It’s not how a festival begins but how it ends that counts. That was my mantra for this weekend’s Country on the Coast in Southsea. For a delayed and diverted train journey from North to South meant that I missed the official start of the festival. And then, when I finally arrived, to the sound of Savannah Gardner’s jazz-inflected Southern drawl, not even the full-on rock of Elliott Joseph who followed could keep my anxiety-induced tiredness at bay. So I hit the hay (not literally, you understand), catching up with Nicola Harris’ and Bob Fitzgerald’s sets via Instagram the following morning.
Suitably refreshed, and after a morning walk along the promenade, I headed back to the pier for day two at the Gaiety Theatre. No bigger than a conference room, it is surprisingly spacious but ideally intimate, Ollins Lande’s meandering Americana vocals contributing to a cosy and easy-going festival vibe. Megan Rose then picked up the tempo with ‘19’ and ‘Tipsy Friday’, songs with such catchy choruses that only someone as talented as Olivia Lynn could match them. Even before her barnstorming performance, she undertook a soundcheck which had the audience enraptured. Take that vocal and mix it to music and we were treated to a fine half hour of emotive storytelling, Lynn balancing the pop with the acoustic well to showcase her already-impressive catalogue.
In some ways, she could not have been more different to Dusty Moats, whose smooth and slow Texan Country also contrasted with Abi Orfila’s country-pop sound. This difference in style continued across the rest of the bill, going from the more traditional, acoustic performances of the Songs and Stories Collective to Georgia Nevada’s entertaining mix of noughties pop-rock and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. Emma Svensson, in a rare UK appearance, then offered a series of songs that featured an equally-rare appearance of a pedal steel guitar. Given that the instrument used to be a staple of Country music, it shows how wide the genre has grown to incorporate the hard rock of the Heartland Roots Band and the contemporary pop of Mikki Evans. In spite of this, storytelling remains a core identity which binds them together. And there are few better storytellers on the UK scene right now than Alan Finlan. Back to headline Saturday night after his successful appearance last year, the Lee-on-the-Solent native put on quite the show for the hardened few that remained. His set was shot through with humour; an amiable stage presence matched by the playfulness of his lyrics. Many songs contain a clever subversiveness; a studious creativity that duly earns him comparisons with Luke Combs. It meant that those who stayed were treated to an outstanding performance which included excellent cover versions of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Bad Moon Rising’ alongside worthy originals like ‘No Money by Monday’, ‘Making Your Mark’ and ‘Passenger Seat’.
Not content with headlining, Finlan was then back for day three, filling in for a last-minute drop-out as part of the festival’s Songwriter’s Round. Joined by producer Tyler Spicer and Pembrokeshire’s Rosey Cale, the three delivered an inspiring 90-minutes of musical prowess. It was particularly lovely to see the relationship between the three develop, a unique feature of the Round. The combination of Cale’s honesty, Finlan’s wit, and Spicer’s quietly spoken manner produced a lovely openness and respect, perfectly suited to a Sunday afternoon. It made for a pleasant listening experience, summed up by the smile on Finlan’s face as Rosey performed her aptly-named, as-yet-unreleased track ‘Blue Skies and Tan Lines’.
It certainly brought an extra shine to what was already a bright and breezy day, not only outside but courtesy of the delectable sound of Adele & Andy too. Adele’s soaring vocal is always a pleasure to hear, and makes even the most poignant of songs fly pretty. Previews of ‘You Left Me Lonely’ and ‘Since the World Turned’ left much to look forward to about their new album. Hers were not the only utterances though, on a day that featured a significant roster of female artists. Beginning with Amie Knight and continuing with Biddy Ronelle, this was a showcase of the immense talent on the UK Country scene right now. Never mind Ben Sellick, who delivered an excellent early evening set full of Blues, Soul and trappings of Rock ‘n’ Roll. For as good as he was, Caitlin Mae surpassed not only him but most others too, to be one of the standout performers of the whole festival. Her professionalism is evident, testament to being “married to my music”. From the motif and logo stage-side to the way she presents between and during songs, she has clearly honed her craft to a level very few achieve at such a tender age. There are echoes of Taylor Swift in her mannerisms; coming out into the crowd at one point displaying a confidence unrivalled. ‘Getting Over You Boots’ was a particular highlight, along with set-closer ‘Fiona’, as brazenly delivered as one might expect.
Very few would have been able to follow that. Louise Parker took it all in her stride. ‘Little Bit Drunk’ was in some ways the epitome of her emotive and stylised persona; her performance of ‘Fool’s Paradise’ containing that essential mix of light-touch vocal, spoken word delivery, and playful action that meant she presented as nothing other than herself. Such self-effacing honesty is what makes her music so enjoyable, a rendition of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ slotted seamlessly into ‘Tequila Sunset’ being one example of her unending ability to entertain. So much were the crowd not wanting her set to finish, she agreed to an encore, ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ bringing the curtain down on a weekend of family-friendly revelry. Whilst Shania might be hard to please however, Country on the Coast left me not only impressed but celebrating its success. This is not least down to the hard work of founder and director Hannah Roper, who has put on a festival not only to be proud of but that deserves to grow.
Country on the Coast is an annual festival that takes place at the Gaiety Theatre, Southsea. To find out more, visit www.countryonthecoast.uk.
Originally written for and published on Belles & Gals on April 27th 2023.
Featured Logo (C) Hannah Roper