First Published March 2017
THE BRILLIANCE OF C2C SHORTENS THE MILES BETWEEN DUBLIN AND NASHVILLE
Amazingly enough for a guy who’s not only a life-long country music fan, but also happens to be a country music writer, I’d never managed to make it to C2C before this year! Not even once. Not even close, actually. And I won’t lie, it does slightly shame me to admit that.
But it’s never been for the want of trying, you can be sure of that. The simple truth is that, life being life, a myriad of uncontrollable circumstances conspired to halt every attempt I ever made to make what, for tens of thousands of country music fans, has become a yearly pilgrimage to Dublin’s 3Arena for a weekend of Nashville in our own backyard. Work, no work (so no dollars!), sickness, death, weddings, births, you name it, and at some stage it’s probably played a part in keeping me away from the biggest American country music event in Ireland each year. They’ve each queued up to step in front of me and declare, ‘Thou shalt not pass!’
This year, though, this year I hoped would be different. Heck, this year I prayed would be different! And it was. So now, at long last, I can say it….I’VE BEEN TO C2C!
Buuuut…..only just! As the saying goes, planning is essential, but plans, well, plans are useless. So once again, with life being life, the plan that I’d be there for all three nights started to come undone almost as fast as it had finally fallen into place. Thankfully, however, salvation arrived at the very last minute and so it was that day three of C2C 2017 finally became my first ever experience of this glorious piece of Music City heaven transported to Irish soil.
So, was it worth the wait? Oh man, was it ever!!
Any show that features Reba and Darius Rucker at the top of the bill would, to be frank, worth going through hell itself to get to. Throw in a couple of opening acts like the utterly fabulous Dan & Shay, and the awesome Hunter Hayes, and you’re talking about a few hours of life where absolutely nothing else in the world matters because on the stage right in front of you, there’s an almost non-stop musical magic show taking place. And speaking of stages, it would be remiss of me not to note the Sunday World stage which saw Irish artists like The Honky Tonk Angels, Cliona Hagan, Barry Kirwan, John McNichol and Una Healy entertain fans between the sets on the main stage.
But of course, in order for so many fans to enjoy the music, so much has to happen behind the scenes, and happen at the right time, and in the right way, too. And what struck me about C2C right from the moment I disembarked from the Luas at the iconic Point venue, was the superb organisation all round. The stewards outside were friendly, polite, and happy to answer any questions, and all of the staff working inside were exactly the same. I’m sure the good-natured atmosphere created by so many country fans who were just there for a good time and to enjoy themselves helped, but credit where it’s due, too, because no event of this scope and size could happen successfully without the people who keep such a machine ticking over. I tip my hat to each and everyone one of them.
And the event itself did run pretty much like a machine, too, with barely a breath between the action on the main stage ending and the music beginning on the Sunday World stage, with the same thing happening in reverse as the set of whoever was on the Sunday World stage came to a close. Again, as anybody who’s ever been involved in a big event will agree, these things don’t just happy by accident. It’s the result of planning, preparation, and most importantly of all, excellent teamwork.
Dan & Shay kicked off the main event, and I’ll tell you what, these guys know how to get a show underway in style. As it happens, a good friend of mine knows Shay Mooney and had told me on numerous occasions that, in his opinion, Shay is probably the greatest vocalist in Nashville right now. With their debut album, ‘Where It All Began’ already in my collection going into this weekend, I knew I liked the guys’ sound, and yeah, I couldn’t argue with the fact that Shay can certainly sing alright. But folks, I have to tell you, until you hear him sing ‘live’, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how spectacularly majestic this man’s voice really is! Now I know exactly what my friend was talking about. And now, when someone asks me who I think the best male vocalist is in country music right now, I can answer without a second’s hesitation: Shay Mooney. Simple as that.
Together with Dan Smyers, this duo had the Irish audience in the palm of their hands from the minute they bounced on stage, full of life, full of energy, and yeah, full of love for what they get to do for a living, and for the fans they were getting to do it for that night. And that love was reciprocated in kind as the audience thrilled a clearly delighted but surprised Dan and Shay by being able to join in with singing along to so many of their songs.
Hunter Hayes was next up and if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that he might struggle to match the blistering pace Dan and Shay had opened with, such thoughts didn’t last long. You get the impression that, much like Brad Paisley, Hunter must surely have been born with a guitar in his hands. It doesn’t seem possible that a human being could have such a connection with an instrument otherwise. Hunter plays with an ease that makes his guitar seem more like an extension of his own body than an actual instrument. Legend has it that he got his first guitar from the actor Robert Duvall when Hunter was only six years of age. A year later, Hunter was performing for President Clinton at the White House. In recent times he’s opened for two ladies whose talents have made them two of the biggest names in music in general, nevermind just country, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.
What I loved about Hunter was the time he took to chat with the audience, and the fact that, as with Dan and Shay before him, it was clear to see he was genuinely excited to be in Dublin, and somewhat humbled at the affection being showered down upon him from all sides of the 3Arena. At one point, as he seemed to float from one end of the stage to the other, he remarked, breathlessly, ‘Dublin, I got to tell you guys, my heart is beating so fast right now!’ Cue more love and screams all around. An early highlight of the night was when Hunter decided to share a brand new song, one that hasn’t even been recorded yet. If memory serves, it was called ‘I’ll Try’, and when this gorgeous ballad finally is recorded and makes it onto a Hunter Hayes album, I’ll be one of the thousands happy to claim we heard it first in Dublin at C2C 2017.
