Country music. A genre that has constantly been overwhelmed with the stereotype of outlandish cowboys, horses and redneck women ever since their popularisation in Western cinema. Sadly, this view still remains within the majority of the British public. In an extraordinary attempt to break this stigma, the O2 arena in London has dedicated a two-day Country to Country Festival (C2C) to die-hard fans of this commonly misunderstood side of the music industry, to promote the new face of country music as a fun, diverse genre characterised by energetic guitar-driven riffs, punchy lyrics and powerhouse ballads. Now in its 2nd year, a taste of Nashville was flown to our hearts in the form of eight major acts across the weekend, alongside a selection of 28 pop-up stage performances and artist signings by aspiring country singers and songwriters, many of which are from the UK. Country-themed merchandise was also on sale in the Town Square via over 20 independent market stalls with cowboy hats flying quickly off the shelves.
Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
Being a Martina McBride fan, I simply couldn’t resist this year’s line-up! Saturday night saw Martina as the opening act, followed by the rocking Dierks Bentley, the much-anticipated Dixie Chicks, and the chicken-loving Zac Brown Band – who also performed at last year’s festival. On Sunday, Brad Paisley accompanied the soulful Rascal Flatts, the awesome The Band Perry – both very popular in the UK – as well as an amazing Chris Young! Needless to say, I attended the Saturday show…and it was an unforgettable blast!
Martina McBride. Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
Martina performed some of the chart-topping hits from her career so far, taking the stage by storm with her classic “Anyway”, the contemplative “Concrete Angel”, the fun “This One’s For the Girls”, and the casual yet powerful “Love’s the Only House” – all of which have built up her reputation as one of the finest female vocalists in the history of country music. We were fortunate enough to hear her perform Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” from her upcoming album Everlasting, which hits stores this April 8th, paying tribute to the songs of true legends whom McBride admired. Ending her slot with “Independence Day”, she left the sold-out audience in awe and wanting more.
Dierks Bentley. Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
Dierks Bentley’s music is an easy one to get into, which is why he is so very popular here in the UK as in Nashville. Fusing rock music with country lyrics and bluegrass riffs, he brought down the arena with “5-1-5-0” and “Sideways”. A lucky fan was brought up on stage mid-song to the introductory “She knows all the words!” and played air guitar…with a real guitar presented by Dierks himself! However, like every other country singer, there are happy and sad stories behind certain songs. “I Hold On” and “Riser” were only a select few that moved the crowds with their intensely powerful lyrics. Fans were welcomed to a cover of Avicii’s “Hey Brother”, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, and a sea of lights swept through the arena to the sweetness of “Home”, following his comment that London is the new home of country music.
The Dixie Chicks. Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
However, it was obvious to see who the crowd’s favourites truly were, with nearly half of the arena giving a standing ovation to the Dixie Chicks throughout their entire performance. Representing country music at its most diverse – combining bluegrass with the fusions of country-pop and country-rock – this trio of talented young ladies were a huge treat to nostalgic fans of the band before their short hiatus in 2008 and their last UK appearance eight years ago. Typical classics such as “Goodbye Earl” and “Wide Open Spaces” made their way into the set list, as well as “Landslide” and “Not Ready to Make Nice”. Current lead singer Natalie Maines even filmed the entire arena singing “Happy Birthday” to her now-13-year-old son Slade. The founding members of the band – also sisters – Emily and Martie, showed off their exceptional skill on the banjo and on the fiddle, giving us some extremely radical solos that blew us away. Perhaps most surprising of all was the unexpected rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. Likely to have been suggested by the rebellious Natalie, it was a wonderful take on a previously controversial, yet popular song.
Zac Brown. Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
Finally, to end the night with a proper blast, the Zac Brown Band brought their southern influences to the heart of the arena and jammed until the dancing spectators finally gave in to the fatigue in their legs – though many still danced to their heart’s content. Opening with “Whiskey” and later performing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”, one would be forgiven for mistaking them for a genuine rock band. In fact, they’re so hardcore they needed two sets of drum kits to bring it all out! However, despite being consistently carried away with their truly amazing guitar and Jimmy de Martini’s crazily intense fiddle-playing, they do bring us back to the point of the festival, as a celebration of country music. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and the “Island Song” remind us of the everyday nature of this music. The former is actually a statement for their love of food, reflected in their so-called “eat and greets” where fans literally have a meal with them. Of course, there is always a soft side to even the most hardcore of singers, and “Goodbye in Her Eyes” and “Colder Weather” was a perfect example of this while lead singer Zac Brown came down from the stage to greet audience members during the latter. But this is also the Zac Brown Band. You wouldn’t expect any less of a truly brilliant finale from them than to see them perform after the encore in glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes to “Uncaged”.
The Striking Matches. Image via www.facebook.com/Country2Country.
Despite being unable to attend the Sunday show, I took the liberty of coming down to see a couple of pop-up acts. The Striking Matches stirred up quite a crowd around the Armadillo stage with a shocking performance of “Trouble Is As Trouble Does” amongst a range of other material produced for the hit ABC show Nashville. Scotland-based duo – and married couple – Raintown delivered another set of great shows for their 2nd participation at the C2C Festival. With a style strikingly similar to Lady Antebellum, they worked up the crowd at the Brooklyn Bowl with a fantastic “Light the Fuse Up” as well as an onstage ‘selfie’ with the audience. However, vocal gems were also found in performances by unsigned artists such as Frankie Davies.
Frankie Davies and the Lovely Ladies. Own photograph.
Born in Jersey, Davies is an easy artist to appreciate, quickly becoming more popular through various tours around the UK, LA, San Francisco and country central itself, Nashville, as well as supporting various acts such as Jake Bugg and Van Morrison. Performing alongside her band, the Lovely ladies – consisting of Charlotte Haining (vocals), Emily Linden (string twanger), Laura Williams (drums) and Laura Shea (bass guitar) – the all-female group gave a truly spectacular set with “Dancing All Night” and “Hide No More” becoming fast favourites. “Superman”, written about Davies’ father, struck a contemplative chord into the hearts of the crowd, making us both smile and teary at the same time while we think about our loved ones. Davies’ music is very much integrated and inspired by her family, quick to see by her loving and friendly nature as a person. I was fortunate enough to have met her at the CMA Songwriters Series a couple of nights previously where she helped celebrate her mother’s birthday. Both were huge fans of the Dixie Chicks so Saturday night was a dream come true for them. Speaking to the drummer I was surprised to find that the band was very recently formed – they played with each other for about a year – and yet the communication and friendship between the members was already incredibly strong. With an EP soon to be released within the year, Frankie Davies and the Lovely Ladies are sure to climb the charts to success.
This year’s Country to Country Festival definitely brought out the country guys and gals within each of us and it will certainly continue to do so in subsequent years with great success, with a splendid line-up to represent all the various aspects of the genre. With country music becoming more popular by the minute – now known for its diversity, its incredible energy, fun and/or powerful lyrics, and conversational nature – this festival is the perfect opportunity to experience first-hand what all the fuss is about.
Cheers to a successful career and to country music itself! Own photograph.
Country to Country 2014 was at the O2 Arena, London on 15th and 16th March 2014, www.c2c-countrytocountry.com.