This year I was impressed by the new and improved FSA Fest, now with a full sound and lighting crew, real stage and a further acoustic stage in the afterparty room. The second stage meant that, on Saturday and Sunday, there was plenty of time for band changeovers and sound checks as acts alternated on the stages, which meant happier artists and a more satisfied audience. For music aficionados, OK, the sound wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close and the main stage is in a metal hangar, so it was a massive well done to Sam and his team from Arch Audio for achieving a really enjoyable experience.
Wayne Hadlow and Jessica Roberts conceived this original UK country music event six years ago at Birchwood and as always the common theme has been a friendly, fun atmosphere promoting British songwriters, both at FSA and now at Newark. In the past the festival was let down by the sound quality but this year it lived up to the atmosphere and featured a top line up which was tremendous value for money, plus it’s indoor so not reliant on the weather. The only negative I found was the compere, who tried to be witty but wasn’t and he talked too much.
On to the acts and starting the festival were Cinderhill, twins Katie and Hayley, who had good harmonies, although the individual vocals were a little harsh and they do not have many original numbers yet for me to get an idea of their songwriting skills. Sam Coe was next on the bill with Simon James on lead guitar and Kevin Duncan on keys. Sam has a solo album coming out, produced by Kevin, and her set featured some of the songs from it. The songs were quite good and she was better than when I’ve heard her with her band. It was a really quick changeover as Simon James then swopped to lead vocal and Sam changed to backing vocalist. The difference in experience was immediately apparent as Simon gave us good songs from his recently released album, delivered with his great, modern voice. There was a long break before Callaghan was ready to perform her haunting numbers, I did enjoy her more with the band than solo but for me there were still too many slow numbers. She is very talented on keyboards and has a lovely clear voice which got a loud response from the crowd. The first of TV series, The Voice, contestants were next as the three ladies of Remember Monday, backed by cahon player James, made a return to the festival. The polish of being on the series seemed to have made a difference as they had a lot more life in their performance as well as lovely harmonies. Headlining the night were Darcy and his band, including Luke Thomas. It was the first time all evening that the sound started off wrong and it took a few songs before they got it together which was a shame. I don’t know why, as the audience were all joining in and cheering, but I didn’t get a sense of enjoyment from the band and that slightly took the edge off for me. Despite that they sounded good and of course Darcy’s vocals were deep and rich as always and his songs from the new Saltbush Six album were very professional sounding.
Saturday was the first day of acts on the acoustic stage, beginning with Hannah Paris, a girl with a good voice but who needed some experience in songwriting. That certainly wasn’t the case for the second act on, Meg McPartlin, who was fantastic as always. Meg has a vibrancy in her face and manner that comes across so well on a stage. Her powerful voice and songs that made me laugh and cry, had me going straight in line to buy a copy of her debut EP, produced by Tom Wright. It will be good to see her in the BCMA showcase in November as I don’t get to see her often enough. I wasn’t sure what to make of the next act, Sandy McLelland, who I struggled to hear, he had a very soft voice but when he let go, it sounded nice and his wife added some good harmonies. The great voice of Amie Knight came on and proved the microphone was working and was good to listen to. I think she is another up and coming talent who has promise once she has more experience in songwriting.
