15th November 2016
The Limelight, Belfast

Three drunken Scottish lads outside the Limelight assured me the support act, Canaan Smith, was a nice guy. They’re on the guest list because they bought him loads of beer. Not sure that constitutes free exactly, but it set me up for the tone of the night.

Smith is the real deal indeed. That good ol’ southern states country boy, singing songs about trucks and beers and freedom, wearing a plain white tee and blue jeans. The songs are strong and catchy, and the crowd whoop in a manner becoming of a hoedown.

That’s why it comes as a bit of a surprise when he breaks out the Goo Goo Dolls ‘Iris’, but I guess if nobody knows your stuff you may as well cover a big hit. That gig methodology rears its head later too, unfortunately.

He has a humble charm, and the burgeoning crowd is endeared to him, even when he tells us about his penchant for crazy girls, and his presumably absent wife. Stay classy Canaan.

The Shires appear on stage to a now packed room of imbibed enthusiasm.

It’s the first night on the tour, and the guys seem excited. They’re well-rehearsed and comfortable with the on-stage patter. Chrissie Rhodes is a wonderful singer. She has an effortless balance between brash and angelic, like honey poured on sandpaper. And while Ben Earle sounds more rooted in his own X-Factor past, the blend works perfectly.

‘Drive’ showcases the band’s ability to really play. There are electric guitars laden with effects The Edge would have been pretty chuffed with. It’s good to hear the band stretching out a little; they’re obviously a tight unit.

It’s only a few songs in when they pull out the second unexpected cover of the night: Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’. I must admit, I didn’t see this coming. I’d have forgiven them if they only played the intro (after all, they did sit next to him once, Earle explains) but the whole song seemed completely unnecessary. If you’ve sold out a nine hundred capacity venue, you don’t need to throw in ‘Angels’.

We get the emotional ballad ‘Brave’ that sounds like the moment someone wins Masterchef, before two drunk women in front of me squee in delight when big hit ‘Friday Night’ begins.

It’s their favourite, though they daren’t let that stop them chatting throughout.

There’s the quintessential wedding song ‘Just Wanna Love You’ which I’m sure has delighted newly-weds in barns across acres of Tennessee, and Northern Ireland, presumably. It’s all very clean, with just enough talk of whiskey to keep it conceitedly risqué.

Sure they have banjos and mandolins and harmonies, but make no mistake; this is pop music dressed up in a plaid shirt and daisy dukes. The Shires are to country what The Offspring was to punk.

Imagine Kasey Musgraves but without the humour, The Pistol Annies but without the hangover. Sturgill Simpson they aren’t.

Of course that’s par for the course these days. The Nashville machine got rich on selling records, and you can’t sell as many records as possible without appealing to the widest possible demographic.

By the time they close with ‘Tonight’, opening track from their debut album, the crowd are sloppily singing along with a “woah” that might easily sit in a Coldplay track. Shouts for more are ignored because it’s an early show and there’s a DJ on next. It’s a shame because there’s a genuinely fun buzz in the room.

The Shires play their role convincingly well; they’ll continue to tour the latest record and undoubtedly continue to thrive in the boomtown of modern country-pop music.