Live Review: Country to Country Festival, Glasgow, Friday 9th March 2018

You could tell this was going to be a good day because it was unusually sunny in Glasgow, with thankfully no sign of the snowmaggedon conditions that had caused shows to be cancelled at the same venue last week. I was at the Hydro to attend Country 2 Country festival, which brings the best of Nashville to the UK for three days every March. The Friday evening show featured performances from Lukas Nelson, Ashley Campbell, Midland, Margo Price, Emmylou Harris and Little Big Town.

Before I review the show there are some key things that need to be said about this event, some of which I outlined in a previous post last year (read here). I still think the ticket prices are what keeps C2C from being a sold out success every year – despite the talent on offer many of these acts are relatively unknown in the UK and can’t draw in the casual punter who might not be sure enough to spend upwards of £50 for a ticket. I also think it is too much to ask even committed country music fans to go to three nights of shows in a row. For me the event would be much improved by a price cut and being on Saturday & Sunday all-day rather than three evening shows.

For Scottish fans this year’s festival involved a major change: moving from the Armadillo venue which holds 3500 people to the cavernous Hydro, maximum capacity 13,000. If this seems crazy on paper then let me explain why I think this decision was made by the organisers. Firstly, yes, country music has an increasing profile in the UK and some of the acts on the bill have sold out the smaller venue easily before. Also the Saturday headliners Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are a big draw, much more so than other acts who’ve played in the past. Plus the Hydro can be rearranged so that certain sections aren’t used and therefore the capacity can be altered when it’s not sold out. Personally I prefer smaller shows, but I think it’s a good thing to be ambitious for the event and this increased capacity also stops touts from having much power to drive up the ticket prices.

On this first night the venue was only about half full but it didn’t affect the gig since the crowd were all enthusiastic fans. Overall I had no problems with the move to the Hydro and in fact our seats were upgraded in the reshuffle so we paid the lowest price but got an excellent view, especially of the satellite stage. I would certainly recommend caution when buying full price tickets in advance considering how many were available on resale sites at reduced rates nearer to the date of the show. As much as I am loathe to use these sites as long as the C2C organisers charge extortionate prices I think it is a justifiable option.

On to the music itself and the evening kicked off with the smooth seventies inspired sounds of Midland, a band not entirely free of controversy. Some have suggested they are fake because they present themselves as cool throwback classic rock cowboys but work with the same Music Row songwriters as Sam Hunt. To be honest I don’t have a major problem with the band cowriting, after all Kacey and Miranda both work with songwriters and still manage to be their authentic selves. Midland are a great harmony band and are trying to do something different in the mainstream, which should be applauded. I especially enjoyed their songs Altitude Adjustment and Drinkin’ Problem, both of which unsurprisingly appealed to the Scottish crowd. It was good to see that the event has expanded the stage times to allow each of the earlier acts to play for forty rather than thirty minutes, although Midland actually had to pad out their slot with covers. In the end how much you enjoy a band like this depends on if you like that smooth Eagles-style country which they are recreating. I found they gave a solid performance to start the night.

The move to the Hydro also allowed for the introduction of a smaller spotlight stage at the back of the arena, where lesser-known acts play a few songs in between the sets on the main stage. Up first was Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son, who unfortunately suffered from severe technical difficulties. The sound was utterly atrocious, appearing to only come out of a few speakers and not in time with his singing at all. In fact from our seats we could actually hear him singing before it came through the speakers, as his voice was so loud. It was really disappointing that no one stopped him and fixed it because you could tell the songs were great and his voice was incredible. The audience were kind to him but a lot of people voiced their anger on Twitter and Lukas himself was said to be gutted. Thankfully they fixed the sound for Ashley Campbell who came on later. She did a medley of her dad Glen Campbell’s songs and also Remembering, which explores how his Alzheimer’s affected their relationship. I actually felt myself tearing up at this touching tribute to her father. Although the spotlight stage only had time for a few songs, thankfully both acts were playing the aftershow. However it was a shame that the majority of the crowd missed out hearing Lukas properly.

