Monday, 14 March 2016

Miranda Lambert + Dwight Yoakam - Country to Country Festival, O2 Arena, London. Friday 11th March 2016

Any concerns for a lack of impartiality regarding this review were well and truly extinguished at 10:48 PM on the Friday of the fourth Country to Country Festival. At this exact minute Miranda Lambert exited the stage at London’s O2 Arena following her inaugural overseas show. This feat answered the wishes for legions of her fans in the UK and one in particular who was hooked nearly a decade ago when first listening to ‘Famous in a Small Town’. Alas this track didn’t make the set list on the evening, along with much of her best material which gets buried on albums, but what we did witness was a supreme performer sealing the deal with a scintillating performance.

You would expect an artist of Miranda’s stature to assemble a top notch touring band and it was no surprise to marvel at their ace accompaniment to a string of numbers spanning the length of her recording career. Fiddle and especially steel was given the oxygen to flourish among the cacophony of blistering guitar pieces acutely projecting song after song around the arena. When the pitch eased off Miranda stepped up her game and left many emotionally drained with the poignantly uplifting ‘The House That Built Me’. This track, actually one of only a few of her hits which make my virtual ‘Miranda Top 20’, was part of a mesmerising parade of songs in the latter stages of her set which demanded a frozen in time moment.  The band’s cover of the Danny O’Keefe song ‘Covered Wagon’ saw all facets of the onstage ensemble in harmonious heaven and a major musical highlight was the end instrumental segment to ‘White Liar’.

However there were two downsides to the set which headlined the first day of this growing festival. A little over an hour and a quarter could have been extended by ten minutes and just when it seemed we were going to hear the John Prine cover ‘That’s the Way the World Goes Round’, reality dawned that the intended song was ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’. Anything that Miranda and the band played tonight would have been exemplary. ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’, way down on my list of favourite songs from PLATINUM, was brought to life by some emotive pedal steel, while the lead single from that album ‘Automatic’ circulated the venue with more than an air of nostalgia.

Early-Miranda Lambert bookended the pre-encore set in the guise of the electrifying ‘Kerosene’ and the impassioned ‘Gunpowder and Lead’. Sadly that was it from the first two Miranda albums, but things were brought right up to date with an airing of ‘Sweet By and By’ from the new Dave Cobb produced compilation record: SOUTHERN FAMILY. Many interpretations of PLATINUM framed it as a gender album and to complete the pickings from it tonight, ‘Bathroom Sink’ and ‘Little Red Wagon’ played to this gallery. The latter saw Miranda in full sass mode and a phase that engages many.

Word got around on the wires that Miranda had gate crashed the songwriters’ event the previous evening  to sing ‘Heart Like Mine’ with her good friend Ashley Monroe and this double reunion was in repeat mode twenty four hours later. She had included the song in her arena set list and further extended the invitation for Ashley to join her for the first encore song and an apt choice to sing the James Taylor standard ‘You’ve Got a Friend’. The inevitable sad moment was about to arrive as the band returned to the stage to close a fabulous night with a rocking version of ‘Bitch’ originally on the Stones STICKY FINGERS album.

Before the final words on Miranda Lambert’s debut UK performance, full credit must be given to the legendary Dwight Yoakam who played an impressive relentless hour of a musical style steeped in the psyche of honky tonk country. A visitor to the UK on several occasions over the last thirty years, Dwight hones in on a certain sound and preserves its integrity with impressive gusto. It took about twenty minutes of Dwight’s hour long set to connect with the groove, but once coupling occurred, there was no looking back. ‘Honky Tonk Man’ injected renewed vigour into the set about half way through and by the time we reached the classic ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’, the man who single handedly champions the Bakersfield Sound had delivered his part of country music legacy. A similar trait between the sets of Dwight and Miranda was the lack of general chat from the stage, but perhaps festival arenas are the place where music does the best talking and more than a few column inches on these two stars can be found elsewhere.

While full commendation is reserved for the organisers in the back to back scheduling of Miranda Lambert and Dwight Yoakam, there was a feeling that Friday night punters were a little short changed from one less act for the same outlay compared with the Saturday and Sunday shows. Thomas Rhett was awarded the slot of opening the festival’s arena weekend and I’ll let others invest more keyboard time in conducting an analysis. Ashley Monroe was used by the organisers to promote the Friday; however it was disappointing that she was awarded only ten minutes on the satellite stage. Surely the arena could have had the same opening times throughout the weekend and thus allow Ashley a better platform her talent warrants. On the plus side, listening to her best song ‘Like a Rose’ from only half a dozen paces away was one of the highlights of a weekend which ebbed and flowed before a barnstorming conclusion.

Will this show be the catalyst for a Miranda Lambert love affair with the UK? A similar question with an unknown answer is in what direction she will seek to take her music. Influences across the spectrum are rife and Miranda has succeeded immensely in most of her choices. The future is going to be fascinating and if half as good as the last decade, treats will be aplenty. Let’s end with dismissing the past and the future, by focussing on the present and specifically the moment when Miranda Lambert arrived as a performing artist on British soil. The promise of listening to ‘Famous in a Small Town’ back in 2007 was absolutely fulfilled.

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