Friday, 9 August 2013

Big Valley Jamboree - Camrose, Alberta, Canada Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th August 2013

Five months after commencing his Two Lanes of Freedom Tour at the O2 Arena in London, the latest stop for Tim McGraw, as he criss-crosses the North American continent, is the wide open spaces of Camrose, Alberta and a Sunday night headline slot at the 21st Big Valley Jamboree. Having been fortunate enough to attend the weekend segment of this four day festival during my summer holiday to Canada, it can be confirmed that this excellent album which was virtually being previewed in London is sounding better than ever and the lesser half of the McGraw/Hill partnership is in fine fettle as one of country music’s great contemporary entertainers.

More of Tim’s closing set later which brought the curtain down on a festival which the organisers like to combine the cream of Nashville talent with both up and coming and established Canadian artists. Having kicked into gear on Thursday evening, the festival was already in full swing upon my Saturday morning arrival. According to those present on Friday, The Mavericks, fresh from a number of UK dates, performed an amazing set while Alan Jackson did what he does best and entertained his hordes of fans in his own inimitable style. From the organiser’s perspective the challenge was now to cope with the fevered masses determined on partying on down to Luke Bryan and perhaps more importantly the weather holding out.

Although the surrounding festival site housed plenty of western themed attractions and a couple of low key songwriter tents, the heartbeat of the jamboree pulse is in the main arena which hosts six acts each day. First up on Saturday lunchtime was a young female solo Canadian artist known simply as Tennile. It is always difficult to open a sparsely populated area designed to cope with 25000 fans but Tennile displayed potential as she worked through a short set which included her new single ‘Halfway to Somewhere’ and a cover of U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. While her big stage best may be still to come, by all accounts her voice came over really well when performing later in one of the song writing workshops.

Following Tennile on the main stage was another Canadian artist that had no problem commanding the arena which was now starting to fill a little. Bobby Wills is a highly credible country singer-songwriter, musician and performer who has seen his stock rise considerably in the last year. With a collection of songs that are equally powerful and tender, Alberta native, Bobby delivered a set containing new compositions, a cover of Randy Travis’s Digging Up Bones’ and a host of tracks from his recent album including the highlight ‘Show Some Respect’. Bobby’s album was reviewed here last year and catching him live confirmed the talent that existed in that recording.

Before the big name American acts dominated proceedings, newly formed but highly experienced Canadian duo Small Town Pistols took to the main stage to deliver a harmonious set of contemporary country music in the tradition of the great family acts of the past. Brother and sister, Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson who previously had solo careers as well as being integral members of their family group The Wilkinsons, are very much veering towards a cross over sound with their new project. They didn’t hold back on their admiration for Fleetwood Mac when introducing the track ‘Love is Gonna Find You’ and included a cover of Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ in their set. Although the debut album by the Small Town Pistols is commendable, perhaps the highlight of their live performance was the stunning ’26 Cents’, a song from The Wilkinsons back catalogue.

Anticipation amongst the younger and slightly rowdier members of the increasingly growing crowd started to gain momentum when country rocker Rodney Atkins took to the stage for the late afternoon slot. This established Nashville performer took a little while to warm up the crowd before closing with the hits that had many singing and jumping up and down to. Like many artists over the weekend, Rodney adapted some of his lyrics to suit a Canadian audience although maybe he went a little too far in totally renaming ‘It’s America’ to the syllable shorter ‘It’s Canada’. Having changed the title, much of the chorus was also amended with the lines ‘Saskatoon, hockey and Bryan Adams’ song’ all added. No such alterations were made with his popular hits ‘Take a Back Road’, ‘Country Boy’, ‘Watching You’ and ‘These are my People’. By the time he got to ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’ which closed the set, the more lively members of the standing crowd were in full swing both vocal and in motion to provide upon reflection one of the highlights of the festival.

After a short break to indulge in the unhealthy festival food and sample the highly rationed and expensive alcohol, main stage action resumed to witness an impressive set by Travis Tritt. Not knowing too much about this highly respected artist from the 90’s explosion years of country music did not distract from thoroughly enjoying his style of music which leaned very heavily on a southern rock blues sound especially in the vocals. A majority of the songs came from his hit laden back catalogue with the three having the most favourable impression being ‘Put Some Drive in Your Country’, ‘The Whiskey ain’t Working’ and ‘Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde’. A cover of ‘Take it Easy’ by The Eagles was the solitary known number in the set but by the end your mind had been enriched by an hour’s worth of old songs being introduced for the first time.

Luke's adoring fans from a distance
While it would be grossly unfair to class Travis Tritt as a warm up act, unfortunately for thousands of young, predominately female fans clad in ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘You Can Crash My Party Anytime’ tee shirts this was the case as Luke Bryan was all they wanted to see. At 37 years old, the native of Leesburg, Georgia is no overnight success having plied his trade around Nashville for a dozen years. However from somewhere he has found a formula to catapult his appeal into the stratospheric level of mainstream country music. Apart from the obvious features which need not be analysed here, it was the most intriguing part of the festival to gain a further understanding of his popularity. 

Well for a start, the guy held 25000 fans for an hour and half in the palm of his hand which is no mean feat. By drawing on material ranging from 2007’s I’LL STAY ME to the upcoming release CRASH MY PARTY, Luke Bryan is probably first and foremost an entertainer. While all the party style hits were demanded and delivered, mid way through his set perhaps we saw a vision of who Luke Bryan wanted to be. This extended phase of acoustic material including a version of ‘We Rode in Trucks’ was certainly a little too long for many in the crowd but gave a perceived insight of where his career may lead. Anyway, where Luke Bryan is right now was perfectly illustrated in three of the set’s final tracks ‘Drunk on You’, ‘All My Friends Say’ and ‘Country Girl (Shake it for Me Now)’. Fortitude may be the key to his sustainability but that ‘feel good moment in time’ aurora keeps Luke Bryan very relevant in the world of country music.

