If Belles & Gals’ first gig in Manchester is anything to go by, then I should think they will be back again before too long. There was quite a crowd at Gulliver’s who had gathered to start their Easter weekend with a night of country music. And the three artists on the bill could not have done anymore to satisfy their appetite.
It was a particular delight for me to see Shannon Hynes performing, a fellow North Walian now based in London. She had the honour of opening up proceedings, and did not disappoint. There was no need for her to apologise for the imbalance of sad songs that made up her set list, for each one was a delight to hear. She began with ‘Dreaming of Nashville’, a meandering number made all the more atmospheric by the nice combination of acoustic and electric guitars. ‘Comfort’ followed, and from these two songs I got a sense that Hynes’ sound is one that captures the modern sensibility of country whilst being lined with a more traditional style. She then performed a stripped-back version of her single ‘Someone to Drink With’, before introducing ‘I Fear Blinds Me’ with the story behind it.
Hynes appears a natural storyteller, whether through song or plain speech. She injected plenty of humour into her anecdotes; but there was a real depth of emotion too. Both ‘I Fear Blinds Me’ and ‘Homesick’ offered an intriguing mix of inspiration and melancholy which belied her ever-positive stage persona. Despite having to take her phone out for a cover of the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Wide Open Spaces’, she didn’t miss a beat. She then returned to an original song to finish off her set, ‘I’m Not Pretty’ underlining her songwriting prowess. On this evidence, she has more than enough material for a debut album that is sure to make an impact when it finally arrives.
Meanwhile, Hannah Paris has already got an EP under her belt. And with a steady release of singles since 2017, an album surely beckons in the near future. There was real attitude to her first song ‘Just You Wait’. A cover of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ proved luscious. In between, BCMA Song of the Year nominee ‘L.A’ was, if anything, better live than recorded. Before launching into ‘Halfway Home’, Paris observed, in her strong Essex accent, that the attentiveness shown by the audience here was a nice change from the rowdiness of her usual gigs back home. I, for one, was grateful to be part of such an audience; to be able to hear her songs performed without any distraction allowed me to appreciate her songwriting craft. No more was this evident than in ‘Lost in the Wind’, which she had finished recently after rediscovering it as a voice memo on her phone. Another new song in ‘Crazy For You’ followed, which evidenced further the growth and maturity of her music over the last two years. In some senses, she is unrecognisable from her ‘Short Stories’ EP – her development as an artist is great to see. ‘What the Hell’ was a powerful climax to her set. Next time, it wouldn’t surprise me if Belles & Gals ask her to headline.
Headlining this one though was country-pop sensation Jade Helliwell. How this lady remains unsigned is a mystery. Opening number ‘Boom Tick’ is as good a song as any on the UK Country scene right now. Its catchy nature complete with top-draw lyrics was the perfect way for Helliwell to introduce herself to anyone who hadn’t heard her music before. ‘By My Side’ continued the powerful opening before ‘Drive’ slowed things down slightly. Before beginning her next number, ‘Numb’, she gave a short introduction as to its origins, which sparked a bit of banter between her, guitarist Luke, and the audience. Helliwell is clearly comfortable on stage, building an easy rapport with the crowd, and joshing with Luke throughout. But during the songs, she was ever the professional, wrapping her vocals around the words with such versatility; launching them out into the venue, where they amplified wonderfully, before guiding them back in. She is always in complete control. A cover of Jojo’s ‘Leave (Get Out)’ was a surprise throwback for those of us of a certain age, whilst an acoustic version of her latest single ‘Stormchaser’ proved to be just as good as the pop-produced original.
She continued with her latest music by performing an exclusive first-play of ‘Put It On You’, a song which had only just been marked as complete. Then, after covering Patsy Cline’s ‘Stand By Your Man’, a track from her first EP in the form of ‘Ask Me to Stay’ proved to be an excellent choice, benefitting from a live rendition as its powerful delivery intensified in this intimate setting to give the song an even deeper resonance. Helliwell then drew on one of her major influences as she took on ‘Hello Summer’ by Danielle Bradbery. There appeared to be quite a few fans of Bradbery in the audience, which Jade fully expected – you only get that reaction at country-specific gigs, she explained with a smile – and they would not have been disappointed with this stunning version. She then finished off with a track from her latest EP that comes close to ‘Boom Tick’ as a stand-out song: ‘Repeat’. The lyric ‘We go together like a perfect harmony’ couldn’t have been more true here, as Jade and guitarist Luke combined to produce a fab sound that brought the evening to a rousing close.
Belles & Gals founder Nick Cantwell and Events Co-ordinator Katie Louise Ingram can be really proud of their first foray into a live gig in Manchester. May it be the first of many? I don’t see why not. They recently featured their 500th artist on the site, so there is no shortage of talent to feature and promote beyond their traditional South-West heartland. Manchester looks forward to seeing them again no doubt. I certainly am.
Review by Gaz Williams