Emily Barker, Holly Macve & Jade Bird | Live Review & Photoset

22nd July | St George’s

Photos: Paul Lippiatt

Bristol Harbourfest was in town this weekend and the annual duties of venue-hopping and remembering all the sneaky shortcuts was in full swing, trying to squeeze in as many bands I could before sundown. On the Sunday evening I strayed away from the centre and headed towards St. George’s to witness some of the finest contemporary country music that Britain has to offer. As part of River Town – the month-long festival celebrating the vast Americana music spectrum – Jade Bird, Holly Macve and Emily Barker all performed killer sets, each with a contemporary twist on the timeless genre.

First up was the energetic and oh-so-cool Jade Bird. She’s had a pretty stellar year to say the least, from hitting BBC’s Sound of 2018 longlist to selling out headline shows in London (as well as releasing the glittering Something American EP). Jade has a cool demeanour and seamlessly glides through huge track after huge track, performing a blend of contemporary blues with gutsy guitar riffs. ‘Lottery’ and ‘Good Woman’ were highlights, both bearing a KT Tunstall vibe. Jade Bird is one to watch.

During each interval, country tunes flooded the venue, making for a fitting build-up. The second support for the evening was Brighton-based singer-songwriter Holly Macve. Wearing a cool 70s inspired jumpsuit, a-là Stevie Nicks and her blonde bouffant hair was nothing shy of a Brigitte Bardot up-do. Heavily rooted in country with bluegrass influences, Holly’s tunes are absorbingly smooth with effortless falsettos and flairs of cool riffs. “I’ve been writing a new record recently and I’d like to play you some new things,” she announced before giving us a rendition of a new tune called ‘Bird’, A moody riff with meltingly good backing vocals. Holly’s newer material was a delight to hear. If you’re a fan of traditional country tunes, Holly’s back catalogue is definitely worth a listen.

The headline act for the evening was singer-songwriter and country legend, Emily Barker. Opening with the raspy ‘Little Deaths’, the song took a turn I wasn’t expecting with Emily’s bellowing vocal lines bearing resemblance to Dolores O’Riordan. It’s evident that Emily’s influences stretch far beyond traditional country, crossing genres to create her own magnificent brew. From the blues-inspired happy-go-lucky, ‘Dear River’ where she delivers a killer harmonica riff to the skiffle-like-double-bass-dominated ‘Tomorrow Be Now’. She bent and crafted a concoction which didn’t stray too far away from her country roots, creating a wonderful fusion.

For ‘Sister Goodbye’, Emily headed over to the grand piano and eloquently explained that the song is inspired by rock and roll heroine, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The sweet piano riff created a hurricane of noise inside the room, with Rob Pemberton on double bass providing a lingering bass lick. The gospel influence seeped throughout this number, along with poignant lyrics; her vocals were drenched with Southern charm.

We were then treated with a stripped-back version of ‘More!’. With Lukas Drinkwater on drums and Rob on double bass, this truly felt like something straight out of a blues open mic night. Ending with an a capella version of ‘Precious Memories’ which blew the house down, Emily truly showed us all her might and power.

Country is a genre into which I have yet to fully delve, but it’s clear that modern country fuses several genres to create a contemporary vibe which is attracting many a new listener. I highly suggest you check out all three of these artists for a taste of the future of country music.