For over twenty years (1969-1991) the premier country music event in the United Kingdom, and perhaps in Europe, was the annual International Festival of Country Music held at Wembley Arena in London, which for many years gained country music a wider audience thanks to TV coverage and provided a springboard for the international careers of many country artists. After a hiatus of another two decades, the original promoter, Mervyn Conn, decided to revive the festival this year. The event was reduced to a single day on Sunday 26 February (at its peak it was held over a three-day weekend), with the majority of the lineup moving on to branded festivals in Belfast, Northern Ireland (29 February), Zurich, Switzerland (2 March) and Mannheim in Germany (4 March).
I felt I couldn’t miss the return of this iconic event, but sales overall seem to have been disappointing. Even with ticket prices substantially discounted close to the event, the arena was far from full, so it is not clear whether there will be a repetition, but those who attended clearly enjoyed the experience, offering generous applause throughout the afternoon and evening. The lineup offered a wide range of acts from various aspects of the broad church that is country music these days, and ranging from veterans to newcomers. Presentation was slick early on, courtesy of the genial Essex based country DJ and occasional singer Steve Cherelle, who did an excellent job. Later on, compering was divided between him, veteran DJ David Allan, who did the job at the original festival, but is now rather obviously frail, and the even older George Hamilton IV. They reminisced about the original festival’s glory days, and it was good to have the event’s heritage acknowledged, but it did get a bit rambling and unfocussed at times.
Hamilton also performed a set early in the afternoon as a double act with Northern Ireland’s Sandy Kelly, but I missed that due to arriving late following two hours stuck in appalling traffic. Most of the acts I missed were British and Irish performers representing the international part of the festival name. I got there in time for Pig Earth, a group I hadn’t previously heard of – they were not pure country but a nice rootsy sound with elements of country, folk, and Americana. The best of their four songs, ‘1800 Miles On A Very Slow Train’, featured the female group member, who was a rather better vocalist than the male leader. Overall I enjoyed their entertaining and well played set.
That is more than I can say for the following performer. I am unsure as to how unknown Ali Isabella got on the bill, because frankly the teenage New Yorker was awful. A confident stage presence was belied by very poor singing. The last of her four numbers, ‘New York City Country Girl’ could have been a catchy pop-country song if her flat, raucous vocals had been at all listenable.
There was a massive contrast with the next act, Will Banister, a young man from New Mexico, who delivered the most traditional country performance of the night. His strong, resonant vocals sounded good on three songs from his independent CD Turned Her On To Country (the title track, ‘Is Anyone Ready’ and ‘You Remind Me’, mixed in with authentic covers of ‘Lovesick Blues’ and ‘White Lightning’. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, as did the audience as a whole. He won himself an encore (another original song, ‘I’ve Never Been Any Other Way’). He was definitely the star of the first half of the show, and the compere brought him out again a bit later during one of the set changeovers for a chat during which he sang a verse of ‘Your Cheating Heart’ and a snippet of his favorite Haggard song, ‘It’s All In The Movies’. He was one of the artists who had a booth in the foyer to meet fans and sell merchandise, and it was reportedly packed out after his performance.
Effervescent Cajun star Jo-El Sonnier (who appeared at the 1989 festival) delivered an energetic up-tempo short set. He opened with a lively instrumental, then sang ‘Big Mamou’ and ‘Jambalaya’ mainly in French before finishing with his big hit ‘Tear Stained Letter’. He was so breathless between songs I was concerned for his health, but the actual performances were fine.
Irish singer and showman John McNicholl, clad in a sparkly red suit which was more memorable than his merely competent vocals, gave a bouncy and apparently crowd pleasing performance. He seemed to have brought his fan club over from Ireland, and he clearly works hard at entertaining an audience, but he lacked individuality.
Singer songwriter George Ducas has been off the scene for some years, but is now interested in reviving his career. He produced a confident but not very distinctive set, a bit loud at times, and perhaps tried a bit too hard to involve the audience in singalongs of unfamiliar songs before finishing with his only big hit, ‘Lipstick Promises’. I enjoyed most his current single, ‘This One’s Gonna Hurt’, which is an excellent song.
I was interested in seeing veteran Narvel Felts after reading Paul W. Dennis’ Country Heritage article on him. He sang four of his country hits from the 70s, ‘Reconsider Me’, ‘Drift Away’, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and Somebody Hold Me’, before bidding us farewell with ‘How Time Slips Away’. He sounded very good for a man in his 70s, with strong vocals and a surprisingly strong falsetto, and received an enthusiastic crowd response, but the brief set lacked variety in tempos.
