If there was any doubting the strength of the UK’s country music talent then this year’s British Country Music Festival set the record straight. Back in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens after a two-year hiatus (for obvious reasons), the three-day event was a brilliant showcase for both established and emerging talent. There was plenty to enjoy across the three stages, from the acoustic sets in the Pavilion to the full-band experience in the Ballroom. And although slightly strange to be in a room full of unmasked people again, it still felt spacious enough to not be overwhelmed by the situation.
In fact, walking into the mid-sized Arena, to find Jack and Tim opening the festival, was not as daunting as I thought it was going to be. Perhaps it was the subdued lighting, the amiable atmosphere, or just the physical experience of being in a room with live music after so long; but whatever the reason, it felt rather homely. And with the blues/soul of Eddy Smith and The 507, the Irish folk/Americana of The Remedy Club, and the country/pop of Juna N Joey, I soon settled in.
Such diversity, even among these first four acts, was picked up by the Main Stage Host, Matt Spracklen, over the course of the weekend. The Absolute Country Radio presenter was full of admiration for the array of acts on display, highlighting the breadth of the scene, whilst also lauding the depth of the talent contained within it. Nowhere was this more evident than on the opening night, with Kezia Gill kicking things off in impressive style. Her powerhouse vocals, especially on songs ‘The Mess I Made’ and ‘Whisky Drinkin’ Woman’, could have filled the cavernous Ballroom ten times over. She truly is a class act, and surely a future headliner.
Whether her vocals burst an eardrum or not, it was difficult to engage in Holloway Road’s set. It was hard to hear the lyrics, especially during the first half, though their brand of country hip-pop seemed to go down well with the revellers at the front, preparing them nicely for the party atmosphere that came with Nathan Carter. The Irish superstar was on top form, transforming the Empress Ballroom into a rocking nightclub with country covers, including ‘King of the Road’ and ‘The Gambler’, and original hits ‘Temple Bar’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’. These latter songs definitely brought the house down after almost an hour and a half of shaking chandeliers and reverberating floorboards. His set was a complete delight.
I entered the Arena on Saturday lunchtime to discovered the lush tones of Demi Marriner. It is a name familiar to many at Belles & Gals but, to my own shame, this was the first time I’d actually heard her. And my immediate reaction was, “Where have I been?!” She is such a talent, and it was particularly special to hear the song ‘Mother’ being played in such an intimate atmosphere. I then hopped over to the Pavilion to support someone who I am much more familiar with: Eleri Angharad. The Swansea-based singer sprung a beautiful surprise though with acoustic versions of ‘New Sin’ and ‘Delete It’ from her latest EP, as well as an endearing version of Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’. It was then back to the Arena to experience the almost uncategorizable sound of Robbie Cavanagh, whose song ‘Love Comes Quickly’ I had been looking forward to finally hearing live. And it was as tender as I’d hoped it would be.
Hayley McKay provided some lovely easy listening tunes for a late lunchtime, with ‘I Miss You’ being a particular highlight, before Jess Thristan took to the stage for her debut full-band show. Having been lucky enough to see her festival debut at Buckle & Boots back in 2019 with an acoustic set, I again felt honoured to be witnessing one of the UK’s brightest songwriting talents sing live. Including ‘The Old Me’, a personal favourite, she delivered a gorgeous half hour of music that was greatly appreciated by an adoring crowd. It set me up nicely for a trip back to the Pavilion for a Songwriters Round featuring Elles Bailey, Pete Riley, and Wildwood Kin. All three delivered spine-tingling moments that made it an hour to savour, their rapport between one another and with the audience full of good humour and generosity. ‘Halfway House’ (Elles), ‘Odd Shoes’ (Pete), and a never-before-heard song, ‘Sunrise’ (Wildwood Kin) were the best of an outstanding bunch of songs that could only have been followed by the kind of beautiful harmonies that Rosso produced. Still relative newcomers on the UK country scene, the Coventry-based duo seemed to hit a chord with festival-goers. And with their delightful mix of Celtic folk and Southern US sounds, it was not hard to hear why. New single ‘Found’ is well worth a listen, and ‘Pray’ is a beautiful country song. As is ‘Telephone’, one of a number of new, as-yet unreleased tracks from Bryony Sier. The Welsh singer was fantastic; far more self-assured in her performance than when I first saw her two years ago. And she has every reason to be, not only winning the crowd over with her bubbly personality but a set of songs that demonstrated real authenticity and her superb guitar-picking skills.
