REVIEW: The Long Road Festival 2018

Credit: Sally Rea Morris

The Long Road Festival – A huge boost to our early Autumn schedule. There’s a new expression ‘The Long Road blues’ – defined as a state of mood in the days following a weekend of music in the Leicestershire countryside.

We are sure that the return to work this week has been tough for the folks who spent all or part of the last 3 days at an event that began as a pipe dream for Baylen Leonard, but will now hopefully become a regular early Autumn fixture on our country music calendars.

We chatted with Baylen in the Spring. He had big plans for Long Road. It seemed hugely optimistic. He talked of attracting huge US stars to a stately home in the Midlands and absolutely believed that it was a project that could make a huge impact, and also organically grow into something very special. Any scepticism we had was always tempered with respect we have for the guy who made these bold promises.

The early artist announcements were very positive. Lee Ann Womack, Aaron Watson, The Shires, Ward Thomas, Billy Bragg and many others. Suddenly this really seemed to be very interesting. And then the really big news – Carrie Underwood was now the headline act. A bona fide country megastar was heading our way

We all know that this didn’t actually happen. Through no fault of anyone. Not the best news for a fledgling festival to lose the main act three days before the show starts. The Carrie fans were gutted – many had bought day tickets solely to see her. Some admitted that they knew no one else on the bill. It was too late to bring in a replacement. Adjustments had to be made and Aaron Watson was suddenly the Saturday headline act. More on that later.

No pressure. But, as the saying goes – “You only have one opportunity to make a first impression”.

Walking from the camp sites with the imposing view of the Rhinestone Stage in front of Stanford Hall was just the beginning. The Front Porch stage and the Honky Tonk Bar had us nodding in appreciation and the attention to detail was testament to Baylen’s vision of a traditional Tennessee music festival.

The Front Porch was undoubtedly the best outdoor stage I have ever seen. Period. Did anyone notice the fake moss on the roof? The smoke coming out of the chimney? The curtains on the sash windows that hid the sound guys doing their work? How many actually thought that this was a building that was part of the estate? I’d hate to have to be part of the dismantling team.  We need it back next year.

The Honky Tonk bar was lower Broadway in all but location. Charlie Worsham commented that the only thing it was missing was the smells of Nashville when you walked out of the door which aren’t necessarily pleasant!

The Long Road advertised itself as a festival of Country Americana and Roots. The line-up reflected this. Everyone’s tastes were adequately catered for. Pedal steel, fiddles and banjos for the traditionalists. At the other end of the spectrum, the pop country fans had much to enjoy.

The downside of music festivals is often the overlap that occurs with multiple stages. This was mitigated by some acts appearing more than once where possible. Memories are made when a new act is discovered for the first time. For me it was an absolute pleasure to see Dori Freeman and Joshua Hedley in the UK, having listened extensively to their albums. I’m guessing that there will be a few country fans who have added a few new names to their playlists.

I’m also guessing that Mr Aaron Watson might have added a few new additions to his fan club. If you follow our output on this site. you will probably know that we are biased when referring to Aaron Watson.  We saw him by chance in California about 4 years ago. At the time, we went to see Cam who was supporting him and we didn’t know much of his music. He basically blew us away. We then saw him at the Glee Club in Birmingham with Sam Outlaw supporting. There were about 25 in the crowd, but he treated it like a stadium show.

We spent a sizeable part of an afternoon with him on his tour bus in Colorado two months ago and we knew that he was looking forward to his Long Road appearance. It was a huge gig for him to show his talents to a larger audience. Carrie’s illness meant that his show was extended and he was now top of the bill. On Saturday he told us that he was happy to appear anywhere on the bill as every artist was equal in his eyes. Typical Aaron.

We knew he would smash it on Saturday night and he did. Every country festival needs a cowboy and they don’t come much bigger and better than Aaron Watson. We at YLIAS were in tears at the end. I heard a few committed Carrie fans saying that they had really enjoyed his set and they were glad that they had decided to come and see him. Hopefully this will launch his UK career to new levels.

One of the perennial problems with weekend festivals is the lack of numbers on Sundays. The big headliner on Saturday will attract the day visitors but they disappear after the show and Sundays then feel a little flat. The Long Road wasn’t completely exempt. They will have to address this in future years. The contrast between Saturday and Sunday was marked, particularly around the non-musical areas such as the fairground and Lil Possum County. The traders in this area had a lean day on Sunday.

On Saturday we saw at least 100 people collectively learning to barn dance. The vision and planning that had gone into the staging of the festival was second to none. They literally had thought of everything.

Were there areas that could be improved?  Yes, of course. This was the first run of an event that we hope will be a permanent fixture, so they will no doubt look back and analyze the parts that worked and those that didn’t.

By way of a debrief I have listed some of the comments that we heard from others. Some from our own experiences and some of the social media views, which I have to say are universally positive.

We camped in the general camping area for two nights.

Areas for improvement:

  • 4 portable showers cannot cater for a large field of campers. The queue for those 4 showers was building at about 8am onwards and at one stage was at least a dozen deep. The average time for a shower is about 10-15 minutes so the wait can become considerable, and if in future the weather is inclement, extremely unpleasant. I know it’s better than Glastonbury but nobody would want to queue 30 minutes for a shower in an open field in the rain.
  • The Interstate Stage. It was located in a tent that was too small. Whilst it looks good on promotional photographs to see a full crowd, it’s not good for the punters, many of whom were elderly. A Lee Ann Womack fan is more likely to be a senior fan who are not usually keen to stand for 1.5 hours in a crowd. I heard and saw many complaining that they couldn’t even see her.
  • The VIP area. Pay more but see less seemed to be the gist of the comments that I heard. It was located to the side of the main stage. It had exclusive facilities, but the view was inferior. There was ample opportunity to plant your chairs and view the show, but you would have needed powerful glasses to see the performers in any great detail. There will be problems selling this concept next year unless it changes.
  • Friday night alcohol sales. On Saturday, the large bar that serviced the main stage opened. On Friday, that bar was closed, leaving the sole point of sales at the Honky Tonk bar. The wait to be served was horrendous and late on became unpleasant. It was less of a problem on Saturday when the large bar opened.
  • Prices. Contentious, I know. For you South East guys, £5.50 a pint might be the norm. The O2 charge this amount but a field in Leicestershire isn’t the O2. The pricing in comparison to Buckle & Boots, for example, seemed a little steep.

But let’s finish with the positives! This was a superb weekend of music and entertainment. The sound quality was absolutely awesome on every single stage. Baylen and his team did us proud. We know that this event will grow from a position of huge strength. Everyone we spoke to had predominately good words to say. The artists were very impressed with the organization and planning.

The chance to meet up with old friends in the country family was awesome and we loved the venue. We had discussions about the possible identity of artists that may be attracted to the event in future years, and we can easily see this becoming an event that could rival C2C in terms of commercial appeal to punters and performers alike. They will all want to be a part of this.

There really is nowhere else you should be spending a weekend in early September from now on.

Graham Wharton