‘We have a new home for country music right here in London’
C2C Festival: O2 Arena, London, March 15-16, 2014
The key moment of the 2014 C2C Festival came at the end of Dierks Bentley’s set on Saturday night when, overwhelmed by waves of enthusiasm at the sold-out O2 Arena, he announced: “When I get home I’m telling ALL my friends – Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert – EVERYONE – that we have a new home for country music and it’s right here in London.”
Well Nashville isn’t going out of business any time soon. But throughout this two-day event you got a real sense that America’s mainstream country superstars are on the verge of something big in the UK.
Taylor Swift has already stepped over the barriers thanks to teen appeal and an astute understanding of the tabloid publicity game. The fact that she is a monumental talent also helps, but in this hyper-competitive section of the music industry that’s merely the entry requirement.
The annual Country to Country festival at the O2 is a formidable weapon for artists trying to break through on this side of the Atlantic. As several of them explained at pre-show press conferences, banding together with other acts lets them play a giant venue like the 20,000-capacity O2 and present their full-scale arena shows without losing money on the deal (“well, not losing TOO much money” added Dierks Bentley with a rueful grin).
Behind that comment lies the bare fact that each of these artists could sell out O2-sized arenas from Florida to California every night of the week if they wished. So it takes a strategic commitment to developing a new market to bring their bands and crews and big labour-intensive shows across the Atlantic.
But it seems to be working. This year ‘s C2C was a sell-out when last year’s didn’t quite make it. There were eight major acts over two days plus more than 30 hopefuls on pop-up stages outside the auditorium (hot tip for stardom: boy-girl duo Striking Matches) plus a themed marketplace selling, of course, cowboys hats, cowboy boots and everything else western.
Thousands of fans travelled hundreds of miles from every corner of the UK. Scottish accents were everywhere this year, with a large and vocal contingent from the Shetland Isles in particular. But I also saw teenage London girls on the Tube, self-conscious in their The Band Perry T-shirts but excited that they were off to see their heroes on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Here’s how the weekend panned out. I went with my 20-something daughter Melanie (a Dixie Chicks fan since her teens) and while we’re not hardcore country addicts and we didn’t enjoy every single act, it still made for a brilliant weekend of live music. Next year’s is about to start booking too (see below).
Once a much bigger star than anyone else here, she opened the show as if she were still at the top of the bill. And when she hit her stride on stage it suddenly occurred to me that Rayna James, the lead character in the hit TV soap opera Nashville, MUST be based on Martina to some extent.
Still going strong well in her 40s. Check. Mum of teenage daughters. Check. Major league songwriter. Check. Unflagging energy, natural warmth and a showstopping voice. Check, check, check.
With strong-woman anthems like Independence Day she’s also a living breathing role model for every one of today’s female country singers.
Above everything else he seems like a really nice guy. He’s Chris Martin without the punchability factor, Robbie Williams without the tattooed oafishness.
His songs are what most people would call rock music but with country lyrics: meaning they tell a story and carry some meaning. Lots of meaning in the case of I Hold On, an exceptional number from his seventh album Riser, just out in the UK.
He does a nice line in audience participation too. Spotting a girl in the crowd singing along to every word (and there were lots of those for every artist) he pulled her out of the crowd, draped his guitar round her neck and told her to carry on without him. While Dierks sat on the drum riser sipping a beer she made a decent fist of dancing with the band and, perhaps wisely, didn’t attempt to sing.
Ironically, the only slightly flat note came with a well-meaning attempt to create a unique moment – “a song we will only ever play this one time by one of the greatest English bands”.
Beatles? Stones? Nope, it was Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. Nothing wrong with that except such a downbeat lament of loss and regret really didn’t fit the mood. We were only a few miles from the Dartford delta and if you ask me he should have done Mick ‘n’ Keef’s Dead Flowers.
But overall, Dierks (it’s pronounced Dirks, by the way) was a revelation. We are now fans.
The Dixie Chicks
There’s currently an air of mystery around this trio. They were the only act not to hold a press conference and they seem to have said nothing in public to explain their unexpected reunion after a seven-year gap. Last year lead singer Natalie Maines made a decent solo album and said she couldn’t foresee a Chicks reunion anytime soon and maybe never. Sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, meanwhile, were two albums into their new guise as the Court Yard Hounds.
But then they booked a short Dixie Chicks tour of Canada at the end of last year followed by C2C in London and Dublin and few European dates. There is no suggestion that they will record new material (their last album was Taking The Long Way in 2006) and with rumours of a US tour about to be announced, could it all be about the money?
This unworthy thought was not entirely dispelled by the show. Everything seemed a little stiff for a few numbers until the sheer instrumental of exuberance of Sin Wagon loosened things up. After that they were musically brilliant as always, though we were disappointed that their career-spanning setlist didn’t include Top Of The World or Travelling Soldier.
And Natalie’s bizarre rockabilly flat-top haircut with shaved sides looks, frankly, terrible. Sorry, we both agreed and it has to be said.
The Zac Brown Band
We may have been in a minority of only two but Saturday night’s headliners left us completely cold. To start with, putting them on last after the Dixie Chicks might make sense in Nashville – they have scored 10 country No.1 singles – but it was nonsense in Britain, where the Chicks have a much higher profile.
Their music had entirely passed me by so I checked them out on Spotify before the show and heard a lot of good-time country-lite with a bit of reggae ultra-lite thrown in. People are always better on stage so I tried not to write them off in advance. But it was no use. The three numbers we sat through reminded me variously of the Charlie Daniels Band, Jimmy Buffet and, most of all, Mumford and Sons – all major negatives in my book.
Food and drink were a much more appealing prospect than listening to any more. So we tiptoed out and left poor Zac with only 19,998 souls to cheer him on.
A much better sound to start the second day. This 28-year-old Tennessee native has a sensational voice, and in between a few slower, acoustic numbers his muscular band were channeling pure Led Zeppelin, U2 and ZZ Top in their brand of guitar riffs. In fact no sooner had that thought formed in my head than they launched into the Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.
Rather sweetly, before starting his lovers’ anthem I Can Take It From There, he made sure we would understand the lyrics’ reference to bygone country star Conway Twitty. We liked Chris Young a lot.
The Band Perry
This one sister, two brothers act from Mobile, Alabama, are a force of nature – lead singer Kimberly Perry especially. Songs like Better Dig Two and Chainsaw are full of crunching guitars with dramatic pauses emphasised by precise choreography and video close-ups.
They’re young and poppy enough to follow Taylor Swift’s example and transcend the country genre, though to grown-up non-American tastes Kimberly’s between-songs messages of inspiration sound impossibly cheesy.
The moment when they paraded a Union Jack around the stage while their fiddler played God Save The Queen was just one of several jaw-dropping moments. With so many Scots in the house I think it was only appreciation of how sincere and well-meant this gesture was that stopped a few of the well-lubricated Caledonians around me from blowing raspberries.
They are huge. They have topped every chart, won every award, they are almost a sector of country music in their own right. But the dad and daughter in Row Z just did not get it. Imagine the overwrought vocal swoops and over-polished harmonies of ‘N Sync fronted by a man with the physique and deportment of the Mirror’s esteemed astrologer Russell Grant. That can’t work, can it? Did for everybody else. But we dived out in the middle for fish and chips and came back for…
Now you’re talking. This guy is simply magnificent. He may wear a big white Stetson hat and he may doff it to all the old Nashville greats, but Brad is almost a post-modern country star. Superbly crafted songs like Southern Comfort Zone and Outstanding In Our Field celebrate the whole thing but make fun of it too. This is the man who wrote a song called Accidental Racist after he was criticised for wearing a Confederate flag on his T-shirt, then recorded it with a rapped response from LL Cool J.
Every one of the artists except the Dixie Chicks had made creative use of the big screen behind the stage at C2C but Brad’s back-projections were on another level, putting his live video feed up there to interact with Marvel superheroes and even William Shatner as Captain Kirk pleading to be rescued from alien attack. (“I don’t know whether they’re Romulans or Kardashians, Brad…”)
He and three of his band decamped to a tiny stage near the back of the auditorium at one point, telling the audience: “When I used to go to concerts I couldn’t afford to get any closer than this, so this one’s especially for you…”)
Mr Paisley (who plays a paisley-patterned Telecaster, of course) is, almost incidentally, a brilliant guitarist, tearing through mind-blowing lead breaks with seemingly effortless wizardry.
I always liked his music but after seeing him live it’s clear that the warm, witty and charming Brad Paisley is one of the world’s greatest living entertainers. No, that’s not an exaggeration. He should be a superstar everywhere, on TV every week, playing sell-out UK stadiums in his own right. If you were at C2C and agree with me, let’s spread the word and make it happen.
– Highlights from this year’s show will be on Radio 2 Bob Harris Country show for two weeks running on Thursdays March 20 and 27, 7pm.
On Friday March 21, 2014, early-bird tickets go on sale for next year’s London C2C which will be at the O2 on March 7-8, line-up to be announced See http://www.c2c-countrytocountry.com
This review was published by Mirror Online on the date at the top of this page Click the Mirror logo below to see it there.