It had not been the giddy day any of us had expected for the launch of London’s first Country Music Week. By the time I logged off at work to head to Bush Hall, the horrific news story which had been unfolding had unthinkably grown even more horrific. An act of destruction over 5000 miles away was brought so much closer by the fact these victims were part of our country music community. And it really is a community.
So I did not arrive in the mood to play our frivolous Country Music Week Bingo game, but I did arrive ready to let country music speak to me, as it always does.
The evening started with introductions to new(ish) artists, duo Walker Mcguire – imagine if Eric Church could harmonise with himself – and guitar-shredding singer Lindsay Ell, but more on them later in the week. Then headliner Randy Houser launched his set with a cover of I Won’t Back Down a song that captured the spirit of the crowd and reminded us that “Country Strong” is more than just a hashtag. This was before I knew Tom Petty, that song’s originator, had also died that day.
But even though the set also included a tribute to the late Don Williams and Randy’s own Like a Cowboy later wrecked my mascara, there were so many uplifting elements which left me a bigger Randy Houser fan than when I’d come in.
I’d arrived knowing I loved Randy’s many catchy hits like Goodnight Kiss, We Went and How Country Feels which is still my weekend anthem. But until now, I’d somehow been unaware of the absolute power of his voice. Swatting up before the show I’d read that his vocals had once been described as “purely brimstone” but I couldn’t grasp what that meant, until now. To recreate the full experience I’d need to turn my headphones’ volume up past the red danger line but I’m not that much of a risk taker.
The album recordings hadn’t captured Randy’s playfulness either. A broken guitar string virtually transformed this giant man into a toddler, cheeky grin and a surprisingly high-pitched giggle. He poked fun at himself often, turned to his wife for a reminder of the opening words and had the kind of band banter that makes you long to be invited out for a pint with them.
Let’s put Honky Tonk Badonkadonk (the guilty pleasure Trace Adkins hit that Randy co-wrote) aside for now. There’s a boundary-spanning range from the party songs complete with mandatory tailgating references (for which there’s a time and a place) to the instant classic Anything Goes – one of the the most country of heartbreak songs. Switching styles once again, we were treated to the first ever performance of a new song, possibly called Your Mama Told Me So, which evoked old-school rock and roll.
Coming from a small southern town of just 400 people has given Randy Houser a super speedy, tough-for-a-Brit-to-decode accent. He called it “Mississippi gibberish” – at least I think that’s what he said. His Mississippi upbringing’s also given him an incredible soulfulness to his voice, with blues and gospel routes coming through from the acoustic tease he gave us of a single chorus of How Country Feels, to his tribute to blues and slide guitar legend Elmore James.
I’ve never been to a bad gig at Bush Hall. There’s something about the beauty of the venue, the intimacy of the crowd, the attitude of the staff and the spot on acoustics that always make it a pleasure. As Randy took to the stage – his baseball cap and bandana gloriously juxtaposed with the ornate cornicing and chandeliers – he kept up this tradition by delivering a show that was personal, memorable and, on a strange day to kick off a country festival, respectful.
P.s. Apologies for the lack of pictures from last night. Must do better. This featured image (from a completely different concert) is courtesy of Lunchbox LP.