Country 2 Country Festival, The O2, London, March 10 - 12
FRIDAY, MARCH 10
Anyone sceptical about the growth of the UK country music scene should visit Country 2 Country Festival. This year, London’s O2 Arena, Glasgow’s SEC Armadillo and Dublin’s 3Arena all play host to the fifth – and biggest ever – C2C, with 50,000 fans attending across three days. Assuredly, a country atmosphere permeates every nook and cranny of the cavernous O2 Arena, and that’s both inside the venue and outside. The scent of BBQ fills the air, every bar in ear shot is blasting country classics, and you can buy more cowboy/girl boots than you could ever realistically need in central London. The point is this: the deeply-felt love and appreciation for all things country is undeniable before a single note is even played. Demand for country is sky high, and so is the quality of this year's line-up.
At the risk of making the rest of this review redundant, it has to be said that Jennifer Nettles’ opening set on the main stage is not only the best of the opening day, but also the weekend. Many more excellent sets will follow – please, don’t stop reading… – but the fact of the matter is that this is a headliner-worthy showing. Certainly, too, no one across the three days looks as happy to be onstage as Nettles. She delivers an explosive combination of Southern charm, vibrant songs like Drunk In Heels and Hey Heartbreak, plus some unexpected surprises (“y’all weren’t expecting Salt-N-Pepa were ya?” she beams after rapping through a countrified version of Whatta Man). As she hits a flawless sustained note during Sugerland’s Stay, there is no doubt that next time she plays this festival she should be much, much higher on the bill.
It is a tough act for newcomer Chase Bryant to follow as he takes to the Yamaha Stage – the genius C2C programming manoeuvre that fills the downtime between main stage slots with short showcase sets from up and coming talent over by the sound desk. Bryant acquits himself extremely well during his first ever show in London – and it won’t be the only time we see him tonight. More on that later.
Up next is the man introduced by BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris with the words “nobody is nicer in music than this”. Fresh from celebrating his ninth No. 1 single in America, Chris Young is on a charm offensive as he brings a rockier feel to proceedings – and said proceedings includes his set being broadcast live on Radio 2. He gets huge cheers for Lonely Eyes, a mass sing-along with Sober Saturday Night and even gives Cassadee Pope a chance to bask in the excess adoration being thrust his way as they duet on Think Of You. Rarely does someone look as laid back while they dominate an arena crowd as Chris Young.
Picking up the baton on the Yamaha Stage is breakout star Cam. Undoubtedly, one of the defining moments of the festival belongs to her. Her stunned reaction as the O2 sing Burning House is priceless. In 2016, Maren Morris pulled off the same feat when she played My Church, and this year she is back playing on the main stage. Judging from this, you can expect a similar trajectory for Cam.
And so it falls to Brad Paisley to bring the opening night to a close. On any other day – and were it not for Jennifer Nettles’ charismatic grandstanding – this would have been the best set. Seemingly intent on making Bob Harris eat his words, Paisley goes out of his way to be Nicest Guy In The World tonight. The list goes on and on. He gives his acoustic guitar to a girl in the front row, urging her to break some hearts with it. He brings the previous Nicest Guy In The World, Chris Young, out onstage to sing and take selfies. He gives Chase Bryant another chance to play the O2. He ‘FaceTimes’ Carrie Underwood so they can do their Remind Me duet – replete with some seriously sassy banter on both sides. He also walks right through the crowd to the Yamaha Stage to play a hilarious new song called selfie#theinternetisforever. It’s a brilliant track, and could easily double as stand-up comedy with its lyrics referencing people taking selfies at funerals and the (presumably) variant words that call out guys for sending girls pictures of their “little Vernon Kay”. Add to this a back catalogue full of wit and wisdom and he is masterful tonight. The fact that he has a screen showing some of South Park’s greatest moments during Celebrity – including a Parkified version of himself – is just the icing on the cake. To borrow a hugely outdated catchphrase, it’s the kind of set that makes you respect his authoritah.
SATURDAY, MARCH 11
Part of what makes C2C such a unique festival is that it’s about much more than just the acts appearing in the main arena. Pop-up stages are littered around the O2’s shops, restaurants and bars, and the best of these is the Town Square stage, which is on hand to distract the crowd who are otherwise buying burgers, ale or cowboy paraphernalia in the dense network of stalls. It is here that Music Week’s recent On The Radar star Catherine McGrath puts in a beautiful and delicate acoustic set in the middle of the afternoon. McGrath is only one song in when the person stood in front of Music Week visibly starts downloading her EP on Spotify. It’s safe to say she’s made some new fans today.
Back in the main arena, it falls to Dan + Shay to kick-start proceedings and they expose something of an age-related divide in the audience. The sense is – judging by the dancing and singing - that many on the younger end of the spectrum may well feel that they delivered one of the best sets of the weekend. For others they are more polarising as they come onstage to Kanye West’s All Of The Lights, and effectively deliver a set that is a rock band playing R’n’B-tinged pop with a country sheen. Whichever way you look at it, however, two things are clear: their rendition of From The Ground Up is excellent and their cover of Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name is not.
They are followed over on the Yamaha stage by newcomer Bailey Bryan, who is so new she only has one song on Spotify. But what a song it is. The strange concoction of self-deprecating and self-appraising humour that comprises Own It, combined with her charming delivery, reveals this track as an anthem-in-waiting. Expect big things from her following this performance.
