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 - Top Tips For First-Timers [UPDATED FOR 2018]

With C2C 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 (as always) 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. I normally spend an hour or so the weekend before sitting with a giant coffee and a schedule printout - more on those later - which always ends up absolutely covered in scribbles and circles as I try to line up who I'm seeing when and still squeeze in time to eat lunch.

Get there early too; this year things start around 1.30 on Friday and 10 AM on Saturday and Sunday. On the Friday, this means you'll have the pick of the shopping and can grab some food (if you want) before things get going, 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 and the O2 is massive, so make sure you get to the next stage ASAP (which also allows time to buy a drink and use the facilities if you so desire). 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 grab food, 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 - in 2016 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, although I also like to mix in smaller artists I've seen before and like to show my support.

Take five minutes to organise your bag each day. Because the O2 is quite tight on security in the arena, I only pack 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 a book or my Kindle for any queues. In 2017 I upgraded to a jazzy bright foldable rucksack so I could also carry water, snacks, my camera and a phone power pack, as well as any purchases I might make. This is the one I have but I've also seen people using small cross-body bags (of the type that sit on your chest or under your arm) or even bumbags, which are apparently very in this year.

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, so remember to break in your new boots well in advance! In terms of what else to wear, you'll see a real mix of outfits (the guy I sat next to in 2016 turned up every day in full-on cowboy regalia) but I personally go for the classic checked shirt, band T shirt and jeans combo. Although the arena itself can get hot, March isn't exactly the warmest month and it can get chilly at the pop-up stages (particularly the Big Entrance and the new outdoor Town Square stage for 2018) so layers are your friend. For that reason I'd suggest bringing a proper coat as well, as the walk from the O2 to North Greenwich station is longer than you think and it can get 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 bacon sandwich. Also, you're not allowed to take food from outside into the arena so make sure to eat whatever you bring in the queue before going in!

If you are eating out, go early as the restaurants fill up quickly. I prefer to eat 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. My usual lunch choices tend to be Water Margin for the Chinese buffet or the £10 main course, coffee and cake deal at Craft London (on the concourse outside the main entrance), but this year I also really want to try Yalla Yalla.

Turn up in plenty of time to get into the arena. On the Friday in 2016, they moved people sitting in level 4 because it wasn't full, and while luckily I didn't miss anything myself, there were a few people on Twitter complaining they didn't see all of Thomas Rhett's set. Similarly, in 2017 I missed all but three songs of Jennifer Nettles' set because it took so long to get through security, so I'd say you want to get in the line 30-45 minutes before kick-off if possible. This is particularly applicable if you're going in at entrance H (near Building Six and the Intercontinental Hotel) which involves a massive trek round pretty much the whole concourse and always takes longer than you think it should.

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 takes me a good hour each way to get there and back, and after three days of that I'm normally running on caffeine and fumes. I've heard good things about the Travelodge London Docklands or the Holiday Inn at Canning Town, or if you really want to splash out you can stay at the Intercontinental right next door to the O2. And don't forget to 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 wander round, 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 about your favourite acts or how you're finding the festival. If you're worried about being by yourself you could ask around on Twitter or Facebook to see if anyone wants someone to go with - try the C2C Attendees Facebook group - or consider a Meetup group like Play That Country Music! (which I am a co-organiser of; full disclosure and all that).

What are your tips for first-time (or even sixth-time!) C2C attendees? And who are you most looking forward to seeing this year?