When a new Country festival gets announced in the UK there are mixed reactions, of course you have the initial excitement from many fans alongside the doubts of what kind of artists a new venture can attract, which of course leads to the UK/US Country argument. However when you hear that Mr Baylen Leonard is involved with the planning and organisation of the event, you know you’re in for a great time with a stellar line up! And Baylen didn’t let us down, drawing acts like Lee Ann Womack, Aaron Watson and Danielle Bradbery not to mention Carrie Underwood and despite her being ill and unable to appear, the very fact she took a chance on a new festival says a lot about the reputation of it’s organisers. And for those rooting for homegrown talent, not only did they dominate the Front Porch Stage, they pretty much had a whole day to themselves as well. Two out of three of the headliners were also British. And so with a great mix of talent from both sides of the pond it was set to be a great weekend of live Country music.
Walking around the site you could feel the vibe around each stage; the honky tonk stage was designed aesthetically well looking like lower broadway in Nashville on the outside and on the inside with it’s neon lights and American flags (I’ve never seen a tent look less like a tent than that place) and although the lighting didn’t help us photographers, you lost yourself in the atmosphere and it was a cool place to hang out in even when there was a break in the music. Whereas over on the Front Porch which was designed like a log cabin with of course a front porch there was a more chilled out vibe as Bob Harris presented the BBC Introducing artists. With hay bales as seats and smoke rising from the chimney it was the perfect and authentic setting for these rising stars. The Rhinestone stage - the main stage was your typical festival setting. The Interstate Stage unfortunately was the odd one out as the calibre of artists in there meant a large crowd often was drawn to there but it was too small but that is my only grumble about the Weekend.
My day started off with interviews in the press room (so stay tuned for them!) and when I ventured out I managed to catch Angaleena Presley at the Interstate stage, the crowd was already overflowing out of the tent as Angaleena not only entertained with song but with her amusing anecdotes and stories. She played a mixture of songs from her solo albums, she played a fantastic set and despite the large baby bump she still managed to play guitar and sing her heart out. It wasn’t the last chance we had to see her though as she took to the Honky Tonk stage on Sunday, though again, it was hard to get anywhere near! Following Angaleena’s set I headed over and caught a bit of Laura Oakes on the Rhinestone Stage, she has a brilliant voice and as the rain was just about holding off, many had gathered around to see the Liverpudlian and I was delighted to hang around for a while as she played one of my favourites of hers Nashville Stole Your Girl.
One of the highlights for me on Saturday was seeing Logan Brill again. She really impressed me last year at the C2C launch event in London where we caught up with her and chatted about her music. Lyrically I think her songs are fantastic, it is of course the basis of Country music, that storytelling craft but Logan achieves this so well and I think she is often another one of those great female artists that is overlooked by the industry. On Saturday she came out in a Gold shiny jacket and she owned the stage and won the Long Road crowd over. Logan was followed by one of my favourite duos Striking Matches as they ramped up the crowd with their energetic performance. I spoke to a few people before hand who knew Striking Matches but hadn’t seen them live in a year or two and I watched as their jaws dropped! They opened with Retrograde a song that allows both Sarah and Justin to bounce off each other demonstrating their strongest techniques on guitar. They of course played a number of songs that they had featured in the TV show Nashville including Hanging On A Lie and When The Right One Comes Along.
Then I had to split my time wisely between Danielle Bradbery and Lee Ann Womack. I managed to catch the first three songs of Danielle’s before dashing across to catch some of Lee Ann’s set on the Interstate stage. Danielle did a fantastic job on the Main Stage from what I saw and from the buzz I heard about her from other audience members throughout the weekend. The 2013 winner of the voice US played her Singles and threw in some well thought out covers including a Carrie Underwood song which some may have thought would fan the flames but in fact worked more like a nice warm blanket on a cold night (basically it cheered the crowd up a bit!). Meanwhile Lee Ann Womack stepped out on stage and asked the crowd if they were ready to hear some real Country music! She was one of my highlights of the weekend despite the fact she had the lyrics up in front of her, and this didn’t seem to bother the rest of the crowd either as not only was the tent packed the field all around it seemed to be too with everyone leaning in to try and hear her. Along with songs from her latest record she played fan favourites including the grammy nominated Last Call and A Little Past Little Rock she also sang her debut single Never Again, Again and of course the highlight of the set I Hope You Dance which was a wonderful moment where everyone there seemed to sing every word. However I think it was an oversight to have her on that stage, she deserved to be on the Main Stage!
