To west London for the second of Luke Combs’ sell-out nights on what has been an impressively sold-out debut UK tour. Combs has made huge commercial and creative headway in the last three years and his debut album (since generously expanded with a handful of extra tracks) has been hoovering up accolades and indeed hefty sales, streaming and Spotify hits. It’s not hard to see why.
Although he didn’t learn the guitar until he was twenty-one, the man seems to have been born with catchy riffs in his genes and works to an ear-catching formula with great effect. Notably all the tracks on the album, a Sony Nashville release (not something we see much of here at Americana UK) are co-writes. His grounded, humble and gracious demeanour does him no harm at all. Raised in the emerging musical hub of Asheville North Carolina, he left Arkansas State University in the final semester (“with 21 hours left of my degree” as he states) to focus on his musical career and he is now based in Nashville.
The focus on the presentation is kept refreshingly simple despite the scale of the venue. He is a no-frills blue-collar guy. Thematically, he runs the gamut of relationships (before, during and after), barroom antics (or sometimes, just beer in a domestic setting), travelling the road in small- and mid-town America, with enough lyrical insight to keep the audience on aural alert. Indeed, most of them seem to have learned the full lyrical output of his career to date – which he observes with relish. We are talking a countrified take on US rock here, something in an Eric Church mode with perhaps an extra commercial slickness or a more chest-beating Chris Stapleton ramped up to 11. Big lengthy guitar notes, simple vernacular lyricism, thundering drums up front on most tracks and anthemic choruses. The band fleshing out his big sound on tour are Robert Williford and Tyler King on guitars; Jake Sommers ,drums; Delaney Baker, bass and Kurt Ozan on Dobro and pedal steel (which adds some nuance to the guitar-heavy dominance). Combs is hugely prolific as he currently has over 20 tracks already laid down from which to select the follow up album’s contents. How he chooses the singles to be released must be a tricky selection, but we were treated to the likes of ‘Hurricane’ (“the song that changed my life”), ‘Must’ve Never Met You’, ‘Beautiful Crazy’, ‘One Number Away’ and ‘She Got the Best of Me’.
The support act – and we were spoiled here – was the splendid Ashley McBryde who has herself been making big waves in the industry. Like Combs, she is a 2018 ‘graduate’ of the C2C extravaganza. Born and raised in Arkansas, she released her first EP in 2007 (shortly after being spotted as one to watch by Eric Church) so she has paid her dues before the current breakthrough. Keenly inked, she has a powerful repertoire, more diverse tempos than the headliner and an admirable skill for crafting a rock-side-of-country gem. Tonight she was solo and acoustic which brought her belter of a voice to the fore, happy to max out on a 60-minute set, a favour from the headliner. She showcased her album ‘Girl Going Nowhere’ whose title refers to how she was perceived at school (“Don’t waste your life/Behind that guitar”). Lyrically and thematically she occupies broadly similar terrain to Combs and it’s notable that she too shares his wonder at having made the transition from middle America to global venue-filler. ‘Radioland’ is her tribute to the power of radio to motivate and inspire youngsters living in quieter parts of the States. ‘Livin’ Next to Leroy’ and ‘Jacket’ are standout rockier tracks. Leroy is ‘a transplant from Alabama’ and is a cipher for the cross-USA drug dependency (“the first time I met him/He asked me for a spoon”). The latter is a poignant song about all the concert memories collected over many years that the singer’s dad’s jacket has been worn at, a great conceit with a fine melody. She completed her set with a cover of ‘Jolene’ and then Johnny Cash’s version of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ to which she adds her own distinctive verse, and then rounded it off with her own ‘A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega’ singing that she was, “Trying to make the best/Of those worst day kind of nights”.