The British Country Music Festival, Blackpool Winter Gardens, September 3-4

Johnny Vegas was indisposed on Friday night so the famous Illuminations (how much would it cost this year to keep them lit?!) were turned on by the mighty Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. At the Winter Gardens, Amy Wadge performed two massive copyrights, Thinking Out Loud and Space Man, for the amusement of country music fans.

Amy, a long-term resident of Nashville, was a superlative booking for the third iteration of the British Country Music Festival, which this year put a premium on that first word. If country music is about storytelling, regardless of whether you slap a banjo, fiddle, processed beat or lap steel underneath the story, then all are welcome.

Terrifically Eclectic

The festival takes place in three areas of the Winter Gardens complex. There’s the Empress Ballroom, lit up with candles and happy faces. There’s the room next door, or the Arena, and thirdly there’s the Horseshoe Pavilion, just past the merchandise stalls. There are plenty of new discoveries to be made among the big acts on the bill, which on Saturday included Tom Odell and Lucy Spraggan, and Wayne Hadlow was there as always to sell you a pair of fine boots.

The line-up was terrifically eclectic, which would make a good strapline for the festival. (Hi to M&M if you’re reading this! I hope you slept well on the Monday!!). Hollie Rogers, from down in Cornwall, was previewing her crowdfunded album Criminal Heart, out on September 9. It will include a song written with Jamie Lawson called Love & Distance. Hollie’s trained voice served the songs excellently, and she was so lost in the moment that she clipped her hand, drew blood and left a mark on the guitar. She bled for us, though we were impressed enough with her voice and songs.

Another fine discovery were Motel Sundown, three songwriters from Liverpool who have a great grasp of the popular song, as can be heard on their marvellous debut album If You Were Listening. There’s a lot of First Aid Kit in the harmonies and arrangements, especially the singles One More for the Road and Perfect Eyes, as I am sure they are told after every performance. Their Facebook page has a track-by-track guide to the album and lays bare their influences, which include The La’s, Fleetwood Mac, The Band and, yep, First Aid Kit. Their cover of Peaceful Easy Feeling by Eagles was a fine way to end their set in the Arena, where they hopped to after playing two original compositions in a Songwriters Carousel which took a while to set up.

Poppy Fardell, in big knee-high white boots, led a chorus of Country Roads, Take Me Home to alleviate the technical hitches. She told MC Laura Oakes to play that ‘Blue Jeans and a Suit’ song and delivered her own fun pair of tunes, Double Denim and Beer Budget. Happily Poppy remembered the words to the former in her own set; her new single Good Girl comes out on September 16.

It is a mark of a fine programme that you can go from Poppy’s folky-pop to the blues-rock of True Strays, who were promoting their recent album Heart of the Matter, which follows their superb 2019 EP Homeward Bound. They’ve recently been to Norway and Sweden, so Blackpool is a perfect next stop. They also head to Nash Nights on September 16.

The Bristolian duo prove beyond doubt that there is something in the River Avon, what with Elles Bailey, Yola and Lady Nade high up the UK Country Top 40 Chart this season. Much as acts like Eddy Smith and the 507 and their fellow duo Foreign Affairs mix rock, blues and gospel, so True Strays are the complete package. Their chemistry comes from their lifelong friendship and they have a whale of a time onstage (and off – I caught the bemulleted James singing Wherever You Will Go by The Calling in an unguarded moment).

Singalongs like God Damn My Soul and Let Your Heart Lead The Way are properly arranged, and both James and Joe can sing and play. They were assisted by a fine organ player who added depth to the sound, which filled the Arena. ‘Blame the immigrant, not the CEO,’ they sing bitterly on Golden Age, unafraid to take the political view, while the character described on Rosalea keeps a bottle by his side. Both Baylen at Long Road and Gary at Buckle & Boots would be fools not to book True Strays next year, though perhaps they would warn James off crowdsurfing with a double bass, as he did in a previous festival appearance.

Siblings and Partnerships

We already have Ward Thomas and Wildwood Kin proving sisters can do it for themselves, and Robinson-Stone also fit in that nook. Made up of three siblings (Danny, Leyna and Dean), they play Celtic-tinged folk which would fall under UK Country. I am sure they are fed up of comparisons to The Carpenters, but on record their arrangements are pretty, especially Runaway Overload (good title, even better harmonies). I also heard hints of Sting’s more folky stuff on Heaven and Hell.