Then it was time for headliner Aaron Watson who had stepped up to the plate after Carrie had pulled out due to illness. I could understand some peoples doubts before hand about Aaron’s ability to headline but I also knew how much energy and passion he channelled into his performances and was confident he’d get people in the party mood in a Texas Country way! He didn’t disappoint as he came on stage and instantly jumped into foot stomping songs such as Freight Train and That Look. He had some more tender moments too such as when he dedicated Raise Your Bottle to service men and women past and present and he made sure the kids were taken care of, asking right near the start of the show if one little cowboy could see ok and later on when he invited some children up on stage with him. All in all, Aaron Watson was the real deal, the perfect act to close a talent filled Saturday at the first ever Long Road Festival.
Sunday was another busy day for me, dashing between interviews and photo pits but I did get to see some great sets, mostly from the Americans although my day did start watching the Irish born, Manchester based Gary Quinn on the front Porch stage. I enjoyed watching Sarah Jory play pedal steel in his band as well! In between interviews I managed to catch the tail end of Danni Nicholls set, a large crowd had gathered although I think some had come early for Ashley Campbell judging by the surge forward at the end of Danni’s set when some got up to grab a drink! She set the mood up well though as she threw in Jolene towards the end of her set. Ashley Campbell then ventured out with fiddle player Eli and guitarist Si. The trio went down a treat as myself along with many others sang along to nearly every song. She played a lot from her debut album released in March including a favourite of mine Better Boyfriend and the title track The Lonely One.
That wouldn’t be the last we saw of Ashley that day as she was the penultimate act on the main stage, but lets keep things chronological! On a number of occasions when seeing the likes of The Shires and Striking Matches another duo/band has cropped up on our radar - John and Jacob and after what seems like forever, they were back in the UK under their new guise The Brummies. The band have changed quite a bit since I last saw them their music seems to have gotten a little heavier although they have a similar set up the way one of the lads whips out a trumpet mid song before going back to singing and strumming the guitar. The band also had a song featured in the show Nashville called Be My Girl. They were followed by Una Healy and I took this opportunity to sample the festival food and take a pew to listen to her set. She has a strong voice undeniably as she showed off her solo material along with a song from The Saturdays the girl group she was previously a part of. She also played a couple of good covers such as Brett Young’s In Case You Didn’t Know.
Charlie Worsham followed Una Healy. I have always loved Charlie as has a lot of the British audience after he charmed fans at C2C a few years ago and continues to make trips across the pond frequently. This was the first time visiting with a full band though and he rocked it, he played a couple of my favourites including Please People Please and Lawn Chair Don’t Care which went down a storm with the Long Road fans. With the full band in place Charlie had the opportunity to show in full his guitar skills as he went off on wild solos. He was followed by Ashley Campbell who casually told bad banjo jokes from the stage which we all found hilarious anyway! She spoke fondly of her father at various points throughout the set and nearly had us in tears as she played songs like Remembering which she wrote for her Dad and classic’s that Glen used to sing like Gentle On My Mind and Wichita Lineman. She showed off her banjo skills on Cal and Ashley’s breakdown an instrumental tune which can be found on her album and you could hear the comedy that she used to practice shine through in songs like Better Boyfriend and Looks Like Time. I’ve seen Ashley play a few times this year and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing her play!
The final day was drawing to a close and we all began to reflect on what a fabulous weekend it had been as the last few rounds were bought and pictures taken. The headlining act on Sunday had already played one show in Hyde Park in London and had dashed up to close out the Long Road and that was The Shires. The duo had their own stage set up with their name up in neon lights and colourful light boxes on the stage. They started as they meant to go on with lots of energy! They played songs such as Beats To Your Rhythm, State Lines and Guilty. The more The Shires progress their songs seem to be getting bigger and bigger and this last record really seems to suit the festival setting with big chorus’ and lots of opportunities for audience participation like in All Over Again and Friday Night. The latter song got me to thinking “have I ever actually seen The Shires perform on a Friday night?” I don’t think I have! It was the perfect way to close the first Long Road Festival with the UKs most successful Country act. We can’t wait to do it all over again next year and stay tuned for all our photos and interviews!