Live Review: CMC Rocks 2023 Willowbank Raceway, Ipswich – Day 3

Review by Peter Coates –

Well the energy levels may be flagging from the heat and the sheer immensity of the event, but Sunday promised to be something special at CMC Rocks, with current biggest music star Morgan Wallen as the headliner, and crowd (and writer’s) favourite HARDY as the main support for the night.  Kiwi singer Abby Christo was up first and provided a gentle upbeat intro to the day.  Hailey Whitters did her second show of the festival, this time on the main stage, and she gives off major Miranda Lambert vibes, and had lots of fun with her great fiddle player and the rest of the band.

Corey Kent was back for a second set, and he was on really good form – with his band of mates, and belying his youth with songs and style that Don Henley or James Taylor would be proud of!  He is a real talent and one to watch for the future.  First of the bigger names of the day was the larger than life Warren Zeiders who strutted onto the main stage like he owned it, and then proceeded to give the crowd a set of rocked-up versions of his mainly acoustic recorded material – Up To No Good and Dark Night brought the party, before he did a JD “Shoey” to be different!  Getting his initial exposure during COVID through TikTok and Social Media generally, and new release Pretty Little Poison was superb.  He knows how to play the crowd, and the singlet got torn off to make the ladies swoon!  His cracking set closed with Burn It Down and Ride The Lightning. 

Next up was another first-timer in ERNEST, who allegedly met HARDY on an FGL writers bus when he was a rapper known as Sno!  These two and Morgan Wallen are one of the hottest and tightest crews in Nashville right now, and they seem to travel as a package!  ERNEST comes onstage in Def Leppard T-Shirt and trucker cap, and then proceeds to deliver a smooth, west-coast mellow country rock set, including This Fire, Wild Wild West and Done In A Bar.  He also did the “Shoey” and took off his T-Shirt – noting that he was perhaps not quite as ripped as Warren Z – but the crowd loved it anyway, so topless he stayed.  Feet Wanna Run and the song written for Jellyroll in Son Of A Sinner, before the massive hit duet with Morgan Wallen, Flower Shops, which due to a guitar malfunction, saw ERNEST pick up an acoustic and deliver the song solo, to rapturous applause.   

Most impressive act of the weekend for me was Ashley McBryde, so it was fantastic to get a second set from her, and she changed it up with a beautiful solo version of Girl Going Nowhere to open the set, before the band kicked in.  Ashley is a woman totally confident in her own skin, and comes across as strong and mischievous at the same time.  One Night Standards was fantastic, and Brenda Put Your Bra On got all the girls kicking off.  She does a version of Boys of Summer that I reckon is no longer needed in her set of such great originals, and I love the southern rock Skynyrd sound of Livin’ Next Door to Leroy which motors along, until ash leaves the stage to let “her boys” show their stuff, with a medley of Superstition and solos, before merging into Midnight Rider to close a second superb set.

“Hardy Hardy Hardy” started to echo around Willowbank as the younger and rockier elements of the crowd jostled for space in front of the second stage, and the Stone Temple Pilots Creep boomed out of the PA, welcoming HARDY to the stage.  The band erupted into the massive crossover rock hit of Sold Out, and then we were on a rollercoaster ride for the next hour, with the raucous Kill Shit Till I Die up next, one of several redneck references of the night.

HARDY gave us Jack, Boots and Truck Bed, did the obligatory “Shoey” himself, before running through hit after hit with his heavier than normal band!

One Beer was the first monster hit, and then we got Red, 30.06 and Give Heaven Some Hell, before HARDY told us how he was told by the Nashville masters to give them a “radio song”.  So in his inimitable style, he gave them the monstrous Radio Song!  Blake Shelton had a huge hit with God’s Country, but HARDY wrote it, and he gave us his version, before closing the set with the latest album title track, The Mockingbird and The Crow.  That was perhaps the most intense set ever seen at CMC Rocks!

We media were banished from the pit for Morgan Wallen, so we struggled through the crowd to get to the sound desk area to shoot the headliner – the stage set was enormous and complex, with ramps and podiums and so many lights!  After some extended intro tapes, the band, made their way to their positions, and suddenly the man himself was onstage too in the spotlight!  Currently with 5 or 6 songs in the Billboard Top 10, and all 36 of his album tracks in the Top 100, this makes Morgan Wallen the hottest of properties, and the set opened with Up Down (which featured Florida Georgia Line) and I Wrote The Book, and we were in for 90 minutes of pure pop country.  Song after song of radio-friendly music rolled on, including Ain’t That Some and Dying Man, and a medley of Dangerous, 7 Summers, Silverado For Sale and Still Goin Down, in order to fit more songs into the set!  Highlight was the appearance of HARDY to duet on He Went To Jared, from one of HARDY’s Hixtape series, and then still more through to the climax of the set and the closing fireworks.

A triumph for Chugg and Frontier to have secured Morgan Wallen as headliner, and to have the foresight to get him at the pinnacle of his current fame, and a testament to their ability to pick some of the great stars of Country music before they really make it.

A faultless festival from my perspective…..with minor gripes about how high the stages were so that taking photos was a real challenge, but we got enough!

Full Photo Gallery Here