Monday, 12 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Emmylou Harris + Margo Price + Midland - C2C Festival, O2 Arena, London. Sunday 11th March 2018

Emmylou in ambidextrous mode!
First of all apologies for missing off Little Big Town from the headline, but the 9:10 from London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill won the day. However, a curtailed day trip to North Greenwich still brought great riches as the process of cherry picking Country-to-Country (C2C) kicked back into gear. Resistance to catch a rare glimpse of the legendary Emmylou Harris drifted away as the secondary ticket market reversed its much disputed overpricing policy. The twinning with Margo Price was also a shrewd move for an event making gestures to reach out. Throw in the curious enigma of Midland, and the scene was set for a splendid afternoon/early evening’s entertainment.

Contrasts from all three acts were in abundance, although these were not necessarily all from a negative viewpoint. The allotted stage times for all three (Midland 40 mins, Margo 55 mins, Emmylou 60 mins) were entirely adequate in the context of the overall presentation and to ascertain the extent of their presence. Reports of sound issues from the Friday evening show gladly did not appear to surface, although location in the cavernous O2 Arena probably creates a disparity. Sitting in an upgraded seat on the Level 1 sideline did present an apparent distant echo from the rear of the arena if you strained one ear, but it was easy to block out and focus on the crispness emanating from the stage. This much sonically maligned ‘barn’ probably had one of its better days.

Midland emphatically scaled the sound threshold to make a bold statement as a live band with intent. Not surprisingly, Big Machine’s two-fingered gift to the critics went down a storm with a majority of the audience, and the vibrancy of their songs relayed much of the acknowledged accomplishment of the ON THE ROCKS album. While they crossed one bridge with their charisma, the reluctance to embrace the true country sound still puts a question mark against their credibility. Maybe it was just a safer option to ditch any remnants of fiddle, steel or keys, and hit C2C with a fully-fledged guitar, bass and drum attack.

Admittedly, this did not overpower a host of good songs including ‘Drinkin’ Problem’, ‘Altitude Adjustment’ and ‘More Than a Fever’, but left food for thought of what it will probably take to ultimately silence the critics. You only had to witness the different league that the bands supporting the other two acts were operating in to ram home the point. Yet Midland did many things right, and only a staunch cynic could dismiss them. The future may be revealing, but the present was appealing.

Margo: More than a front person
One perceptive observation was the contrasting covers delivered across these three sets. Midland adopted a predictable stance with trademark Petty and sampling Mellencamp, while Margo roamed into similar territory, though a slight alternative take on CCR and a little snippet of timely Willie. Emmylou trumped them all with Billy Joe Shaver, Ralph Stanley and some Bill Monroe.

Margo’s drift into ‘Whiskey River’ was entirely in accord with being joined on stage by a Nelson junior in the shape of the rapidly advancing Lukas. The pair served up the duet ‘Learning to Lose’ off her latest album, proving that ‘like father like son’ is not some overused cliché. Early into her set, Margo commented that the journey from playing the Slaughtered Lamb in the not too distant past was incredible. Having seen her both in The Exchange in Bristol and The Bullingdon in Oxford, it was a huge transition jumping into an arena, but she made it effortlessly to remove any apprehension.

Backed by a momentous band ensuring keys and steel were going to play some part in C2C 2018, Margo kept mainly to the upbeat songs from her two albums lifted to international status by the wily arm of Third Man Records. ‘Tennessee Song’, ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and ‘Hurtin’ (On the Bottle’) played a significant part in this rousing set. Clad in a distinguished suit to match the Midland boys, Margo even rose to the challenge of a mid-set costume change. When also factoring in the genre-pushing pair ‘Do Right By Me’ and ‘A Little Pain’, there was more than a touch of show biz panache and a suggestion that traditional evolvement can work in positive ways.

No introduction required
While post C2C, Margo Price will most likely ease back into a mid-venue role, the mark made on a wider audience will have some bounce. Undoubtedly, the duet with Lukas Nelson will be fondly remembered by a large number. From a personal perspective, it was seeing her rise to the occasion that brought the greatest smile. The band was pretty good as well!

The good news about Emmylou Harris is that those shows with Rodney Crowell of a couple of years ago were not the farewell feared. An opportunity to share her distinguished class with a British and Irish audience was too good to miss across a hectic weekend. She looked every inch the statesperson as she glided through an iconic set list, especially showing that there is still mileage in the voice as she enters her septuagenarian years.

The Red Dirt Boys, Emmylou's regular band, can certainly show the younger generation how to ‘pick’ an exemplary sound, proving that amped up bass is not the only way to fill an arena. When you have such expert players as Will Kimbrough, Chris Donohue and Phil Madeira the results are only going one way. English mandolin and fiddle player Eamon Mcloughlin probably stole the instrumental show of the weekend with his sublime performance of stringed elegance and brilliance.

As mentioned earlier, Emmylou paid tribute to some great artists, with her version of Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ proving the pick. Of course, there are a couple of tribute songs where introduction is superfluous. Emmylou has almost a strong claim on ‘Pancho and Lefty’ as Townes, and all the others who have covered it. It also transpired that the gem of a set closer London had in ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ might have been impromptu, with Glasgow missing out and this set seaming to finish a few minutes early before the prompt to do one more. However, there was no complaints here with the most glorious of send offs.

Prior to that stupendous hair rising finale, we were treated to unblemished songs such as ‘Red Dirt Girl’, ‘Orphan Girl’ and ‘Making Believe’. All perfectly accompanied by a seasoned band in impeccable form. This Emmylou Harris set was worth any degree of investment and is firmly locked away in the treasure trove of privileged gig memories.

Over the duration of its six-year existence, Country-to-Country has divided opinion across the country music world, and is likely to continue to as long it re-convenes each March. Periodically, they get the scheduling spot on and this afternoon/early evening was such an occasion. Little Big Town may have thrilled the masses at the close, but a certain homage to Gram Parsons hummed in the head of one person on a Chiltern train service at the corresponding time.

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