Next up was the magnificent Miss Margo Price who asked the crowd ‘Do you want to hear real country music?’ – a dig perhaps at some of the other more pop-orientated acts on the bill (Margo tweeted that she was supporting Emmylou, despite the fact that Little Big Town were higher than both of them on the bill). In her cowboy hat and embroidered suit she looked and sounded like the lovechild of Tammy Wynette and Gram Parsons. I saw Margo play at Oran Mor last year so it was emotional seeing her on the big stage in front of thousands of people. She showed how versatile and energetic her live performances are, even at one point having a go on drums. Also it was so nice to hear the pedal steel played on stage, since that instrument is what makes country music special to me. The setlist included mostly songs from the new album like Wild Women, Cocaine Cowboys and All American Made, which she played solo on keyboard (you could hear a pin drop as she sang the latter). Towards the end of the set she kicked it up a gear with Hurtin’ on the Bottle and a roaring cover of Proud Mary. Margo has the skills as a performer to engage even those in the crowd who were unfamiliar with her material and you hope that she has gained many new fans after such a great show.

Then Emmylou Harris took to the stage and it was a genuine thrill for me to see such a legend play this festival. Her voice was as perfect as it has ever been, even though she is seventy years old. Emmylou also spoke warmly of playing Glasgow before and her memories of the Apollo venue. Her set also displayed the skills of her excellent band and particular highlights for me were Red Dirt Girl and Pancho & Lefty – it was also nice to hear her do some bluegrass too. Honestly I would have liked to hear a few more of her well known songs or covers, especially as that would have helped engage the festival crowd who wanted to sing along, but really who I am to tell Emmylou Harris what songs to sing? The fact she was here at all was a dream.

Personally I bought my tickets for Margo and Emmylou so the other acts were just a bonus. I have to confess that having heard Little Big Town’s set at C2C 2016 on the radio I wasn’t entirely convinced I would like them, since they can be a little bland. HOWEVER I must say after seeing them headline this show I now understand why they are so popular. Clearly Karen Fairchild is a goddess and I would happily listen to her sing anything. The goosebump moment for me was her performance of Better Man (someone explain to me again why Taylor Swift gave this away when it’s her best song?) Another highlight was when the band came to the spotlight stage for an acoustic set. It was a little hairy at one point when Phillip Sweet tripped and fell mid song as they walked through the arena, but thankfully he was unhurt and soldiered on. LBT finished with a stunning version of Girl Crush before Boondocks got everyone dancing in the aisles. Overall it was a confident and entertaining headline set.

If that wasn’t enough quality music, I then headed over to the after show (2018 is the first time Glasgow has included these bonus late night shows). Ashley Campbell was an absolute treat, celebrating with us on the day her album The Lonely One was released (review to come so watch out for that). I was so impressed with her talent on the banjo, her sweet voice and the fact that she has decided to forge her own path without forgetting the roots of her father’s music. This was a confident set from a performer with charisma and real potential for the future.

As for Lukas Nelson what can I say? At one point he played the guitar with his teeth. It was as if he had something to prove after the earlier hiccup because this was a virtuoso performance on guitar, vocals and bonus floor drops. You can hear a lot of Neil Young’s influence in his music and the way he just rocks the hell out of everything. Maybe all he is missing is that one killer song to break through. Or maybe he doesn’t give a fuck and is happy to be jamming on a purple haze for the rest of his life. Either way, don’t miss him.

So after eight hours of insanely brilliant music from across the depth and breadth of country music I went home and promptly passed out. My only regret is that I can’t afford to go on Sunday to see Kacey Musgraves. C2C is an embarrassment of riches really, enough to convince even the most country music sceptic. If the festival is to continue to grow some changes should be made but the quality of the music sells itself.

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