C2C Country To Country 2019 - The O2, London
There we were again, the O2 in March, for the seventh annual country music festival, C2C Country To Country. It was TDF's fifth year in attendance and one of the most noticeable differences over the years is the size of the crowd, and the change in venues for the Festival Stages (FKA Pop-Up Stages). It feels like a lot more people are attending now, with every nook and cranny of the ginormous O2 building packed with cowboy boots, Stetsons, and check shirts.
There are many things to love about C2C, whether it's the atmosphere in the arena itself, or the stage it gives to some fantastic acts outside the main stage (we'll cover the Festival Stages in a separate feature), but what was great about the 2019 version was seeing acts that veteran festival goers have seen and loved on tiny stages grow into main stage performers. First in this bunch was Cam, who appeared on the Spotlight Stage (a tiny stage at the opposite end of the arena to the main stage where artists get ten minutes while the set change-over is happening) in 2015. Taking to the main stage after the boisterous Chase Rice (owner of the weekend's most uncomfortable moment, during 'Ride', that belongs nowhere near a stage in this day and age), the Californian took the crowd on a trip through her personality and personal stories, all with a joie de vivre that means you instantly get drawn into her world. Opening with the cracking ode to cheats partners 'Diane' her stories cover taking responsibility for your own relationships ('My Mistake') and breaking up bad ('Burning House').
Big hitter Keith Urban returned to the UK for the first time in over a decade (though technical he messed up that narrative by appearing at the Kentish Forum two days earlier) to wow the crowd. If you're into his kind of thing, and lots were, then you'll have wallowed in the show, and his banter with a particularly well-inebriated Scotsman showed his people touch, but it was all a bit too clean to really deliver any last impression. Brett Eldredge on the other hand, surprised with his slick set and touched the heartstrings, with 'Raymond', in a way Urban never did.
Saturday saw a sparkling set from Carly Pearce, highlighting the quality of music coming from women in country music right now, that was evident outside the arena, but sparsely represented within. Dustin Lynch delivered a well-meaning but ultimately noisy set, while Hunter Hayes is just a bit too meh for second on the bill. The ever-dependable Lady Antebellum capped the night off with a well polished, fun set that included all the favourites and some deeper cuts just for the UK audience. There is always a sense that Charles Kelley is on the verge of doing something unexpected at Lady A shows, and it gives them an edge they'd lack otherwise.
Drake White and the Big Fire are another returning act who also shone, and was part of the best line-up day of the weekend, Sunday. Whether it was a wonderful Chris Stapleton, proving that all you need are guitars, drums, bass, and two literal crowd-stopping voices (20,000 people completely silent in awe is an amazing thing to hear), or the musical masterclass of Lyle Lovett ('North Dakota' and 'Here I Am' were sublime) Sunday was huge fun. On a day of standout performance another returning artist, Ashley McBryde, outdid them all. She was by turns funny, both in stage chat and song ('Fat and Famous'), authentic ('A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega'), and touching ('Girl Goin' Nowhere'). Full of snark, genuine wonder, and love for her music, she stole the show at the last.
The Spotlight Stage delivered some future main stage acts again, with Abby Anderson, Caroline Jones, Jimmie Allen, and Runaway June all shining.
Amongst the positivity there are some challenges for the organisers, mainly that the success of the festival is actually reducing their pool of unique acts; so far in 2019 Chris Young, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Midland, Kip Moore, and Ashley McBryde have all announced dates, with Keith Urban suggesting he'll be back before the year's out. They're all potential main stage acts, but touring outside of the C2C round is in danger of lessening the importance of the festival that started it all.
That's for another day, for now, it's a successful eighth year for the festival that seems to just keep growing. Not only is it delivering big favourites like Urban and Stapleton it's actually creating new ones like Cam, McBryde and White. Carry on C2C; never change.
Photography by Luke Dyson, Aron Klein and Graham Joy. Used by permission from The O2.