Surprisingly this was my first visit to Shepherds Bush Empire in over 3 years (the last gig I saw here was Hunter Hayes back in September 2015) and I had forgotten how this was such a fantastic venue for live music.
Prior to closure for six months in December 2015, this venue seemed to be the go to place for country artists visiting the United Kingdom playing shows in London. With a capacity of 2000 people, a mixture of floor standing and raised seating on three tiers above combined with probably the best acoustics in the capital this is no surprise the venue was chosen to mount an onslaught on the UK capital. Coming over and selling out this iconic venue is something that the likes of Eric Church, Little Big Town, Kip Moore, Kacey Musgraves and Zac Brown Band have achieved in recent times. However selling out this venue two nights running is something completely different as the last country artist I can remember attempting and achieving this was Taylor Swift back in May 2009.
Fast forward 9 years and Thursday October 4th was the first of 2 sold out shows at the venue for Luke Combs. This was the second night of a European tour that began the night before in Birmingham, which in addition to a second night in London would also include Glasgow, Manchester, Amsterdam and Berlin. This tour was the second trip across the Atlantic this year, following on from his appearance at Country 2 Country back in March and again proved why his has captured the imagination of a dedicated UK fan base which had him beginning to return. The show began with a captivating acoustic set from Ashley McBryde, who has also become a firm favourite for fans in the UK since her first visit in March with her unique blend of honest storytelling and breath-taking vocals. From catching a number of her sets at C2C and also during the CMA Fest week when I was over in the States back in June this lady continually has left me in awe of her as an artist every time I have seen her that I just want to listen to over and over again.
One of the really nice things about fully enjoying seeing an artist live properly for the first time is when you actually struggle to draw comparisons to any other artists you have seen before. This sort of demonstrates there is that something a little bit different. From listening to This One’s For You Luke’s song writing and vocal talents will come through and clearly has found a lot of people relating to him and his music based on the commercial success and how quickly he has been selling out shows. What I feel he brings as an artist and a performer is a sort of middle ground, by this is that his songs appeal to the more traditional country music fans and the people that prefer the rockier side of country whilst still being enjoyed by fans of more contemporary country circles. This is a guy with a great voice that comes across on stage as a chilled out guy that has a lot of fun performing and singing songs that people relate to. His band were absolutely killer and the whole live experience they bring on stage works. He doesn’t play guitar for the entirety of his set and spends a lot of the time walking round on stage and interacting with the crowd but it doesn’t distract from the relatability and depth of his songs or the power of his vocals and allows him to let the crowd think they are really part of the show.
I was lucky enough to get to chat to Luke before the show and he really is that laid back, down to earth fun guy that you would really love to have a beer with. We talked about the Panthers where (despite me being a Cowboys fan) we have a mutual admiration of Cam Newton and how he thinks Christian McCaffrey is going to be a superstar for the franchise. He had played football in high school but is now just a big fan and had actually gone on to play rugby in college.
We then went on to talk about how crazy everything has been going for him where after two weeks on the West Coast (where him and his guys had barely acclimatised to that time zone) and a mere twelve hours at home at times they are just trying to keep up with jetlag right now. With this and such a busy schedule he told me the “day off” they had in London the guys basically ate dinner and like the last trip back in March had not really been able to see much of the UK beyond the windows of the bus so far. However one thing he has got to experience over here and he is a big fan of is Indian food! Apparently Great Britain’s national dish is vastly superior over here than anything they can find in the States and like everyone else the spicy stuff always goes down well with a beer! “Miller Lite! All Day, Every Day!” in regard to the US standpoint but being from Asheville in North Carolina which has the most breweries per capita in the United States he was also fond of craft beer too.
Given the success of This One’s For You and how he is now quickly selling out arenas for impending tour dates we talked about the writing process and whether there becomes a thought to record songs for how they may sound live. “I never look to be let’s write this song, the best songs just get written as the best songs. Whether they are sad or fun, a good song is a good song. I could do a record of 15 sad songs if they are the best 15 I have.” He told me he didn’t want to feel he was chasing something if he was looking for a “this song” but would just have the philosophy of liking one song more than another that is what he would go with.