In jeans, t-shirt, and a ballcap Darius Rucker came ready to party, and he met with an audience who came ready to help him make that happen, by being ready to adore him and having no qualms about letting their adoration be known and seen. And it’s so easy do that, to adore this performer. I guess it’s a combination of things, and no doubt part of it is the professionalism of being an entertainer for so long and knowing just how to get a crowd on your side. But with Darius Rucker, I always feel there’s more to it than that. He has this way of making a venue like the 3Arena feel so intimate and chilled that it might as well have been a family party more so than a concert from one of country’s biggest stars. I had the pleasure of seeing him open for Brad Paisley in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre a few years back, and that is an intimate venue. That gig still ranks as one of my all-time favourites. And my point is that Darius was able to create and generate the same love and energy and fun in the multi-thousand seater 3Arena, as he did in the Olympia, which holds only a few hundred.
But what best describes the ‘Rucker Effect’ more than anything is this: when he played that Olympia show, we (myself and my girlfriend, who’s not a country fan as such) were right up near the front, so close that we could see the sweat glisten on his forehead, in fact. At one stage, he happened to look down mid-song and meet her eye, and he smiled and winked at her. She still talks about it. And whatever about country music in general, THAT was the exact moment she became a Darius Rucker fan for life! I was sharing this story with my friend Ken (the man responsible for the cool shots which accompany this little account), and his response was that he couldn’t blame her, because he was only seeing and hearing Darius for the very first time and he was already in love with him, too!!
For many present, Rucker absolutely stole the show. His version of his hit ‘Wagon Wheel’ struck a chord with all, as it’s become one of the most well-known songs in Ireland ever since Nathan Carter made it his signature tune. Even better than that, though, was when he began to introduce a song by declaring that no matter what anyone thinks, some songs are just good songs, this was a song that, for him, fell right into that category….’Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots…’ Que mass audience participation! He followed that up, quite unexpectedly, but most fantastically, with another tune which he said could only be described as another good song…and his stunning band kicked into a kickass version of the Blackstreet hit, ‘No Diggity.’
Darius ended his set with a performance that, well, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a song so packed with emotion that if it had literally brought the house down, it would have been accepted as the only thing that could have happened. He introduced it by dedicating it to all of the stars the world had lost in the previous year, Bowie and Cohen to name but two of those mentioned, and of course, Prince. The few minutes of ‘Purple Rain’ which followed will stay in my memory until my last breath eventually leaves my own body. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in still feeling that way.
I think there’s a lot of artists who would have been more than a little nervous about having to wrap up a show that had already seen Dan and Shay, then Hunter Hayes, and then Darius Rucker give masterfully crafted performances of such sublime beauty, raw passion, and sheer fun.
But Reba…..! Well, Reba was perfection. If you thought that no-one could possibly follow Dan and Shay, you would have been wrong, because Hunter Hayes accepted the challenge, took the baton, and kept things at the level set by the boys. Then if you thought it would have been tough for anyone to top Hunter, well again, you would have been wrong. But only because it was Darius who came next. And Darius… wow. Just WOW! Under any other circumstances his performance would have been the show-topper and show-stopper. Game over.
But Reba….! When Reba walked on stage and began to perform, the reception she received took the night out of Earth’s orbit and sent it heading for a place none of us had ever been before. To have been in the presence of a true living legend of American country music was indeed an honour, and certainly one I’ll never forget. Her performance doesn’t require any more than this: Reba was Reba. And we loved her for it.
But I will end with a story that shows you exactly why Reba is such an iconic figure, and one of the greatest country stars of all time. Back in 1999, I happened to be staying in Nashville with friends. And as luck would have it, they happened to have a friend who was working on Reba’s latest video at the time, for a song called, ‘What Do You Say?’ Being well aware of how much I loved country music, they very graciously and generously went out of their way to arrange for me to spend two days on the set, watching it all happen! I couldn’t believe it!
On the second day, Reba herself finally arrived to film her scenes. I was in the canteen on-site when she got there, and what happened next stunned me but has stayed with me ever since. And from this moment on Reba became the standard by which I judge all ‘stars’, whoever they are and whatever they might have achieved. Because, realistically, there are few ‘stars’ who are as big as Reba, or who have achieved as much.
Reba, together with her husband at the time, Narvel Blackstock, went around to every single person in the canteen, shook hands with them, and introduced herself. That’s right. Reba herself, actually made a point of taking the time to meet with and say hi to every single person in the room. As if anyone there would not have known who she was! But that wasn’t the point. The point was, that everyone mattered. And by taking the time to introduce herself, Reba was making sure everyone knew that they mattered.
Like I said, Reba is Reba. And that’s why we’ve always loved her. And why we always will, too.
Roll on C2C 2018! And next time – fingers crossed! – three days!!!