Country to Country Fest Features Emmylou Harris and Margo Price at London’s O2
Having tasted the delights of the peripheral venues it was time for the main arena events of my day at Country to Country, the UK’s largest country music festival at London’s O2. The main arena is not a place to share intimate thoughts, it’s a place to put on a multisensory show, something many do to great effect. That’s not to say artists don’t bond with their audiences, far from it; they just do it in what feels like a giant group hug with the volume turned up as far as it will go. It would be fascinating to see how two very different country artists would come across.
Resplendent in white suit with matching stetson, Margo Price made an immediate impact as she joined her band on stage swinging straight into “Don’t Say It,” the first song of last year’s highly acclaimed release All American Made. Price may have struggled for a long time to make it but she certainly looked very much at home on the big stage. Her welcome was warm and it was soon clear she wasn’t playing to strangers. Much of her set featured the new album: “Do Right By Me” came next, after which Price noted the contrast between this stardom and her first UK performance in the basement of a London pub (The Slaughtered Lamb, and a very fine venue too). This recently acquired popularity was a theme of her earlier press conference when she elaborated how fame hasn’t and won’t change her music.
That grounded feel solidified as the set progressed. In “Tennessee Song” from her first album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Price took us back to her roots. Even so soon, what particularly struck me was Price’s ease with the venue, her band, and the audience. She certainly created a bond, we could have been back in the pub.
A highlight of All American Made was Price’s duet with Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose.” The song was equally a highlight in this set, not with Willie but his son, Lukas. The song is perfect country and it’s just so reassuring seeing the next generation take over the mantle. “Paper Cowboy” acted as a screen for a costume change. The build up to an immaculate pedal steel solo gave Price enough time to swap Stetson and suit for a sparkly dress.
Lukas Nelson returned to help out with “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” which turned the arena into a giant bar room. Her finale was perhaps a surprising choice. “Proud Mary” is a great song that Price covered well, but mightn’t one of her own songs have been a more fitting finale to a country festival set? Or was that her point? Anyway, Margo Price went down a storm and is a firm favourite of the C2C crowd.
Emmylou Harris has made such an enormous contribution to country music, from her first Grammy in 1976 to her induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The O2 generally gave her a warm welcome but perhaps those around me were after something more upbeat as their attention did seem to wander during a set containing so much country and bluegrass heritage. That was a shame, particularly when Harris expressed her gratitude to the UK audiences who believed in her way back on her first visit over here in 1975.
“Here I Am” was a well-chosen opener. Harris blended her soaring voice with the subtleties of her superb band, the Red Dirt Boys, into a swirl that reached all corners of that vast hangar. “Orphan Girl,” from the groundbreaking Wrecking Ball album, came next. The pace had dropped but it’s just such an entrancing song, almost a hymn. “Making Believe” and “Red Dirt Girl” are Emmylou classics, but, again, maybe a bit too reflective for this audience. “Luxury Liner” perked things up and gave Will Kimbrough a chance to show his chops.
More gems in the form of “Pancho and Lefty” and “Michelangelo” followed, then a salute to bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe with “Green Pastures” and “Get Up John.” These should have been revered but again, not so much by those around me. Let’s have more beer. A great favorite of mine, “Shores of White Sand,” continued the thoughtful theme. With “The Pearl” then “Boulder to Birmingham,” Harris brought this masterful sweep of her work to a close. She made light of her years, “grey is the only way,” her voice is as beguiling as ever and in the Red Dirt Boys she still surrounds herself with the finest musicians. I look forward to the next time, but perhaps at somewhere smaller.
Both Price and Harris gave memerable performances. Price showed the vigor of one just beginning to make a big impression. Harris confirmed through a gentler, more sensitive set she remains country royalty. There were notable performances on the peripheral stages too; in particular, Ashley Campbell, LANco, and Lost Hollow but as someone said to me C2C is now as much about the “experience” as it is music. Next time I’ll wear a hat.