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Live Review: CMC Rocks Triumphant Return - Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Lee Kernaghan, Mackenzie Porter

24 September 2022 | 12:34 pm | Stephen Green

A triumphant day one of CMC Rocks was enough to re-ignite the spirit of any music fan after the COVID wilderness.

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It's been three long years since country fans have been able to take their annual pilgrimage to the CMC Rocks festival and boy was the capacity crowd ready to rock. Founded fifteen years ago by Rob Potts and Michael Chugg, the festival was built on the foundation of changing the way Australia sees country music, creating a stadium rock environment for country artists. 

The event has played host to and broken the careers of multiple artists from both here and the US, being early champions of Morgan Evans (who is one of this year's headliners) as well as hosting Australian soil visits for artists as massive as Taylor Swift (at the time billed beneath Pete Murray!), Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, The Chicks, Luke Bryan and many more. 

As you arrive at the festival site, it's hard to forget the history, with previous CMC alumni honoured with both posters and street signs. The event feels like coming home to family as 20,000 close mates that all share a love of country music as they go about their everyday lives come together to celebrate the secret they all share... That country music changes lives. 

The rain the previous night was enough to create a few mud puddles, but the Willowbank facility is a hardy home ground to play on, so a bit of mud on the shoes is about the extent of the inconvenience once punters hit the festival site. 

Kaylee Bell opened proceedings mid-afternoon as interstate vistors marvelled at the Queensland spring weather, with Abby Anderson and Restless Road rounding out the afternoon. Chairs were set and the mood was building as Casey Barnes delivered a blistering set, proving why Nashville had better watch their backs. 

It was Tenille Townes who had the privelege of watching the sun go down from the Rebel Stage as the crowd swelled ahead of the big names hitting the stage. She gave the performance of her career, converting many new fans as the CMC Rocks family grew. 

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With the sun firmly set, Mackenzie Porter took to the Stampede Stage, delivering a huge set to an adoring crowd, her first show in Australia. The set delivered everything you want from a stadium country show. These Days and Pick Up were particular highlights as the crowd sang along, but the biggest cheer was reserved for Thinking 'Bout You. Dustin Lynch was unfortunately not hiding in the wings, but the crowd were happy to take the parts. 

Obviously being worded up about the obligatory "shoey" chant, Mackenzie had one she prepared earlier, with her guitarist dutifully taking the boot, although her chugging of a gin and soda was a reasonable second prize. She also pulled out a great cover of Watermelon Sugar (to add to the world's forty million strong catalogue of Watermelon Sugar covers) but what really impressed however was her medley of 90s bangers, understanding both the mood and the crowd. Meredith Brooks' Bitch, TLC's No Scrubs, Sheryl Crow's If It Makes You Happy and more were all given a run as the mood of the crowd continued to grow. 

No doubt Porter's star is still on the rise and we'll hopefully see her return to future CMC events. Definitely worth catching if you're heading to Savannah In The Round next weekend. 

The quick-change dual stage format is a definite winner, with barely enough time to shuffle left before Aussie legend Lee Kernaghan took the stage. As usual with The Wolfe Brothers in tow, Kernaghan delivered. His show can't be faulted, with just the right amount of Aussie tropes to get the by now well-liquored crowd frenzied. Perhaps not quite the same amount of lasers and smoke machines as some of the Americans, but if video backdrops of utes doing burnouts, utes with blokes in Army uniforms and utes with scantily clad women on stripper poles are your thing (and judging by the crowd, they are), then Kernaghan delivered in spades. 

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Outback Club, Kernaghan proved why while CMC Rocks is about new, big, brash stadium country rock, the country community is about honouring what's come before. You'd be lucky to find an eye without a tear or a phone without a light as arms swayed to Kernaghan's tribute to Slim Dusty. Points were taken off for Lee's less than stellar shoey attempt. The boot was a plant and the screens showed that there was very little actual drink being consumed from the receptical. But perhaps we should concentrate on the music rather than the theatre.

Hard to beat this tribute to Slim from Lee Kernaghan last night.

Posted by Countrytown on Friday, September 23, 2022

The set's penultimate song saw Kernaghan joined by Isaiah Firebrace and Mitch Tambo in a massive rendition of their new single Come Together, a poigniant tune around the Voice to Parliament debates happening right now in the political class. There was massive crowd support and you could feel that all three performers were genuinely moved. Tambo in particular gave a blistering performance that surely must have been satisfying as they won over the audience. 

Kernaghan ended with The Outback Club, before the mosh pit was turned over to the younger country fans and the older fans dropped back to their camping chairs to enjoy the rest of the show. 

Jimmie Allen kicked off his set with an American-style video presentation which suggested he'd slept in and missed the show. The anticipation for the set was already high and the video didn't do much to keep the momentum up, but Americans do love a spectacle. After a couple of minutes the video ended and Allen took to the stage with a huge performance which needed none of the effects to impress. 

Allen completely owned the stage, bringing a level of performance that reminded punters what international standard really means. Whether it was the flawless vocal performance throughout the eighty minute set or the killer Michael Jackson-esque moves, Allen had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. Freedom Was A Highway and Down Home both had the crowd singing every word.

Props to the girl in the front who scored his trademark hat towards the end and if you weren't already enthralled, the shirt disappeared in the last number, causing any shit that remained in the mosh pit to be lost immediately. 

But it was Kane Brown's night and as attention shifted back to the other stage, Brown proved why he's both one of the best and the most intriguing performers in American country music today. It was a country show, a rock show, a pop show and a hip hop show all in one. Just like his albums, Brown effortlessly moved between genres, equally at home with a Marshmello duet as he is on the schmaltzy Like I Love Country Music. Smashing out his country bangers up front, Brown mixed it up with songs old and new with particular favourites including Hometown and One Mississippi

The shoey made an appearance yet again but Brown showed how it's done. He also brought out Mackenzie Porter for an impromptu fiddle battle with his own fiddle player which was a highlight. His Soulja Boy cover had some of the more traditional country fans scratching their head (and a few heading for the exits), but the set was a true phenomenon for anyone enthralled by the power of this multi-genre superstar. 

Brown endeared himself to the crowd with stories of his poor upbringing and if you didn't have a sense of who Kane Brown was before the show, you certainly walked away with a love for him as a person, whether it was his story of having shoes with holes, or the hilarious yarn about chatting to Aussies on the X-Box server since arriving in town. He is not just a consumate performer, but he's a likeable, relatable guy. 

Taking notes from Allen, Brown's shirt also went missing in the final song, causing hearts and pants to melt across the festival site. The set had everything. Giant fire cannons, smoke cannons, lasers.... but nothing could compete with the shirt loss. 

In a lot of ways, Kane Brown was the perfect headliner for day one of CMC Rocks. He represents the future of country music in a post-COVID world, where the barriers of pretence have been broken down. In a world of streaming where every song is at your fingertips, genre no longer matters but community does. Brown managed to capture the future of CMC Rocks-- a place where the country music spirit reigns supreme, but where audiences can be taken on a journey with their spirits lifted and their tastes challenged. 

Holding such an important place in the Australian music landscape, CMC Rocks has returned from COVID seemingly stronger and more energised than ever before. The feeling on site was like no other festival. It was a place where you can sink a dozen Great Northerns (or bloody awful looking frozen margaritas) and let your hair down, but where the feeling was of safety, community and a genuine spirit where everyone was there for the same thing, an unbridled love of music. 

And a dozen Great Northerns.