Sam Outlaw at Oslo, London

One of the great things about the increasing popularity of country music in the UK is the sheer variety of acts on offer - everything from pop-country to more rock-influenced acts and all the way to traditional/Americana. The latter took centre stage last night with Sam Outlaw's tour hitting London to promote his second album Tenderheart, and I was invited along by my friend Pip (who is also the editor of the excellent website Entertainment Focus and very kindly lets me write for them sometimes) to see him perform at Oslo in Hackney.

Support came from the UK duo Worry Dolls, who I saw at Country to Country earlier this month and loved (you can read my thoughts on them here). Initially they seemed a little more subdued than their C2C performance, possibly because they weren't quite as chatty to start with, although they did get more relaxed as their set went on. That said, I still really enjoyed their performance, which had a nice mix between sparser, stripped-back songs such as 'I Miss You Already' and 'Endless Road' and the driving, stompy beats and snarky lyrics of 'Train's Leaving', 'Bless Your Heart' and 'Same Damn Song'. And their sweet harmonies and simple melodies shone through as always.

Then it was time for Sam, who came out in a shirt that could rival Charlie Worsham's wardrobe (and I mean that as a compliment to both of them!). He started off with the Spanish-influenced 'Who Do You Think You Are', the lead song from his debut album Angeleno, which showcased the old-school drawl in his voice perfectly and got a great reception from the crowd. Next up was a track from the soon-to-be-released Tenderheart, the slower bittersweet 'Diamond Ring'. This mix of songs from the two records was continued throughout the set and I liked the balance this brought by showcasing the new material as well as the audience favourites.

Sam did a great job of showing off all the different sides to his music, from the uptempo songs like 'Trouble', 'Keep It Interesting' and the driving drums of 'Ghost Town' (arguably his biggest hit to date) to the humour of songs like 'Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To A Bar)' and 'She's Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of)'. However, I felt he particularly shone in the acoustic section he performed with his band member Molly Jensen. Their voices blended together beautifully on the likes of the subdued 'Look At You Now' and 'Country Love Song' and I didn't want it to end!

The set was rounded off with Sam's take on Dwight Yoakam's 'Guitars, Cadillacs', one of my favourite songs. It suited his voice perfectly and gave each member of the band a chance to shine. He followed that with a version of 'One More Last Chance' by Vince Gill, which finished the entire set on a high note and left the entire audience wanting more.

Overall Sam's show was absolutely fantastic (if over far too quickly!). His soulful, emotional vocals worked brilliantly on so many different styles of songs and the relationship he has with his band members - all of whom are enormously talented in their own right - made the performance even more special. It was a great sneak peek into what's coming up on the new album and definitely showed he's one to watch in the country music scene. He's coming back over to the UK in July so make sure you snap up tickets for that when they go on sale!

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!