Dolly Parton was the unexpected highlight of Glastonbury for many people last year and if there was any doubt about the current popularity level of country music today you only have to look at next year’s Country to Country event. Early Bird tickets for the 2016 London shindig have sold out already and the event is being extended to Dublin and Glasgow. With TV shows like Nashville enhancing the key export of Music City, you have a genre that is growing from strength to strength. One of the latest acts on the scene, fresh from their performance at this year’s Country to Country, is The Shires. Their debut album Brave was released in February and the duo are showcasing their English take on what is perceived to be a very American genre at Academy Two in Manchester tonight.
Before they take to the stage, the packed out venue are treated to a stellar performance by two of the hardest working musicians in the business. This is the fourth time John and Jacob have visited Manchester in ten months and each time I am left invigorated and always thoroughly entertained by their performance. Wearing striking purple suits tonight, the charming duo manage to energize the crowd with their upbeat, acoustic mashup of country and indie themes and judging by the crowd participation and band t-shirts on view tonight, their fan base is definitely growing in this part of the world. John and Jacob are another outfit who have benefited from the popularity of Nashville and their amusing introduction to their most famous song, which identified the season and exact episode Be My Girl appears on subtly demonstrated their gratitude. Fan appreciation was certainly demonstrated as they sang the chorus back to the boys from Alabama with real heart. The duo have been compared to The Everly Brothers in the past and the final track of the night acknowledges this with a stomping version of Wake Up Little Suzie. The comparison is perhaps unfair considering John and Jacob usually perform as a more raucous five-piece, but the UK are yet to experience this incarnation of the band. Until that happens, the association is probably valid. This was another great set from the Nashville-based duo and I’m sure I speak for all their fans when I say that I think we’re all ready for the rest of the band next time they visit Manchester, which is fast becoming their second home it appears.
In Manchester tonight, demand for tickets ensured The Shires were boosted from the smaller Academy Three to the current venue. For a band that have not been around too long, the diverse audience greeting Ben Earle and Chrissie Rhodes as they arrive on stage tonight is a testament to the quality of the songs on Brave, which appears to have a little something for everyone, paying tribute to the many forms of country that exist throughout it’s tracklist. Tonight’s setlist definitely has the same effect. Opening song Nashville Grey Skies is a great introduction to the uninitiated. Full of country melodies and soaring harmonies, with a distinctive English twist, the duo are full of energy tonight, engaging the crowd and demonstrating why The Grand Ole Opry, the Mecca of country music, have placed the band on their bill later this spring. Although Chrissie introduces the next song incorrectly (proof that the pair are not just going through the motions) Drink You Away further establishes their credentials; it would be sacrilege not to have a song about booze in your setlist if you want to be country!
All Over Again keeps the show’s tempo upbeat and the pair are gracious and amusing in-between songs. State Lines does demonstrate a change in style and pace and the shifting vocal duties during the song provide clues to one of the duo’s major inspirations. Lady Antebellum have a similar dynamic and the link is enhanced with the boozy Friday Night. More proof if it were needed that you can’t do country unless you’re prepared to deliver the pre-requisite anthems concerning the perfect antidote to a long week at work. It certainly does the trick and the crowd, which consist of an even balance of country boys and girls are able to sing along with gusto. Jekyll and Hyde is next and we’re back on heavier ground once again, proving that they are able to mix it up, appealing to all tastes of the genre.
Made in England is very… English, only this time with a country twist. It’s an evocative song that completely works surrounded by the range of other tracks performed tonight, but time will tell concerning it’s longevity on the set list. The show ends with Tonight and with it’s swelling verses and a sing-a-long-friendly chorus, it’s the perfect song to leave the stage to and The Shires are only happy to return for an encore thanks to the demands of a partisan audience. This allows Ben and Chrissie one final nod to all that has come before them and they perform a respectful version of The Bee Gee’s Islands in the Stream, originally performed by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. It’s a neat way to end the show, proving country is capable of reinventing itself, but still aware of it’s roots and it’s original stars.
For our interview with The Shires, click here.
Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto