The third annual Country To Country festival kicked off in earnest on Saturday 7th March at London’s O2 Arena, easily the biggest event in the UK Country music calendar. The huge success of the previous two festivals had meant that excitement was at fever pitch for the latest two-day binge of the very best Country music on offer. Traditionally jam-packed full of performances, the 2015 event was positively bursting with wall-to-wall music. Eight headlining acts for the main arena show, with an extra four acts added for the newly installed satellite stage, as well as forty pop-up stage performances each day from a delightfully eclectic mix of acts from all over the globe. Truly something for any and every discerning Country fan.
For us bloggers the only problem, if you can call it that, was that there were too many fantastic acts to see on the pop-up stages across the weekend. Sacrifices had to be made and some cracking artists went unseen by myself but the reception to each & every one was fantastic. All of them undoubtedly adding to their growing fan-bases. All of the acts I saw on Saturday were fabulous, the pick of the bunch being the rocking Brooklyn Bowl sets from Jess & The Bandits and The Pauper Kings.
The first act to take to the main stage at C2C 2015 was singer-songwriter Brandy Clark. Perhaps one of the lesser known names on the bill, Brandy proceeded to display to the London crowd exactly why she is one of the most respected names in Nashville. Remarking that her superb debut album ’12 Stories’ was perhaps better received outside the US, it was clear that there was a healthy section of the O2 familiar with the Grammy-nominated record. Tracks including the edgy ‘Crazy Women’, mischievous ‘Get High’ and stirring ‘Hungover’ were all performed with consummate ease. No fuss, no tricks, just a singer with an elegantly effortless vocal and a catalogue of original sounding yet classically-styled Country songs.
As well as boasting one of the finest album releases of 2013, Brandy has also written a number of hit songs for other artists. It was wonderful to hear an acoustic version of her composition ‘Better Dig Two’, a number one hit for the Band Perry. Equally enjoyable was ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’, a platinum-selling hit for Miranda Lambert, given a lighter feel by Brandy. Highlights of her set were the tongue-in-cheek ‘Stripes’, as cleverly written track as you could hope to hear, and the achingly gorgeous ballad ‘Hold My Hand’. Brandy Clark has a delightful knack of taking quirky / unique themes and incorporating them into modern-sounding but traditional Country songs. Her performance at C2C displayed this talent gloriously and was the perfect start to the main bill.
In contrast to Brandy Clark who is currently working on her second album, Lee Ann Womack has a career spanning back to the release of her debut album back in 1997. Remarkably this was her first concert performance in the UK and showcased precisely what we have been missing out on over on this side of the Atlantic. Lee Ann is one of the finest female Country singers of her generation, a voice as sweet as it is powerful, which was on top form at C2C. Despite a blip in commercial success, the Texan has recently released one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of her career, the sublime ‘The Way I’m Livin’. Storming performances of the title track from that release and the gospel-tinged ‘All His Saints’, belied her gentle persona as Lee Ann & her band truly cut loose. Stand-out of the new material featured was the timeless ‘Send It On Down’, commenting that it was one her favourite songs that she had ever cut, the singer treated the O2 to a goosebump-inducing rendition.
With such a wealthy back-catalogue it was pleasing to hear Lee Ann delve into her ‘greatest hits’, the hardcore shuffle ‘Never Again, Again’ was a real treat, as was the joyous toe-tapper ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’. It was delightful to hear a personal favourite, the driving ‘Ashes By Now’, be included in the set and providing the perfect finale. Prior to that song Lee Ann eased a few nerves by admitting ‘I know there’s one song I can’t get out of here without singing‘, and proceeded to perform her monster hit single ‘I Hope You Dance’, as emotional on Saturday as it was some fifteen years earlier. Lee Ann Womack provided some much-needed traditional Country at this year’s C2C and reminded us what a treasure she is to the genre with a remarkable set.
As host Bob Harris mentioned in his introduction, duo Florida Georgia Line are nothing short of a phenomenon. In just three years Brian Kelley & Tyler Hubbard have sold in excess of fifteen million singles, including the biggest selling Country single in US history, ‘Cruise’. When writing my introduction to the C2C line-up post last year I confessed that I was not particularly a fan of the hugely successful duo but would go into their set with an open mind. Whilst unable to deny that Florida Georgia Line put on a thrilling, energy-packed performance which had much of the UK crowd rocking, I have to admit it did little to alter my opinion. Many have commented on the poor sound quality at times over the weekend and I suspect the sheer volume and relentless pounding of FGL’s set suffered the most from this.
Tracks such as ‘It’s Just What We Do’ & ‘This Is How We Roll’ were lapped up by the majority of the O2 but offer little originality and no charm at all. Add in the excessive stomping, posturing & fist-bumping and you have lost this Country fan. Naturally the gentler track ‘Dirt’ was a stand-out, showing that there is some heart beneath the machismo, current single ‘Sippin’ On Fire’ is also a cracking ear-worm of a track and was great to hear live. The aforementioned ‘Cruise’ is almost impossible to dislike with its’ driving banjo and relentless energy, another highlight. Florida Georgia Line seem to have sparked the most debate over the weekend, whilst their set left me cold in the main, I appreciate many disagree and I have no issue with them being on the bill. C2C attracted one of the very biggest acts in the US to play in the UK and that can only be a positive thing, thousands in London were thrilled and for them the duo undoubtedly delivered and then some.
Top of the bill on Day 1 was Georgia-boy and current CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan, finally the UK had an opportunity to see how that title had been earned. Displaying bags of charm, strong vocals (and some impressive moves), Bryan absolutely stormed his London debut. Once disappointing opener ‘That’s My Kind Of Night’ had passed, the following ninety minutes or so were an absolute joy. Only four albums into his career Luke already has a formidable set-list, for long-time fans it was satisfying to hear the likes of ‘All My Friends Say’ & ‘Rain Is A Good Thing’. Despite not being his strongest release, tracks from his current album were equally fantastic live, ‘Crash My Party’ & ‘Play It Again’ sounding awesome, as did the electric ‘I See You’. ‘Shut It Down’ has not been released as a single but is a glorious track and the stripped down version of the song featuring Luke on the piano excelled.
‘Tailgates & Tanlines’ was a breakout album for Luke and unsurprisingly my favourite performances were of tracks from that release. ‘I Don’t Want This Night To End’ & ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ had the O2 bouncing, even better was guilty-pleasure track ‘Drunk On You’, I will admit it – one of my favourites of the weekend. Criticism for Luke’s current album has seen one track remain unscathed, the emotional ‘Drink A Beer’ is unlike anything else on that record and provided a highlight of the singer’s set for both the crowd and Bryan himself, clearly moved by the response. Luke Bryan was another of the acts many were unsure to be worthy of their place on the C2C bill, I feel pretty confident that he converted a large number of those doubters. A magnificent performance, slick & polished, bursting with vitality but with a big old Country heart. CMA Entertainer of the Year and undoubtedly entertainer of Day 1 of C2C, bravo.
(All photos copyright of Hels Bels Photography – www.facebook.com/HelsBelsPhotograhy)