Gig Review: The Cadillac Three / Stephen Wilson Jr. / Willy Cobb – Manchester Academy (11th May 2024)

In complete contrast to the last time we saw The Cadillac Three live on a bitterly cold September evening back in 2022, this time the band had brought the Tennessee weather with them to a sweltering Manchester Academy, along with a few other Nashville residents in support of their Years Go Fast tour.

Willy Cobb (c) Jack Barker

Nashville singer-songwriter Willy Cobb had the right idea of taking the stage in just dungarees, while many of the crowd were unprepared for the heat and melting in a very warm Manchester Academy. I always try to do some research on the support acts pre-show and I was wondering how long Cobb’s set was going to be with only two songs on Spotify! Opening with “Country Pumpkin” with the music video being released two weeks ago, there were definitely a few fans singing along through the chorus.

I noticed that the drum kit in use was undoubtedly The Cadillac Three’s equipment, but I didn’t realize that their drummer Neil Mason had actually stepped in to assist Cobb until the end of the first song. It was good to see the crowd getting so involved with an opening act, especially during the unreleased song “FU,” with plenty of middle fingers in the air during the chorus.

The five-song set ended on Cobb’s most popular song, “Cigarettes Smell,” after he told the crowd that the last time he was in Manchester, he received a fine for dropping a cigarette on the floor! Suggesting that “Maybe Manchester doesn’t like the cigarette smell.”

With a strong and unique mix of grunge and country, I am very intrigued to see what’s to come from this new artist on the scene.

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After a short turnaround, next up was Stephen Wilson Jr., who again is a fairly new solo talent in the country music industry, despite him previously being part of another band. Opening the show with his signature quote and album title, I’m Stephen Wilson Jr. – I Am My Father’s Son, the set began with “Billy” and then followed with “Cuckoo.” The second song was very relatable, about the working person and how hard life can be.

Next, it was time for the emotions to hit. Dedicated to his late father, “Father’s Son” was introduced to the room as his father’s last wish: “Write a good song for me.” Learning some brief history and watching the music video for this song, I can honestly say I had goosebumps hearing the emotions in his voice.

Stephen Wilson Jr (c) Jack Barker

Picking up the pace a little, “Year to Be Young 1994” (a very good year in my opinion) was led by Wilson Jr. stating, “There was not much to do in my hometown but drugs and roller-skate, sometimes both at the same time. I started listening to grunge which inspired this song.” Ending on one of his self-released tracks, “Holler From the Holler,” Wilson Jr., with his unique vocal style and mesmerizing performance, definitely earned a few new fans this evening.

With the stage set, it was time for tonight’s main event, The Cadillac Three. First, drummer Neil Mason and Kelby Ray on the lap steel guitar took their places at their instruments, followed by lead vocalist and guitarist Jaren Johnston, who entered the stage with his effortless swagger, placing his drink in the iconic red solo cup down in the mic stand mounted cup holder. With a few gestures to the crowd to get them pumped up a little more, the band began the set with “I’m Southern.”

It wasn’t until later in the set that the band decided to showcase any of their new material from the 2023 album The Years Go Fast, instead opting to begin with a duo of songs from their 2016 album Bury Me In My Boots and the 2014 EP I’m Southern, which were real crowd-pleasers, especially when Johnston made his way to the front of the stage during “Peace Love & Dixie” for a guitar solo. When it was time for the new tracks to be played, the choices were “Double Wide Grave” and “The Worst” in quick succession. While I will be honest and say that I haven’t yet had a chance to listen to the new album in full, I still found myself dancing along and singing the very catchy choruses by the end of these new tracks.

“Bury Me In My Boots” was up next, and it’s safe to say that everyone in the room knew the words to this one, with the volume of the crowd’s voices noticeably louder throughout the entire song.

Returning to the new material, Johnston dedicated “Hilbilly” to his “dear friend” and support act from earlier in the evening, Willy Cobb. Despite the definition of the word being “an unsophisticated country person,” this was clearly meant as a term of endearment.

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The Cadillac Three (c) Jack Barker

The thing I like about The Cadillac Three is that while they are unmistakably a country band, they incorporate elements from many other genres, including rock and blues, where they definitely blur the lines between the styles of music with heavier guitar riffs and a rock ‘n’ roll attitude.

In tonight’s extensive tour of the band’s albums and EPs, the middle of the set was devoted to the band’s 2020 album Country Fuzz, with the next four tracks off the album played back to back, with a moment taken for Johnston to wish someone in the audience a happy 21st birthday prior to “Hard Out Here For A Country Boy.”

While most bands would be disappearing off stage to return for a brief encore before calling it a night, The Cadillac Three were only just over halfway through what turned out to be a mammoth 23-song setlist. Even though the pace may have slowed a little at this point in the evening for a few slower tracks, you could tell from the number of heads swaying along to the songs and the applause at the end of each track that the crowd was appreciating every song on the bumper setlist.

The Cadillac Three (c) Jack Barker

“Love Like War” was the last song on the setlist from the latest album and one which Johnston explained was a track they had never played live in the UK before, asking “Y’all wanna have some fun?” and ordering the crowd to just sing along “if we fuck up.” In a heartfelt chat with the crowd, Johnston also explained that this song is about him and his wife, who are always “fighting and fucking,” before apologizing to the children in the room, then further putting his foot in it by saying, “well, you are all a product of fucking,” which got the crowd laughing.

The evening ended with a few chances for the audience to show their singing voices again, and they did not disappoint. Johnston even seemed shocked at the volume of the crowd singing the closing line of “Ooh, I saw white lightning” of the penultimate song, exclaiming, “Y’all beautiful” in appreciation.

Saving arguably the band’s most popular song, or at least mine, until the end, the band finished their set with “The South”, which saw the crowd sing along at full volume again. However, there was something slightly ironic about singing along to lines such as “My point ain’t subtle here, I’m a Southern man” and “Oh, it’s all about the South” while stood in a venue in Manchester, a city that is unashamedly proud of being in the North of England.

Photos by Jack Barker Photography

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