Following the triumphant return of the Country to Country festival on Day One, there was the opportunity to do it all over again on Sunday as the Day Two acts took their opportunity to thrill UK Country fans. Despite a slightly fuzzy-head my Sunday started earlier than the previous day, in an effort to catch the wonderful Stephanie Manns performing on the Big Entrance stage at 11am. Despite the early start Stephanie was on tremendous form and her set was one of my absolute highlights of the weekend. In fact Sunday was a cracker for pop-up performances, the incredibly popular Striking Matches played to a packed Brooklyn Bowl ,despite missing it myself I only heard rave reviews unsurprisingly. Other stand-outs for me were Claydon Connor, Emma Jane & Dexeter, all doing UK Country music proud.
It seems that each year the C2C festival has a ‘breakout’ act, little known by the wider audience in the UK, who performs such a magnificent set that they become one of the most talked about of the entire weekend. In 2013 this was Darius Rucker & in 2014 Dierks Bentley blew the O2 away. For C2C 2015 that act was Kip Moore. First on stage on Sunday, the only disappointment of Kip’s performance was that it was seemingly so brief. Effortlessly cool, with a delicious rasp of a Country voice, the Georgia boy clearly revelled in the opportunity to be playing to a UK crowd and that boundless enthusiasm took no time at all to translate to the crowd. ‘Up All Night’ was one of the finest debut albums of 2012 and it has been a long wait for a follow-up release, hopefully coming in a few months. Tracks from that record such as the rocking ‘Beer Money’ & rebellious ‘Reckless (Still Growin’ Up)’ were gleefully belted out by Moore, as was the heart-pounding ‘Come And Get It’, rumoured to appear on album number two.
An electric set was surprisingly at its’ absolute finest when the tempo slowed down and the backing stripped down. Performing an acoustic version of Oasis hit ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, a song Kip & his band regularly perform on their tour bus, was a perfect way to fittingly unite the US & UK at C2C. Even more impressive was a gorgeous rendition of Kip’s own tender hit single ‘Hey Pretty Girl’. Leaving with a whole host of new fans, Kip can rest assured that when he returns to these shores he will be doing so at a packed venue.
Country rocker Brantley Gilbert became the first act to return to C2C, having made his debut back in 2013, the singer remarked that it had been ‘two years too long‘ to reacquaint himself with London. Gilbert makes no bones about his music, he is a rocker and his set at the O2 proved that beyond all doubt. A breathless time on stage saw electric guitars, pounding drums and growling vocals to the fore. Suffering some of the similar sound issues as Florida Georgia Line had done on Day 1, Brantley benefited from allowing the crowd to recover their hearing between songs as his on-stage patter proved that (despite his bad-boy image) he is quite the Southern gentleman. Adrenaline-fuelled tracks such as ‘Kick It In The Sticks’ & ‘Read Me My Rights’ left many wondering if they were at a heavy rock concert, as opposed to a Country one. However, the softer ‘You Don’t Know Her Like I Do’ & emotional current single ‘One Hell Of An Amen’ surely helped even the biggest doubter warm to Gilbert’s set. Stand-out track for me, no question ‘Bottoms Up’, a track released since his 2013 C2C appearance and a storming live number. Not to all tastes judging by reaction on social media, but Brantley can hold his head high following a second stint at the O2 which successfully outshone his debut.
Long-time followers on Twitter/Facebook will know that I am a huge Jason Aldean fan, the announcement of his name on the C2C 2015 bill was mind-blowingly exciting for me. Phenomenally successful in the US over the last 10 years it seemed increasingly unlikely that Jason would take the plunge and perform in the UK. In press conferences prior to his set the singer admitted that he was nervous about the reaction from overseas crowds, there was no evidence of this as he powered his way through one of the most rousing performances at this or any C2C. Aldean’s music has been coined by admirer Garth Brooks as ‘muscle-Country’ and it seems to fit just perfectly. Boasting strong electric guitars and even a little bit of Country-rap (the superb ‘Dirt Road Anthem’), it is impossible to dismiss Aldean’s Country roots in the themes of his material or the prominent steel guitar in his live band.
Incredibly difficult to choose highlights from a live offering of some of the most-played tracks on my iPod, but the barn-storming ‘Tattoos On This Town’ & ‘Take A Little Ride’ were sensational, as was the closer ‘She’s Country’. Pleasing to hear the singer delve into the back catalogue to 2006’s ‘Amarillo Sky’, ‘Night Train’ is a glorious track and featured one of the most visually spectacular backdrops on the big screens. If you twist my arm it was hard to look beyond ‘Fly Over States’, a song that perfectly embodies what Jason Aldean is musically all about. Hopefully with his music now released in the UK and a startling C2C appearance behind him, one of the biggest names in Country music will not take anywhere near as long to head back our way.
Lady Antebellum were visiting the UK when the announcement of the C2C 2015 headline acts was made last year, charmingly they queried how they had snagged top-billing over US sales juggernaut Jason Aldean. With a far larger profile over here it made perfect sense for Charles, Dave & Hillary to be installed as the headline performers on Sunday. A third time seeing the trio live for myself, at progressively larger venues and they just get better. The group have admitted that they have mad a concious effort to record (& release as singles) a few more upbeat/good-time tunes to enhance their live shows. To musically fill a venue as large as the O2 that seemed crucial and Lady A proceeded to display that they had pulled off a masterstroke. The opening one-two of ‘Bartender’ & ‘Long Stretch Of Love’ suggested that the bar had been raised, as did an exuberant ‘Downtown’. Those hoping to hear some of those trademark ballads were not disappointed either, the beautiful ‘Just A Kiss’ settled those nerves early on. Newer slow tracks from current ‘747‘ album, the sweet ‘One Great Mystery’ (performed acoustically) and ‘Lie With Me’ delighted the O2 crowd.
Knowing full well that UK audiences love nothing more than a taste of Dolly & Kenny, the trio treated them to a cracking cover of ‘Islands In The Stream’, a track that Charles & Hillary recalled singing endlessly whilst trying to make a name for themselves, paying their dues. Having an impressive list of hits to pick from it was understandable that a few had to be cut from previous setlists, a shame to only hear a snippet of ‘Hello World’. Impossible to criticise the act who brought a close to the main events of another tremendous success of a Country To Country festival, an event that continues to go from strength to strength. Spreading into different countries in 2015 and now over an extra day in 2016. No Lady Antebellum performance would be complete without ‘Need You Now’, one of the few modern Country songs that will be played for years & years to come, such is the class of the track. No matter how many times you have heard it, it continues to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when Charles, Dave & Hillary perform it live, magical.
(All photos copyright of Hels Bels Photography – www.facebook.com/HelsBelsPhotography)