Charles Esten has been a TV and theatre star for over two decades, notably on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and in the musical Buddy. However, he’s probably best known as Deacon Claybourne, the country singer and guitarist he played on the drama series Nashville for six seasons. The show’s success has seen Esten visit the UK regularly along with fellow cast members in the past few years, most recently for last spring’s farewell tour. Now he’s back as a solo artist for a run of sold-out shows, including an appearance at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Esten arrived on stage alone on the dot of 9 PM to huge cheers and applause, and opened his set with a reworked version of Whiskey Lips, a song he performed during his time on Nashville. The stripped-back opening verse showed off his impressive guitar playing, as well as the depth and drawl in his voice, before building up into a driving chorus that had the crowd clapping along. He slowed down again in the final verse, with his vocals switching between a shout and a whisper, then finished with a rattling guitar flourish. The crowd burst into applause and it was clear that we were in for a fantastic night.
Throughout the acoustic performance Esten played a mix of tracks from Nashville alongside his own songs and a few covers too. He showed off his diverse influences throughout, whether on rock-influenced songs such as the swampy, spiky Do You Good – a vivid portrait of small town Southern life, which saw him hit some impressively high notes – or softer numbers like Believing, which he performed with support act The Adelaides as part of a group of four songs. Their voices blended beautifully together throughout, particularly on the atmospheric duet When Trouble Comes, which had the feel of a Western movie soundtrack and brought out the rich smokiness of Esten’s vocals.
One thing which stood out to me was Esten’s showmanship. He’s a very animated performer, frequently tapping his toes and throwing his head back as he sang with an intensity that made every word completely believable. However, he also knows exactly how to work an audience and when to stretch out quieter moments or bring his vocals to the forefront, particularly on the subdued yet powerful I Climb The Walls. Throughout the show he frequently broke off to tell stories about his time on Nashville and writing his songs, as well as expressing gratitude to the UK crowds and cracking jokes – even at his own expense when he slightly flubbed the soulful Can’t Remember Never Loving You, which drew huge applause from the audience!
Many of the evening’s standout moments came in the cover versions, including a shouldn’t-work-but-does mashup of Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys and Norwegian Wood, which highlighted the timeless quality of Esten’s vocals. I also loved the Buddy Holly medley he performed with fellow former cast member Alex Bourne. It was full of perfect vocal quirks and rapid fire guitar playing, with the crowd dancing in the aisles as Esten encouraged them to sing along to That’ll Be The Day, and got him the first standing ovation of the evening.
However, for me the highlight of the night was the piano-led Good Rain Or Jesus. Esten filled the song with raw emotion and you could hear the impassioned anguish oozing from every note that came out of his mouth. It was a performance full of conviction that held the audience absolutely spellbound, with both them and Esten lost in the music, and an absolutely spine-tingling moment. I was also really impressed by his storytelling skills on Dancing All Around It, which saw him balance a sharp, punch melody with detailed lyrics and fully embody the character of a man who knows his marriage is over.
Esten finished the show with He Ain’t Me, a fiery rock and roll-influenced number that’s a huge favourite with fans. The fast-paced song showed off the gravel and power in his voice and his performance had plenty of swagger. He followed that with a stomping, bluesy version of Heart Don’t Say Goodbye. Midway through the song, he paused to ask the crowd ‘if I come back, will you have me?’ and they roared their approval, before he hit a huge note to finish the song. The audience leapt to their feet as he finished and delivered a volley of applause as he left the stage.
For the encore, Esten brought out The Adelaides once again to perform A Life That’s Good. The lilting, dreamlike song has become a staple finale of Nashville cast concerts over the years, but it’s always a special moment to hear the crowd singing along to it. Esten encouraged them to sing the chorus alone and the combination of their voices and the lights around the venue added a touch of magic, making it the perfect note to end on.
Overall I thought Esten definitely stepped out of the shadow of Deacon Claybourne last night and (for those who didn’t know already) established himself as a stellar performer in his own right. He showed off his incredible versatility throughout, both as a musician and a vocalist, and the show had a wonderful intimate feel that made it seem more like ‘an evening with’ rather than a conventional concert. It was incredibly brave to take on a solo, stripped-back approach but it absolutely paid off in spades, and it’s clear the audience loved it just as much as he loved playing for them. He’s set an incredibly high bar for gigs in 2019 and personally I can’t wait to see what he does next. Here’s hoping he comes back to the UK soon!
Set list: 1. Whiskey Lips 2. Do You Good 3. I Climb The Walls 4. Dreaming My Dreams With You (Waylon Jennings cover) 5. Can’t Remember Never Loving You 6. Believing (with The Adelaides) 7. When Trouble Comes (with The Adelaides) 8. Undermine (with The Adelaides) 9. Friend Of Mine (with The Adelaides) 10. Dancing All Around It 11. Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys/Norwegian Wood (Willie Nelson/Beatles cover) 12. Not Fade Away/Peggy Sue/Love Me/Heartbeat/It’s So Easy/Oh Boy/That’ll Be The Day (Buddy Holly cover) (with Alex Bourne) 13. Good Rain Or Jesus 14. He Ain’t Me 15. Heart Don’t Say Goodbye 16. A Life That’s Good (with The Adelaides) Performance date: 16th January 2019
See Charles Esten on tour in the UK this January:
17 January – St George’s, Bristol (sold out)
19 January – RNCM Concert Hall, Manchester (sold out)
20 January – The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow (sold out)
21 January – Sage, Gateshead (sold out)