with his debut Guitars, Cadillacs etc. release, and he plays a wide selection of tunes taken from his 14 studio releases to date. He also pays tribute to recently departed Eagle Glen Frey with a cover of Peaceful Easy Feeling and to the late Sir George Martin with a rockabilly version of I Feel Fine. Nothing less than superbly honed, both in attitude and performance, this is a classy set from a true artist.
The final act of the evening is Miranda Lambert and she really goes for broke with a set that is full of great stage craft and a backing band comprising 8 musicians who all play as if their lives depend upon it. Very talented singer that she is, Miranda also writes some superb songs and takes a stand for girls who suffer heartache, whether in life or relationships. She stands up for her beliefs in pushing through disappointments and the sometimes harsh realities of life, dealing with the pain in an uplifting warts and all attitude to staking a claim and standing tall. Songs like Fastest Girl in Town, Little Red Wagon and Gunpowder & Lead get a huge reaction but it on songs like Over You and The House That Built Me where the real power in her performance can be seen. This is a superb show from a very talented artist who works the stage with both commitment and charm.
The venue is still rocking to the sounds and video clips that play before, during and after each act. First up is a new sensation to hit the country music charts, Maddie & Tae, a duo with plenty of youthful energy and fizz about them. These girls are in their early 20’s and just starting out, but they already possess enough to deliver a very successful debut recording that has seen them gather great recognition as the next female act most likely to… Terrific harmonies, tight songs and bright voices are their calling card and they work hard at their performance and win over the large crowd who cheer them all the way through songs like Girl in a Country Song, a response to the Bro-Country trend that exists in Nashville. Start Here is another winning song and their performance gets them many new friends and admirers.
Sam Hunt is next and his 3-piece band of drums and twin guitars play over pre-programmed bass lines that come pulsing out so loud that you can feel the vibrations. This is an uncomfortable experience and one that does not lend itself to the songs trying to make their way over an unrelenting beat. He seems to be a popular performer, judging by the reaction of the crowd, but quite a few of the older generation retired to the bar area and the relative safety of a distant drink. Not for everybody, but perhaps the live performance and the production on Hunt’s debut release offer different moods and perspectives.
Little Big Town have been together as a group since 1998, releasing 6 albums and winning a string of awards. Their 4 part harmonies are so tight that you would be hard pressed to separate one voice above the others as they swoop and soar around each other. It is a wonderful sound to experience live and the celebratory nature of their song arrangements and melodies have the crowd jumping in joy after the opening numbers. Hugely accomplished performers, all four take turns in charming the crowd with their vocal range and powerful performance, backed by a superb band. Playing songs from a number of their releases, Little Big Town unleash a sound that delivers a vitality that give them the best reaction of the weekend. Tornado, Pain Killer, Daydrinking, Girl Crush and Boondocks are just a few of the highlights in a set that just keeps building to bigger and better peaks, complete with St. Patrick’s Day banter and Irish flag holding photo opportunities. This is a compelling performance and a real marker for further opportunities to build on the positive reaction here.
The final act is the Carrie Underwood tour extravaganza, complete with 8 musicians and a stage that looks fantastic, with clean lines and plenty of space below a large screen that flashes a series of very impressive graphics and images throughout the set. Carrie is the ultimate female performer, working the stage so well and engaging with the crowd with consummate ease. Her vocal performance is quite simply stunning and she sings her heart out from the first number, Renegade Runaway, to the last song of the evening, Must Be Something in the Water, some 2 hours later. Draining to watch but her stamina is incredibly impressive and she drives her band to great performances with her energy and spirit.
Jesus Take the Wheel is a hugely popular song and her tribute to Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston with I Will Always Love You is a match for either legendary singer. Blown Away is a real highlight with a breath-taking vocal that really floors the crowd and her up-tempo numbers are inspiring vocals as she sings her way through songs from her latest Storyteller release.
Underwood has crossed over into a commercial power pop area and her contemporary sound sits well among any of her peers. Perhaps in time Carrie Underwood will return to a more considered, reflective approach to the songs she selects, but for now she has built her career and the sky is the limit. This is flawless performance from a talent whose voice can take her anywhere that she wishes to go.
This has been a really well run festival and full credit to the organisers and staff who made it an experience to remember and, indeed, to treasure. In the end, music is the real winner and we are all enriched by the experience.
Ten overall observations on the 2016 C2C Festival
1 This event underlines, if that were necessary, what a broad church country music is today, as it has been in the recent past. The definition now is so broad as to include almost anything musically; and that just to be signed to a Nashville label automatically makes you a “country” artist.
2 It was the first line up I had any inclination to attend in that there was a least some broadening of the pop-country leanings of the previous festivals.
3 The audience age range and the variety of appreciation for a particular artist was as varied as their music. The support for Dwight Yoakam seemed as enthusiastic as was that for Thomas Rhett, although two more opposite sounding artists you’d be hard pressed to find in any other genre.
4 The opening acts for the two nights I attended were both highlights; Chris Stapleton’s unadorned Friday set is something I wouldn’t have labelled country, but it was excellent and underlined his talent s a writer, guitarist and vocalist. His wife Morgane’s vocal talent was equally impressive.
The second night’s opening act was Ashley Monroe, whose vocals were clear and concise, and her band was the closest thing to Emmy Lou’s Hot Band heard in a long time. It was the most traditional sounding set of the weekend and over far too soon. Hopefully she will return for her own show in the near future.
5 The overall sound was loud but clear and the best I’ve heard in 3Arena to date. It was interesting that Chris Stapleton got as much out of his small Fender amp as Eric Church did from his guitarists playing through their massed Marshall stacks. At times however, the fuller drum sound from some of the acts was a near ear-shattering 100 decibels.
6 Dwight Yoakam and his band put on a no nonsense set of classic hits that covered the title tracks of his debut album through to his latest Second Hand Heart CD. Drummer Mitch Marine is the best drummer Yoakam has had and the rest of the band were all top notch, well able to recreate the sound of the earlier albums. Yoakam was having amp problems that seems to irritate him, but still delivered an 18 song set that concluded with songs dedicated to Glen Frey and George Martin (Peaceful Easy Feeling and I Feel Fine respectively).
7 Headliners Eric Church and Miranda Lambert both delivered strong sets for their fans that included pedal steel and banjo but the predominant sound was heavy drums and massed guitars. On her opening number Lambert had five guitar players.
8 The price of t-shirts seem to be getting a steeper with some being as much as €40. The average was €25. Hoodies were more expensive. Eric Church had the best slogans.
9 Prior to Thomas Rhett’s set we heard a brace of songs best suited to a dance club, while the music played before Miranda Lambert included Gary Stewart, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings though the song played as her intro music was Led Zeppelin. Deliberate mood setting or what?
10 Kacey Musgraves played a similar set to that of her recent Dublin visit. The band are excellent and during the first song and other points where Musgraves left the stage for a costume change they played some atmospheric instrumental music which showed their collective talent, but it would have been nice to have them cut loose from their well rehearsed routine on occasion as at times they came over like a tame version of the Mavericks. Musgraves herself seemed to be happy to be up on the big stage and came across well.
Written by the Lonsome Highway team and edited by Sandy Harsch. Photography by Ronnie Norton