Live Review: Ashley McBryde, Albert Hall, Manchester, 23rd January 2024

Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer)

Ashley McBryde is currently touring the UK for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time, playing a run of nine, mostly sold out, mid-size theatre dates. Not bad for someone who cut their teeth playing biker bars at 19 when, by her own admission, she was “definitely too young to be by myself, driving all over the fucking place.” By the time of her first UK dates in 2018 she had a couple of self-released CDs under her belt along with a major label debut LP. In the intervening years she has built a loyal following with a string of consistently strong album releases and approaching 100 gigs a year, including high-profile support slots with Eric Church, Luke Combs and Miranda Lambert. This fan base is in full throated evidence tonight in Manchester and it’s a safe bet, given the way they turn the gig into a communion and sing along with the entirety of the set, that they are completely aware of McBryde’s journey to this point.

Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer)

This journey has been marked by significant recognition from the country music mainstream including Grammy’s, CMA, CMT and ACM awards and membership of the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps most significantly for our story, in 2022 she was awarded the CMA International Artist Achievement Award for creative growth and promotion of the country music industry outside of the United States. Indeed, McBryde’s between song banter enthusiastically championed the importance of the UK to both her career and her art, further endearing her to an already devoted crowd. She has built the kind of career and following that many (other) Americana artists championed by AUK would kill for. This raises the question for us about what position she occupies in the country / Americana music firmament and therefore how we experience and assess tonight’s show. For avoidance of any doubt this show was a resounding success. It was thoroughly entertaining and affecting where it mattered, it was both professional and spontaneous and the level of engagement between performers and audience was something we see all too rarely, even in much smaller venues.

We could characterise the performance as a masterclass in straddling the divide between the country music mainstream and whatever alternative / non mainstream / Americana community we exemplify or perhaps between populism and art if you want to be grand about it. It is McBryde’s consummate skill that sees her able to bring these often disparate elements together in a way that satisfies both the ‘alternative’ and the mainstream country audiences. Tonight she foregrounds an artistic and poetic level of singer-songwriterly country music whilst also seriously rocking things out. She also occasionally breaks our hearts with the occasional anthemic over-emoting sway-along ballad such as ‘Girl Going Nowhere’, which delight the crowd beyond any reasonable level of pleasure and invoke lusty and almost total audience participation.

Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer)

Whatever texture she is invoking or whatever style she is delivering, McBryde’s primary concern is the audience and the show. Striving for attention and to entertain, to create an environment in which everyone can find something to engage with, she offers a genuinely open and welcoming experience. She seems intent on making sure all the elements of her audience, no matter their country music clan, can enjoy her show. She seems determined that we all love her, something perhaps driven by her previously acknowledged need “to prove that we’re worth listening to”.

All of this finds the tattooed – 31 now apparently – Arkansan (or is it Arkansawyer?) and her red-hot, road-honed band Deadhorse authoritatively straddling the boundary between styles. We get classic country (‘6th of October’, ‘First Thing I Reach For’, ‘The Coldest Beer in Town’), rootsy rocking (‘Ain’t Enough Water in the River’, ‘Made For This’, ‘El Dorado’) and out ‘n’ out biker-bar riffing – the opening ‘Blackout Betty’ could easily have sent the gentler audience members scurrying for the safety of the quieter ACDC tribute show in the nearby Northern Quarter. Everything tonight seems dialled up from previous shows, it is more country, more rocky and yes… more fun. There are intermittent missteps such as the intrusive stadium-size drums that crop up at regular intervals (including an actual, living breathing drum solo!) and the occasional drift into something that is smoother and more easily digestible than we would perhaps like. Where the rough edges have been sanded flat and the occasional splinter that could snag and really catch our attention has gone. None of these detract from the experience enough to spoil our fun though.

The way Mcbryde ‘sells’ the show tonight it is clear her position astride the ever expanding gulf between mainstream country and whatever we are calling the ‘alternative’ is a dilemma that drives her and fundamentally shapes the music she makes. She herself has suggested that it feels “pretty embarrassing to be part of country music” right now and these curious times are well documented. Unprecedented levels of popularity set against artistic and political conflict and criticism. Artists raging against one side or another, such as Tyler Childers’ outright dismissal of being Alt’ or Americana and Maren Morris’ excluding herself from anything to do with country because of its disdain for any kind of progressive thought.

Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer)

It really isn’t too fanciful to sense that this hubbub is evident in McBrydes current show. There is what she has dubbed “straight up the middle” radio friendly country music that could sell home furnishings or bank accounts (‘A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega’ or ‘Girl Going Nowhere’ perhaps), but there is also much that is a little more challenging and thought provoking in its presentation such as ‘Women Ain’t Whiskey’ ‘Learned to Lie’ and ‘First Thing I Reach For’ for example. McBryde is nothing if not a consummate master of reinventing some of the oldest and most regularly heard tropes of country music; the hard knock life of a working musician, drinking, the foibles of family and friendship, the trials of the working poor, drinking and, even that well-worn chestnut of the song about what a night out is like around here: starts with the ‘Coldest Beer in Town’ followed by ‘Whiskey and Country Music’ all partaken of in ‘Cool Little Bars’ if you must know. Yet despite all this, what McBryde offers up sounds as fresh and compelling as the first time you heard “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” or “I Am Shelby Lynne”, both her lineage and her current place in the catalogue are clear and hard earned.

Everything we hear tonight is a product of experience and the things McBryde has learned since the biker bars of her late teens. She is clear that what she learned in those years is fundamental to the show we get now and it is the authenticity of her experience and consequent attitude that sets her apart from all but a select few of her peers. This is front and centre when she sings ‘Cool Little Bars’. At first glance a slight song eulogising the type of back street dive she grew up playing. However the song superbly captures what it feels like to be, and belong, in one of these places, a feeling that goes way beyond a few drinks or a couple of hour’s fun time. The audience feel it to, lustily singing along even though the song was probably not that familiar to many of us before tonight.

Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer)

Whether mainstream or alternative the thing that defines Mcbryde the artist and tonight’s show in particular is this authenticity. She has railed against those writing and performing songs “about things that they don’t do” and she offers passionate support for the two support acts tonight – Corey Kent and Harper O’Neill – , choosing them because they write, play and sing “their own songs”. Tonight it is clear that she feels everything she plays for us because she doesn’t sing “anything that’s not true”. This means that she is alive to the event throughout, totally in the moment and really engaging with her audience. She is enjoying every minute, vibing off people reacting to her songs and in turn taking every opportunity to gee up the crowd and bring the party and just occasionally to break our hearts. Right down to stopping the band in mid-song, twice, to allow medical assistance to front row warriors finding the going a bit tough, then picking up just where they left off once the emergency is dealt with.

One of the highlights of tonight’s show is ‘Light on in the Kitchen’ a song that clearly means a lot to its author. It offers a representation of the relationship between two women from different generations. McBryde has noted that the reaction she gets from audiences to this song is one of the strongest resonances for her from current performances and tonight sees this audience reaction embodied. The way every word of the song back to her and every nuance of its meaning is felt by those singing is evidently a massive thrill for her. She has observed that seeing women (and men) singing along to and sharing the sentiments of the song is a representation that is needed right now. Especially when set against her take on the more prevalent representations of mainstream country music, which is “… a guy in a ball cap that screams about beer all the time”. Mcbryde will probably not thank us for positioning her on a particular side but tonight it is quite clear where she stands. All of these positions are undoubtedly evident in tonight’s show, yet none of this overtakes what is essentially a consummate 100 minutes of entertainment.

There are a lot of great female artists performing in a similar space to McBryde; Brandi Carlisle, Nikki Lane, Brandy Clarke, Stacey Collins, Sarah Petite, Sarah Borges and so on, few of these get anything like the credit they deserve. Then there are acts such as Eric Church, Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs who, many would argue, aren’t fit to lace these women’s boots, yet they manage to sell out arenas and make massive hit records – there is a common thread that is not lost on our host this evening! With performances such as this one, Ashley McBryde will continue to grow her popularity amongst the mainstream of American country music. If/when all is right with the world though she deserves, as Brandi Carlile has observed about Brandy Clark, to be “embraced by the fringe, by the marginalized, by the avant-garde outside the centre of country music… I think she’s gonna find a home with the freaks in Americana”. We know you won’t give a monkey’s either way, but welcome aboard Ashley.

Pictures were very generously provided by Nathan Whitaker (@manc_wanderer) courtesy of Albert Hall

About Guy Lincoln 73 Articles
Americana, New Country, Alt-country, No Depression, Twangcore, Cow-punk, Neo-traditionalists, Countrypolitan... whatever.
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Ron Freear

Brilliant live review Guy, captures the evening perfectly, thank you!