Live Review: CMC Rocks 2023 Willowbank Raceway, Ipswich – Day 1

Review by Peter Coates –

A scorching hot and humid day welcomed the crowds to CMC Rocks on Day 1 proper of the festival, with all the usual sights and sounds of this iconic feature of the Australian and global Country Music calendar, curated by Michael Chugg and his incredible team at Frontier.  The sad news was the death this week of Foxtel boss Brian Walsh, who along with the late Rob Potts and Michael Chugg were the three key founders of the CM Rocks phenomenon, and a toast and cheer from the crowd was warm and genuine.

First up on the main stage is Brittney Spencer, who brought a dose of RnB and Soul to the country, from her gospel background in Maryland, and she delivered a passionate set from her small but impressive catalogue to get the ball rolling.   Madeline Edwards opened up on the adjacent stage, a Californian now based in Nashville (of course) channelling Ella Fitzgerald and Shania Twain, but with a decidedly rocky edge.  Sporting a cut-off Black Keys T-shirt and a Keytar, Madeline ripped into Hold Your Horses from her debut album Crashlanded, and just took it up a notch with each song.

Caroline Jones hails from Connecticut and she continued the all-girls opening to CMC, having had Zac Brown join her onstage at the Tailgate Bar the night before, and she delivered a guitar-fuelled set of southern blues-country tinged with 1970s rock.  Caroline joined the Zac Brown Band officially last year after releasing her Antipodes album, and she really has the combination of great voice and guitar skills.

First Aussie up on the stage was given a heroes welcome, and Travis Collins has developed a real stagecraft and presence, supported by a tight young band, ready to release his new album, and they opened up with old song Curves, and then the boys tore into Road Warriors with a real vengeance.  We had Travis giving a guitar away to a young fan, giant beach balls flying as the band run through a hectic Hillbilly, with triple lead guitars.  Travis then hits us with a rousing version of Thank God I’m A Country Boy as the sun sets behind the stage.

CAM was a big hit at CMCs of the past, and she came onstage and asked the crowd to hum with her before easing into the plaintiff ballad of Redwood Tree, before the equally emotive Forgetting You.  Then the tempo eased up with the great Classic from The Otherside album.  Cam has clearly matured from the bubbly pop-country artist of 5 years ago, and the delivery of Patti Smith’s classic Because The Night was a stunning cover version that brought the crowd to life, and clearly meant something deep to Cam herself.  The final extended version of Burning House had a huge crowd participation, and a now quite emotional Cam had to pause before the final chorus.

Bailey Zimmerman – former mechanic and then Tik Tok phenomenon was clearly a crowd favourite, as the chant of Bailey Bailey Bailey started up as soon as Cam left the stage – he and his very much a rock band tore it up with everything from Fall in love to Rock And A Hard Place which was a significant change of mood from Cam’s set – and the younger set went off.  This was part rock, part rap, but with a definite southern attitude, but songs like Where It Ends and Never Comin’ Home demonstrate that Bailey has way more than just an internet gimmick to rely on!  He also needed little invitation to a solo cry of “Shoey” from the crowd, and caught the beer to do it!  The set on Saturday on the main stage will be one to watch!

Ashley McBryde was welcomed with a roar, and Made For This was the start of something special from Ashley and her really solid southern rock band. Songs like El Dorado and the purely country Whiskey And A Country Song were delivered with such strength and joy.  We got Home Sweet Highway, Tired of Being Happy and the pointed One Night Standards, before the closing medley of Midnight Rider that introduced the band with solo spots, including a Superstition cover sung by one of the guitarists, before heading back to the main song for a tumultuous close.  Looking forward to her set on Saturday.

Another new visitor to Australia had just released his new record, and Jordan Davis seemed to have a particular impact on many of the young ladies in the crowd – Singles You Up had the crowd jumping, and Damn Good Time increased the energy levels even more.  Slow Dance in a Parking Lot took it down a notch, but there is a reason Jordan has recently been one of the main acts at the C2C Festival in the UK, and his live set proved, like a number of country acts, to be much more energised and powerful than the recorded music.  He also gave us a Shoey, but also a clear sense of his life priorities prior to ending the set with the superb ballad Buy Dirt that put him on the map, and he is hugely grateful for that.

Opening night headliners Zac Brown Band are one of the best bands on the planet, and have been equally at home at Bluesfest as CMC, given their effortless ability to blend musical styles and crossover genres, without losing the basic grounding of the Bayou country blues sound.  Here in Australia for just one show with the full 10-piece band, including Caroline Jones on acoustic guitar, we got all the hits, from Homegrown, Knee Deep and Keep Me in Mind, with their regular ode to Charlie Daniels with the rip-roaring cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  There is a new covers record out in Stoned Cold Country, being Nashville’s homage to the Rolling Stones, and ZBB do their unique take on the classic Paint It Black which is wonderful.  The band did one of their other regular covers to blow out the cobwebs, with Metallica’s Enter Sandman, and ran through Lovin’ You Easy and Jump Right In, before the traditional set-closer of the joyous Chicken Fried!