C2C festival review – side-eye and satin suits in biggest country celebration yet

O2 Arena, London
The millennials who are reshaping country music dominated the lineup of the three-day fest, but Emmylou Harris and others kept tradition alive

The stetsons start at the tube station, crowning the heads of perhaps half the punters making their way to the opening night of Country to Country 2018. Launched in 2013, the festival has evolved even as country music itself has sprung off down a dozen different byways; starting as a two-night, one-city shindig, C2C now sprawls across three nights and, with the addition of Glasgow and Dublin, three cities. The chrome-plated O2 isn’t a natural home for music rooted in what Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles calls “brokenness and realness”, but needs must – there are so many stages that it wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Underlining country’s growing stature in the UK, Radio 2 sets aside three primetime hours on Saturday night for a live broadcast.

Lukas Nelson at the C2C festival
Dazzling … Lukas Nelson at the C2C festival. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

The hats, and the anchoring commitment to realness, are the only constants of an event that heavily favours the new and the now, leaving traditionalism in the hands of a scant few acts, such as Friday headliners Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and Sunday’s second on the bill, Emmylou Harris. (To be fair, the reception that greets both country’s glamorous first couple and the resplendent Harris hints that tradition is still very much alive.) The millennial artists who are reshaping the genre are here in their numbers, further blurring the lines between country and pop, rock and even rap. A dazzling Lukas Nelson, who has inherited his father Willie’s high-and-lonesome vocal style, pinpoints the way priorities have shifted when he comments: “We play rock’n’roll, but with a little twang.” And sometimes the twang is notably secondary, as with Alabaman Walker Hayes’s set; he thuds and booms with the help of a loop pedal, jabbing an accusing finger at life.

Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town
Abba lookalikes … Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

Meanwhile, Grammy-winning Sunday headliners Little Big Town look like Abba and open with a none-less-country version of Elton John’s Rocket Man. They later revert to type with warm, rootsy harmonising, but the message is that “country” now means whatever you want it to mean. Even McGraw and Hill arrive holding hands to a Bat Out of Hellish rock overture, followed by the Aretha Franklin/George Michael pop grinder I Knew You Were Waiting for Me. Drawing the biggest crowd of the weekend, the duo play their individual hits but are more powerful when duetting: a soft argument in favour of marriage?

While Nashville has never been short of female musicians who can pulverise errant men with one well-turned aphorism, many more have lately been emerging. C2C’s gender-equal billing spotlights so many purposeful, unencumbered women that it’s easy to believe the glass ceiling has taken some sledgehammer blows lately. One of Friday’s key acts, Kelsea Ballerini, honed her style by listening to Taylor Swift; like Swift, she effectively mixes bounciness and pithy side-eye (“I thought I’d miss you, but I miss me more/Miss my own sheets in the bed I made up”). On Sunday, Margo Price follows the sartorial traditions – cowgirl hat, white satin suit – but kicks her set into orbit by getting behind the drumkit and busting out a fabulous swampy groove.

Kacey Musgraves, who closes Saturday, is a cheery but self-contained contrast to the weekend’s boisterous spirits. Announcing that she has recently married, she unfurls “trippy” material from her forthcoming album, Golden Hour. It’s a newlywed’s dreamy riposte to the ugliness of current politics, but the arch cynicism of older tracks like Stupid somehow feels more in keeping with the times.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Download festival review – Guns N' Roses dominate metal's biggest party
Marilyn Manson is a chilled-out entertainer, Avenged Sevenfold comfortably top the bill and Ozzy Osbourne feels the love during the metal marathon

Dom Lawson

11, Jun, 2018 @10:09 AM

Article image
Big noise: the essential pop, jazz and folk music of autumn 2018
Young talents and old hands hit the road, intriguing festivals mix things up, and there’s the first posthumous release from Prince

Alexis Petridis, Robin Denselow, John Fordham and Imogen Tilden

27, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Latitude festival review – stylish, dramatic and surprisingly edgy
It may be the most middle-class of events, but pink sheep, Scottish sarcasm and Stereophonics singalongs notwithstanding, it was still classy

Dave Simpson

22, Jul, 2019 @10:33 AM

Article image
Lovebox festival review – Solange intoxicates the smiley revellers
The relocated event settled into its new home with strong sets from Lizzo, 2 Chainz, J Hus and the blessed Chance the Rapper

Hannah J Davies

14, Jul, 2019 @1:39 PM

Article image
Private loos and distance dancing: we go partying at Britain's only festival
Our writer joins the lip-syncers, wild swimmers and sourdough masters at the tiny Warwickshire event and asks – is this the future of festivals?

Michael Segalov

31, Aug, 2020 @12:09 PM

Article image
Supersonic review – genre-melting festival metes out glorious chaos
This shindig for ‘curious audiences’ ran the gamut from Moor Mother’s fierce spoken word to Yves Tumor’s nihilist punk to soothing folk from Shirley Collins

Daniel Dylan Wray

25, Jun, 2018 @2:15 PM

Article image
Field Day review – shifting sounds tighten up London's festival scene
Under orders not to upset new neighbours, Field Day got strict with its headliners – pulling the plug on an overtime Erykah Badu – while serving a jazzy lineup of fresh stars

Chal Ravens

03, Jun, 2018 @11:28 AM

Article image
End of the Road festival review – potent bacchanalia and mysticism
‘See you in the twilight zone’ says one musician; EOTR has enough weirdness, charm and shaggy charisma to weather our end-of-days era

Jazz Monroe

02, Sep, 2019 @11:01 AM

Article image
Sŵn festival review – weirdness and wonder in Cardiff's alt-pop paradise
Based everywhere from an Irish chain pub to an antiques centre, this slickly organised festival shows how varied and vibrant today’s indie scene is

Huw Baines

22, Oct, 2019 @8:30 AM

Article image
TRNSMT festival review – Lewis Capaldi is the man of the moment
TRNSMT may be haunted by the ghost of T in the Park, but a new all-female stage and crowd-pleasing performances by Stormzy and George Ezra make for a successful replacement

Graeme Virtue

15, Jul, 2019 @11:42 AM