Live Review: Under the Apple Tree Roots Festival (Cadogan Hall, London)

Ciara Headlines, Live Review

Bob Harris’ inaugural Under the Apple Tree Roots Festival had the aim of showcasing both well established country and Americana stars as well as up and coming talent. Did it succeed in doing so? I think so.

The first success was in the choice of venue. Cadogan Hall wouldn’t be my first port of call for a country concert, but it fit UTAT down to a tee. As you entered the venue, a small ‘Rootstock Stage’ had been set up in front of the building’s stunning stained glass windows, which provided the perfect backdrop for some great photos. However, even this paled in comparison to the Main Stage in Cadogan Hall’s auditorium which looked like some kind of cathedral to country music, immediately causing me to draw comparisons to Nashville’s Ryman Theatre where the Grand Ole Opry is often held. Should the UK hold its own Opry one day, Cadogan Hall would easily be my first choice.

The second success was in the artists themselves. I had gone to UTAT familiar with three of the artists on the line-up, and had high expectations given Bob Harris’ status as the UK’s premier country music aficionado. The first act taking to the Rootstock Stage was 19 year old singer-songwriter Catherine McGrath who immediately wowed with her raw country voice, reminding me of a young Kacey Musgraves. Songs like Hey Mama and Cinderella highlighted her extensive vocal range, and we were told stories about the inspiration for songs such as Hell Would Have to Freeze Over as well as (particularly important for reviewers) their titles. I was particularly impressed by her country cover of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself which sounded like it should never work, but surprisingly did. Although the first act is often seen as a warm up as people arrive, I certainly felt that I’d have been sad to have missed this. Catherine seemed to be a very personable artist with a lot of talent and potential, and I was pleased to hear that she’d recently signed with Warner Bros Records as I expect big things from this young singer in future.

We then headed into the main auditorium for the first of eight acts playing this stage, Dan Bettridge, who certainly showed the more rootsy Americana side of the festival. His gravelly voice shone in particular on a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, and I loved the simplicity of the event itself as there were no fancy lights or big screens on the stage, allowing you to focus solely on the artist alone. By this point in the festival, I already knew that I’d be coming back next year despite only having seen two acts!

Dan was followed by the duo Lewis & Leigh formed of Al Lewis, hailing from North Wales, and Mississippi’s Alva Leigh. They played a number of songs from their latest album including Devil’s in the Detail, Heart Don’t Want, and Keep Your Ghost, and shared an intimate moment as they sang the easy-listening The 4:19 around one microphone. I thoroughly enjoyed their set and was almost annoyed that I hadn’t heard of them sooner, but pleased that events like UTAT were opening my eyes to artists I might not otherwise have discovered.

Next on the main stage was Squeeze frontman Chris Difford, whose style was completely different from those who had preceded him with a much more ‘old school’ British punk pop vibe. As he sang songs like Up The Junction and Cool For Cats, I wasn’t sure that I would have put him in the country / Americana category that was being highlighted at the UTAT Festival. Nevertheless, this side did come through at some points such as in the song Cowboys Are My Weakness with the subject matter clearly veering more directly into country territory.

Back on the Rootstock Stage was Devon-raised singer Jim Jones who performs under the name ‘Small Town Jones’ so as to be easier to find on Google. He didn’t seem to draw the same crowd as Catherine McGrath had earlier, but this may have been due to the location of the bar directly opposite the stage, leading to a constant hum from people chatting as they ordered their drinks. I enjoyed his rocky songs like Little Blackbird and A Night Full of Ghosts, with a particular highlight being the title track of his latest album Freight Ships. The song had been written and recorded in Texas, and I don’t know what it is about writing in the home of country music, but it always seems to produce better songs, and this was no exception with its long guitar intro and rising and falling vocals.

Back on the Main Stage, we were treated to a mini orchestra who accompanied Judith Owen as she played songs from her latest album Somebody’s Child. Again, here was a style of music that I hadn’t yet come across in country music, as Judith put a unique jazzy Cabaret style twist on her songs.

