Canaan Smith at Bush Hall, London

Canaan Smith was one of the acts I was most excited to see at C2C this year, and his Saturday afternoon appearance on the Radio 2 Country stage didn't disappoint. I was keen to see what he could do with a longer set, so when my friend Pip very kindly offered me his spare ticket to Canaan's Back For More tour date in London this week I jumped at the chance!

Support came from Catherine McGrath, who I mentioned in my recent C2C pop-up stages highlights post. Her poppy, uptempo songs and sweet vocals have led to her being dubbed 'the Irish Taylor Swift' and I can definitely see where the comparison came from, especially on tracks like 'Cinderella', 'Just In Case' and 'Hell Would Have To Freeze Over'. I also liked the playfulness in her lyrics, such as the 'Fix You' reference in the Coldplay concert-themed 'Lights'. Overall, although her set was a little samey I thought she had a lot of potential and sounded great, and I'm interested to see what she does next.

After a short break it was time for the man himself. Canaan took to the stage around 9 PM and I have to say I was a little taken aback - I'd expected him to walk out with a full band as he had at C2C, but instead it was just him with a guitar and one other guitarist. That said, he got a great reception from the crowd and instantly launched us into party mode with his new track 'Sweet Spot'. The almost-rapping in the song's intro had proved divisive when I saw him at C2C, but it definitely helped to get the crowd warmed up, especially as he followed it up with 'Hole In A Bottle' and the laid-back 'Chaos' with its almost reggae feel.

That party tone was short-lived however, as the set took a more introspective turn from there on (although there were still songs like 'Summer And A Six Pack', 'Speed Of My Life' and the rockier 'Mercy' to add a little variety as well). I felt Canaan really shone on these slower numbers, with the  gravelly tone to his voice enhanced by the stripped-back approach. Tracks such as 'Love You Longer' and 'Stuck' really showcased how well he can sing and held the audience completely spellbound.

One particular standout moment for me was hearing Canaan talk about his elder brother, who sadly passed away in a car accident as a teenager. The title track of his debut album Bronco is dedicated to his brother and you could really hear the raw emotion in his voice when he sang it - it showed that he's far more than just a typical 'bro-country' style performer.

Overall I have to say that Canaan's show was really surprising - in a good way. Yes there were still party songs in there, but it was much more introspective than his C2C performance and all the better for it in my view. He also did a really great job of engaging the audience, peppering the set with London references and encouraging singalongs on 'Come Back To Virginia' and his final song, the runaway hit 'Love You Like That'. I always like to see a different side to artists and I think with this show and his appearances at C2C, Canaan Smith is destined for big things.

Charlie Worsham at the Borderline, London

A version of this review appeared on Entertainment Focus on Friday 17 March 2017.

Confession time: I saw Charlie Worsham three times in one day at C2C this year (once at the Bluebird, once on the Radio 2 stage and - although I didn't expect this one - once during Hunter Hayes' set). He was definitely one of my highlights of the weekend and, with sophomore album 'Beginning of Things' due out in London, I couldn't resist snapping up a ticket to the second-to-last date of his mini-tour of the UK.

The Borderline has just undergone a major refurbishment so Charlie's show was the unofficial opening, and I have to say it looks pretty good. It's still small and intimate and definitely still a music venue, but much nicer inside; the wrap-around bar looks really cool, and the lighting in the corridor is mind-bendingly brilliant. A warning: you will get confused about where the way out is. The colourful cattle skulls on the wall strongly suggest they're going for a rock/Americana feel (something reflected in the listings on the website, which currently include Jarrod Dickenson, Andrew Combs and Mo Pitney).

Alex Francis was the opening act, taking to the stage with just a guitar and an amp. The mix of acoustic guitar and his slightly gravelly, bluesy voice worked really well together, especially on songs like 'Make Believe' and 'Somewhere In Your Memory', where he hit some serious notes! He also got the crowd singing and clapping along to his shouldn't-work-but-does cover of Aretha Franklin's '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'. I predict we'll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

Then it was time for Charlie, who came on stage to a rapturous reception. It was obvious from the start that the audience were hanging on his every word and singing along throughout. That created a great vibe between him and the crowd and it was clear he was feeding off their energy. He was really warm and engaging throughout, telling stories about what he'd been up to in London and joking about the current situation in America which got everyone laughing.

That storytelling carried over into the songs, with Charlie's clever lyrics and quick delivery working well together without being overwhelming. In particular I loved the more humorous songs, such as 'Lawn Chair, 'The Naked Song' and the Beatles-esque 'Take Me Drunk I'm Home'; it's rare to find an artist who can pull that off, but he does it in spades. He also showed off his impressive guitar skills throughout, including a bluegrass section that got a thunderous round of applause!

