The ever-growing momentum behind the rise of Country music in the UK is becoming difficult to ignore, two of the acts leading the charge for the wider recognition of the genre are duos Ward Thomas and The Shires. Both are young & upcoming acts and both are already notching up notable successes in their fledgling careers. Whilst Ward Thomas are becoming mainstays on the Radio 2 playlist and recently topped the iTunes Country albums chart with their debut ‘From Where We Stand’; The Shires are gearing up for the release of their first album (on Decca Records no less!), but have still managed a number one offering with the superb live ‘The Green Note’ EP. With both acts in the early stages of their careers and limited back -catalogues of material to play during live sessions, limiting stage time, it was an inspired decision for the two to join forces and head around the UK on the ‘Homegrown Tour’.
Prior to visiting London the Homegrown Tour had played to sold-out audiences in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Oxford. Reaction on social media to those gigs were nothing but hugely positive, so it was incredibly exciting to get the chance to catch the tour at Bush Hall. By all accounts the first show on Monday 10th November was superb and fans were ready for ‘take two’ on Tuesday 11th. Another wonderful facet of this tour is the opportunity given on each night for a different up-and-coming UK act to open the show. Previous acts had included Dexeter, Frankie Davies, Loud Mountains and Jess Roberts.
For the second London show the opening act were charming duo Taylor and Marie. Completing the full set of duos, Samuel Taylor and Jodie Marie are a folk-flavoured act who released a wonderful EP ‘Tilt The Moon’ during the summer. Despite having to contend with a slowly growing audience, and a particularly chatty one at that, Taylor and Marie impressed with their strong harmonies and engaging storytelling. Those who had the manners to pay attention to the pair were introduced to a terrific acoustic set from an act to definitely keep an eye on. From what I understand it seems that the two headlining acts are alternating who takes to the stage first and on Tuesday it was Ward Thomas making an early appearance.
Sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas are fast making a significant impact on the UK Country music scene, debut album ‘From Where We Stand’ topped the UK Country charts where it deservedly held on to the number one spot amidst serious competition from US heavyweights. Indeed some four months on from its release it still sits comfortably in the Top 5 between Sheryl Crow and Tim McGraw! Success of the album was enhanced by the runaway hit single ‘Push For The Stride’, a wonderful Country-rocker blending old and new influences, the live performance of which was one of the highlights of the ladies’ set at Bush Hall. The sing-along option to join in with the ‘for the str-iiii-de‘ portion of the track was manfully taken up by the enthusiastic crowd. The opportunity for the audience to get those toes tapping was granted as the duo featured more cracking up-tempo album cuts including ‘The Good And The Right’ & ‘A Town Called Ugley’ in their set. Also particularly pleasing was hearing the funky-Country of ‘Way Back When’, with its gloriously nostalgic lyrics.
Ward Thomas also shine in their slower moments, ballads ‘From Where I Stand’ and ‘Take That Train’ were especially effective and fully showcased the impressive vocals of both sisters. A notable mention for the gorgeous ‘Cartwheels’, a track I was lucky to hear performed in the more intimate venue of Camden’s The Green Note back in July. It lost none of its magic in the larger setting of Bush Hall, written on a trip to Nashville the song is an absolute gem and was masterfully performed by Catherine and Lizzy as they held the audience captivated. Impossible not to complete the review without reference to the inclusion of a marvellous cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’. The pair apologised in advance for their poor rapping skills in the song (unnecessary to do so, they were surprisingly strong) and proceeded to perform a triumphantly countrified version of what is undeniably a top-notch pop song, brilliant!
Ward Thomas are fantastic representatives for Country music in the UK and are on the road to even bigger and better things. Their music is rooted in the tradition of the genre but they have ignored all of the US-inspired clichés and maintained a charming British sensibility to the themes and lyrics of their songs. As a live act they are a joy to watch, bursting with a real enthusiasm to share their material and the stories inspiring its content, which they do so in a remarkably friendly and amiable manner. Possessing strong voices both separately and during the splendid sibling harmonies they sound as fabulous live as they do on record and are definitely an act to see on the road.
The rise of The Shires is quite astounding, the oft-repeated story of musician Ben Rhodes finding singer Crissie Rhodes via a frustrated Facebook post bemoaning a lack of Country singers to perform with is definitely true. Hard to believe though, as one year on the duo are gearing up for the release of their debut album ‘Brave’ in early 2015, having become the first British act to be signed by UMG Nashville. I recall linking up with the duo on Twitter during their very early days, in their previous incarnation of Earle Rhodes, and re-posting demo cuts. Even then it was clear that they had something very special and the satisfaction of seeing where they are now is immense.
Ben and Crissie made the decision to open their set with the gently absorbing ‘Black and White’, seemingly a strange choice rather than bursting on to the stage to a high-energy rocker. Surprisingly it worked remarkably well, hooking the audience in and captivating them right from the start. The blend of Crissie’s strong but sweet vocals with the husky tones of Ben’s voice is a match made in heaven and the two had Bush Hall in the palm of their hands for the next forty minutes or so. Varying their set with consummate ease The Shires raised the tempo (and the temperature in a very warm venue!) playing superb crowd-pleasers ‘On A Friday’, ‘All Over Again’ and hit single ‘Nashville Grey Skies’. All of which went down an absolute treat, as did the powerful anthemic ‘Tonight’, giving the duo their chance to get the crowd involved and singing along.
Such is the beauty of their two voices together it should not be a surprise that the slower, stripped down tracks are even more appealing. Exquisite live performances of ‘Only Midnight’, ‘Brave’ and the incredibly well-written ‘State Lines’ delivered pin-drop moments. A cover of Country classic ‘Islands In The Stream’ was also given The Shires treatment and was a refreshingly new take on a thirty year-old track, complete with sumptuous slide guitar. Before signing off Ben & Crissie welcomed Catherine & Lizzy back on to the stage and the foursome leapt in to a barnstorming version of the Striking Matches song ‘I Ain’t Leavin Without Your Love’. Alternating the vocals between all four singers and pairing one half of The Shires with one half of Ward Thomas proved to be a real treat and a rousing finale for the night.
There are still more dates to come in November on the Homegrown Tour and the show comes hugely recommended. If you are unable to catch The Shires and Ward Thomas live this month, ensure that you do at the next opportunity. Both acts wear their Country credentials firmly on their respective sleeves, and both have an appealing blend of youthfulness and Britishness (if that makes sense) which make their music feel both relevant and vital to UK audiences. The story is only beginning….