She was followed by The Lake Poets Martin Longstaff, who played the whole set with just him and his guitar and showing that that’s all you need for an enjoyable performance. Most of his songs had a sad vibe to them, as he professed “I’m not very good at writing happy songs,” but as country should, drew on real experiences – Edinburgh spoke of a fight in a bar he’d had, whilst Black and Blue told the story of a time when one of his pupils at school had shown him bruises inflicted by her father. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all sadness with songs such as See You Tonight, dedicated to his new wife, providing a pleasant change in his set.

Perhaps the most Americana of all the acts was Andrew Combs, whose entire set felt to me like it could easily have been the soundtrack to a Texas Western film. Looking cool and very country in double denim and cowboy boots, Andrew played songs I’m sure many of the crowd recognised from his set at C2C Country to Country earlier this year, starting with the folksy Month of Bad Habits and Rainy Day Song. I enjoyed seeing Andrew play in a very different atmosphere to the big stadium feel of the O2, as his music seemed to be the type that would fit better in intimate venues like Cadogan Hall or the Bluebird. Andrew’s style certainly veers in a completely different direction to most country you’d hear on the radio, with more indie rather than pop influences, stripping back songs such as Foolin’ and Too Stoned to Cry to their bare essentials and allowing us to focus on his voice and lyrics without any unnecessary distractions.

Due to interviewing schedules, I sadly missed Scott Matthews’ set but managed to catch the end of Balsamo Deighton’s set before the final act on the Rootstock Stage, UK country favourites Dexeter. Straight away, they set the tone by telling the crowd they wanted us to be loud and launched into a high energy performance of their song Try mashed with Luke Bryan’s hit Country Girl (Shake It For Me). I absolutely loved lead singer Deeanne’s voice, being undoubtedly the strongest I’d heard that evening, let alone ever – she could give Carrie Underwood a run for her money. Songs from their latest EP such as Weight of the World, Waiting For A Lifetime and Not Giving Up Tonight all seemed to me to be really strong both lyrically and musically, and thought they sounded even better live than on their records. I was really impressed with Dexeter, and think with just a little more support, this band could definitely be one to watch in the UK country circuit.

The penultimate act of the festival was one that I’m sure many people had been waiting for – Ward Thomas. Having made history the night before with their album Cartwheels becoming the first country album to top the UK charts, they were undoubtedly UK country’s ‘act of the moment’. Entering the stage to great applause, they began with Boomerang and Dirt and Gold, both of which made it clear to see how these girls had achieved the number 1 spot, as their style of country was very much pop-infused and therefore easily accessible. The duo were joined by their band, but it was moments when the band stopped playing and you hear only the girls harmonies, such as during their renditions of Material and Where The Sky Is, in which they brought on two of their writers to perform it ‘exactly as it had been written’, that I most enjoyed. The girls are clearly talented singers with a plethora of catchy songs such as hard-not-to-love current single Guilty Flowers and rock out song When It’s Not Me, making it easy to understand their appeal. They left the stage to stamping feet and demands for and encore, to which they obliged with A Town Called Ugley – an end to an enjoyable set which was sadly tinged later when the duo didn’t come out for their allotted signing time, leading to many disappointed fans who I’m sure just wanted to congratulate the girls on their success.

The event ended with country heavyweight Patty Griffin, who certainly looked the part in a long flowing red dress and red cowboy boots. From the moment she began playing her guitar, it was clear that she was a very accomplished musician, a feeling which continues all through her set. Patty’s songs dealt with issues that other artists might have been uncomfortable talking about, such as Good and Gone, about the all too frequent shootings of young black men in the States, and I was pleased that this event showcased more than just singers, but musicians and songwriters too who presented the best of what real and raw country music is all about. Considering you’d have to pay £45 minimum to see one artist at the O2 arena, I can’t say I’d complain about paying the same to see 13 high-calibre artists at UTAT, and look forward to the festival continuing for many years to come.

What were your thoughts on Under the Apple Tree, any of the artists, or my review? Let me know @CiarasCountry and @nashoverhere on Twitter, and be sure to follow for more reviews and interviews!


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Ciara

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Hi! I'm Ciara, long time country music fan, host of 'Ciara's Country' on Purple Radio, and blogger on a mission to bring country music to a wider audience in the UK by proving it's not all about trucks and banjos! I love all kinds of contemporary country, from big Nashville names to the latest UK artists – I'll listen to just about anything. You can normally find me reviewing and interviewing artists at any country music gigs I can find in London or scouring social media looking to find the next big thing!