The latest proof that country music’s credibility and popularity is spreading ever further across Europe was served at C2C this weekend. The Country To Country Festival has firmly established itself as the showcase for the genre outside North America, and now plays not only in London and Dublin but also Oslo and Stockholm. The 2015 event drew scores of thousands of people and played host to superstar American acts each evening, and dozens of up-and-coming local acts on free daytime stages.
The London weekend, at the 02, had its now-traditional curtain-raiser on Friday evening with the CMA Songwriters Series, hosted by Kix Brooks (of Brooks & Dunn fame), and featuring Brandy Clark, Sam Palladio and the duo of Jessi Alexander & Jon Randall, trading stories about their songs and performing them in turn.
On Saturday’s main stage, Clark’s pithy, deftly-observed songs about modern living, shot through with country tradition, were a high point of the entire weekend. A first airing for material from what will be her follow-up to 2013’s marvellous ’12 Stories’ was mouthwatering. Then, Lee Ann Womack brought all of her experience and star quality to a set illuminated with grit and humour, as on ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ and ‘Twenty Years And Two Husbands Ago.’ There were gospel shades in tracks from her current ‘The Way I’m Livin’’ album and a rousing response for her signature ballad ‘I Hope You Dance.’
The Satellite Stage, added to the main hall this year, hosted both Sam Hunt and ‘Nashville’ star Palladio, on a Saturday bill that then moved from female traditionalists Clark and Womack to the so-called “bro-country” of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Both were making their first London appearances, but there was plenty of awareness and vociferous enthusiasm for their multi-million-selling catalogues.
Another UK first-timer, Kip Moore, concluded his Sunday show with a cover of Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and his breakthrough hit ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck.’ The Satellite Stage included Britain’s own Ward Thomas and the Shires, both underlining that distinctive domestic country now has a real voice in the UK and beyond. The top ten album chart debut of the Shires’ Decca Nashville set ‘Brave’ was confirmed even as they performed. Current Nashville alumni Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum brought the evening to a rousing conclusion.
But much of the joy of C2C is contained in the daytime hours, when anyone can walk into the 02 and choose from almost 50 free performances per day, of about half an hour each, on five stages around the venue. It was a schedule full of new acquaintances and returning favourites.
Jess and the Bandits
At the pop end of town, there were two winning shows to enthusiastic crowds at the Brooklyn Bowl venue by Jess and the Bandits, fronted by Houston’s Jessica Clemmons. British-born, Nashville-based Callaghan’s breezy set included ‘Best Year 2015,’ now playlisted by BBC Radio 2, who broadcast from the event all weekend on their designated digital pop-up service, Radio 2 Country.
Luke and Mel, the duo of Luke Thomas and Melanie Greggain, included their impressive ‘Somethin’ About A Woman’; Mim Grey evoked Sheryl Crow with her attractively rock-roots delivery on tracks from her ‘Grey Matters’ album, while Sonia Leigh, co-writer for the Zac Brown Band among others, channelled Janis Joplin. Another delightful C2C debut, at the Saloon venue, was by Scottish singer-songwriter Stephanie Manns, whose songs from her new, second album ‘Fool Like Me’ were full of superior, Americana-flavoured inflections and engaging lyrics.
Jessi Alexander & Jon Randall’s gig at Town Square included ‘The Climb,’ co-written by Alexander and previously appropriated by Miley Cyrus and Joe McElderry, here restored to its acoustic best. Back at the Saloon, Northern Ireland’s Gary Quinn showed his songwriting chops on material from his self-titled album. Thousands of fans left the weekend already looking forward to C2C 2016.
Words: Paul Sexton