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Highways Festival

Friday 17th May 2024

Royal Albert Hall, London

Looking to establish itself as a regular event, the Highways Festival was held over two days in the splendid RAH, which, on the evidence of the opening night, raised the number of cowboy hats on view in the borough of Kensington to previously unimaginable levels. This wasn’t a random millinery outbreak but an acknowledgement of the event’s purpose to showcase established and rising stars in the world of Country and Americana music, with four acts appearing over the course of the evening. This turned out to be an excellent format with the first three acts playing half hour sets (giving them a chance to go for maximum impact with all their bangers), separated by half hour intervals for the audience to navigate the labyrinth like corridors of the venue and find suitable refreshment. Headline act, The Cadillac Three got the opportunity to stretch out with a longer set.

It has to be said that the RAH is a fabulous venue and its staff are uncommonly pleasant and helpful; however, from the perspective of gaining access to take photographs, entry to the venue can be a nerve wracking process (unless a friendly promoter is on hand to smooth the way). This was the case on this occasion, being sent from pillar to post only to find that the starting point had the accreditation all along, but not a photo pass, that was sorted out, but, meanwhile, the clock was ticking away fast and, in the knowledge that the show had started, it was a case of frustratingly being led into the bowels of the building away from where the action was. There was a painful similarity to that scene in Spinal Tap; all that was missing was an old time janitor giving directions. All of which is to say that half of the opening set by duo Bowen Young had passed by the time the lens cap came off for the first time. This was a gentle start to the evening. Clare Bowen on vocals accompanied by husband Brandon Robert Young on solo acoustic guitar played numbers from their debut album ‘Us’. Their voices soared beautifully into the rafters of the building as they harmonised and sung their individual parts on songs like ‘Aurora’ and ‘To The Bone’. They had an impressive stillness and sense of command to their performance, which given their individual Nashville pedigrees was perhaps not surprising. Slow paced songs with a haunting quality.

Texas born singer songwriter, and relative newcomer, Tanner Usrey was up next, fronting a rocking band with two lead guitarists. He describes his music as “Southern Rock to Country to Americana”, which covers all bases for a certain type of music fan. He and his band came out rocking, opening with a blast of Rock and Roll, which don’t quote me as I wasn’t familiar with any of these acts apart from the headliners, sounded like the splendid ‘Guns, Drugs and Allergy Pills’ from his debut on Atlantic Records, ‘Crossing Lines’. As a performer, he is in the Classic Country mode; hat, tick; strong, rich voice capable of rocking and ballading, tick; writes and plays songs with stories that fans identify with strongly, tick. He has racked up some big numbers on Spotify (no doubt resulting in small numbers in the pocket) for early releases, like ‘Beautiful Lies’, which has garnered a not too shabby 18 million streams. He introduced that song on the night as the one that first got him some traction in the industry and, with a bit of encouragement from the stage, resulted in the first of several mass holding of phones in torch mode from the enthusiastic audience. He played other fan favourites ‘Give It Some Time’ and ‘Come Back Down’ before the band launched into a fantastic version of the Faces’ ‘Stay With Me’, during which both guitarists got the chance to solo (and imitate Ian McLagan’s flowing piano fills from the timeless original). That got the crowd well and truly worked up.

The intervals between performances not only allowed for comfort breaks and refilling of glasses but provided the opportunity to do a few circuits of the auditorium and take in a marvellous exhibition of photographs by Alan Messer of Country music’s many colourful luminaries taken over the years, which added to the whole Highways experience. Getting back to the programme, the third act, Shane Smith & The Saints, provided an all-action performance that matched the audience’s alcoholic intake at that stage of the evening and was equally well oiled. The level of flesh on show from the five piece band was probably better suited to the weather of their base in Austin, with a couple of wife beaters being sported (bit too nippy for that look really) and the fiddle player wearing baggy dungarees and no top (which is probably only the height of fashion in rural Alabama). Fashion sense aside, fiddle player Bennett Brown was an integral part of the sound; his speedy, swinging bowing helped drive along the non-stop mid-tempo Country stompers. He helped form the band back in 2011, along with band leader Shane Smith, who delivered each song with a typically powerful and rich Country baritone and roamed the stage for the frequent instrumental breaks, bashing away at his acoustic and displaying great energy, along with the rest of the band. They were highly entertaining and were joined late in their set by Tanner Usrey for a number. I don’t have a clue what songs they played but their recent release ‘Live At Red Rocks’ is very representative of their style, and worth a listen.

One of the benefits of a bigger venue like the RAH is, unlike the majority of the many small music venues dotted around the capital, with their atrocious lighting, the presence of a decent lighting rig that doesn’t bathe the stage in a dim red or blue glow but provides a decent level of light for the much put-upon photographer. Heartbreakingly, The Cadillac Three created a stage within a stage, with amps piled high half-way across the venerable RAH stage, beneath which the band were shaded from a decent level of illumination. They also brought the lights down closer to stage level and blasted them towards stage front, with the result that the first few songs were viewed through sad, tearful eyes and concentration was also affected by the grinding of teeth, as ISO values were flipped around more frequently than a government minister avoiding a direct question. Regardless of this disappointment the headliners were, of course, great. They exude a charismatically outlaw vibe and play a highly individual form of quite heavy Country Rock, tempered by having a large number of excellent songs that vocally reflect a strong Country influence, with lyrics celebrating the Southern states of North America, and ear worm choruses that just invite audience participation. The sound they create with just a guitar, a pedal steel and drums is phenomenal. There’s nothing really like them. Jaren Johnston on guitar and vocals was the focal point but, despite being the only one not tethered to their instrument, kept his forays to the front of the stage, to give it large, to the minimum. Kelby Ray on pedal steel was also visually interesting, his large corkscrew hair catching the frequently changing light show; with his glasses, he exuded a slightly professorial air (his special subject would probably be tattoos). Later in the set he picked up a guitar to create a brief double guitar groove for a couple of numbers. Neil Mason on drums kept it mean left of stage, pounding away and occasionally throwing a drum stick to the front of the stage, which created much excitement (I later spotted a gent cradling his trophy en route to the tube station looking very pleased with himself).

They rocked their way through their set with the crowd going predictably mental playing songs from their most recent album ‘The Years Go Fast’, like ‘Double Wide Grave’ and in among less familiar songs were classics like ‘Peace, Love and Dixie’ and ‘The South’. They were a real blast and set the seal on what had been a highly relaxed and musically enjoyable evening, good vibes all around. The audience was noticeably more varied in terms of age than most gigs I’ve been to in recent years, more representative of a festival crowd, and contained many groups of female fans clearly having a whale of a time, which helped create a great atmosphere. This is an event that I hope becomes a regular fixture, a real fun night.

Simon Green

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