Likewise, partnerships like Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, O&O, Ferris & Sylvester and Tennessee Twin make music together and there are two married pairs at TBCMF. Our Atlantic Roots have set up their marital home in Cornwall, although neither Laura nor Mac are from there, instead travelling from South Yorkshire and North Carolina respectively. ‘This is the furthest North we’ve been in two years!’ Laura admitted, while Mac talked about panic attacks during the pandemic which inspired a hymn to nature called Take Time.

They were plugging their forthcoming EP, which will contain the tender song Golden Hour. There is a reason their song Carry On, about keeping on and being strong, is approaching a million Spotify streams, a nice little earner which will help them, ironically, carry on when they feel glum about the whole music thing. Their vocal blend reminded me of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, while the crowd became a choir on Wildflower in one of the weekend’s most glorious moments.

Another married pair followed immediately after OAR. Beth and Sam Goudie play as The Goudies, and each plucks a guitar as they sing folk songs with their voices in fine harmonic intervals. They played Nashville Meets London in April and took themselves up to Blackpool to charm the afternoon crowd. They eschewed their version of It’s Not Unusual and instead took inspiration from Carlton in their cover of the theme from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Their own pandemic song When This Is Over (‘let’s carry so much less’) was gorgeous, and they have made the right decision to amalgamate their material.

Kez, Tom and Lucy

After her Ballroom full band set last year, brochure cover star Kezia Gill packed out the Pavilion, delighted that she didn’t have to pitch a tent or play outdoors. She is gearing up for her first headline tour and finished festival season with aplomb. With The Shires on an enforced break while Crissie has twins – in fact, Ben is sensibly going it alone and has a gig during Country Music Week in October – Kezia should become the face of UK Country music, which means she and husband Lloyd will become Lord and Lady of the genre.

Kez’s pseudo opening acts deserve plaudits for warming the crowd up. Celine Ellis debuted a song imagining an unhappy event with the motif ‘rolling the window down’. Otherwise she kept the mood happy with tunes like Leave The Light On, Getaway Car and Fallen Angel, as befits her MO to play country music with attitude. Louise Parker followed and proved herself an adept performer, acting out the lyrics as she played new single Bring It On (Set Me Free) and ran her own Tequila Sunset into an old tune about Human Nature. Operating a harmoniser pedal with her feet, she had command of her material and the audience, even letting slip the name of a future single.  

The Wandering Hearts started the main stage party with the same set they played at Nashville Meets London, complete with the fiery concluding pair of Devil and Fire & Water. Laura Evans, previously very good at Buckle & Boots, headlined with songs from her album State of Mind. In between came Tom Odell (more on whom shortly) and Lucy Spraggan, who may well have been booked because her last album Choices is all about getting sober and dealing with divorce. These are topics are as country as the day is long. Lucy also has plenty of tales to go alongside her tunes, such as Blues Song, which is about a guy who told her she didn’t sing blues when Lucy played a gig in a blues bar, and Tea & Toast, about an elderly couple she met while busking.

It has been a decade since she popped up on The X Factor as a teenager with a ditty about alcohol called Last Night (Beer Fear), which made an appearance during the set. After opening with recent tune Run, Lucy was keen to get the crowd’s voices going and to reward them with old favourites like Lighthouse. Incredibly, she gave a reading of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) as an X Factor-type song, but she did well to work out that the Proclaimers have written one of UK Country’s finest songs. (Are the Reids a potential booking for 2023? I’ll leave the programme to the Blores.)

Lucy worked with The Dunwells on the record, a secret weapon who brought out her poppier side and who have already been confirmed as performers in 2023, along with Shea Rafferty and Sam Turner. The former puts out his album Making History on Friday, and Tim Prottey-Jones has a hand in it.

Playing a grand piano and with a chap accompanying him on various types of guitar including pedal steel, Tom Odell played a set which in recent months has graced Webster Hall in New York and Lincoln Hall in DC. To be stood 20 feet away from him for his hour-long set of ballads and singalongs was breathtaking, even though most people were waiting to hear Another Love. A cover of Piano Man was well received but it was annoying to hear one punter call him ‘pretentious’. If that’s what wearing your heart over your sleeve is, those punters can leave it.

