Review and photos by Peter Coates
CMC Rocks Festival
Willowbank Raceway – Ipswich, QLD
March 15 – 18th 2018
This was our first visit to the 11-year old CMC Rocks Festival, and it will not be the last – what a brilliantly-run, well-managed, relaxed and impressive festival this is, at least from the media viewpoint, but also from the punter’s angle. The venue is laid out around the two main stages, with bars, shops and food stalls all around, plenty of room to view both the stages, and lots of trees to shade under during the day.
Because of the Festival clash with the Luke Bryan / Dustin Lynch show in Sydney on the Friday night, and then thanks to some Jetstar flight issues, we got to the site just as Canadian Dean Brody was finishing up his set on the main stage – which turned out to be some pretty good quality country rock which the well-oiled crowd lapped up.
Having found our way backstage and into the pit just in time, we were blown away by The Davisson Bros Band, from West Virginia. Fronted by brothers Donnie and Chris Davisson, these guys make more noise with two acoustic guitars than should be legal, and have a huge amount of fun onstage. New single Po’ Boyz has been picked up by Lee Kernaghan for local radio play and the band played tracks from their self-titled debut including Jesse James, Big City Hillbilly and Foot Stompin’. Our own Amber Lawrence had met them at the CMC Awards, and joined them onstage for a version of Country Roads, and the presentation of an Akubra from Amber to Donnie.
Old Dominion have been generating huge interest back home, and for their main stage slot they delivered a quality set of melodic country rock, very radio-friendly songs, skilfully performed, although with less of the rough and raucous quality that I like – with their smash hits Break Up With Him and Written in the Sand going down a storm with the capacity crowd now across the whole arena, along with a few songs from their most recent Happy Endings, and a complete audience singalong for Song For Another Time.
Fresh from his support slot the night before in Sydney, Dustin Lynch must by now have some idea of his popularity in Australia, and on the small stage tonight he delivered a devastating set from his three album releases that set the crowd on fire. Backed by a seriously rocking band, we got Hell Of A Night, Mindreader, I’d be Jealous Too, the first major hit single Seein’ Red, and the most recent monster hit Small Town Boy, taken from the recent Current Mood album. The girls loved him, the boys want to be him, and all in all the party really kicked off.
Back to the main stage for the closing act of the night, Kelsea Ballerini is branded as an honorary Aussie through her recent marriage to local boy Morgan Evans. She is certainly pretty hot property in the US Country charts with 5 Gold & Platinum singles and a Gold album in her debut The First Time, and at the poppier end of the country spectrum, and while she tried to maintain the momentum created by the previous acts, a chunk of the crowd headed off to await the arrival of Brothers Osborne in the campers-only White Rabbit Saloon, or headed back to their campsites or motels to recharge. What Kelsea does, she does very well, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and perhaps was not enough to hold the headline slot on the night.
Day 3 of the Festival dawned warm and bright, and we headed back to Willowbank in time to set up and have a look around before the opening act took to the stage. Taking their slot on the main stage, The Davisson Bros Band did exactly as they had the day before, ripping up a storm in the noonday sun, and setting a high bar for the rest of the day. Sisters Vicky and Barb make up Baylou and they kicked off the second stage with an enthusiastic and well-received set.
Steve Forde had not been at CMC for some years, and was welcomed to the stage as a long-lost friend of the family, performing a bunch of his well known songs to the growing crowd, before we crossed back to the second stage for New Zealander Kaylee Bell who kept the pace up with her set including her latest Getting Closer.
There had been lots of excitement among the CMC fan groups about Luke Combs, and his performance on the Friday night was already the stuff of legend….he appeared to have no idea how popular he was here, with fans singing all the words to most of his songs, which he found both astonishing and humbling. A massive presence on the stage, with his fantastic band of brothers, Combs delivered a set that totally wiped him out physically, so much so that he had to abandon his signing session. This set was a huge hit with the crowd, and we were still only at 4pm.
Christie Lamb had a hard act to follow, but pulled off a worthy effort with her set, another quality Australian songstress, named 2018 Female Artist of the year at the CMC Awards, performing a bunch of songs of her latest album Loaded, before Busby Marou took on the first of the long main act sets on the main stage. The enormously talented duo, Thomas Busby and Jeremy Marou had wowed the crowd in the Songwriters Tent earlier in the day in an intimate workshop set, and while they delivered a bunch of high quality songs, there were 5 or 6 covers included, which appeared to pad out the set somewhat, and there was less energy onstage than was needed.
Another much anticipated set was up next, from a band who had also wowed the crowd on Friday, and apparently then destroyed the White Rabbit saloon stage late on Saturday night. Brothers Osborne have been flying the flag for the earthier, grungier side of country rock in the USA and UK, and brothers John and TJ took CMC up another level, opening the set with a 7 or 8 minute version of It Ain’t My Fault featuring a blistering solo from John – and a set including rockier live versions of the new album title track Pawn Shop, Rum, Greener Pastures and American Crazy, and the wonderful Heart Shaped Locket. These guys are the real deal in modern country rock, and they delivered one of the absolute standout sets of the festival.
Dustin Lynch then had the mainstage to play with, to the capacity crowd now well alight, and after the trademark intro of The Beastie Boys classic Fight For Your Right To Party, he was able to extend his set to include a couple of new songs, and include a lengthy and hugely popular medley of classic rock covers, with the two guitarists challenging him to sing based on their choice of riffs. We got Def Leppard, Nirvana, Metallica, Blink 182 and more, with the crowd moshing and bouncing more like Download than CMC – CMC Rocks indeed!
Last act up on the small stage was by no means the least – with American Randy Houser backed by a band including John Osborne, and BO bassist, delivering a great set of songs, from his 4 album repertoire, including the most recent record, Fired Up.
CMC Rocks has been an 11 year journey driven by the passion of one man, Rob Potts, from the earliest days in Cooma, NSW, with 2,000 fans, through the Hunter Valley years, to the new and permanent home at Willowbank Raceway. Tragically Rob was killed doing what he loved, riding his motorbike, in 2017, and was not able to experience his greatest success to date. A touching tribute to the man behind it all was delivered by an emotional MC, with Rob’s son and Festival promotor / partner Michael Chugg toasting Rob before one of the biggest acts to play at CMC had the final say.
Luke Bryan is one of the megastars of the enormous US Country Music scene, and he absolutely lived up to the hype and the anticipation with a full length set covering all of his classics. Opening up with Huntin’ Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day on a stage without an apron, Luke was able to interact more with the band than in the Sydney show, so it felt more like a band than a frontman, which was a good change.
The full songlist rolled on, with the ballad of Someone Else Calling You Baby and the riff-heavy Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and the new single What Makes You Country which is a fist-pumping, foot-stomping rocker, with a great and catchy hook, and some classic ‘good ole boy’ lyrics – and he lives the life he sings about. The cross-over Rap / Country of Kick The Dust Up winds up the elated crowd, and features a sizzling guitar solo, and so it goes. A true superstar of the country music scene, and he certainly met the high expectations of the CMC Rocks crowd, and has set the bar high for next year.