‘I’m the happiest person in the world right now,” says Dave Haywood, one-third of country superstars Lady Antebellum. “It’s the last night of the tour and we’re in London playing the O2!”
Haywood is right to marvel. Despite having sold more than 18m records back home in the US and garnering seven Grammy awards, here in Britain “Lady A” have yet to score a No 1 album and their highest placed single, 2010’s Need You Now, reached only No 15.
But as the ever-expending Country to Country festival – held annually at this venue – has proved, the once-maligned genre is growing in popularity on this side of the Atlantic, and Lady Antebellum are a big reason why. Their unashamedly MOR blend of country, pop and rock has seduced a young audience lured by Taylor Swift’s crossover success, and the Nashville trio are welcomed like conquering heroes.
Easing into the jaunty Downtown, vocalists Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley are resplendent in blood red – leopard print and lumberjack-plaid respectively – and look as thrilled as Haywood to be here. “It’s gonna be tough getting me off the stage tonight,” Kelley admits, his rough-hewn, everyman voice playing against Scott’s plaintive but powerful innocence as they glide through Our Kind of Love and emote over Dancin’ Away With My Heart.
Their slick, sentimental brand of country has taken a soulful turn with latest album Heart Break and the horn stamps of You Look Good add a sultry punch to the cloying niceness. But Lady Antebellum’s overzealous band – featuring two guitarists and a keyboardist – too often ride roughshod over the three-piece harmonies at the heart of their success, and it’s a relief when only Scott, Kelley, and Haywood on piano team up for the stripped-down Hurt.
Support acts Kelsea Ballerini and Brett Young guest on a cover of Shania Twain’s You’re Still the One. It’s all very cosy as Kelley repeatedly coos over pregnant Scott and she watches like an indulgent mother while he strides into the crowd during Love Don’t Live Here. But the scant recognition of the recent Las Vegas massacre is offhand and, in the light of that tragedy, the decision to play Good Time to Be Alive seems questionable.
Paying tribute to Tom Petty with Learning to Fly, Kelley acknowledges Petty’s initial success came in the UK. “You made Tom Petty cool,” he says. The same can’t be said for Lady Antebellum, but they deserve the affection they’ve palpably won.