REVIEW: Nashville Meets London Festival, Canary Wharf

Now in its second year and hopefully an annual event, ‘Nashville Meets London’ is fast becoming a must-attend festival. The concept is simple and effective. Eight performances shared between UK and US artists who are given the chance to show their huge talent on a summer weekend in the heart of London’s Docklands.

Canada Square Park is surrounded by iconic company locations. The huge buildings that surround the grassy area are the workplaces of some of the UK’s greatest financial institutions. The park is a lunchtime refuge for the many who wish to escape the office environment but also doubles as a weekend and evening recreational hub.

The huge stage and video screens are not exclusively installed for us country fans, they are also put into use at a number of summer events, but thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Canary Wharf Group, funding is provided to enable this event to take place. And, perhaps best of all, it’s a free gig!

It’s a ‘walk in off the street’ affair. Bring the family, sit on the grass and drink your own booze affair. The only uncertainty was the weather but the organisers had even thought about this. Free plastic rain hoods were given out by the security staff. They even spread wood bark on the areas of grass that were becoming swamped in the Saturday downpour. This was a very well organised event.

It was appropriate that the opening act Raintown performed in the heaviest downpour. Not that Claire and Paul were distracted by such trivialities. Their brand of high energy pop country was the perfect way to start a music festival. They know how to structure a set to get the maximum effect. They are veterans of C2C and are welcome fixtures on the UK country music scene. The generous time allowance and the budget enabled them to perform a full set with their full band and this was the way to hear Raintown. The diehards may have been huddled under umbrellas and rain macs but they certainly shared the love for the band who also impressed the watching US visitors.

Whilst we see this event as a valuable experience for our local bands, the Nashville delegation were also keen to show their artists off to a UK audience. They had sent across a media company who were live streaming interviews back to the US. The press and media team were all Nashville-based and they were keen to showcase the event back home. The organisation was first class and we were hugely impressed at the facilities offered to the bands and their support staff. The festival felt ‘important’ and we are sure that this will be a hot invite for anyone who is asked to play next year.

The first three acts on Saturday were UK-based. Wildwood Kin, who had supported Ward Thomas this year, performed songs from their forthcoming ‘Turning Tides’ album that will be released in a couple of weeks. They were also showcasing the EPs that were featured and appreciated by Radio 2. Beth, Emillie and Meghann were a perfect contrast to Raintown and demonstrated just why the festival organisers trusted Baylen Leonard with the artist rosters. Great exposure for the girls who were fine ambassadors for the diversity of UK country music.

Kevin McGuire is someone who we have championed here at YLIAS for a few years now. He’s the closest that we have to the urban ‘Sam Hunt’ branch of country music that dominates the US country charts. Kevin needs a break that a hit single would provide. His music is commercial, catchy and radio-friendly. He is also a top man and we know he was desperately hoping that the Nashville Meets London gig would propel his career forward. He had prepared for months and we were about to see him for the first time with a full band. All seemed well until we discovered that he had woken up on Saturday morning with no voice!

It was hugely touch-and-go but you don’t stop a Glaswegian that easily. Not only did he perform an almost full set but he certainly left his mark on those that had braved the rain showers. It was awesome to hear his music as it should be heard. Full band and a great sound system. He is surely destined for stardom. Oh, and it also stopped raining!

The first US act was Jo Smith, a Shane McAnally protégée in Nashville. Jo had never played on a UK stage before and admitted to us later that she didn’t know what to expect. Her style is perhaps more akin to the Motown and Soul genre than strictly country. Her EP ‘Introducing Jo Smith’ is great listening for those of us from an R&B background and she certainly had the crowd moving with her grooves on Saturday teatime. She has an infectious personality that is impossible not to like and the UK crowd really warmed to her. It’s not easy performing songs that would be completely unknown to the festival crowd but the healthy queue at the merch stall after show tells us how her performance was received. She says that she will be back. Look out for her.

Russell Dickerson is on the brink of being very famous. ‘Yours’ is just gaining traction in the US Country charts despite its age, and his album comes out in October. He headlined on Saturday night and it was clear that many had come along just to see him.

The crowd numbers had swollen by the time he and his band made their appearance and he didn’t disappoint. The tracks from the new album have the instant hooks and commerciality that meant that the crowd were ready to rock. It was probably aided by the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by many that enabled any restraint to quickly fall away. Yes, it got a bit boisterous at the front. Russell loved it and said that it was the best gig he had ever played. He may of course say that every night but the crowd loved him for saying it.