Speaking of big things, Hunter Hayes is fast-becoming exactly that on our shores and his performance on the main stage offers irrefutable proof. He brings out Charlie Worsham to demonstrate his chops on a brilliant run-through Somebody’s Heartbreak, yet the best performance comes when Hayes does the damage himself. The O2 is entirely mesmerised for the duration of Amen as his hands run up and down the fretboard for a dazzling, eyes-rolled-into-the-back-of-the-head solo. He may call himself a “nerd” onstage but true nerds don’t play like this.
Being sandwiched between two incredible acts doesn’t seem to faze Seth Ennis at all on the Yamaha stage – he just simply can’t seem to get his head around how many people he’s performing in front of. If that nervous energy doesn’t endear him to a lot of people, the gentle piano ballad Woke Up In Nashville certainly does.
What follows is nothing short of spectacular when Darius Rucker arrives on the main stage. Somehow exuding warmth and coolness at the same time, his is a towering performance. Whether he’s covering Garth Brooks’ Friends In Low Places and Blackstreet’s No Diggity or delivering his rousing interpretation of Wagon Wheel – which is, assuredly, the biggest sing-along/dance-along of the entire weekend – he proves that he can, should and probably will headline one day. While it is tempting to say that his cover of Purple Rain is the highlight, not least for getting the whole O2 to light up the place with their mobiles (sorry, “cell phones”), it is actually It Won’t Be Like This For Long, his tender ode to parental obligation, that best sums up his momentous performance.
You couldn’t blame Cassadee Pope for sweating bullets having to pick things up from there, but having already proven she can own the main stage the night before with Chris Young, she makes light work of her short showcase on the Yamaha Stage. Her new song Me, Myself And Why may well be the greatest tune she’s put her name on to date.
Closing out the day is Reba McEntire and no one makes a better entrance than her. A video montage shows clips of her career throughout the years – including wonderful footage of her shooting a subterranean worm monster in the cult ‘90s horror flick Tremors. Put simply, from here on out, McEntire proceeds to sing some of the finest country songs of all time impeccably, of which a stirring Whoever’s In New England is a prime candidate. It is not to diminish the quality of her own catalogue, however, to say that it is her beautiful version of her daughter-in-law Kelly Clarkson’s Because Of You that provides the biggest moment of her set. McEntire is country personified and so is her performance - the kind that can only be delivered after four decades of craft and experience.
SUNDAY, MARCH 12
Very early on in their set opening day three, Brothers Osborne declare their intention to "kick ass". And so it goes. Leaving no doubt whatsoever that country does indeed rock, the brothers deliver a razor sharp performance. While they have their softer moments, what impresses today is that, really, songs like Shoot From The Hip could be AC/DC if said band came from down south rather than down under. Delivering classic rock riffs threaded carefully through the eye of a country needle, they frequently astound - not least for the prodigious lead guitar work of John Osborne. It is a remarkable first C2C outing.
Many are tipping Drake White to have a breakthrough year in 2017, and if the swarm of people gathered around his Yamaha Stage performance is anything to go by, they know what they're on about. Standing as a solitary figure in a spotlight, his voice fills the whole O2 during his bruised acoustic set. The crowd simply watch on in reverential silence. He can lay claim to the best performance on the Yamaha stage across the entire weekend.
It was only a year ago that Maren Morris was playing a showcase set on the Yamaha stage at C2C. Since then she’s gone on to win a Grammy and a CMA award, appear on every major US television show and even have her major label debut, Hero, go to No. 1 in the country charts stateside. It is no wonder she’s back. She may well be the most exciting thing in country music right now and her set confirms why as she delivers everything from heart-stricken country like I Wish I Was to the chameleonic pop of 80s Mercedes. Naturally, Morris playing her life-changing, Grammy-winning, CMA-winning hit My Church on a Sunday of all days was only ever going to go one way.
Back on the Yamaha stage and the ongoing rebirth of Lucie Silvas continues to make for interesting listening. Well over a decade on from her breakout single What You’re Made Of, the singer-songwriter’s swerve into Nashville territory is undoubtedly producing the goods right now.
As if Marty Stuart's storied career doesn't already give him a lot to live up to - hell, even his band are called The Fabulous Superlatives - Bob Harris also introduces him as one of "the great guitarists of all time". Through a combination of nimble-fingered prowess, quick wit, and the fact that The Whiskey Ain't Working gets the crowd dancing, he exceeds both his reputation and introduction. For another, his band’s display demands the superlatives of their namesake. His astounding song Dark Bird - both written about and dedicated to Johnny Cash - is the most moving moment of C2C 2017.
At this point in her career, Jana Kramer’s IMDB page is still bigger than her Discogs one, but you suspect that won’t always be the case. Her Yamaha stage set is short but effective, not least because of her stirring run through I Got The Boy.
And so it comes time for C2C to hit the ol’ dusty trail, but not before Zac Brown Band have their say. Given that there’s eight of them, their say is as emphatic as it is loud. A conservative estimate would bet that at least 65% of the O2 is wearing some form of Zac Brown merchandise tonight: from the moment they open with Homegrown onwards, it feels like a victory lap. A dynamic one-two duo of Goodbye In Her Eyes and a tongue-twisting The Devil Went Down To Georgia are excellent; the elegiac My Old Man is even better. While it could certainly be argued that no band - ever - should attempt a cover of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, it speaks volumes of the sheer confidence, competence and audacity of this band that they go for broke with it to the kind of reception that shakes the floor. Afterwards they bring on Marty Stuart for a jam that quickly works the gears from quite impressive to mind-blowing - which is more than can be said for their disembodied take on The Who's Baba O'Riley. Regardless, in this form they could paint a brick wall up there on the main stage and still have the O2 enthralled. It is a wonderful end to an incredible weekend.