C2C Country To Country: Saturday - The O2, London
There probably hasn’t been a better time to be a country music fan in the UK. Not only is there a new generation of homegrown acts but the CMA are also bringing over the hottest US acts to play the annual C2C Country To Country festival, now in its third year at the O2. Now, your mileage may vary but the Saturday line-up tried to give attendees a little bit of everything, with something for most country-minded souls.
The well established pop-up stages – basically mini stages dotted around the restaurant section of the huge building – play host to mainly British acts throughout the day. Ranging from the country twang of Talia Simone (who sings like Nashville, talks like Bow), taking in Sasha McVeigh's British take on country pop, and Jess and the Bandits blend of Texan power balladry and country rock. The best of the day is the atmospheric Americana of Nashville's excellent Angel Snow.
The main event though is a jarring meeting of the two worlds of country. Taking the stage representing more traditional country is songwriter - and the voice behind one of 2013’s best records, Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack. It should be noted that in the male dominated world of contemporary country it's good to see quality being recognised wherever it comes from. No one act on the bill has had more shout outs from other artists than Clark; it seems her 12 Stories record has influenced a large number of the pop-up acts, and her set is a great showcase for those tunes - ‘Stripes’, ‘Hold My Hand’, the crowd pleasing ‘Get High’, and pro-feminist ‘Crazy Women’. She’s also trialing a couple of tracks from her yet-to-be recorded second album, of which ‘’Broke’ is more bluesy and bodes extremely well for what’s next from the quick witted singer. For her part Womack delivers a set of stunningly sung country songs, dripping with tradition and tenderness, with the beautiful ‘I Hope You Dance’ and caustic ‘Twenty Years And Two Husbands Ago’ obvious highlights.
What comes next however is anything but traditional or beautiful. Whatever you think of the current trend for rock and pop-driven country music, Florida Georgia Line are an example of the genre's excesses. With sound levels ear bleedingly high, visuals like a particularly nightmarishly luminous pool party and music closer to Enter Shikari than anything resembling country, the unlovable twosome bound around the stage high fiving and smashing beer cups into the audience; it’s that kind of show. Although not to everyone’s taste the duo do get the crowd pumped and on their feet for the first time for ‘Cruise’. Credit where it’s due too: ‘Dirt’ is a fine song.
It’s an unexpected twist then that the current king of country Luke Bryan, and poster boy of bro-country, brings a slightly more traditional feel back to the procedings. Though playing up the stereotype with his thanking of “the beautiful Brandy Clark” and “finest looking woman in country history Lee Ann Womack” rather than focusing on their singing and songwriting talent, and ending on the low note of ‘Country Girls (Shake It For Me)’, Bryan is engaging and a consummate performer. He’s also got some cracking, and surprisingly sweet, songs: ‘Crash My Party’ is far more charming than first appearances and ‘Drink A Beer’ is eminently relatable, with its story of losing a friend unexpectedly. The crowd join in on 'Play It Again’, and the overriding feeling is that the baseball hat wearing Georgia boy can produce far less bro-country but just as catchy material when he puts his mind to it. If only happened more often.
In many ways Bryan and FGL meet all expectations, whether low or high, as do Clark and Womack. What that means though is it’s easy to see the country divide getting wider as each year of C2C Country To Country goes by. Despite constant references to the event being sold out, there are plenty of empty seats. So the tough question now is do they continue to follow the US trends, which is where the biggest acts are, or is traditional where it’s at in the UK? Saturday shows that bringing the two together is a tough sell.
All photographs by Anthony D’Angio.