Last Saturday (May 20), The Highways Festival made its debut at the Royal Albert Hall, with country and Americana stars such as Kip Moore, Morgan Wade, Jackson Dean and more taking over every corner of the legendary venue. It has, by all accounts, been a roaring success, with Live Nation Entertainment and the Royal Albert Hall already declaring their intentions to bring it back for 2024.
Here, Anna Sophie-Mertens, Live Nation’s VP touring, tells Music Week more about this unique entry into the Royal Albert Hall’s storied history and the UK country/Americana calendar at large…
What was the vision behind the inaugural Highways Festival?
“The vision behind Highways Festival was threefold. Firstly, I had a long-standing desire to create an event that reflects the unforgettable and euphoric feeling of driving on the open road, listening to country and Americana anthems. Secondly, fulfilling the artists’ lifelong dream to play at this truly iconic venue, The Royal Albert Hall. And thirdly, delivering all the above to create a truly unique occasion for our incredible fan community to come together and experience an unforgettable night. From my many trips to Nashville, I knew the music was deserving of having a place in the Royal Albert Hall’s legacy – a venue representing so many noteworthy and truly special performances.”
It’s interesting, too, that you used the whole site rather than just the hall itself…
“The Royal Albert Hall’s status as one of the most incredible venues in the world offered the perfect setting to host Highways. But it also offers a great deal of rooms and spaces to create further content, from the Elgar Room to the stunning bar spaces at Kensington Gardens Bar, for instance. We also offered a country music exhibit on the corridors which is up for most of the month, so other guests coming to the hall this month will get to experience this also and bring a piece of Nashville to London. With regards to the logistics, we needed to be smart in terms of timings and when to use the spaces, when to soundcheck and avoiding any sound bleed as well as offering customers time in between to re-charge, grab something to eat before the evening show began. Overall, it worked extremely well, and we have a great concept to build on.”
Highways Festival sold-out in its inaugural year... It's the perfect foundation to build on for years to come
Anna Sophie-Mertens, Live Nation
How did you go about choosing the line-up?
“Kip Moore is a fan-favourite in the UK, and he was the perfect high energy headliner for our inaugural edition. It has also been his longstanding dream to play the Royal Albert Hall, which he had seen on many music recordings of his heroes. So he immediately said yes to the opportunity! It was my dream to bring Morgan Wade over for a special acoustic performance and it fit perfectly in our programming. Her honest and raw song writing paired with her unique and breath-taking voice offered a different dynamic to the evening. It was also important to me to have an artist make UK debut and Jackson Dean as the perfect artist for it. And boy, he did not let us down. And finally, the opening slot as well as the songwriters round in the afternoon offered the opportunity for new and developing talent to showcase their music: Stephen Wilson Jr., Kat Hasty, Jillian Jacqueline and William Prince.”
How pleased are you with how the first one went?
“I'm ecstatic at how the first year went! We delivered a sold-out show in the inaugural year and the event was positively received by the fans. And the artists were all beaming, pinching themselves having been able to be part of it. So much so most artists joined the official after show party and hung-out with their fans to celebrate the event. My personal highlight was that every artist played a stunning set, offering their own personality and song writing bringing the whole festival to life. And one cannot deny that Kip Moore’s two-hour set was a tour de force, playing song after song, having the entire Royal Albert Hall on their feet for his set. It took my breath away.”
So do you see this as the start of a regular series?
“Yes, absolutely! The inaugural edition was a roaring success on all counts delivering the perfect foundation to build on for years to come.”
From a live perspective, we know country is big in the UK with events like C2C, as well as strong tours from big stars. Do you see a glass ceiling approaching or do you think there's still a lot of room to grow country/Americana's presence here?
“I strongly believe that this is only the beginning. So many people have yet to experience country and Americana music live. The artists' musicianship, showmanship and energy paired with the magical and unforgettable surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall, there is no doubt fans will come and walk away telling their friends and family about their positive experience, developing the fanbase for decades to come.”
Photo: Stephen Wilson Jr, Jackson Dean, Kip Moore & Anna Sophie-Mertens (Credit: Kate Green)