Ben Earle / Catherine McGrath C2C 2023 Launch - Bush Hall
There is a sense of deja vu evey time the C2C Launch annoucement comes around, whatever the year the same things tend to happen. Normally at least one headliner has let slip that they will be coming to the UK or have published tour dates with a C2C sized gap in their schedule. This year a ticket seller had already broken the embargo naming the headliners, somewhat taking the wind out of proceedings. The other thing that normally happens is that the technology normally fails and sure enough Bob Harris's seamless link to Breland was met with muted sound! The final thing that you can count on is that whoever is announced to play it will normally please and outrage C2C attendees in equal measures, depending on whether or not their favourite is coming.
Tonight was more than just an announcement though, there was a live show to be enjoyed. The support slot for the evening was Catherine McGrath taking to the stage in an oversized black denim shirt, white boots, a smile and little else!
It was to be a mixture of old and new from Catherine and her acoustic guitarist sidekick, starting with "Hell Would Have to Freeze Over". There was something of a boisterous atmosphere with people mulling over the earlier events but Catherine did well wrestling attention back to the stage.
There was a new song "Hey Stranger" which came with a punchy chorus
"Your lonely, don't call me, don't text to say that you saw me"
It was back to her established material for "Just In Case" Catherine visibly smiling on the line
"What's the fun in that?". Previewed at C2C earlier in the year "What Do You Wear To A Break Up?" had some nice lines in addressing things to be considered for such an event
Familiar Catherine McGrath fans would be well aware of the back story to "Wild" while the single "Talk Of This Town" closed out her short set. With the promise of a whole batch of new songs to come, written with Ben Earle, it'll be nice to see Catherine in a more suitable listening environment.
Tonight's headliner was Ben Earle not The Shires, although there were plenty of Shire folk to be seen - and they were not taking any prisoners in a rip roaring 70 minute set. As if to reinforce the fact the this definitely was not a Shires show, Laura Oakes who was on stage and could probably have easily been an impressive substitute, was only there as backing vocalist and it must be said some exceptional mandolin playing on the night.
Being the 10th year of C2C and being back at Bush Hall did put Ben in a reflective mood at times and he would surely have been pleased to see many of the faces that were there when he played the same venue with Ward Thomas all those years ago, had stayed with him throughout the journey. It was not all to be reflective though and the new songs being played sounded like a most impressive clutch of new tines.
So with an ecstatic audience containing more than a smattering of UK Americana performers it was time for Ben to put the show into showmanship!!
There was to be no fear of being drowned out by any audience noise, as the big drum intro and the electric guitar chords of "Friday Night" paved the way for his entrance. It was not to be plain sailing though, with Ben nearly knocking the mocrophone flying while trying to say "Hello" and before the song was out, he would break a guitar string but it mattered not as by then the audience were already in full voice, those hands were "in the air" and Ben was clearly buzzing. For "Guilty" from "Accidentally On Purpose", Laura'Oakes mandolin came shining through the mix and this was already something of a party.
Moving to the keyboard, there was time for one of those reflective moments, as Ben revealed the inspiration behind "Roads", the chattering audience were now rapt and hung on his every word. It started as a ballad with just some atmospheric synth noises backing Ben's piano, and the refrain "It's all coming back to me" perfectly catching the nostalgic mood. The drummer then provided a backbeat and as the song developed more members joined in. Seemingly about the power that certain journeys have to evoke memories, "Roads are like a time machine", it saw Ben really go for it as a vocalist with some sustained notes. closing with the line "I'm right where I need to be" and a delicate last few piano notes. Another new song making its world debut followed with "Tourist In Your Life" an uptempo pop country tune, both tunes receiving rousing receptions.
It was interesting to hear Ben say that his songs are normally quite happy and that this break had given him a chance to write what many would consider to be the staple diet of Country music the sad song. Opening to a choir of "Oohs" conducted by Ben, "Diamond Ring" was a smouldering song of betrayal, where "the perfume on his neck ain't hers", Mainly just bass and guitar with some perfectly judged backing vocal, Ben's style of delivery changed to meet the mood on this copper bottomed soon to be classic. It would seem the sadder side of life may produce rich pickings for him.
It is easy to underestimate just how much effect these early Shires songs had on creating the UK country scene - "I Just Want To Love You" broke down lots of musical barriers to become a go to wedding song. Even now it commands a respectful pin drop silence - Bush Hall enjoying every second.
The closest we would get to a Shires moment was when Catherine McGrath returned to the stage for "Slow Dance", one of many they have written together so more likely to appear on her next record one would guess.
A piano ballad at first, though it was joined by a solid drum beat later, with from what we could make out, some smouldering lyrics!
Another new song would follow with its co creator ( Jeff Cohen ) looking on, about to hear it for the first time, "How To Love You". This song is surely destined to crop up in a US TV series at some point, it already has that feel from the opening listen! An acoustic ballad, punctuated by some electric guitar flourishes - this showcased Ben's qualities as a proper solo singer. It expresses believable feelings of real regret wrapped up in a sumptuous tune that will surely find a storyline under which it can play! With Ben finishing on a lovely extended note, he observed that the audience were singing along from verse two - always a good sign.
Singing along was certainly the order of the day for another of those early classic Shires songs "State Lines" - a quick glance around the room showed virtually everyone to be singing along, even Catherine McGrath at the side of the stage, and as the band dropped their sound, Bush Hall was filled with just the audience. The party feelings would flow through into "Nashville Grey Skies" it's familiar chant soon reverberating around West London.
Yet another new song came with the uptempo breezy singalong "Serious" which had good time summer hit written all over it although there was also a slightly dubious short rap section that looked a little shoehorned in but in this all round happy evening we're happy to let that pass! As a tribute to his Nan we got an a capella first verse of "Country Roads" with the band kicking in after the first verse. The main set was to close with another early Shires classic in "Tonight" once again finding Bush Hall fin ull voice as the audience were divided in two and allocated parts in true Shires style.!.
The encores would see "Thank You Whiskey" followed by "1000 Hallelujahs" with the audience doing their hand actions pretty much as they have done ever since they were first were introduced to the song. It brought a thoroughly entertaining night to a close, which had shown that one way or another we'll be seeing plenty of Ben Earle for some years to come