The set list covered a real mix of songs from Charlie's debut LP 'Rubberband' and his new record, from uptempo songs like 'Young To See' and 'Cut Your Groove' to rockier moments on 'Rambling On', which he mashed up with Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Throughout the set Charlie's vocals were very strong, showcasing real power and emotion. However, I felt he particularly shone on the slower numbers such as 'For Old Times Sake' and 'How I Learned To Pray', the latter of which held the previously rowdy crowd absolutely spellbound. 'Call You Up' was another highlight; you could hear the rawness in his voice and it sounded spectacular played on just acoustic guitar, in comparison to the horns on the studio version.

For the encore Charlie played a version of Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler' (which was my favourite of his three covers of the night), as well as his first US single 'Could It Be', the ballad 'Mississippi in July' and 'Rubberband'. Those four songs worked absolutely perfectly as a showcase for his talents as a musician and a storyteller as well as his impressive vocal range – almost like a version of the whole show in miniature.

Overall Charlie's performance was fantastic and I didn't want it to end. Although the stripped-down nature of his set suited the size of the Borderline perfectly, with songs and style like that it won't be long before he's packing out far bigger venues. Plus it's obvious that he loves playing in the UK (and the audience love him) – he promised to come back 'twice a year for the rest of my life' and told us it was 'a night I'll never forget'. Based on that performance, I don't think I will either.

C2C: Country to Country 2017 - 5 Pop-Up Stage Highlights

A version of this article first appeared on Entertaiment Focus on Monday 13 March 2017.

One of the best things about C2C is the great new music you get to discover on the pop-up stages. The festival is a huge showcase for the sheer range on offer in country – everything from traditional bluegrass to more pop- or rock-influenced acts – and there really is something for everyone. As a result it was tough to get down to my highlights, but here are my top five acts from the pop-up stages who I'd recommend checking out as soon as you can:

1: Backwoods Creek

Backwoods Creek are one of my favourite new discoveries and they got things off to a great start at Club WM on the first day of C2C. The six-piece group have a really great relationship which shines through on stage; their energy was so infectious that and they got the crowd singing along even at 2 PM! Their music is a real mix from the stomping twang of 'Do As I Say (Not What I Did)' to the honky-tonk ballad 'Lonely House' via the fast and frenetic 'Freedom On Wheels'. Plus their cover of Zac Brown Band's 'Chicken Fried' was fantastic.
Catch them next at: Two Ways Home's Roundup event on 4th May before Buckle and Boots Festival on 25th June.

2: Worry Dolls

UK indie-folk country duo Worry Dolls were one of those happy C2C moments where deciding not to go to the big pop-up act paid off in spades. Their gorgeous harmonies and sassy lyrics reminded me of Ward Thomas on songs like the singalong 'Train's Leaving', the wronged-woman anthem 'Bless Your Heart' and the stripped-back ballad 'Miss You Already'. Plus Zoe and Rosie have great chemistry together on stage; it felt like hanging out with cool country-loving friends. Quirky, unique and all the things I love about UK country.
Catch them next at: Supporting Sam Outlaw at Oslo in Hackney on 30th March - plus loads more dates on their website

3: Logan Brill

Logan Brill has a very eclectic style – her music covers everything from country and pop to Americana and blues. She wowed the crowd with her set at the Big Entrance Stage on Sunday, marrying wistful lyrics with driving beats and twangy guitar. Highlights for me were the soaring and soulful 'World Still Round', the sassy yet slowed-down 'Walk of Shame' and the heartbreakingly beautiful 'I Wish You Loved Me'. One to check out if you like Brandy Clark, Aubrie Sellers and Ashley Monroe.
Catch her next at: Keep an eye on her website for dates.

4: The Wandering Hearts

London-based four-piece The Wandering Hearts were one of the acts I was looking to before C2C and they didn't disappoint. Their style is very alt-country and Americana-influenced, with elements of The Lumineers and (dare I say it) Chris Stapleton, but adding a poppy twist on songs like 'Today Is Ours', 'Biting Through The Wires' and 'Rattle My Bones'. Even early on the Sunday morning they still had the crowd singing and dancing along and their voices blended perfectly together.
Catch them next at: Red Rooster in June.