I asked whether the fact of different influences coming into to country music as a genre is helping it evolve. “Country music is such a broad thing, you have Chris Stapleton then what Florida Georgia Line are doing and everything in between. There is something for everybody which may not have always been the case, but whatever your take on it, isn’t for people to say what should or shouldn’t be.” I carried this on to ask if the core song writing and aim of relatability is still what draws fans in to country? “Yeah, I think it is. The storytelling aspect was what I enjoyed about it so much growing up.” Luke is a big advocate about talking about music being relatable and emphasised how country music has that relatability as it is about “everyday issues”. He said that that people “come to our shows as a way to escape or deal with reality opposed to wanting to be something you’re not” as may not be the case with pop music which may feel more like living in fantasy perspective. He felt it was “cool to reach across the aisle” when I asked about the opportunity to draw in inspiration from other genres and currently is may appear “better publicised but is nothing new.” At times “other genres may not have historically seen country as cool now some of the only people that sell out stadiums are country guys and Ed Sheeran.”
We talked about the UK perception on country music and whether he had always wanted to come over here where initially he had “never thought about as something as an obtainable goal” due to being perceived as a stereotypically American pastime to the extent that until he got fully into it barely knew went on over here. Playing C2C back in March was Luke’s first trip ever outside of North America and something that once he was aware of what was going on over here jumped at the opportunity as soon as he heard about it. I asked him whether what he had heard about the UK fans access to music particularly with more knowledge of album tracks due to limited access to country radio affects his set list choices for shows in the UK. I liked his perspective on this as many artists may play different songs for us in the UK compared to as headline set in north America where Luke just told me they always just play what they want to play and turned the question on its head viewing the US perspective being he should not feel that he should “ever NOT play this song”.
This is a guy that sold out two nights in London where the first night sold out even before he played at C2C so I ended our chat by asking him why he thought the UK fans have reacted to him in particular and relate to what he is doing so much. “When you go to a concert, you’re either going: that guy could be me up there OR I feel that guy could be standing here right next to me” this is exactly how Luke comes across like he is just one of us and I agree that is what makes this guy so relatable. He expanded to say “I’ve always been the consummate underdog. I was a guy never supposed to make it this far” and how people see themselves in that. This brings the hope for people as he said “If Luke can do that, then I can do whatever I want! If I can be up here playing 2 sold out shows at Shepherds Bush in London, then you can be a fucking astronaut or anything you want to!”
With a set that lasted around an hour and twenty minutes Luke and his band delivered the sold out crowd a predominantly up tempo set that had the crowd fully engaged and singing along to every word along with plenty of opportunities to show the power and the soulful side of his voice particularly in his solo acoustic rendition of the title track to his debut album This One’s For You. The album which was reissued as a deluxe edition earlier this year provided the bulk of the set with the likes of Hurricane, One Number Away, When It Rains It Pours and Honky Tonk Highway (which included a verse of Boot Scootin’ Boogie blended into it) were what a lot of the crowd had come to see.
In addition to this, there were was the opportunity for fans that had been with Luke prior to the success of his platinum certified debut album to hear some tracks like “Can I Get an Outlaw”, the ever catchy “Sheriff You Want To” and final song of his encore “Let the Moonshine” which are products of his earlier extended plays.
A personal highlight for me was his sublime rendition of Dive from Ed Sheeran’s Divide album. I just loved the soulful aspect that Luke and his voice bring to this song and just feel it adds such a different feel to this track that Ed wrote with Julia Michaels and Benny Blanco. The other cover in his set allowed his band to showcase their talents to the fullest and gain their well-deserved moment with a fantastic sing along for the whole crowd of Take It Easy (highly timely reminder for everyone on the night before Eagles tickets for next year’s stadium shows went on sale) where some members of the audience at the front had brought masks of Luke which found their way onto stage and much to everyone’s amusement onto the head of one of his guitarists.
SETLIST: Beer Never Broke My Heart, Honky Tonk Highway (with elements of Boot Scootin’ Boogie by Brooks & Dunn), Must’ve Never Met You, Beer Can, One Number Away, Dive (Ed Sheeran cover), Can I Get an Outlaw, Don’t Tempt Me, A Long Way, When It Rains It Pours, This One’s for You, Take It Easy (Eagles cover with aspects of Should’ve Been a Cowboy by Toby Keith and Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow by Alan Jackson), Sheriff You Want To, She Got the Best of Me, Hurricane, Beautiful Crazy, Let the Moonshine.
Luke Combs continued his European tour (8th October) in Manchester before shows in Amsterdam and Berlin whilst his Beer Never Broke My Heart tour with special guests Lanco and Jameson Rodgers through the United States and Canada begins January 31st 2019 in Birmingham, AL running through to May 12th at Red Rocks in Morrison, CO.