Another act receiving the credit they deserved were Morganway, showing again why they are considered one of the best live bands on the circuit. The vocals of SJ Mortimer have not diminished over lockdown, contributing to an electrifying performance that culminated in extended applause from a crowd who then got to witness another star in the making. Bailey Tomkinson has already received widespread recognition, not least from Brad Paisley. And her songwriting skills were evident in a 45-minute set that gave us a real flavour of her country pop-infused, rock-tinged sound. She is bound to be where Katy Hurt was in a few years’ time: opening the second night of BCMF in style. Katy’s stock as one of the UK’s top country acts is fast-rising. And in this, her first full-band show in 18+ months, you could sense her delight at being in front of a live audience again. Her performance was a pleasure to behold from my position at the front of the stage, with plenty of new material showcased, including already-fan favourite ‘Sounds Good in a Bar’. She really rocked out in this opening slot to make it sound good in a Ballroom too, preparing the way nicely for Elles Bailey, who blew the roof off with a super-charged set of incredible Blues. From the front, it was simply electric. Her band are a hugely talented bunch and her vocals are breath-taking. She is always worth seeing live, as are Wildwood Kin. They may have brought the temperature down after the heat generated by Katy and Elles, but their harmonies were as exquisite as ever. The Empress Ballroom was the perfect space to host their hauntingly-beautiful vocals. The set didn’t feel as free-flowing as some over the weekend, perhaps because Emily’s guitar gave up the ghost halfway through. However, covers of ‘Dakota’ and ‘Higher Ground’ got a decent response from the crowd. Meanwhile, ‘Time has Come’ and ‘Taking a Hold’ dealt a strong finish to day two of the festival.
Tim Prottey-Jones did his best to get the crowd going as they ambled in for the final day. His trademark good humour was peppered throughout, bringing a slight irony to what was a strange time for his set. It would have been enough to wake up the sleepiest of late-night revellers though, ‘Exit Wounds’ transforming the Ballroom from a hallowed hall into a rock venue. ‘Better Than This’ ensured an explosive start to a Sunday morning that then featured Americana/Roots band Fine Lines and perhaps the most traditional country act of the weekend, Martin Harley. He brought a lovely blues-infused sound to what was by now a generally subdued auditorium. There was a definite end-of-festival feel to the laid-back crowd, who seemed much quieter than the previous two days. It just so happened that this space created the perfect mood for what was to come though.
Candi Carpenter, one of only two US acts on the bill, and playing only a limited number of shows in the UK, came to the stage with just a guitar and a head full of songs. She left the stage an hour later to rapturous applause and with a new legion of fans. It takes something special to occupy such an expansive space and make it feel like the most intimate setting. Candi achieved that with one of the most incredible acoustic sets I’ve had the pleasure to witness. It is no wonder that the likes of Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile rate her so highly. Her honesty and vulnerability shone through in songs as diverse in their subject matter as ‘Sex, Drugs and Country Music’, ‘Exorcist’, and ‘Skinny’. Such deeply personal experiences, introduced in good humour, and told with such passion and poignancy, seemed to strike a chord with those listening, and will surely do so with countless others once her album is released, as the queue to meet and greet her afterwards was still going strong at the end of Lisa McHugh’s closing set. McHugh, for her part, did what she does best: put on an entertaining show to bring down the curtain on this year’s festival. She did so with a real mix of country covers, Irish-flavoured country tunes, and modern sound sounds. The final song, Shania Twain’s ‘I Feel Like a Woman’, had the crowd bouncing along to ensure that proceedings ended as they had started on Friday night.
Never mind the future. The present is bright with UK Country Music talent.
Review written by Gareth Williams (twitter.com/lostinbluejazz1)