No-one can complain at this years Country Music Week not being varied enough, tonight alone sent us off in a myriad of different directions as the genre was shown to be a pretty broad church
Lisa McHugh started things off, the Irish based, Scottish singer making a rare London appearance. With a range of songs showing a country sensibility she got the evening of in a somewhat conventional style. With songs like "That Was Then This Is Now", she performed while selling the songs with her hand movements to a catchy chorus.
Knowing her audience, a well chosen cover of Shania Twains "You're Still The One" got the Bush Hall crowd successfully joining in. Coping well with a somewhat rowdy crowd, and with only an acoustic guitarist as backing she provided a well received set. Closing on her single "Country Mile" with it's snappy singalong chorus and "Watch Me" this proved a good start to the evening
As the stage was being set for Willie Jones, it seemed as if he would be having an MC scratching records as his backing band, but that would have been so 20th Century!! - in the end DJ Fat Boy, Willies corpulent sidekick and cheerleader was able to generate a large amount of the backing off his Mac! That is of course is not forgetting Willie's acoustic guitarist, who for a lot of the evening was pretty much drowned out but was still playing his part. If all this preamble seems like an odd introduction then it is only because i'm not sure CMW has ever seen anything quite like it and after all it is only the natural, that if the likes of Walker Hayes, FGL and the rest want to infuse their country with rap why would the same process not work in reverse. It's a gross over simplification but the result is Willie Jones's live show combining a rap performance but with country sensibilities, so songs about home and family just with a lot less swearing!
In truth anyone who had done a little pre show research on Willie might have have been a little surprised at quite how booming his performance was, songs like "Runs In Your Blood" probably shook Bush Hall to its foundations. It certainly got the crowd swaying from the start and it was tremendous fun and at least had a bit of authenticity about it which is achingly lacking when other acts have attempted this sort of crossover. Willie himself was an engaging figure, as he strolled the stage holding the mic and songs like "Windows Down" or "Motel" kept the party moving and atmosphere high. Just to really mix things up and to confuse all the "this isn't country" foik, DJ Fat Boy left the stage and Willie with his guitarist did a tender ballad "Lead Me Back Home" which would easily have graced the stage at any Songwriters round and proved Willie was as much a singer as he was a rapper. It was soon time to ramp up the atmosphere once again, and "Whole Lotta Love" and "Bachelorettes On Broadway" closed out the set in some style. A very impressive London debut - from someone I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of in the run up to C2C.
In it's own way Michael Ray's performance was equally unusual, there have only been a few occasions I can remember where the artist gets a huge extended round of applause before they even start but this was one. Only having a guitarist for company meant that this was going to be a stripped back affair and Michael used that to has advantage in a show that took him back to his roots, where the fourth wall did not exist and the rapport with the audience was more like a conversation at times to the point that the show was sidelined temporarily while the merits of how to spell colour or where to take Spring Break were discussed.
This was building on his C2C performance from earlier in the year and was not so much a show as a review of his life and career to date starting with his first single. If he was in any doubt as to his popularity, it was soon answered by the crowd joining in on "Kiss You In the Morning" from the opening bars. Each song was greeted with a lengthy introduction giving some context as to how it came to be written or the mood that it was trying to convey, and no areas seemed to be off limits.
He also did seem truly touched, and at times a little overwhelmed at the reception that the Bush Hall crowd afforded him.
Songs like "Girl From Spring Break" seemed to gain a new level of gravitas when played in this setting, away from its more polished production, with Michael's delivery able to convey a lot more feeling. It was a similar story for "Get To You", the first single from the "Amos" album, although this came complete with the Bush Hall audience choir which Michael was keen to let take the lead. On completion it received an extended round of applause, that all but moved him to tears "I don't know how to take this all in" he said in a somewhat cracked voice.
There was time for a song he had written with John Rich of Big & Rich, "Run Away With You", which he finished with a quick sip of red wine which the UK crowd then immediately requested for him to "Down in one!" which he duly obliged. There was a touching intro to "Dancing Forever", which was played gently and seemed to hush the hall for a bit. The introduction to "Her World Or Mine" explained how the video to the song reflected his parents divorce, abusive relationships and the loss of a grand parent and he had sought to make it authentic and to show his story. He followed with a storming version, ably assisted by the Bush Hall choir. Such was the applause, at the end that they went for a final recap of the chorus which hilariously the guitarist could then not initially remember.
There was time for 2 closing songs, "Think A Little Less" and "One That Got Away " which naturally were a massive singalong. In a rarity for Bush Hall the show did not finish until about 11:10, and the normally over keen Security team were quite happy to let Michael stay for an lengthy meet and greet which finished off the night on a high