As we sat waiting for the Country2Country Festival at the O2 Arena to begin, I mentally totted up the country music artists I’ve managed to get to see over the years, on their all-too-infrequent visits to the UK.
Back in the halcyon days of “New Country”, there was a bit of a buzz about the genre – even on this side of the Atlantic. I saw Dwight Yoakam at the Town and Country Club in the mid-1980s, and later saw Steve Earle playing Nottingham’s Rock City. I’ve seen Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and Tift Merritt at a variety of places (my last attempt thwarted by an age restriction so we couldn’t take the kids inside the venue). I’ve seen Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss, and Matraca Berg at the Stables in Milton Keynes. Last Year, things got big with Brad Paisley‘s excellent show at the O2, and now we come to The Big One.
Tim McGraw is on a par with Brad Paisley, and as the headline act he was clearly the reason why most of the capacity crowd at the O2 were there. This was a bit of a shame, because it meant that the atmosphere (always a problem at UK country gigs) was a bit subdued for opening act Kristian Bush. Better known as one half of Sugarland, Bush is a superb songwriter who has released a string of hit albums with his Sugarland partner Jennifer Nettles. Taking advantage of Nettles’ absence on maternity leave, Bush was playing his first solo show with a backup band that included sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe.
So the venue only appeared to be about half-full when Bush took to the stage. He performed a short set, the highlight of which was his cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, accompanied throughout by some excellent slide guitar playing from Rebecca Lovell. His new song Love or Money was also great, and has been made available as a free download for festival goers. He struggled to engage the crowd, however, which was a shame. There was plenty of warmth there but in a half-empty venue, you weren’t going to get people on their feet.
Ah, the crowd. I’m beyond expecting anything different, but it truly amazes me that people will spend a fortune on concert tickets and then not turn up until the headline act takes to the stage. Furthermore, like infants, they seem to need to have a drink with them at all times. This is a wider problem of arrested development, I feel, but it seems that some people either have to be carrying around a cardboard cup of coffee or a plastic cup of beer, like a toddler who needs a beaker. For the record, beer was £4.90 for a plastic cup of Beck’s Vier, which strikes me as being just a little bit steep. With such price gouging, not to mention the outrageous booking fees on top of the extortionate ticket prices, it seems to me that people should vote with their wallets and refuse to pay – even if it means going a few hours without a drink in their hands. Water was £2.30 a bottle, and they wouldn’t let you have the lid.
Next up were Little Big Town, an excellent band whose close harmonies are even more astonishing live than they are on record. I’ve really been enjoying their recent album Tornado, and they performed a few from that, including my favourite “Leavin’ in Your Eyes”. Another highlight was another cover version, this time a perfect rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” They finished their set by proving that any decent pop song can be countrified: a bluegrass version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.
After a short break came the act I’d really come to see: Vince Gill, whose 30-year career has produced multiple hit albums and many, many awards. Described by MC of the occasion, Bob Harris as “one of the best guitar players on the planet” (I don’t disagree), Gill played a brilliant set with a low-key but highly competent backing band. When he introduced them, he laughed self-deprecatingly and said, “We’re experienced!”
He played highlights from his career, including the title track of his most recent album, “Guitar Slinger” and the gospel song he wrote for his dead brother, “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” His soulful voice was in good form, and he shared lead guitar duties with a slide player and another on pedal steel. Through the set, he played about half a dozen of the best solos I’ve ever heard, including a sweet and melodic extended solo on “Pretty Little Adrianna” that finished with some neat quotations from the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and “Jessica”.
Gill’s playing and singing was superb, but most of the crowd were there for Tim McGraw, who arrived on stage (on time, fact fans) and immediately raised the roof with “Felt Good on My Lips“. His band were loud, and rocked hard throughout, and McGraw’s energy was impressive. Like many other country artists who visit the UK, I think McGraw was taken aback that the crowd knew all the songs, and the words to the songs, even the older ones. We’ve been waiting 20 years for a visit: hopefully it won’t be another 20 till he returns.
There were many highlights to his set, but the finale, “Live Like You Were Dying” was just absolutely perfect – a passionate blast through one of my favourite songs. The sound mix throughout was a tad on the muddy side compared to the clean sounds Gill had achieved, but that’s a minor quibble. There were a lot of musicians on the stage and at first the fiddle (the only one seen at the entire Saturday Festival) was inaudible. The drummer was behind a soundproof screen, probably so he could hear himself play, and the WHOOMPH! sound at the climax of “Live Like You Were Dying” was something to behold.
It was a great night. Sunday sees Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Leanne Rimes and Brantley Gilbert, but I think I got the best night: four artists I really admire. The O2 has tried to make an event of it, with “Town Square” gigs by British roots artists, plus a market place selling yee-haw clothes and food from the Americas. Shame it was so cold, but it means it is worth being there for the start.
Lots of cowboy hats in evidence in the crowd, though not many of them were very authentic (most were Australian Bush hats). I recommend Hatshopping.com if you absolutely insist on wearing one.
UPDATED to include information about the free Kristian Bush download, “Love or Money”.