Over on the main stage Kira Mac with her band, brought some country rock, with powerful vocals to wake everyone up. In between the bands a very nervous Gareth Thomas unveiled his new solo material. I knew he has a nice touch with writing, as was demonstrated by the songs of Dexeter, what I didn’t know was how good his voice is. He explained he has been putting a lot of effort into vocal practice and writing for launching his solo career, judging from his set I think we are going to be seeing a lot of him on the scene. The UK’s answer to Luke Combs was next in the form of Alan Finlan, backed by a band which included Ben Gurney and Ollie Hopkins. Alan has a big personality and a great voice, he sang a lot of covers of the big hits from the last couple of years plus a couple of originals and got a rave response from the crowd. He has proven he has the voice and the personality, now I need him to be more than one of the guys and to give me some connection to the music. If there were points for the biggest improvement in a year, I would have awarded them to the next act, Emma Jade Garbutt and her band. I have always known Emma can write and sing but this year she gave a very good set with the band. They all worked well together, with the guys highlighting Emma’s voice, not drowning it as they did last year, which made it an enjoyable set. The hit of the festival, Kezia Gill then came out and stormed it, from the first note she sounded amazing and looked like she was enjoying herself. The Good Ole Boys backing her also looked like they were having a ball and it made for a memorable hour of music. She had the audience on their feet, singing and cheering and realistically should have finished the evening as the atmosphere could not have got any higher. Poor Robert Vincent had to follow Kezia and I’m not sure if it spurred him on but it was the best I’ve seen him as, backed by some top musicians he delivered a great set with a fabulous voice and my evening was on a high. The headline act of the night was American songstress, Sarah Darling, who is lovely but after two such vibrant acts was just a little too pure and delicate. I like her new band and think they complement her well and her songs are very moving and emotional but she was on at the wrong time. I should mention the after parties in the Stage 2 room that had impromptu entertainment sessions run by Alan Finlan, I didn’t actually attend as I was way too tired but judging from the bleary eyes of many in the mornings, and the amount of coffee or ‘hair of the dog’ being consumed, they seemed to be a success.
Sunday dawned and the music began again on the acoustic stage with the more traditional sounds of Russell Vincent. He was a contrast to most of the acts and brought some flavours of classic country to the festival. Next was one I had been looking forward to hearing, Joe Kev Keeley who took up the guitar and gave us material from his debut album. Joe had a good voice, can play guitar and has written some strong songs but I think he is imitating American country instead of bringing his own British stories to the numbers. The very young Catherine McKenna was next and seemed unpolished against the other acts, lacking depth in her delivery, it may just have been lack of experience and if so I’m sure I will see her in the future, as she had the voice. Closing the line-up on Stage 2 was the job of Danny McMahon who brought performance experience and gave us a good, original set with an ease that comes of practice. Danny’s material is varied and he is a good singer who knows how to deliver.
The last session on the main stage began with a new name to me, Gareth Nugent, a great entertainer with a voice that lent itself to a wide variety of numbers including a fabulous version of Miranda Lamberts’s ballad ‘The House That Built Me’. His band were accomplished musicians and I was surprised I had not come across such a great act before and I look forward to seeing them at the BCMAs. Of all the times I have seen Emily Faye, I am not sure why, but this was my least enjoyable. She has a nice voice and writes some good songs but she just did not come across well on the day. The energy and guitar skills went up a notch for the next band as Tom Wright came out and gave us some rocking original numbers, including some from his eagerly awaited next album. It didn’t hurt to have the keyboard skills of Wayne Lee backing him either. American Kinsey Rose was back over, backed by a top UK band of Derek Thurlby, Tony Kaempf, Adrian Fountain, Jon J Paul and Dan Wright. In a contrast to last year she came over really well, there was lots of life and energy and lovely original numbers that got the audience joining in. The second The Voice contestant of the weekend, Peter Donegan started the finale of the weekend in style. His band including Tom Wright and Wayne Lee had a brilliant together sound and he gave us a quality set that included some great numbers delivered with great vocals and aplomb. Jade Helliwell and Luke Thomas were the penultimate act and Jade’s powerful vibrato rang out showcasing her new songs. She brought Kezia Gill onstage to reprise their duet of Cam’s ‘Diane’, as performed on their Australian tour earlier in the year, which had two of the strongest voices on the scene melding brilliantly. Finally completing one of the strongest programmes of British country music, Stevie O’Connor and the MHMG band. I enjoy watching Stevie but my love of country is in the stories and the lyrics and for that I have to be able to understand them and a lot of the time I struggle with Stevie’s twang. Performance-wise, Stevie erupted onto the stage and immediately put 100% effort into getting people to enjoy themselves. It was my first experience of him with a band and he carried it off well, with guest appearances by Emma Jade and Kezia, it all made for a full-on, fun set that had the audience dancing and was a good end to a party.
Thanks to Wayne, Jessica, Gareth and all the team that help in putting on this event and I look forward to FSA Fest 2020.