Charles Esten IS Deacon Claybourne. This is the only reason why folk bedecked in ten-gallon hats and suede fringe jackets are here at Manchester’s wonderful Bridgewater Hall. To the uninitiated, the character Deacon Claybourne is the alcoholic singer from the hit show ‘Nashville’ and Esten and his fellow cast members have generated quite a musical following since arriving on our screens in 2012, possibly contributing to the resurgence of the country genre in the UK in the process. YouTube Esten and you’ll also find old footage of him performing on the improvisation show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’ and maybe even a clutch of small roles in some of Kevin Costner’s movies. The point is, the man is a performer and it is only thanks to the success of ‘Nashville’ that his musical career took off. It is his skill as an actor and his confidence on the stage that make this evening so enjoyable.
It’s only been a few months since Esten played solo in the smaller Royal Northern College of Music, but tonight the scale is significantly grander. He has gathered together a very good collection of musicians to accompany him on this tour and the opening tracks are thoroughbred rock and rollers; it goes without saying, Esten plays the part to perfection. He may not be the most accomplished guitarist in the world, but he has enough to make it all seem authentic on songs such as his most recent all-American single ‘A Road and a Radio’. Where he excels is the way he prowls that stage and engages with the crowd. He’s an absolute natural and there isn’t a single moment of insincerity in his vocals, crowd interaction or stage presence. To nail all three is actually quite rare.
Although the songs that receive the largest response are the ones from ‘Nashville’ (including the heartbreaker ‘Sanctuary’ which should come with a warning if you’re not fully up to date with all five seasons of the show), the most rewarding period of the evening comes when Esten performs solo. One particular highlight is the very funny ‘I Used to Smoke and Drink and Love You (I Still Do)’ which exhibits all his improv skills presented in the form of a recognisable country template, the drinking song. This is followed by Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, which may seem a peculiar choice, but it is during these moments when his vocals rise above the more generic country-inspired type to something more unique. The improvisation skills re-emerge with the gallows humour of ‘Baby Kid Teen Man Old Man Gone’ demonstrating that vital attribute of not taking himself too seriously, and it’s one that continues with ‘Nashvillionaire’, particularly with his pronunciation of UK institution Tesco!
There’s a bit of the spirit of Springsteen in ‘Down the Road’ but again it’s not misplaced, and the performance is a riot. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the most partisan response is saved for the encore when Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ concludes the evening in hand-waving style. The evening may not have been a demonstration of pure pedigree country, but as an all-round performance and the crowd response it elicited, the night was nigh on perfect.
Words & Images by Iain Fox