5: Jarrod Dickenson

I heard so much about Jarrod during C2C weekend so had to check him out for myself, and I'm very glad I did. In just three songs, his acoustic set and smoky tone had the audience completely rapt. The standout track was 'A Cowboy and the Moon' (although 'Rosalie' was a very close second), which showcased his storytelling lyrics and soulful, bluesy voice brilliantly. He was the last pop-up act I saw at C2C and definitely finished that part of the festival off perfectly.
Catch him next at: The Borderline in Soho on Thursday 23rd March.

Honourable mentions: the gorgeous, delicate vocals of Catherine McGrath; the jangly guitar meets cheeky yet introspective lyrics of Jake Morrell (who also does a mean Beautiful South cover); Scottish husband-and-wife duo Raintown, who rocked out Building Six; and Beth Thornton, whose gorgeous voice and soaring melodies made me cry (in a good way!).

Overall the standard of pop-up acts at C2C this year was incredibly high (as always), but wherever you went there was always some excellent music to be heard – and all for free. The organisers did a fantastic job picking them and I can't wait to see who they introduce us to next year!

C2C Social featuring High Valley at Bush Hall

After the success of the first C2C Social with Lucie Silvas in September last year (you can read my review of that here), two more shows were announced hot on its heels. Sadly I couldn't make it to the December event with Ward Thomas - although I was lucky enough to get tickets to their tour this spring so more on that soon! - but I did manage to snap up a ticket to the first C2C Social of 2017, featuring Canadian country duo High Valley.

Hot on the heels of their major label debut album, Dear Life, and current single 'Make You Mine' which is climbing the US country charts, show day finally rolled around on Saturday and I set off out into the freezing cold and snowy February night to Bush Hall in West London. The length of the queue outside even when I got there at 7.40pm is proof (if it were needed) that country fans are a hardcore bunch!

I've never been to Bush Hall before so was pleasantly surprised to see how lovely it is inside - all chandeliers and plaster cherubs on the wall. According to the bloke stood behind me whilst we were waiting for the show to start, it had been a dance hall in the Victorian era before falling into disrepair and has since been restored to its former glory. Other high points: relatively cheap beer (by London music venue standards anyway) and pleasantly warm after being outside - although that did mean it was ridiculously hot later on, but still...

The support act was American Young, who I've heard bits of on Spotify but had never seen live before. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a violin, they took to the stage and held the audience absolutely mesmerised for 45 minutes. Standout tracks for me were the catchy 'Point Of View', 'Love Is War', 'The Soldier's Wife' and the haunting 'God Sends A Train'. I loved the storytelling element to their lyrics and their strong partnership shone through on stage too.

Finally it was time for High Valley, who came on stage to an absolutely rapturous reception. They kicked off with 'I Be U Be', a song from their album which is pretty typical of their sound - stomping beats, twangy guitars and singalong choruses. This was the tone of much of the set, largely taken from Dear Life, which they swept through at an almost breakneck pace, interspersed with them chatting to their audience about the history behind their songs. In particular it was great to hear album favourites like 'She's With Me', 'I Ain't Changin'' and 'Young Forever' sung at full volume by possibly the most enthusiastic audience I've heard at a country gig.

However, the brothers Rempel were also keen to show us they aren't one-trick ponies, with slower songs like 'The Only' and 'The Only Way He Knew How', a lovely tribute to their taciturn dad (which I'm not ashamed to admit made me cry). They also threw in a couple of covers, most noticeably John Michael Montgomery's 'Be My Baby Tonight' which led to an impromptu dance competition! Throughout the show they kept the audience's energy up, encouraging everyone to clap along and sing (not that they needed much help to be honest...) and it was great to see how much they were enjoying themselves.

The boys finished their set with 'Make You Mine', which got everyone stamping and hollering at the tops of their voices, before taking their bows and leaving the stage. However, the crowd clearly didn't want them to leave and spent a good few minutes singing the 'whoa-oh-oh' line from 'Make You Mine' to summon them back on. They returned to play 'Dear Life' for the encore, finishing on a brilliant high and leaving everyone wanting more.

Overall I had an amazing time at High Valley's live show and can't wait for them to come back to the UK. They delivered a really brilliant, uptempo, fun performance and their energy was infectious. Plus I got *this* close to catching Curtis' (the one with the beard) guitar pick but wasn't quick enough getting it off the floor. Oh well, you can't have everything...

C2C: Country To Country Festival - Tips For First-Timers

With C2C 2017 fast approaching, I thought today I'd do a post on the festival experience for anyone who's heading to this year's event for the first time. I had the most amazing time at C2C last year and am stupidly excited to be going back in March. However, there were things I wish I'd known before I went, so I'm hoping this post will help any people who are C2C newbies have a great experience! Here are my top tips...

