May 18, 2018
Royal Albert Hall, London
With their debut album in 2015, The Shires became the first UK country act to hit the Top 10. The following year, their second album became the fastest selling UK country album ever. On the back of the success of Brave and My Universe, they were the first UK country act to sign to a major label in Nashville and to win an American Country Music Award.
With such success so quickly, backlash was almost inevitable. For The Shires, it centred on ubiquity of press coverage and even the definition of country music. The undeniable strains of pop in their radio-friendly songs clearly helped their cross-over potential. Traditionalists may bristle at the rise of country pop, but The Shires have certainly helped shine a light on the existence and vibrancy of the UK country scene.
The Shires were catapulted back into the spotlight themselves with the release of their latest album, Accidentally On Purpose. They appeared on prime-time TV shows and practically shut down Oxford Street by arriving in handcuffs to sign copies of their single, Guilty.
The biggest spotlight was yet to come. An epic 22 date tour saw stops at various British halls and theatres, including the world famous Royal Albert Hall. The venerable venue was packed to the rafters. Despite the full band at the back of the stage to round out the sound, all eyes were squarely on Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle.
Both sparkled – Rhodes in a bright dress that echoed the pink colour scheme of the album cover and Earle in a subtly shimmering jean jacket. Despite the increasingly sizeable stages they’re playing (their previous London outing was at the prestigious Palladium), the pair have kept it classy. No time was wasted with costume changes or dancers for distraction. This performance was about the music.
They burst out with Echo, a bold statement of intent from Accidentally On Purpose. They delivered on the song’s promise – “tonight we’re gonna shake this town/nobody’s gonna turn us down” – by shotgunning through upbeat hits such as Beats To Your Rhythm and My Universe straight after.
The staff at the venue – more used to sedate proms than parties – were working on overdrive to keep people in their seats. It was a tough call to make. With a show like this, there’s a balance to strike between understanding the urge to dance versus preserving the view for those at the back of the epic venue. Even the professional photographers had to kneel down to work (that was certainly a new photo pit experience)!
All bets were off when The Shires encouraged dancing to particular songs, of course! for Guilty, Rhodes put on her dancing shoes – a pair of sparkly trainers – and the crowd stood up en masse. No need to tell them twice! It was inevitable for Nashville Grey Skies, too. That was the song that started it all for The Shires and for so many of the new country fans in the audience.
Still, the largely seated gig allowed focus on the stunning lighting in the palatial room. Ahead Of The Storm fittingly had dry ice swirling around sea green spotlights, while Sleepwalk brought chills when the crowd pulled out lighters and phone torches.
Better lines of sight also allowed focus on the relationship between Earle and Rhodes, replete with jokes and eye contact. This helped with their close harmonies which stood up to the ballads and the bombastic numbers.
One of the newer ballads, Stay The Night, was written by Ed Sheeran. The story behind it was intriguing. Already familiar with The Shires’ music, he met Rhodes hanging upside down over a beer keg at a party in Nashville (photos, please!). That sealed the deal and the track was sent to them a few days later.
The song turned out to be less interesting than the story, simply because it was clearly his not theirs. It had stiff competition, you see. It couldn’t stand up to the power and emotion in Rhodes’ vocal for Daddy’s Little Girl, about her father who died when she was just eight years old. Also, there was Statelines – always a set highlight – mesmerising with lush harmonies, Earle’s piano work and the cultural specificity of his lyrics.
They’ve certainly made their cover of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ country classic Island In The Streams their own and it’s still a mainstay in The Shires’ set despite having three albums’ worth of material to choose from. Apart from anything, it was a great opportunity for another torchlight moment!
Whether the country cover would do anything to mollify those manning the traditional country barricades is debatable, but is there really anything harmful in what The Shires are doing at the vanguard of country pop?
Maybe for some The Shires are a gateway drug to twang, fiddle and pedal steel. Perhaps others are happy enough to sing their hearts out to the rousing finale of A Thousand Hallelujahs. Either way, they’re happy. Better get used to it, anyway. If this performance is anything to go by, The Shires are back with a bang and they’re here to stay!
Check out theshiresmusic.com for a full list of UK tour and festival dates, including arena shows in the autumn supporting Shania Twain!
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