The Shires - O2 Academy, Oxford

In the two horse race for the UK country music cup, 2015 has seen The Shires take a lead, albeit only by a short neck. After an early showing from the Ward Thomas twins, Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes have cracked the UK top ten album chart (the first native country band to do so) and now are selling out O2 Academy type venues. It’s an interesting time to be launching yourselves into the BBC Radio 2 endorsed spotlight and sweaty venues that are normally associated with NME-type indie bands is a step into the unknown.

On a Saturday night in Oxford a crowd that covers the myriad of ages has gathered early, not only to see the headliners, but to also catch the Bob Harris-endorsed supporting act of John and Jacob. The two lads from Birmingham, Alabama are on fire at the moment, drawing on the spirit of the Everly Brothers and dropping some well written, foot-stomping country pop tunes from their upcoming debut album. It’s an indication of the popularity of the genre that they get arms in the air and hands clapping on just the second song - and all before the punters have begun to knock back their pints of Carlsberg and Tuborg.

When a band knock out their biggest tune, in this case ‘Nashville Grey Skies’, as the opener you know they’re feeling pretty sure of themselves. Granted it’s not Eagles kicking off with ‘Hotel California’ but it does display Earle and Rhodes' confidence. When the female half of the duo exclaims “I feel like it’s coming true,” you don’t doubt that the crowd agrees; for a little while anyway, this our own little Nashville, right here, right now.

While you’d be hard pushed to describe The Shires as out-and-out country, if they and their record label weren’t currently hammering it home, it’s impossible to dispute that the duo write excellent pop songs. The slower sections can stray near to the trite, but the duo’s harmonies are beautiful on ‘Made In England’ (brilliantly articulating the uniqueness that is being British) and their most American-sounding track ‘State Lines’. Their up-tempo tracks get even the older sections of the crowd moving from foot to foot: the pumpy, bluesy ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and recent single ‘Tonight’. ‘Friday Night’ plays a bit too much to the ubiquitous drinking anthem that’s currently blighting Nashville it goes down well on a Saturday in Oxford.

Really though, this is a microcosm of the UK country scene: at its most popular for years; the crowd singing words back to the band; filling an Academy size venue; top ten selling albums, and being supported by a hot Nashville act. It sure is a good time to be The Shires.

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