Live Review: Ashley McBryde & Sean McConnell – Manchester Academy

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

There are times when the volume and quality of the audience participation on display this evening almost makes the presence of Ashley McBryde seem arbitrary. Almost, because without the quality of her songs, the connection she makes with her audience and the immersive, authentic sound of the brilliant band, her fans would not be energised and respond in the way they do.

The crowd are definitely in the mood and have already been treated to a rousing support slot from singer-songwriter Sean McConnell. Despite fans still pouring in, the Nashville resident manages to silence the majority off the bat with the title track from his latest record Secondhand Smoke. There’s an immediate autobiographical characteristic to McConnell’s material that helps forge an empathic connection with the artist. It may just be the thirty-four year old and his acoustic guitar up on that stage but his evocative lyrics appear to connect with the largely middle-aged audience and he feels brave enough to attempt the more reserved song ‘Old Brown Shoes’ from the 2012 album Midland.

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

It would be inappropriate to describe McConnell as one to watch; he’s been making records since 2000 and he has a string of hits performed by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera, Meatloaf and Brad Paisley under his belt, but it will certainly be interesting to see where his current album will take him. There are wonderful moments full of colour and darkness to appreciate on it, and he decides to close his set with the former in the guise of ‘Greetings from Niagara Falls’, which is full of hopeful imagery to compliment the sentimental tone. There’s the potential for this kind of thing leaving a sickly-sweet taste in the mouth, but in McConnell’s hands he delivers something rich and rewarding.

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

The trajectory Ashley McBryde has found herself hurtling along has been nothing short of interplanetary since the release of her first album ‘Jalopies and Expensive Guitars’ in 2016. Don’t let this rapid ascent fool you though; this Arkansas native has put in the graft and it is the audience’s ability to relate to her, along with a collection of songs that help to reinforce this engaging persona that help to spike the entire evening.

‘Livin’ Next to Leroy’ opens the show, establishing the dynamic of the entire evening. There’s a touch of swagger as McBryde rocks and rolls around the stage, an appreciative smile fixed on an adoring crowd. If anything though, this song follows a country blueprint that feels pretty familiar. Perhaps that’s the appeal because ‘Radioland’ is also a lyrically Springsteen-esque peregrination across a musical landscape that we’ve definitely heard before.

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

What makes Ashley McBryde so appealing though is the sense of legitimacy she brings. She sings about a life she has lived and when this is combined with the boundless, energetic stage presence we’re paying witness to, you have real chemistry! Oh, and don’t forget that most potent of weapons; Ashley McBryde’s voice is able to turn on a dime and each song has a distinctive tone that helps to fashion its identity. ‘The Jacket’ may borrow from Tom Petty rhythms and Eric Church’s knack of knocking out a blue-collar lyric but her vocals are as smooth as silk but this is followed by ‘Redemption’ and there’s a raw edge that suddenly appears.

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

With no disrespect to the hugely impressive Deadhorse, where the show is really elevated to another level is when McBryde performs solo, particularly on the stunning ‘Bible and a .44’ as the swashbuckling style retreats for a dose of cinematic storytelling with a contemplative heart. Once again, the intense audience participation appears to discombobulate McBryde in the nicest possible way, and she steps away from the microphone to allow the entire venue to complete the chorus in the most electrifying fashion. It’s a momentous peak to the evening but to be honest, it doesn’t really drop from these heights and is almost surpassed with the epic ‘American Scandal’ which may teeter precariously along the ridge of melodrama but is so glorious in its imagery and prodigious vocals that we’re all too caught up in the moment to be put off by sentiment.

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

This is a theme that runs throughout the evening, exemplified by her rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’ in the encore slot, but the thrilling nature of it’s delivery makes for an utterly enthralling evening of entertainment.

Words & Images by Iain Fox

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