UK Country Arrives At Royal Albert Hall With The Shires

Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes perform at the hallowed venue for the first time.

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All photos: Dominic Nicholls

Ben Earle couldn’t help himself saying it repeatedly, and you couldn’t blame him. As their current tour arrived at London’s Royal Albert Hall last night (18 May), the male half of the Shires made many references to the “dream come true” that had brought them to the hallowed venue, less than four years since they emerged and only five since he and Crissie Rhodes first met.

As the duo took the stage to fervent applause from their loyal fans, the arrival of UK country as a serious commercial force had its latest ringing endorsement. The Shires’ third album Accidentally On Purpose has repeated the top three British chart success of its predecessor My Universe, which in turn went gold there like their debut set Brave. That now gives them quite a wealth of material on which to draw, and they did so extensively in a set of 19 songs and three encores, to the delight of an audience that seemed to know every word.

The set opened with a powerful ‘Echo,’ one of several inclusions from the new album, on which they again worked in Nashville, this time with producer Lindsay Rimes. Here, and on other infectious songs from the record such as ‘The Hard Way’ and ‘Guilty,’ there was the feeling that the Shires have honed their sound into something that is surely ready for the American country mainstream. Meanwhile back at home, the next giant step will be to guest on Shania Twain’s dates in the UK and Ireland in September and October.

Earle told the story of how, on one Nashville trip, they went to Ed Sheeran’s concert at Bridgestone Arena and formed a friendship that led to a Sheeran co-write on the album, ‘Stay The Night.’ Earle also playfull recalled a romantic dalliance of Rhodes’ in the city that inspired the title track, noting that the song lasted longer than the relationship.

There were frequent visits to their songbook of trademark moments, all the way back to their first single ‘Nashville Grey Skies.’ The duo were backed for the most part by their live band, who stood across the back of the stage, but some of the most effective moments came when Earle switched from acoustic guitar to keyboard, notably as Rhodes tenderly sang her Brave co-write dedicated to her late father, ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’

Rhodes and Earle’s live interaction now seems as intuitive as their faultless harmonic pairing, and their down-to-earth demeanour makes them a true people’s band. As ever, they thanked the many fans who have been part of their rapid rise since the beginning, and if their sound is unashamedly mainstream, to come this far, this fast is a feat not to be underestimated.

As they played an encore including a nod to the real Music City with a cover of ‘Islands In The Stream,’ you couldn’t help remembering the lyrics of that debut single. The Shires have built their own Nashville, and people do indeed come from far and wide to be part of it.

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