Plan, plan, plan. You're not going to get to see everyone you want to, so prioritise the three pop-up acts you want to see most each day and plan around them. Get there early too; on the Friday, it means you can do any shopping and have lunch before things start, whilst on Saturday and Sunday it means you can get the best spots for the early pop-up acts. This also applies if you're moving between venues, as there's usually a 15-minute gap between acts so get to the venue ASAP (which also allows time to buy a drink and use the facilities if needed). That said...

Be prepared to be flexible. Trying to pack in too much will leave you exhausted and you won't enjoy it as much as if you can take your time. If you have some space in your schedule, it gives you the opportunity to have lunch, do a bit of shopping or just wander round and soak up the atmosphere. Plus it means you can go to see acts at short notice - last year they announced The Shires were playing on Twitter at the last minute and I'm really glad I had space in my schedule to see them. Be open about seeing new bands as well; some of the best acts I saw at last year's festival were the ones I'd never heard of before.

Take five minutes to organise your bag each day. I only brought the essentials - tickets, map, timetable (all in a plastic folder ordered by day), purse with a day's worth of cash and my debit card, keys, phone, a few bits of make-up (concealer, cream blush, lipstick) to touch up, breath mints, hand sanitiser, hand cream and my Kindle for queues. This year I've upgraded to a jazzy bright rucksack so I can also carry water, snacks, my camera and a phone power pack, as well as any purchases I might make.

One final planning note: get the C2C app for news about competitions or meet and greets (though I found it easier to enter via Instagram and Twitter). However, for stage times the Nashville Over Here printable timetables were easier to cross-reference who was where when. They usually come out a couple of weeks before the festival  so keep an eye on the site. I even got asked about them by a random passer-by so it might be worth bringing spares to hand out!

Wear comfortable shoes. This was by far and away the most common tip I got on Twitter, and I thoroughly agree. There is a lot of walking around involved and it's likely you'll have to sprint between venues at least once! In terms of what else to wear, you'll see a real mix of outfits but I went for a checked shirt over a T-shirt and jeans - the arena can get hot, but March isn't the warmest month and it can get chilly at the pop-up stages, particularly the Big Entrance. For that reason I'd suggest bringing a proper coat as well, as the walk from the O2 to North Greenwich is longer than you think and it's cold late at night.

Bring water and snacks, and eat a good breakfast before you come out. Food at the O2 is not cheap, particularly in the arena, and healthy options are limited. You can go one of two ways with this - bring your own stuff or give in and have a blowout. I went for the latter and my skin was still paying for it two weeks later, so this year I'm packing healthy snacks (think Nakd bars, chocolate-covered rice cakes, bananas and popcorn) and water to save money and not feel quite so guilty about my Sunday morning Smokestak. Also, you're not allowed to take food from outside into the arena so make sure to eat whatever you bring before going in!

If you are eating out, go early as the restaurants fill up quickly. I'd have a big late lunch and then a lighter dinner just before the headliner - that way you won't be fretting about your meal not arriving as it gets closer to the start time. It might also be worth looking out for special offers or vouchers for any restaurants beforehand to help save money (although bear in mind some places won't let you use these during an event).

If you're sitting in level 4, be aware you may get moved if it's not full. They did this on the Friday last year and although I personally didn't miss anything, there were a few people on Twitter complaining they didn't see all of Thomas Rhett's set. So if it's not sold out (which at the time of writing it isn't), it might be worth turning up a bit early to make sure you see the whole show.

Even if you live in London, I would very strongly consider getting a hotel, especially if you want to go to any of the late night shows. I don't live that far from the O2 but it still took me a good hour to get home every night and, when you've got a 10AM start, doing that for three days on the trot is draining. For that reason, I'd also take the Monday off work (or work from home) to recuperate if you can. And check the TfL website for any engineering works affecting your route to and from the O2 on the weekend if you're using public transport. If you're driving, book your parking ASAP to save some cash.

Finally, enjoy it! It can be a bit overwhelming the first time you go, but take the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere and try something new. In my experience country fans are a really friendly bunch and happy to chat to anyone, so don't be afraid to strike up a conversation. If you're worried about being by yourself you could ask around on Twitter to see if anyone wants someone to go with, or consider a Meetup group like Play That Country Music! to hang out with like-minded folk during the festival.

What are your tips for first-time (or even fifth-time!) C2C attendees? And who are you most looking forward to seeing? Personally I can't wait for Brad Paisley and Zac Brown Band...