LIVE REVIEW: THE SHIRES, SARAH DARLING, CATHERINE McGRATH @ Sage Gateshead (21.7.17) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Northern Ireland’s Catherine McGrath is a talkative and confident performer, in no way phased by the already building and excited Sage One audience.  Happy to provide the backstory to her country and pop tinged folk songs, tracks like Cinderella and the title track from her EP, Starting From Now – which was co-written in Nashville – are strong and indicative of an artist full of potential.

Straight from the state of Iowa, Where Cowboys Ride, Sarah Darling is the kind of country star you like to imagine.  With homecoming queen looks and her relocation to Nashville, her songs are optimistic affairs about following your dreams on Halley’s Comet and brushing off romantic failures on her breakthrough US hit, Home To Me.  More Issues Than Vogue is light-hearted enough but Wasted shows a deeper side to Darling’s songwriting, as she tackles a partner’s addiction issues.  Her band are slick and a slowed down rendition of Dolly Parton’s Jolene certainly does the trick with a crowd who are won over by Darling’s bubbly performance.

The Shires success has been nothing short of phenomenal; the first British band to sign to a major Nashville label and becoming the most successful UK country act of all time, and all since they formed in 2013.  Their music may be heavily polished and they certainly fulfil a niche in the market which may undermine their credibility, but the adoration they receive from their audience tonight is testament to an act that knows how to put on a good show.  Both impossibly good looking, Chrissie Rhodes and Ben Earle promise to “Build our own Nashville under these grey skies,” on Nashville Grey Skies and it couldn’t be more apt as it’s just three years since The Shires played the Concourse Stage at the SummerTyne Americana Festival, and now here they are; headlining the main room for the second time in two years, safely out of the inclemental weather of the British summer time.

Their music may owe its success more to the likes of Rayna Jaymes, Deacon Claybourne and Juliette Barnes than it does to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard or Patsy Cline, but that doesn’t matter a damn when the songs are as feel good as the party anthem Friday Night and the perfect summery country pop of State Lines. Singing about California and Arizona when you’re from Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire may not be for everyone, but The Shires appeal both sides of the Atlantic shows they must be doing something right. Ironically it’s their song Made In England that inspires one of the biggest of many sing-a-longs. “The taste of vinegar and salt on my lips, there’s nothing like a Friday night fish and chips,” surely can’t help but raise a smile in even the most cynical of detractors and from emotional ballads like Daddy’s Little Girl to stomping country pop songs like Beats To Your Rhythm, The Shires have it all in abundance. Closing number A Thousand Hallelujah’s has everyone raising their hands without a care in the world as if they were in the presence of an evangelical preacher and there can be no doubt in The Shire’s ability to convert even the most hardened of non-believers.   

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