Asleep At the Wheel, the first of the four headliners, then gave us 45 minutes of expertly delivered western swing. The highlight of a through enjoyable performance was a lovely version of ‘Faded Love’ with fiddle intro and outro and long steel solo. Lead singer Ray Benson also brought out George Hamilton IV to sing lead on ‘Abilene’ – Hamilton may be old, but he still sings fairly strongly. Also memorable was the use of the arena’s showy lighting to play the part of the cop car in a growled out ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’.
Setlist: ‘Miles And Miles Of Texas’/’Route 66’/’It’s A Good Day’/’Hi Bill’/’I’m An Old Cowhand From the Rio Grande’/’Faded Love’/’Abilene’/’’San Antonio Rose’/’No Hesitation Blues’/’The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’/’Hot Rod Lincoln’/Big Balls In Cowtown’/’House Of Blue Lights’/’Happy Trails To You’/’Texas Playboys From The Lone Star State’.
This was Lonestar’s first performance since reuniting with lead singer Richie MacDonald. If I had to sum it up with one word, it would be “loud”. Two words? “Too loud”. They delivered a high-energy set which was very well received by the audience, who included an unexpectedly large contingent of Lonestar fans, many singing along to numbers like ‘You Walked In’ and ‘What About Now’. Even the insipid sentiments of ‘My Front Porch Looking In’ were buried in a rocked up wall of sound, with the drummer in particular looking as though he was playing in a rock band. The lyrics were all too often inaudible.
They toned things down a bit for the more effective ‘I’m Already There’, introduced as a tribute to military families, and ‘Amazed’ – still loud but listenable. They debuted their new single; due to the noise it was hard to make out many lyrics, but it appears to be called ‘Still’, and to remininisce about the past. The group seemed to enjoy performing together again, concluding with a cover of a genuine rock song, the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’.
Setlist: ‘My Front Porch Looking In’/’What About Now’/’With Me’/’I’m Already There’/’You Walked In’/’Still’/’Walking In Memphis’/’Amazed’/’Get Back’
Changeovers between the earlier acts had been efficient, but those between the main acts were extremely protracted, and before long the show was running behind schedule. Ricky Skaggs and his fans were short changed as, due to late running resulting from extended changeovers of stage setups, his set was curtailed to less than half an hour. What we did get was worth hearing. Ricky and Kentucky Thunder played some excellent bluegrass, with sharp clean picking and Ricky’s pure high tenor vocals; my favorite was the opening ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’. He then brought in reinforcements for a couple of his country hits – ‘Heartbroke’ and ‘Honey (Won’t You Open That Door)’, with a rather unsuccessful attempt to get the audience to sing along to the chorus of the latter. A somber Calvary-themed gospel song from his last album Mosaic (the evening’s only concession to a Lenten Sunday) was followed by ‘Uncle Pen’, which represents both country and bluegrass sides of Skaggs. I would have liked a longer set, as this was the performance I had been most anticipating.
Setlist: ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’/’Blue Night’/’It’s Time’ (instrumental)/[missed title]/’Heartbroke’/’Honey (Won’t You Open That Door’/’Can’t Shake Jesus’/’Uncle Pen’.
Headliner Reba McEntire, making her first visit here in 12 years, was clearly the big draw for many of those present, and as soon as she made her delayed arrival on stage at 10.20 p.m., clad in blue, there was a rush to the front from fans desperate to get pictures. Her setlist leaned very heavily to the uptempo and to her most recent recordings, and although not quite as loud or unremitting as Lonestar, the sound system was amped up pretty high most of the time. Reba sounded to be in great voice, and was at her best when she hushed the band for a touching reading of ‘The Greatest Man I Never Knew’, which was the high point of her performance for me.
I expected her performance to be contemporary, reflecting her current musical direction, but was slightly disappointed that so many of the songs were from her last few albums, when she has so many great songs to call on in her repertoire. She did include her very first #1, the insistent ‘I Can’t Even Get the Blues’, and 80s classic ‘Whoever’s In New England’. I was surprised by the omission of ‘Fancy’ – perhaps that had been reserved for an expected encore, but there was no time for that encore. Once Reba had played her last number, at 11.30, the audience made a mass exit. This was no reflection on her very professional performance, which on the whole I enjoyed despite the sound levels, but rather the late hour.
Setlist: ‘All The Women I Am’/’The Fear Of Being Alone’/’Somebody’s Chelsea’/’The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia’/’Is There Life Out There’/’Somebody’/’Til You Love Me’/’You Lie’/’And Still’/’Whoever’s In New England’/’Consider Me Gone’/’The Greatest Man I Never Knew’/’Nothing To Lose’/’Does He Love You’ (with backing singer Jennifer)/’The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’/’Walk On’/’I’d Rather Ride Around With You’/’Can’t Even Get The Blues’/’Because Of You’/’I’m A Survivor’/’Take It Back’/’Turn On the Radio’.