The Apple Music Festival (previously The iTunes festival) is currently in its 8th edition, and if you don’t know the drill, it’s basically an event set up by Apple allowing people to see top artists perform over the space of a couple of weeks, in an relatively intimate setting at The Roundhouse in London. The venue itself is an old railway engine shed, which was renovated in the 1960’s as a live music and performing arts venue. With its circular structure and grade two listed build, sound travels particularly well. So it’s no surprise that Apple have chosen to host their festival at The Roundhouse since 2009. This year sees the likes of Ellie Goulding and One Direction performing at the venue. However this year Apple for the first time announced a country musician to be a headline act for one of the nights. You might have heard of her, she goes by the name Carrie Underwood.
I’ve always found it to be a little strange that Carrie Underwood seems to garner more recognition for her work from organisations or music bodies that promote popular music. She can’t win an ACM or CMA award to save her life in recent years, but she’ll easily take home a Grammy. The fact Carrie has been announced as the first country headliner for the Apple Music festival is indicative of how well thought of she is within the music community as a whole.
Aside from Carrie Underwood, the support acts have also demonstrated how far country music has come in appealing to a younger audience. First up was Cam, who has almost crept into our consciousness without any warning and has released her critically acclaimed EP ‘Welcome To Cam Country’ with reasonably strong sales on iTunes. She was a last minute addition to the bill. Her five song set-list gave fans a tantalising glimpse into what’s to come in the future. Unfortunately I missed the start of the set due to the time to get in the venue. However she left her best til last, ‘Burning House’ is further evidence that country musicians do heartbreak rather well, and sung with a sincerity and vocal assuredness, it’s easy to see why she’s gaining traction. ‘My Mistake’ as a more up-tempo track showed her versatility as well (look out for our interview with Cam coming Friday).
Next up were The Shires. Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes have in the space of 18 months gone from relative unknowns to the biggest country act to have emerged from the UK. Their debut album ‘Brave’ was the first country album to hit the top 10 of the all genre album charts, they have headlined their own tour already and are already deep into producing a second album. They have become the very embodiment of what happens when record labels back their artist.
These days, The Shires seem to be the designated support act for pretty much everyone in country music, so I and many other UK country fans will more then likely have been familiar with their music. However exposure and hype brings with it expectation. As usual they both sang in excellent harmony, Ben’s soft but varied vocal range combined with Crissie’s higher and more powerful pitch. One of the criticisms I have had of The Shires in the past, more specifically Crissie is that sometimes they appear a little statuesque in performance. However it was clear to see last night efforts have been made to put more energy into their performance.
Opening with their breakout hit ‘Nashville Grey Skies’, they started building up the atmosphere for the main act. ‘All Over Again’ and ‘Friday Night’ did a similar job, the latter was certainly better then the snapchat cover by myself and Nick. For me The Shires really come into their own during the slower paced love songs, ‘State Lines’ and my personal favourite ‘I Just Wanna Love You’, vocally they really pour the emotion into the song and judging by the focus of the audience a lot of them seemed to connect. Adding Jekyll and Hyde to the set, which although as a song I thought was an odd fit stylistically, I really enjoyed the performance, and was certainly the most energetic I’ve seen them. Safe to say everyone was pumped for the main act.
When Carrie Underwood first came over to the UK in 2012 to play at the Royal Albert Hall, the gig was sold out in just under an hour. So naturally a free concert was always going to be high in demand. Winning tickets were via a random draw by Apple. Due to the venue only around 1600 many fans were able to attend (thanks to Apple for sorting us out!). Getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket would have been more achievable.
Despite Carrie Underwood being among the higher echelons of country music since winning American Idol years ago, it seemed to have took her team a long time to realise she had quite the following in the UK. The Royal Albert Hall gig and C2C appearance did much to demonstrate this. From the two minute intro prior to Carrie going on stage, the determination to really put on a show was certainly apparent, backed by an eight person band.
Carrie Underwood certainly knows how to make an entrance. Opening with ‘Blown Away’ she had everyone hooked within seconds. Just in one song you can see why she’s considered one of the finest vocalists in music. Straight after she went straight into ‘Two Black Cadillacs,’ one of my favourite Carrie Underwood revenge songs.
I could sit here all day and wax lyrical about how amazing her voice is but to be honest we already know that. Apart from her affable, down to earth personality and astonishing talent, Carrie performs songs that connect emotionally with the audience, mainly because of the song itself but in the way she performs them. I am not an overly emotional person, but if you listen to ‘Wasted’ or ‘Little Toy Guns’, she has that ability to suck you in and really sink your thoughts into the songs.
Able to drift seamlessly from a power ballad to a rockier track such as ‘Undo It’ or ‘Last Name’, she showed just why is one of the best live acts in country music. Having been at the top of her game for 10 years now, you could fit another setlist of songs she didn’t play and people would still listen. Carrie Underwood fans are a dedicated bunch (myself included), and impossible to choose a favourite from her set.
With a range of songs from her very first released to her new single ‘Smoke Break’, which by the way has really demonstrated her evolution as an artist by breaking out the guitar in live performance for the first time. The ‘See You Again’ mash-up the Wiz Khalifa hit of the same name, was entertaining, especially the strange but weirdly okay site of Carrie rapping – is there anything she can’t do? The spontaneity brought a rapturous response from the audience.
As I mentioned before I don’t normally find songs emotional but during ‘Jesus Take The Wheel’ and ‘I Know You Won’t’ I am happy to admit there was a tear threatening to emerge, I dare say some may have full on blubbed, but that’s how good she is.
Likewise with Jesus Take The Wheel, Carrie’s genuine passion and devotion to her faith really connects with people, even to non overly religious people like myself, it’s that ability to connect that sets her apart. ‘Something In the Water’ is probably the most passionate and emotional song released in the past couple of years, furthermore it’s criminal that it never got nominated for song/single of the year at the upcoming CMA’s. Having watched the song performed on television and of course listening to it via iTunes, it was nothing in comparison to listening to her in person.
Closing the set with the song that really made her big, ‘Before He Cheats’ to which she encouraged us to sing along, it’s safe to say she left everyone in awe. I imagine thousands of people will have watched her gig live on iTunes but in all honestly it’s scant consolation in comparison to actually being there. It’s hard to pick a highlight because Carrie was consistently awesome throughout the whole set.
Here in the UK we have quite a sceptical view of any reality show musicians trying to make their way through, but tonight was evidence if any was needed at all that Carrie Underwood is more then that. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in 20/30 years time people will still be talking about Carrie Underwood, she’s proved she’s not just a flash in the pan. She’s proved not only is she one of the greatest country music artists, at least in modern times, but bar a couple of exceptions you would hard pushed to find a female vocalist in all of music that just with her voice can leave an audience speechless and spellbound. If Apple charged £40 a ticket just for an acoustic performance with Carrie and her guitarist it would sell out.
Writing about last night is something alone I will treasure, but to put into words how incredible it is to see someone like Carrie Underwood at her peak is impossible even 1500 words later.
Even if it’s just once. Go see her live, it’ll be worth it, that’s all I can say.