I hope that the doorman who greeted me at St George’s Hall for the CMA Songwriters Series got to sit in on the show. When I asked him if I was in the right place, he responded hesitantly with “for the Country & Western thing? Yeah, just through here”. The way he said it made me very suspicious. The fact he added “thing” confirmed these suspicions. This man clearly hadn’t been exposed to contemporary country music. If he did sit in, I hope that he was pleasantly surprised.
This mini tour of the UK by four US singer-songwriters, ahead of Country Music Week, stopped off in Liverpool and they performed in one of the most beautiful venues that I have ever come across. The regal architecture of St George’s Hall provided an incredible backdrop for this songwriters’ round. With gold columns behind them and a shimmering chandelier above, it seemed a bit subversive to be listening to songs whose settings were a million miles away from such a palatial space. At the same time, the concert room’s acoustics were perfect, enabling the full range of emotions conjured up by the artists to be not only heard but felt.
Kicking us off was Canadian singer-songwriter Tenille Townes. Wearing leopard-print heels, leather boots, and a black dress with gold buttons, this sassy lady has a real punkish edge to her music. It seems like the sound engineers took a bit of time to find the right levels on the microphone as her opening song, ‘Where You Are’, faded in and out. There was no doubting her exquisite vocal style though, very reminiscent of Anne Marie. By the time we came around to her again, for ‘Jersey on the Wall’, any sound issues had been dealt with, and we were able to appreciate every thick lick of her vocals around the poignant lyrics of this highly-emotional song.
In between Townes’ first two songs, we were introduced to the three other artists on the bill. Next came Chris DeStefano, whose name might not be familiar, but whose songs will be instantly recognisable to many country music fans. The man in black (and the only male on this particular bill) began with his biggest hit, a co-write with Carrie Underwood which went on to become a No.1 single, ‘Good Girl’. His clean vocals made this version a little bit less gritty than Carrie’s, but you could tell that he was particularly proud of this song. He took the prize for the longest-held note of the night too, an early but unbeatable contender that got him firmly on side with the cheering audience.
Following Chris was a lady who, I think, is destined for very big things on both sides of the pond. Kassi Ashton was full of humorous quips and asides from the off, offering us some sage advice alongside her stunning musical performances. She began with her debut single, ‘California, Missouri’, a perspective on her hometown told in a fusion style of country and hip-hop. I’m not sure the label of a ‘female Sam Hunt’ is the best description, but it captures a little of her style for those unfamiliar with her music. Ashley Campbell completed the line-up, the daughter of the legendary Glen Campbell beginning with ‘Better Boyfriend’, a song full of dry wit, before turning her hand to more reflective songs in subsequent turns. ‘The Lonely One’ and ‘Nothing Day’ followed, before a beautiful cover version of ‘Gentle on my Mind’ found the audience in a complete trance. When one gentleman in the audience sung the title line every time it came around, I couldn’t help thinking that it was the spirit of Glen joining in with his daughter. Powerful stuff.
It was great to have a real mix of the familiar and the new at this event. Although DeStefano was a new voice, his song choices were very familiar. During his next two turns, he chose to play the Brett Eldredge song ‘Don’t Cha’ (which he produced) and Dan + Shay’s ‘From the Ground Up’ (which he co-wrote). We were then treated to his first solo single ‘Wide Open’ which, if any evidence were needed that DeStefano will be ok branching out on his own, this is it. Meanwhile, Townes continued to display her tenacious sound with a ferocious rendition of ‘White Horse’ that echoed wonderfully around the auditorium. She then followed up with ‘Change My Mind’, the first time she’d publicly played this co-written song, and one which Lucie Silvas fans would have been all-too-familiar with. In between, Kassi Ashton continued to produce an astounding portfolio of material. Recently signed and having not yet released an album, if songs ‘California, Missouri’, ‘Lie with Me’, and her second single ‘Taxidermy’ are an insight into what is to come from this down-to-earth and very funny lady, then we are in for a real treat.
The final round of this songwriters round was a real belter. Townes ably closed her set list with the fantastic ‘Somebody’s Daughter’ before DeStefano busted out a real showstopper with ‘The Champion’. I wondered how anyone could follow that, but Ashton did to spine-tingling effect. ‘The Straw’ was perhaps the highlight of the night, a song that held the audience captive from start to finish. Ashton embodied the music, feeling every note and every word. Comparisons with Adele and Amy Winehouse are not generous here, but well deserved. I’m sure that even the chandelier shook a little with excitement at the beauty of her performance. It left Ashley Campbell with no choice. There was only one way to follow that and it was with her signature song ‘Remembering’, a piece that transcends its musical context and has the ability to speak into the lives of others, particularly those living with the effects of Alzheimer’s.
There could have been no finer way to finish off this wonderful night of music. By the end, the grandeur of St George’s Hall had faded away. We could have been anywhere. The focus was solely on the artists and their songs. If that doorman did sit in, my guess is that he would have been more than pleasantly surprised. This was music with a life-transforming power.
Review by Gaz Williams