These interlopers from pop were examples of how ‘more music styles merge’, according to festival honchos Martin and Marina Blore, who knew the audience would have fun ‘embracing this blurring of borders’. It reminded me of the year when Zac Brown Band did a version of Bohemian Rhapsody, simply because they could, and lots of people walked out muttering ‘that ain’t country’. Genre is a marketing tool anyway, and Blackpool is one place, alongside Whitebottom Farm which hosts Buckle & Boots, that welcomes all genres so long as there’s a story to tell.

Sunday in the Ballroom

As in past years, Sunday was held entirely in the ballroom, starting with another Carousel of songwriters. Steve Marks of Gasoline & Matches said the Empress Ballroom was, in his three decades of guitar-playing, ‘the most beautiful room I’ve ever played in’. He and Sally Rae boldly played their drinking game in song Never Have I Ever at noon, along with the ballad Tequila’s A Healer and a new song called Glory Hunter about bandwagon-jumping. Laura Oakes rose to the occasion with her Beth Nielsen Chapman co-write Learning To Be Lonely Again, telling the story of her grandpa always locking the door of his home. She also, sensibly, requested tea rather than beer.

Due to timing issues, Henry Priestman only played two songs during the round, including the witty Old, based on the realisation that he has reached the age his dad thought wasn’t young any more. A songwriter of some repute, Henry was born in Hull and was part of the Christians. Laura referred to him as an ‘honorary Scouser’ and he also, handily for the organisers of the BCMF, went to Nashville with Amy Wadge (the biography on his website is worth reading). His album The Chronicles of Modern Life is a good way into his catalogue. I love the ‘Indians/ minions/ opinions’ rhyme on Don’t You Love Me No More, as well as the ‘dreamer/arena’ couplet on an acerbic love song What You Doin’ With Me, which sounds like a Leonard Cohen song set to a country beat. Henry has recorded three albums as a performer and advised the crowd to follow their dreams and to ‘stick with it even though you’re crap!’

The unannounced guest was Kylie Price, a Kiwi who is now based in London. Kylie has already recorded at Abbey Road Studios and shot a video in town too. Obviously you have to be very good to get all the way from New Zealand to London, but if Kylie doesn’t break through by the end of 2023, it’s our fault. Her voice hit soprano notes, her fingers hit semiquavers on the guitar (I wonder if she brought her Gold Guitar awards with her) and her songs were fragile and arresting. She’s headlining Camden Chapel on October 6. Bigger venues await.

Robert J Hunter reminded me of Ocean Colour Scene in parts, although there was plenty of gospel, blues and rock’n’roll in there. He needn’t have apologised for the lack of the band’s organ player, as there was plenty of oomph on songs like Rushing. Sunbirds is the new project of former Beautiful South singer Dave Hemingway, which also includes songwriter and former NHS computer technician Phil Barton. Props also go to fiddle player and vocalist Laura. The band are touring their 2020 album Cool To Be Kind and Sunday afternoon provided a perfect setting for a set full of melodies and harmonies that will appeal to fans of The Magic Numbers and, obviously, Dave’s former band.

They jokingly dedicated one song to Liz Truss, noted the pedigree of the ballroom before playing the song Gene Kelly and closed their set with the Nick Lowe song Peace, Love and Understanding. There was certainly harmony in their set, and I noticed that Dave, like his old mate Paul Heaton, needs to read the lyrics off a stand. Age cannot wither him…

Having already played Country2Country and The Long Road this year, Jess Moskaluke completed a hat-trick of UK festivals with her 4pm slot. ‘After ten days I still feel jetlagged!’ Jess complained, more than once saying she missed her dogs and that she didn’t want to miss her train (which felt a bit disingenuous to a crowd who also had trains to catch).

Jess began with three rocking tunes before slowing things down with an acoustic medley of unexpected covers. These included No Scrubs, You’re Still The One, Wide Open Spaces and Teenage Dirtbag. The set highlight was her own song Take Me Home, which she wrote, and the anthemic pair of Style by Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, where the band botched the ending and hoped nobody noticed!

Throughout the weekend, the crowd were impressed – ‘she’s good in’t she?’ said one punter of Kezia Gill – and proudly wore t-shirts boasting their support of Louise Parker, Gasoline & Matches and The Wandering Hearts. After three iterations, there are familiar faces returning year after year who are interested in discovering the thrills of country music in the UK which is (to repeat a phrase) terrifically eclectic.

Tickets for the 2023 festival can be found here.

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