GIG REVIEW: Ashley McBryde, Live At The Islington Assembly Hall

Credit: Gus Stewart

Two quotes from Ashley McBryde sum up perfectly her sell-out solo headline show in London. “This is my show” as she announced soon after taking the stage, and the other comes from her interview on BBC Breakfast earlier in the week when, before her first visit to the UK in March, she was told to “get ready, they all know your songs”.

McBryde has been over here supporting Luke Combs. Such was the huge demand for tickets that this, her only solo show, had to be rebooked to a much larger venue. Clearly the rapture for McBryde’s UK debut at this year’s C2C has not been forgotten.

2018 has been McBryde’s big year. At last she is reaping the rewards of ten years’ hard slog. Having signed a deal with Warner she released Girl Going Nowhere earlier this year since when she’s done exactly the opposite.

Unsurprisingly, McBryde’s support sets were quite rushed, though very well-received, as she ripped through as many songs as she could in the limited time. As she also pronounced tonight, “we have all the time in the world’. Not only did that allow a lot more of her music, it gave her the opportunity to talk to her audience. Her between-song chat revealed charm, modesty, humour and a deep appreciation of her musical roots. With her band McBryde is still country but with a strong rock foundation. Performing acoustically on her own, she was able to display her country talents and heritage to the full. There were references to the great names and at a time of mass commercialism in country music, McBryde proved she is a direct descendent of the finest.

The sparsely equipped stage, with a single mic stand bathed in a deep blue light had an almost symbolic look. With a brief wave McBryde took that stand then filled the hall with the opening lines of ‘Rattlesnake Preacher’. “There ain’t enough water in the river to wash away my dirty deeds”. Fiercely strumming her guitar, McBryde took north London to south Alabama with what sounded almost like field hollering.

With her own show McBryde had time to introduce her songs to give a fascinating insight into her life. As the title suggests, ’Radioland’, predates the internet age. Where McBryde grew up there were two radio stations within tuning distance. Humming their respective jingles she explained their impact on her family, running off all the artists the first heard over their airwaves. The song also shows not only her love of the music but also her dad’s. What an image she conjures with, “daddy was a rock star riding on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt”.

That love and respect was a recurring theme of her set. “When I was 15 I got a disc called ‘Dublin Blues’” was how McBryde introduced Guy Clark’s ‘Stuff That Works’. Her sensitive interpretation went further than just “cover” showed as she took this stuff to her heart. Likewise John Prine with his ‘That’s The Way The World Goes Round’. Saluting other artists McBryde stamped her mark on Margaret Durante’s ‘Whiskey and a Gun’  and ‘Good Country People’ by Travis Meadows.

But it was her own songs that got the loudest cheers, particularly those from the new album. Not only was the applause raucous but during several the audience participation reached such a level that McBryde withdrew from the mic to let her fans take over. Word perfect and in good tune, they belted out ‘Andy (I can’t live without you)’, ‘Fat and Famous’, ‘A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega’ and of course, ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’. Not bad for her second time in the UK . Whoever told her “they know your songs” advised well.

And don’t forget, this wasn’t the reaction of an audience whipped into a frenzy by a band, but purely the response to lyrics performed with a deep sincerity. It wasn’t so much showbiz but the product of years on the road. McBryde knows how to connect with her audience.

McBryde also puts country music into a very modern context. There’s love, heartbreak and broken lives but via ‘Love for Leroy’ and ‘American Scandal’ she shows a side of American life we may not know or recognise.

Amid all that McBryde has charted her own course from being told by a teacher she would never become a singer to her gratitude at how it has all turned out. She couldn’t have put it better than, ‘Luckiest S.O.B.’ which had followed ‘Amazing Grace’. The only song left had to be ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’.

For a solo acoustic show Ashley McBryde at the Islington Assembly Hall sounded more like a stadium event. By the end it was hard to see who was the most overawed, McBryde or her 800+ audience. She deserved every last bit of applause for one of the best country shows of the year. Next time she will need somewhere a lot bigger.

Lyndon Bolton