September 13, 2019
Winter Gardens, Blackpool
It was quite a weekend for holidaymakers in Blackpool. As well as the usual attractions like Blackpool Tower, the Pleasure Beach theme park, the Sandcastle water park or a walk along the prom, the Illuminations were on and there was even an international fireworks festival.
For one set of visitors, though, there was just one attraction (gentle) on their minds: the inaugural British Country Music Festival.
The name wasn’t just about the festival’s location; it told you everything you need to know about the music on offer. Other than Sarah Darling, the acts playing were resolutely British.
“We’re going to do some classics from Pilot”
Emma Moore was not only British but also local to Blackpool, so a perfect musician to kick off proceedings. She clearly came with plenty of fans so didn’t suffer from the early stage time while some festival-goers were still queuing to get in and others finding their bearings.Moore’s strong vocal was more than a match for the deep room as she belted out her songs.
She could also tackle tender, as with her mellow collaboration with bandmate Tom on Waiting For You.
“There’s plenty of room to waltz in here”
The Horseshoe Pavilion was a little further off the beaten track which was a shame as The Long Haul Band were right that the room was, quite literally, designed for dancing. When they weren’t singing about two-step they were playing it, triggering toe-tapping but without the critical mass for spontaneous dancing. Still, as the festival’s house band, there were plenty of opportunities to catch the band, with its cadre of fine Americana players, throughout the weekend.
Emily Lockett had the confidence of a local as she prompted “hands up if you’ve been through a break up. Come on, you aren’t all that perfect!” The festival goers that were safely ensconced in the Gillows bar responded well to her country pop singer-songwriter vibe, especially her meta break-up song.
Fair play to the Winter Gardens and the British Country Music Festival team for having a second stage in the arena at right angles to suitably showcase solo artists while allowing a seamless turnover for the next act on the main stage. Joe Martin’s sincere set kept the crowd captivated. There was silence for his heartfelt story songs like Daddy Gene and Letters of Regret. Live, as on record, there was a Streets of London vibe for the latter.
“I’m taking the hat off so I can headbang a little more”
Molly-Anne exuded charm as she commanded the Gillows Bar. The singer-songwriter sound was pepped up with cajón percussion as she delivered spirited songs about Corona and California.
“You look like a Steve so we’ll go with that”
Well, that’s one way of dealing with forgetting the tech guy’s name. No such problem with Sam Coe and the Long Shadows’ slow-burner Comeback Queen which suddenly exploded into an all-out country rock barnstormer about female empowerment. We stan!
“She’s my music wife”
All credit to Sam Coe from seguing seamlessly from centre stage to behind the keys within a matter of minutes. Her ‘music husband’ Simon James lives down the road from Blackpool, and boy did he ever put on a hell of a hometown show! Down in London we’re more used to seeing him as a solo singer-songwriter (when not asking insightful questions at the Americana Music Association conference). Here, with his full band, the Deep River Pilots, his bluesy rock skills and showmanship really shone through.
The five string bass certainly got a workout throughout the set. The set highlight was the duet between James and Coe, which easily explained why they tour together so often.
Soon it was time for the crowds from each stage to decamp to the world-famous Empress Ballroom for the evening. The huge queue dissipated spectacularly in the stunning space with VIP ticket holders heading to their balcony viewing deck with the other fans chose between fancy tables (complete with American-themed red, white and blue candlesticks!) or the front row. The rest of the dancefloor was left for what it was designed for. Line-dancing and cartwheels probably weren’t what they had in mind in 1896, though!
“I love country songs that are cheeky”
Gary Quinn wasn’t shy in setting the tone of his set by sharing his amorous priorities and preferences. There was Lovely Eyes, “one of my sexy songs” Body Language, and Bumping Into You about sex with an ex. Somehow they were nothing compared to I Love To Watch You Leave which answered any questions about whether he’s a leg, boob or bum fan! His act was as slick as the stars of contemporary U.S. country radio, and he knew how to thrill the crowd with a cover of Garth Brooks’ Friends In Low Places to shut things down.
“Stunning venue, stunning audience”
Danny McMahon was awed and humbled by the response to his energetic set. He talked about his journey into country music, albeit his is heavily fused with modern pop as his songs had self-described simple (read singalongable) choruses with space for synchronised clapping and dancing, and even a touch of beat-boxing in Pushing My Hands Down!”
“Who’s your favourite country singer? What, you mean after George Jones?”
Rob Heron and The Tea Pad Orchestra waltzed away with the lyric of the British Country Music Festival: “the Cumberland where I come from ain’t the same as the Cumberland Gap.”
Despite a knowing dig at the acoustics of the expansive ballroom, the crowd had no problem hearing and dancing. They were probably the most traditional sounding act of the festival – their set even included a late nineteenth century “pre-country” song – so it was great to see them get such a prominent billing for maximum exposure.
“It’s like an auction of my songs, it’s amazing!”
The fact that there were so many requests made during Laura Oakes’ set was testament to her position as a leading light in the homegrown country scene. The crowd sang along to Better In Blue Jeans as if it were a smash hit. She was every inch the star as she sashayed the stage like a live action Jessica Rabbit with a voice every bit as sultry and compelling. It’s always great to see her with her a full band, this time especially as the pedal steel reverberated round the ballroom and the guitarist’s harmonies sounded fantastic. With a litany of strong songs performance like this, there’s no reason that Laura Oakes can’t be this country’s answer to Carrie Underwood performing on the biggest stages. Definitely one to watch.
“I feel halfway British”
Sarah Darling was the token American artist, which makes a change from some country festivals in the UK! She’s no stranger to the scene though, having already enthralled UK fans on previous tours supported by UK country favourites like Twinnie, Liv Austen and Kaity Rae. She proudly proclaimed that she’d seen more of England than her British husband.Still recognising UK talent, she called pedal steel player Joe Harvey-Whyte from Laura Oakes’ band back up to the stage to contribute to several tracks, saying “Joe makes me cry” with his doleful instrument. She was also backed by a keyboardist who looked like he’d come direct from the late ’80s who looked secretly pleased with every chance to add synth to round out the sound, like the dance party tune Call Me. It was hard not to feel bad for him that Darling didn’t play her cover of The Smith’s Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want this time around!Aside from showcasing her angelic voice, Darling gave a masterclass in stagecraft. She worked the space like an absolute pro, giving everyone clamouring at the stage a sense of a personalised experience and their own special moments to remember.It would be easy for naysayers to dismiss the music on offer at this festival for being too pop and ‘not country,’ but genres evolve and the contemporary country scene in the UK, like in the U.S., *is* heavily pop influenced. Still, there’s understanding of and respect for the greats. Darling led the crowd in a singalong to Country Roads.Country Hits Radio presenter Matt Spracklen, who had introduced the main stage acts throughout the night, kept up the sentiment of celebrating the stars of the genre by spinning country hits into the early hours.
Click here for a recap of TBCMF Saturday, including photos and reviews of Ward Thomas, Twinnie, The Adelaides and many more!
For all the action from Sunday featuring coverage of Catherine McGrath, Worry Dolls, Megan O’Neill Jake Morrell and The Fatherline, click here.
The British Country Music Festival 2020 will be back at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens from September 4-6, 2020. Tickets are on sale now.
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