Luke Bryan Set List – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Country Man: Someone Else Calling You Baby: Rain is a Good Thing: Crash My Party: That’s My Kinda Night: Muckalee Creek Water: Sun Tan City: If You Ain’t Here to Party: Drink a Beer: We Rode Trucks: Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old: Do I: That’s the Only Way I Know: Drunk on You: All My Friends Say: I Don’t Want this Night to End: Country Girl

The Sunday weather held, just.
After the excitement of a party Saturday evening, there was a more sedate feeling to the Sunday set until it exploded into life later in the day. There was hardly a Luke Bryan tee shirt to be seen as Canadian country pop duo Autumn Hill took to the stage the get the final day underway. Once again the opening slot can prove tricky but this artist, very reminiscent of the UK act Raintown, came across well. A single recorded in Nashville titled ‘I Can Get Lost in You’, a cover of Keith Urban’s ‘Somebody Like You’ and ‘Party Like Memphis’ were the highlights from this 45 minute set.

Aaron Lines was another home grown Alberta performer added to the line up and this accomplished, experienced performer entertained those present in the outdoor arena which started to see a little cloud build up amongst the warm sunshine that up to now had blessed the festival. By far the best song from the acclaimed Canadian was ‘Trouble with California’, a track well worth checking out on You Tube.

One of the aims of the organisers is to showcase a selection of different styles without veering too far astray from the core of country music. The booking of Texas honky tonk band The Derailers certainly added a twist to the Sunday afternoon proceedings and they delivered a blistering high energy set to those members of the audience desiring a re-creation of a sound that resonates around the traditional dance halls of the Lone Star State. This edgy combo provided ample opportunities for couples to perfect their dance routines and breathed a little bit of life into an event that could have hit a quagmire of the pop/rock guitar side of contemporary country music.

The lady gracing the festival’s Sunday late afternoon slot needed little introduction to her adoring fans as the pride of Medicine Hat, Alberta and, Canada’s finest export to the Grand Ole Opry, Terri Clark took to the stage to effectively begin the festival finale. In contrast to her wonderful solo intimate shows in the UK last summer, Terri reverted to her equally wonderful full band performance on this occasion. Although her appearance formed part of the Classic Tour, the only vintage on offer during a jam packed hour-long set was a medley of her 1990’s hits and a short dose of the Man in Black as she ensured every precious available minute possible was dedicated to song. The live version of ‘I Wanna Do It All’ was amazing, as was ‘No Fear’ and the enthusiastic all-age audience had no hesitation in sending a message to the waiting Tim McGraw that their version of ‘Northern Girl’ would be louder than his ‘Southern Girl’. The finale of ‘We’re Here for a Good Time’ couldn’t have been more appropriate with the festival’s final two acts still to come.

Terri Clark Set List – Just Wanna Be Mad: Girls Lie Too: A Little Gasoline: No Fear: I Wanna Do It All: Medley- Emotional Girl/If I Were You/When Boy Meets Girl/Dirty Girl: You’re Easy on the Eye: Folsom Prison Blues: Better Things: Northern Girl: Poor Pitiful Me: We’re Here for a Good Time

If you analyse Big and Rich too much, you start to miss the point. The antics and hits flowed in equal measure as the fun duo played up to their image. ‘Come to your City’, ‘Wild West Show’ and ‘Loud’ had their delirious fans in raptures even before Cowboy Troy joined the boys for ‘I Play Chicken with the Train’ and remained on stage for the increasingly manic finale. Although loved by the crowd, the multi selling smash hit single ‘Lost in this Moment’ seemed a little out of the sync with the tone of the set, however there was no denying which song most wanted to hear. The live version of ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’ with all its sampling lasted an eternity but it took the set to an even higher level. Big and Rich will always divide opinion but if you sit on the other side of the fence, perhaps take the opportunity to peer over and try to ascertain what the fuss is all about.

At 9 o’clock, and with the threat of inclement weather passing much to the organiser’s relief, the major act for the 2013 Big Valley Jamboree took to the stage. With potentially a career album just under his belt, Tim McGraw continues to show the world of country music who is running the show. Luke Bryan may have had the adulation the night before but this performance was all about respect and the odd sing along. If anything the sound was a little less rock orientated than what was experienced at the O2 Arena in London last March but the set list ran pretty much along the same lines. A little blemish on the festival was a slightly deteriorating sound quality for us poor souls at the back of a very large field but with a little straining of the ears, the immense impact of McGraw’s song delivery and stage presence was still profound. If anything this guy’s music has grown on me since March and this follow up experience in many ways exceeded that London debut. The highlights were endless although a special mention needs to be reserved for the splendid ‘Highway Don’t Care’, albeit Ms Swift’s backing vocals came from a sound system as the budget didn’t stretch to her appearing for one song.

Tim McGraw Set List – Where the Green Grass Grows: All I Want is a Life: Down on the Farm: How Bad Do You Want It: Everywhere: Southern Girl: Just to See You Smile: Mexicoma: Friend of a Friend: Highway Don’t Care: Two Lanes of Freedom: Real Good Man: The Cowboy in Me: Something Like That: Felt Her On My Lips: Live Like You Were Dying: One of Those Night: Indian Outlaw: I Like It I Love It: Truck Yeah

Just prior to Tim McGraw’s performance, the big screen announced the festival’s first 2014 bookings. Darius Rucker and The Band Perry are no strangers to the UK but many would like to see Miranda Lambert over here. Unfortunately I won’t be at the Big Valley Jamboree next year to see these three artists but I know 25000 adoring Canadian country music fans will and they will definitely have a guaranteed good time.

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