SightC2Cing: What I Saw at Country2Country 2023

As in previous years at Country2Country, rather than offer reviews of acts, I take a snapshot of what I see and hear. Here was 2022’s report.

The organisers must have been praying hard all week for sunshine and the sun popped on a ten gallon hat (hip hooray!) as early arrivals popped into the festival on Saturday morning. I did a double-take when I saw a man wearing a lanyard which he could place his beer into, leaving his hands free for another beer should he have wished. I didn’t check the prices, but I can’t imagine a pint was any cheaper than £7. I wonder if people have gone without heating this winter to afford alcohol across C2C weekend.

Country music is a lifestyle as well as a genre, and there was the usual plethora of tassels, denim and hats. Last year I was impressed with the quota of mullets, and it was lovely to spot a fella in a Luke Combs tee topped off with a Wallen mullet. I saw at least three ‘teeny weeny beanies’, the type of hat worn by a Shoreditch media guy, which would never have been spotted ten years ago at the first C2C.

Plenty of UK broadcasters and writers were present. In the morning, before producing three hours of live radio for Radio 2, Marc Hagen wandered around the foyer. There was no sighting of Bob Harris, or of Baylen Leonard who REDACTED ON LAWYER’S ADVICE last year, but Matt Spracklen of CountryLine Radio looked in good health after his DJ set the night before.

James Daykin of Entertainment Focus was with wife and son, on a break from his coverage which is as excellent as ever; Dan Wharton (ex of Your Life in a Song) was with family, Pete Woodhouse and the w21Music crew were buzzing around and Karl Shoemark of SW20 Country was with alcohol, but not too much as he was heading back to Somerset by train having sold his evening arena ticket.

As for the musicians in the crowd, I spied Ben Earle, Jeff Cohen, Gasoline & Matches, Vic Allen, Kaity Rae and Liv Austen plus bump. Kezia Gill’s manager Donna Zanetti, who along with Pete runs w21Records, told Karl that she and Kezia had driven up to Glasgow the day before, driven down overnight via Derby and arrived in London a few hours earlier so she could play the Indigo on Sunday. You have to be insane or dedicated or both to do that; Kezia’s set in Glasgow as part of a showcase at King Tut’s is available on BBC Sounds until Easter here.

At any one time across the Arena site, there was music in eight places: four free stages, upstairs at the All Bar One, the Indigo, the Bluebird Café and the Barrelhouse. The queue for the last of these peaked around the time Megan McKenna played at 3pm. At that time I had my back to the queue, facing the Big Entrance stage. Jess Clemmons was backed by her Bandits but the bass was too loud. Within half an hour, the rain had come, but by this time I’d had four uninterrupted hours of music.

Smithfield started the day with some originals including breakthrough hit Hey Whiskey, but people would have paused on their way in to the arena to hear a medley that included Livin’ On A Prayer, That Don’t Impress Me Much and This Kiss. All were songs that hit the charts before the year 2000, which proved that I belong in the 35-54 demographic that the CMA are appealing to by essentially putting on CMA Fest: UK.

Upstairs to the Icon Stage and Lewis, Isi and Clancy had drawn a decent crowd for the Two Ways Home Half-Hour. Old chestnuts Just For Now and Push & Pull were joined by new song Signals In The Smoke, where Lewis’s guitar decided to pack up. A musician was in the house and Obadiah from O&O handed him his own. This won’t happen at the forthcoming Round Up events, tickets for which are here (though many dates are now sold out!)

Paris Adams is now a solo act having broken away from her two Adelaides. She sang a note-perfect cover of Caitlyn Smith’s song High, and previewed a new song with an extraterrestrial theme: ‘Your love is alien to me!’ I predict enormous things for Paris, who was in complete control of the audience and her original material, some of which was written with Hall of Fame songwriter Liz Rose. The Wayside Stage on which Paris performed had been turned 90 degrees this year to allow better access for non-festival goers to get to the bowling at that part of the arena.

Randall King, who will play the Grand Ole Opry after he returns from C2C, entertained a few hundred folk with a set that celebrated both cowboys and cowgirls. Afterwards, many acolytes received a signed photo and a grip-and-grin. Those close to the stage could see a silver sticker in the shape of Texas, which may portend a troupe of other Texans for future festivals. Jonathan Terrell brought his Red Dirt rootsy sound to the Wayside Stage as well.

As Randall was about to let down much of a long line of folk looking to be met and greeted, First Time Flyers were dealing with technical issues. Their half-hour set was dynamic and fun in spite of malfunctioning wedges and missing keyboards – good thing Tim Prottey-Jones is versatile! – and the singles Heartbreak Handshake and Happier were well received. The denim uniform was well chosen, too, and if they want to add an FTF jacket to their merch stall, they’d make a lot of money. I’ll leave that to Pete and Donna, who are guiding them in their new venture.

Back over at the Wayside, Brian Collins brought a Stapletonish burr and harmonica to the occasion. Having opened for Kezia Gill last year, he could well headline in his own right and his performance proved that you should trust the festival bookers when they serve up magnificent musicians who may be unknown to most. I loved Shine a Little Love and new single The Finer Things.

In the evening, as Lady A played the hits to 17,000 people, a few hundred enjoyed Morganway’s first full band gig of 2023. SJ performed in an arm sling because, as her partner Kieran said: ‘She smashed her elbow ten days ago!’ ‘I didn’t break my voice!’ SJ replied, correctly, as the 45-minute performance showed.

They opened with Hurricane, with SJ taking the first verse and easing the crowd in before the band kicked in for verse two, and included plenty of old tunes: My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You, London Life and set closer Let Me Go, which had an enormous rock ending. Because the crowd had been taught some line dancing steps earlier in the evening, a few of them were trying to quick-step to the last two, perhaps helped by alcoholic stimulants!

The band’s second album comes out in May and their ten-date tour comes to London on April 15 at Omeara (tickets here but be quick). World Stopped Running, Wait For Me and Come Over (which would mash up with What Goes Around by Justin Timberlake) will all be on that album and showcase the band sound, supplied by a crack rhythm section (bassist Callum and drummer Eddie, both in white) and the colourful phrases of keyboardist Matt and fiddler Nicky. Guitarist Kieran wore a white cowboy hat to prove the band are a country one, albeit with plenty of rock and blues elements which in turn make them a perfect opening act for Elles Bailey this spring.

A couple of new tracks were given world premieres: one with an opening line ‘he said that she was crazy’ which had a rapid-fire chorus that went ‘feels like feels like’; the other about ‘howling’ with plenty of oomph. Having seen them in double-digit figures now, it has been terrific to watch the band grow from a more sedate country-rock group to one who, like Lady A, inhabit their own genre.

Tickets for the 2024 iteration of Country2Country are on sale now

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