HomeEF CountryHighways Festival 2023: Our top 5 highlights

Highways Festival 2023: Our top 5 highlights

After months of anticipation, the brand new Highways Festival arrived for its inaugural event at London’s Royal Albert Hall yesterday – and it certainly lived up to the hype.

There was plenty going on all day across the site, from Country for Kids with Alyssa Bonagura in the morning all the way through to a Late Night Session with the UK’s own Ferris and Sylvester and an after-party DJ set from Baylen Leonard.

We were lucky enough to be there at this iconic venue and to see some incredible performances – here’s our top 5 standout moments from the day:

1: The return of Stephen Wilson Jr

It feels like Stephen Wilson Jr has barely been away from the UK since he made his debut here on tour with Brothers Osborne last September. After popping up at Americanafest in January, he performed twice at Highways, opening the main stage as well as compering the songwriters round (more on that shortly). Throughout the day he showcased a mix of old and new material, with highlights including atmospheric first single ‘The Devil’, the fast-paced ‘Billy’ and new track ‘Grief Is Only A Love’, a heartstring-tugging number that he dedicated to his late father and uncle. He’s also come on leaps and bounds as a performer, hopping and spinning about the stage during ‘Cuckoo’ in his main stage set – which also featured a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for his sister who was in the crowd – and encouraging the crowd to join in the call-and-response on ‘Hometown’ at Songwriters, and was rewarded handsomely at both shows with huge cheers from the audience after his performance of ‘Holler From The Holler’ which highlighted his incredible vocal belt. If you’re into swampy rock-influenced country, make sure to keep an eye out for him when he’s back in the UK next month supporting Drake White – although I’m sure that won’t be his last trip across the pond either…

2: Jackson Dean’s UK debut

Probably one of the most eagerly awaited acts of the day was Jackson Dean, who was making his UK debut at Highways. Performing second on the main stage, he wowed the crowd with his rock-influenced set on the likes of the stomping ‘Trailer Park’, which showed off the depth and gravel in his voice, as well as new song ‘Big Blue’ and the touching ‘Heavens To Betsy’. However, for me one of the standout moments came on ‘Wings’, which saw the entire auditorium lit up with phone lights as Dean’s powerful, heartfelt vocal filled the room, before he closed the performance with a romantic, soaring rendition of ‘Fearless’ and the punchy ‘Don’t Come Lookin”. It was a triumphant first show and has certainly made me more excited about his Long Road set in August than I was already (if that was even possible!).

3: Morgan Wade’s mellow moment

Third up on the main stage at Highways was Morgan Wade, playing with her guitarist Clint (who delivered a killer solo during ‘Mend’) on a stage full of lamps and accompanied with her pink acoustic guitar. After the heavier sounds of Stephen and Jackson, it was actually really refreshing to see her perform an acoustic set after her previous trip to the UK with her full band and showed that she can deliver a stripped-back, charismatic performance that’s just as spellbinding in this setup. The approach gave a new lease of life to songs like ‘Run’, ‘Matches And Metaphors’ and ‘The Night’, putting the emphasis on her husky yet delicate vocals, whilst new songs ‘Crossing State Lines’, ‘Walked On Water’ and ‘Psychopath’ – from her upcoming sophomore album of the same name – showed off her tender, more introspective side. She closed the set with (what else?) ‘Wilder Days’, getting a standing ovation for her efforts, and showing just why she’s so beloved by audiences here – let’s hope it’s not too long until she’s back again!

4: Kip Moore’s incredible headline set

Closing the show was the one and only Kip Moore, playing to a packed crowd who stayed on their feet for pretty much the entire two hours he was on stage. He took the Highways audience on a whistlestop tour through his career, playing long-time favourites like ‘Wild Ones’, ‘Beer Money’, ‘Heart’s Desire’ – which he dedicated to ‘the OG fans’ – and of course ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck’ That said, there was still plenty of space for new songs like ‘Damn Love’ – the title track of his latest album – ‘Kinda Bar’, the 80s-influenced ‘Heart On Fire’ and ‘Another Night In Knoxville’, before a triumphant finish with an acoustic performance of ‘Guitar Man’ and waving a UK flag aloft alongside his band. We’ll have a full review of this set going up soon so make sure you keep a look out for that!

5: Showcasing the best at Songwriters

Is it a country festival in the UK if it doesn’t have a songwriters round? Certainly that was the case at Highways, with Jillian Jacqueline, Kat Hasty and William Prince joining host Stephen Wilson Jr for an acoustic session in the afternoon before the main event. Jillian is a long-time favourite with UK audiences, making a trip back after her short visit for C2C in March, and dazzled as always with her gorgeous vocals and moving lyrics on songs like ‘The Ocean’, ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Iconic’, which featured a ridiculously sweet story about how her husband included voice recordings from the day they got engaged in the studio version! Elsewhere, Kat Hasty took the audience from raucous laughter on anti-hometown song ‘Drag My Ass Back To Midland’ to shedding a tear during ‘Why Do Good People Die’ before delivering a defiant rendition of ‘Burn It Down’, whilst William Prince showcased the warmth and richness in his voice on the likes of ‘Tanqueray’ – which he wrote about falling in love with his now-fiancée – and ‘Breathless’, before throwing in a reference to the fact it used to be a well-known mobile phone company’s hold music! All four of them received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end and I really hope they’ll all be back over in the UK to show just what they can do sometime soon.

Highways Festival will return in 2024. For more information and to be the first to hear about dates, line-ups and early access to tickets, visit https://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/highwaysfest2024.

Laura Cooney
Laura Cooney
Laura has been writing for Entertainment Focus since 2016, mainly covering music (particularly country and pop) and television, and is based in South West London.

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