Live Review

Highways Festival 2023

Judging by the reaction to the very first Highways festival at the Royal Albert Hall this past Saturday (May 20), we can confidently predict it will not be the last.

Highways Festival 2023 by Kate Green
May 23, 2023 2:34 pm GMT
Last Edited May 24, 2023 11:25 am GMT

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Judging by the reaction to the very first Highways festival at the Royal Albert Hall this past Saturday (May 20), we can confidently predict it will not be the last.

Anna-Sophia Mertens, the brains behind the event, confided that she’d been trying to start her own country music festival for years, being a big country music fan herself.

The most difficult thing about arranging the event turned out to be finding the right name. As a lover of the open road and all those songs about driving, Mertens eventually decided on Highways, which seems a pretty good fit.

Speaking to Jackson Dean an hour before he was due on stage to make his UK debut in front of a mere few thousand crazy fans, we asked him how excited he was to play, on a scale of one to ten. “Oh, about fifteen, ma’am!” he replied, with a bashful grin that lit up his boyish features.

Bumping into Holler favourite William Prince, we found he was equally enthusiastic about the whole experience. He appeared at the Highways songwriters circle in the Elgar Room at the Albert Hall in the afternoon, along with Stephen Wilson Jr (who Prince recommended highly), alongside Kat Hasty and Jillian Jacqueline.

Mind you, Prince kept his most effusive praise for the woman second from top of the bill on the main stage, Morgan Wade. “She’s produced by Sadler Vaden!” Prince enthused about Jason Isbell’s guitarist, going on to express how assured he feels that Wade possesses the songs and the voice.

Like much of the crowd, Holler went into the new festival with open ears and an open heart, coming away not disappointed. A few in attendance, however, only came to see the headliner, Kip Moore, so arrived late in the evening. Oh boy, did they miss some treats before the self-proclaimed “last bachelor standing” finally got his wish to top the bill in the UK.

Hosted by the eternally witty and self-deprecating Baylen Leonard, he encouraged us to lift aloft any cowboy hats and reveal our double-denim wardrobe choices. Alongside giving his Absolute Radio Country show a plug, Leonard caught the mood of the night just right.

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Kicking off the main stage at the festival, Stephen Wilson Jr feels like the real deal.

His earthy, rich voice is his first killer weapon, his second being the breadth and passion of his songwriting. “I don’t know how I got here; I really don’t!” he exclaimed; his half-hour set suggesting he’ll be back here very soon.

With a shock of black hair under his ball-cap and his acoustic guitar often looped under his stark vocals, Wilson’s only accompaniment came from the amazing steel guitar of Scotty Murray. Once he got through the first few minutes and his confidence rose, he even got the audience to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his sister, who was sitting amongst them.

Wilson then spoke of his tough upbringing, including eating squirrel meat and witnessing exorcisms at the local Pentecostal church in rural Southern Indiana. Reminiscent of Nebraska-era Springsteen, ‘The Devil’ was an early highlight, while he had us in the palm of his hand for ‘Grief is Only Love’, a heartfelt tune for his late father and uncle.

Of course, it had to be ‘Holler from the Holler’ that upped the drama, as Murray’s steel guitar turned snarly and Wilson hollered loud and clear to everyone who clapped along.

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As for Jackson Dean, dare we suggest an instant star is born. At just 22-years-old and bedecked in a grey fedora, black suit and guitar, Dean had the crowd reaching for their phones from the first song.

‘Trailer Park’ was instantly met by a forest of screens filming and snapping him from the stalls. With his emotional, trembling vocals, Dean caresses each number like a treasured memory, drawing the audience further into his orbit with his charming, youthful anecdotes.

Things were moving along sweetly enough even before Dean asked us to pretend we were up in the clouds for the next couple of minutes. He proceeds to pull out the shimmering, beautiful song ‘Wings’. Cue dozens more phone flashlights waving around the Albert Hall, creating a powerful memory for Dean and his brand-new fan club.

“This is a dream come true to get to play here,” he declared, before plunging into the closing couple of numbers, saving his biggest hit (so far) ‘Don’t Come Lookin’’ until the very end. Just when you thought you couldn’t warm to Dean anymore, he left the stage shouting; “Londinium, I love you!”

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Morgan Wade offered more intimate performance with her set-up, taking a seat surrounded by lamps and general cosiness. Every song delivered by her – plus her partner in song, Clint Wells – was well-honed and drenched in authenticity.

The only woman onstage at any point in the entire evening, she kept the hammer down and was absolutely blistering in her 45-minute set of favourites, mainly from her debut album Reckless. The bonus was her performance of the title track from her upcoming record Psychopath, which sounds brutally direct and brilliant. We’re pretty certain we won’t be the only one seeking out more of Wade on studio recordings while awaiting her return to these shores again.

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With a Kip Moore set, you get exactly what it says on the tin. His devotees were already up on their feet before he took to the stage amidst a flashy light show and the heaviness of his five-piece band.

Starting with his latest album’s title track, Damn Love, he ran the gamut from rock to pop to metal, revealing he’s as influenced by eighties-era Madonna as he is Bryan Adams and Springsteen with the shiny pop of ‘Peace & Love’.

Kip even nudged towards country once or twice. While stadiums are perhaps where Moore desires to be these days, the staging of his set was epic and his loyal audience clearly loved every minute.

When the next Highways festival comes around – and it will – our two pieces of advice are:

  • Get a ticket!
  • Get there early - the support acts might just become your new favourites.

For more on Highways Festival 2023, see below:

Written by Helen Jerome
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