So, back to the Phoenix in Exeter for a Monday night gig, being there the Friday before for the RHODES gig, it made it feel like we’d never left the place but that’s the way it goes!
Monday’s aren’t traditionally a very good day, first day back from the weekend, maybe you’ve just returned from a week away, either way, you’ve got to buckle up and get on with it, I hoped that The Shires would light up the place with their gentle blend of UK country music, making everyone feel that it was the weekend once again.
The show had sold out a while back so we weren’t surprised when we found a good couple of hundred people at the bar, waiting for the doors to open.
The Shires formed in 2013 when Ben Earle posted a "There must be a country singer somewhere" message on Facebook to which Chrissie Rhodes responded and the rest is history…. In 2015, they released their record-breaking debut album ‘Brave’, which was the first from a UK country act to chart in the top ten.
After playing only a few shows shows together, they caught the attention of Decca Records who signed them in the UK and they managed to secured a contract with American record label Universal Music Group Nashville thus becoming the first ever English country act to be signed to a major Nashville label, some achievement I’m sure you’ll agree!
So, back to the Phoenix in Exeter to see how the evening panned out.
Opening up proceedings for the evening was a singer songwriter called Jonathan Johnson, try as I might, I couldn’t find anything about this guy on the internet, nada, zilch…. It all made perfect sense halfway through his set when he announced that he was called Jonathan Jeremiah, not Johnson as was incorrectly printed on the running order posters! He’s an English singer songwriter who released his debut album ‘A Solitary Man’ way back in 2011, he took to the stage and what immediately struck me was his voice, it was deep, booming, resonating around the room, creating a real warm atmosphere. Dressed in a black velvet jacket, strides and a cool pair of chestnut brown ankle boots, Jeremiah dazzled the capacity crowd with his blend of influences including Scott Walker, Nick Drake and the classic tones of Cat Stevens (or whatever he’s calling himself these days…)
He played one track that just oozed Eric Clapton, it was as if the legendary Blues-smith was on stage with him. To follow this, he performed a song wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from the legend that is Paul Weller, absolutely amazing stuff.
His in-between song banter was amusing, he made reference to a couple of hobbit’s in the front row, once his eyes had adjusted, he apologized as they were actually a couple of kids, accompanied by their parents, no harm done! He told the room about his dog and asked if they’d like a political song or a song about the dog, guess which one won?
With an already strong following on social media, I’m sure he gained a few new followers at The Phoenix, I for one am seeking out his debut album to explore his songs further.
At this stage, we decamped to the balcony, as it was apparent that the guitar tech for The Shires required a little more space to undertake his duties (they had a LOT of guitars to keep in tip top condition)….
After a short break to charge glasses and empty bladders, the lights dipped, up went a cheer as the backing band appeared on stage and kicked into the intro of the opening track. Ben and Chrissie bounded on stage, Ben looking sharp in a black shirt and trouser ensemble, Chrissie stealing the show with her very agreeable denim hot pants and sparkly top combo, I had to have a word with my photographer having seen him take a good number of shots of Chrissie but none of Ben, I reminded him that there were two of them in the band, he laughed and explained that he was just ‘checking the light’, a likely story!
They opened up with ‘All Over Again’ which showcased their effortless vocal harmonies and even allowed for some audience participation at the end with the audience singing the chorus back at them. ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ featured some amazing country guitar, my god could that guy play and he was SO young, okay, I’m no spring chicken but the combined ages of the drummer, guitarist and bass player would barely have made 60!
Ben took to the keys to perform ‘Brave’, doing a great job of kicking off the track, Chrissie coming in on the second verse and then both of them together, providing such a great vocal, it really had to be heard to be believed. Ben introduced the ‘I Just Wanna Love You’ as one that is often played for the first dance at weddings and they had received no shortage of requests to perform the track at weddings all over the place, something they would love to be able to do but sadly owing to touring commitments, they wouldn’t really be able to pull off, maybe one day!
They spend a lot of time in Nashville and whilst there recently, they took part in a ‘Songwriters Round’ where musicians get together and play songs that they’ve been working on, they announced that this was only the fourth time that they had played a track live called ‘Other Peoples Things’, prior to starting, Ben announced that they’d be playing it naked, I swear that I saw a few hundred pairs of eyes light up, had Christmas come early? He quickly retracted this and said that they’d be playing a stripped down version of the song, not nearly as exciting but it still sounded amazing and received a massive round of applause.
Ben told us an interesting story about when an American country music star called Kip Moore came over to the UK and met up with them to record a song, the night before, Chrissie and Kip stayed up playing Monopoly all night (she let him win), Ben would have loved a game of Monopoly but sadly wasn’t invited, he had to settle for the recording session only. The result was a track called ‘Drive’ which featured some killer finger picking, lush vocals and a catchy sing-a-long chorus that the capacity crowd were more than up for singing along to.
I saw The Shires play in London recently at the BBC Radio 2 ‘Festival in a Day’ in Hyde Park and also on the bill were The Corrs (The Beautiful Corrs), Ben explained that they had been chatting to them recently and had recently announced that they’d be supporting them on their 2016 tour, with this, they launched into a flawless version of ‘Runaway’, allowing them to add their country twist to the classic track. Afterwards, Ben poked fun at the young backing band and said that they weren’t familiar with the track when they started to play it, kids eh?
Later in the set, the band left the stage leaving just Chrissie and Ben to play a lovely stripped down version of ‘Made in England’, just acoustic guitar and their stunning voices, you could literally hear a pin drop!
They have come a great distance in the couple of years that they have been together, Ben said that it seems like only yesterday when they played a cider festival, they only had 6 songs in their repertoire and after playing them all, the audience (made up of approximately 10 families) were itching to hear more, so they ended up playing the 6 songs all over again! This was suggested in Exeter but was soon dismissed as it was clear that they were edging close to the curfew….
Chrissie and Ben left the stage but it was clear that they’d soon be back as that audience were going nowhere! They all came back out and launched into ‘Black and White’ which was the very first track that Ben sent (via email) to Chrissie to listen to so she make up her mind if she wanted to join forces, she fell in love with the song immediately and was so happy that she had found a writing partner who enjoyed country music as much as she did.
They thanked the audience for coming out on a Monday night and also thanked Bob Harris for the tremendous support that he has given them over the past couple of years. They were asked to contribute to a CD that was being put together to celebrate country music and they offered a classic, timeless track that they chose to close the show with, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s ‘Islands in the Stream’, which had the desired effect. Leaving the Exeter audience in raptures as they departed the stage.
Having seen The Shires in London, performing to over 50000 people, I wanted to see how they would fare in a room playing to 450 people, they gave exactly the same amount of energy to both performances which was a pleasure to see. I don’t think that they will be playing smaller, intimate shows next year and seeing as they’re touring with The ‘Beautiful’ Corrs, I know that they’ll be winning over larger venues and gaining fans by the bucketload, thank you for an entertaining evening that will no doubt stay in the memories of everyone who attended for a long, long time!
Words by Steve Muscutt
Photography by Matt Roffe
To see all the pics we took a the show, click HERE