‘Yours’ was left for the encore. We had been treated to his version of  ‘Friends In Low Places’ to conclude his set and there really is no better tune to seal the deal. I suspect that we shall be seeing Russell Dickerson on these shores again sooner rather than later.

Sunday’s weather was kinder. Not perfect, but kinder. Angaleena Presley opened. The Pistol Annies singer has recently released her second album and has a loyal band of fans who were happy to make the early journey into London to support her.

The atmosphere was a little different on Sunday. The dry conditions helped swell the crowd numbers and the ‘industry’ was also there in force. A festival that can open the second day with someone of Angaleena’s status is certainly a festival that is going places. Oh, and did I say that this was all for free?!

‘Wrangled’ is a very fine album and her set drew mainly from it, including the superb ‘Only Blood’ that she has written with Chris Stapleton. She is a regular visitor to the UK and will be returning in October. Class act.

Again, by way of contrast, UK bluegrass group Flats and Sharps were next up. Another act that impressed the US delegation. They couldn’t quite grasp how a band from Cornwall can sound so authentically American. It wasn’t all typical bluegrass. The guys can easily turn to folk and straight-up country. It was great to hear the traditional instruments in the centre of commercial Canary Wharf.

Those of you who had the pleasure of seeing Ashley Campbell at C2C will recall just how impressively she is carrying on the family name and traditions from her ailing father. We will never have the pleasure of seeing Glen perform again buts it’s remarkable how mature and accomplished Ashley now sounds, bearing in mind the fact that she only released her debut single two years ago. She has never released an album but judging by the material that she performed on Sunday afternoon, one can’t be far away.

Her set was hugely entertaining but spoilt a little by the unwelcome rain shower that sent a few packing and many reaching for umbrellas. It didn’t last very long but seemed to kill the atmosphere just as she was beginning covers of her Dad’s greatest hits. ‘Witchita Lineman’ still sounded awesome no matter what the heavens decided to throw at it.

Almost done, two acts to go. Sam Outlaw has done more than almost any US artist to ‘break through’ in the UK. We saw and interviewed Sam in a broom cupboard that was doubling as his dressing room when he toured as a support to Aaron Watson at the Glee Club almost two years ago. He had just released ‘Angeleno’ and was awesome.

We have seen him a few times since. Sam has played his fair share of flea pits. He would play to 50 people and we would all go home shaking our heads thinking ‘why don’t people support this guy’. We first saw him with a band earlier this year in London and that was a bucket list moment. This time, he was with his US band plus Molly Jenson who has as many air miles as Sam, and has been his co-performer on numerous occasions. They make a pretty formidable team.

Bob Harris is on his case. Bob’s stated record of the year is ‘Tenderheart’. We now hear that Sam’s venues on his current UK tour are being upgraded due to demand. Those who were at Canada Square Park will hopefully see why we have been banging the drum for Sam Outlaw. He is funny, engaging and writes superb songs. He also knows how to put on a show. He didn’t perform ‘Angeleno’  which was a surprise, considering that it’s a fan favourite and people were shouting out for it, but we did have an hour of superb country music and his queue at the merch stand was the biggest I saw all weekend.

We are convinced that Sam Outlaw will be a star. Catch him soon before the hype really starts.

Closing out the event was Britain’s own Nashville export Lucie Silvas. Her roots were not strictly country. She worked with pop artists in her early years in the music industry and has drifted towards country since marrying John Osborne and relocating to Nashville. It’s a natural progression for her and she was a bona fide addition to Nashville Meets London’s line up.

She now mixes in the country circuit and writes with Miranda Lambert and Natalie Hemby. ‘Smoking Jacket’ was a massive highlight, as was ‘Letters To Ghosts’. She also delivered an amazing cover of hubby John’s ‘Smoke’ which went down a storm. A great finish to an awesome weekend.

We are so fortunate that we can attend a free festival featuring such stellar talent. It’s an arrangement that works well both ways. The Nashville guys are on board. Their artists are getting exposure in the UK, and our guys may just have doors opened for them in the capital of country music.

We also have a great weekend to add to the musical calendar. Let’s hope the weather is a little kinder next year.

Graham Wharton