Country Music Week: Sonia Leigh, Megan O’Neill & Sam Wickens

October 6, 2017
Country Music Week
The Borderline, London

“I mean all the bullshit that comes out of my mouth!”
The rising profile of country music in the UK brings many benefits, but one major drag: show clashes! Country Music Week was a case in point. With a packed schedule of up to three quality shows per night, fans, artists and industry folks alike looked pained when talking about the difficult decisions they had to make.

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There’s a solution for those of us that are trying to cover the scene as comprehensively as possible – hot footing it across town to a second show. That’s why I was all packed up and ready to run to the C2C festival launch party after catching a few songs of the headliner at The Borderline. That was until Sonia Leigh took the stage. With a voice, sound and performance like that there wasn’t a chance in hell I was leaving. Coat off, bag off, game on.

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A pair of high-octane anthems kicked off proceedings: Waste The Day then My Name is Money. The dynamic mix of dive-bar chic, rock moves, heavy drums, dirty riffs and husky vocals returned time and again throughout the set, notably in Dead Man.

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Reckon it sounds more like a rock show? Damn right, a bloody great one! It was easy to forget it was a Country Music Week event. There wasn’t a cowboy hat in the place, and Leigh’s drawl was just as Southern rock as country. Indeed, her rich voice was strongly reminiscent of Janis Joplin.

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It was more nuanced than that, though. It wasn’t *stereotypically* country (a genre which can be a broad church anyway). On top of that, there was so much more to come, including some more obviously countrified tunes like I’ll Be At The Bar, with a definite twang. This speaks to her diverse influences and output, which she clarified: “music is not country, music is not rock, music is not pop…it helps me get through.”

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After the show, Leigh’s dedicated fans waxed lyrical about her range. During the show, they were even more vocal. They sang along to even the newest songs, like Walking In The Moonlight. They simultaneously cheered and gently mocked Leigh’s oft-repeated phrase “tryna make a record” in support of her Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. [They’ll be ecstatic now that the goal has been reached!] They knew when to hush for the tender songs, danced wildly during Alone, and had the whiskey ready for Jack Is Back. Their rowdy enthusiasm was compelling and contagious.

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As if Leigh’s star power which drew such adulation wasn’t enough, another superb performer was standing by. It took me seconds to recognise that I’d photographed the musicians before and a few songs to identify them as Katy Hurt’s band.

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However, it wasn’t until Hurt stepped forward to take the lead on two songs that I realised she’d been on stage as a backing singer the whole time. Her look had transformed since C2C in March.

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She’s always been good. Now she was truly great. A star in the making, if there’s any justice. From then on, she took a greater role in the show, amping up the country sound.

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Leigh and Hurt sounded wonderful together, and their relationship was sweet and supportive. Here’s a clip of them duetting on a cover of Zach Brown Band’s Sweet Annie.

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Despite all the epic and vibrant performances, the  powerful yet tender version of Alabama that closed the show was one of the most memorable parts of the night. Beautiful.

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Sonia Leigh’s *made* a new record! It’s due out in 2018. In the meantime, Leigh has a handful of UK dates lined up for early December, and she will be performing on Melissa Etheridge’s cruise in March 2019. See for more information. 

Katy Hurt will be joining forces with favourites Two Ways home for a Katy Hurt & Friends/The Round Up double bill on December 13. Check for details

“That was a cheeky chord!”
Studying the Country Music Week for Americana -tinged talent, they had me at “Megan O’Neill.” She’s equally comfortable performing with a full band (The Common Threads) or alone at songwriters rounds.

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This performance was somewhere in-between, with O’Neill on vocals and keyboard, and The Common Threads’ Tom Smith on guitar.

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The set alternated between upbeat songs like Now that You’re Mine and tender tearjerkers such as Half of Myself. they ended with a cheeky cover of Maren Morris’ My Church. O’Neill’s pure voice was more than powerful enough for The Borderline’s stage. Here’s the excellent song London City Ghosts, with the cheeky chord at the end.

Hopefully it’s not too long before she’s back there, headlining with a full band (and full light show)!

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Check out O’Neill’s website to learn more. Don’t miss her EP, Stories To Tell (here’s my track-by-track review) and, if you’re in London, don’t miss her at The Green Note on January 21, 2018. 

“Just remember the one that made you sad that night”
Sam Wickens kicked off the night with Send Me, followed by Oh Mother. His style was distinctive, combining choppy guitar with a falsetto growl.

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The overall sound was mesmerising. Tattoos and an annotated guitar completed the package.

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Sonia Leigh couldn’t wait until her own set to thank Wickens profusely. She stormed the stage to say “you break my heart, bro, you’re so great.” It”s worth listening when good artists praise others. They know.

Visit Wickens’ website for information and to check out his EP, Send Me. 

Like what you see? There are more photos of the show over on Flickr. Please follow me there, and here:

Twitter: @redrospective
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Want more photos? Try my travel, nature and street photography website, Out To The Streets!

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