REVIEW: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – Live At C2C 2017, London

Let’s be honest. How many of you were thrilled when the final arena act was announced last autumn for this year’s C2C? Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives seemed an odd choice for second billing. He hadn’t toured the UK in the recent past. His profile was small, even amongst the die-hards here in the UK and his hits in the US had dried up in the 90’s. ‘The Marty Stuart Show’ was an institution in Nashville but ceased in 2014.

There is always a ‘legend’ slotted into the bill. Last year it was Dwight Yoakam and in previous years we have been royally entertained by Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack and Vince Gill. Marty Stuart is hugely qualified in the ‘legend’ category. He is a member of the board of the Country Music Foundation and has been a member of The Grand Ole Opry since 1992. In Nashville, there won’t be too many who remain oblivious to his career and talent.

However, he wouldn’t have sold too many tickets here in the UK. There are those who attend at C2C every day, book their seats as soon as they go on sale and then await the line up. There are others who book individual days based on the acts that they wanted to see. It would be interesting to know how many were at C2C on Sunday solely because Marty was on the bill. Inevitably therefore, his appearance was somewhat akin to a huge X Factor audition. Instead of receiving the thumbs up from the 4 members of the panel, Marty Stuart had to win over 18,000+ people in the O2 arena.

Now we are not talking Roman Colosseum here. Emperor Titus was not likely to give a thumbs down. Sandman Sims wasn’t going to sweep Marty off the stage, but filling the last but one slot and effectively opening for the Zac Brown Band is a pretty daunting prospect. If you were there last Sunday, you will know where this is going.

The band walked on stage to polite applause. Us Brits are pretty good at polite applause. ‘Let’s get through this and we can then enjoy Zac’ polite applause. I had the advantage that most didn’t. I had heard his new ‘Way Out West’ album and had been blown away by the video for the title track. We had interviewed Marty pre-show and knew a little of his interests and talents. I was optimistic that Marty and the guys could pull this off.

He started with the up-beat ‘I Know You Rider’ which introduced the masses to that glorious Fender Telecaster guitar. A track from the new album followed, ‘Whole Lotta Highway’, Marty’s tribute to the US truckers. The applause remained ‘polite’. It started to build when The Fabulous Superlatives were introduced.

‘Cousin Kenny’ Vaughan on lead guitar. ‘Handsome Harry’ Stinson on drums and newest member ‘The Professor’ Chris Scruggs on bass. These guys can play. They were also the coolest cats in the docklands. Marty’s invitation to “put the camera on him” when Cousin Kenny was introduced felt like the beginning of the thaw. Whatever indifference that the masses in the arena felt towards Marty Stuart was evaporating fast.

The challenge of winning over a new crowd was not going to faze these guys. They knew their way around this stage and were able to rely upon their immense talent and professionalism. However, it takes more than that to ‘light the spark’. Whether it was Marty’s humour or the sheer unexpectedness, it certainly felt like this was a special place to be last Sunday night. The band gathered round Marty for close harmonies with the new song ‘Old Mexico’ and Marty Robbins classic ‘El Paso’ impressing the crowd. Handsome Harry sang Woody Guthrie’s bluegrass gem ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, including that long note on “Oklahoma” that was so good that band leader Marty demanded be sang again!

‘Old Souls Like You and Me’ featured a great vocal performance from Scruggs and throughout the show Stuart switched between his trademark Fender and mandolin. Towards the end of the show, the band left the stage leaving Marty alone with said mandolin which began displaying tech issues. Marty dealt with this in his usual laconic yet witty style. “There’s 18,000 people here – I deserve a new lead”.

A quick change of set list followed and it meant that we had the chance to hear a superb version of self-penned ‘Dark Bird’, his tribute to his great friend Johnny Cash, but not before we heard Marty’s spoken tribute to a man who he lived next door to, played in his band and married his daughter. By this stage, the C2C audience were held in the palm of his hand.

The band returned for ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and ‘Time Don’t Wait’, another track from the new album. I don’t suspect that very many had heard this song before but a few thousand were singing along. A very special hour of stunning country music had passed.

Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives were simply awesome. Probably one of my favourite C2C sets ever…period. They were smooth, cool, funny and hugely engaging. I heard a quote post-show that they had given 20,000 people a lesson in country music which certainly wouldn’t be far from the truth. It was absolutely fascinating to see the reaction that the guys got when they left the stage. The arena can be a daunting place when it doesn’t go quite right but it can be a very special place when it does. He didn’t perform ‘Way Out West’ which was my only disappointment. It’s a great song.

We will be looking out for Marty’s return to these shores and I anticipate that a fair few from last week’s performance will also want a repeat. He hugely added to a very special Sunday at London C2C 2017.

Graham Wharton

Set List:
I Know You Rider
Whole Lotta Highway
Country Boy Rock and Roll
The Whiskey Ain’t Working
Mojave
Tempted
Old Mexico
Country Music Got A Hold On Me
Hot Like That
El Paso
Old Souls Like You And Me
Pretty Boy Floyd
Dark Bird
Orange Blossom Special
Time Don’t Wait