Portsmouth Country Music Festival

First published in Country Music People, October 1980

Portsmouth Country Music Festival -  Sunday 10th August, 1980

There’s nothing finer, on a warm August afternoon, than being a part of a happy crowd enjoying good musical entertainment in the open air. The friction and pressure caused by exhibition stand noise at the annual Wembley Festival was thankfully missing at Portsmouth. The open-air atmosphere kept your mind clear to accept the sounds that wafted out from the giant stage.

Like a good half of the audience, I missed the Stoney Mountain Cloggers, but caught Johnny Tillotson, and was glad I did. He showed that he’d come a long way since the days when his face launched a thousand fan clubs. Boyishly good-looking, he assumed a confident stage presence, smiling to the appreciative audience. He put on a slick, professional show, featuring his old pop and country hits and new songs he is cutting today.

I particularly enjoyed Toy Hearts, a track from his last album, but it was his medley of old hits—Poetry In Motion, Talk Back Trembling Lips, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’ and a few more—that gained most response from the crowd.

Liz Howard, a relatively unknown, but up-and-coming singer, took to the stage next. She ran through a substandard set distinguished only by her duets with Jon Derek, highlighted by Til’ The Rivers All Run Dry (which would have been even better sung solo by Jon!). It was a pity because Liz has a stylish voice, well capable of tension and variety—as she demonstrated with some of her original material. But she is a singer in search of a song and a convincing stage personality. On this evidence she has precious little of either.

After a somewhat lengthy delay whist the ever-popular Ronnie Prophet kept the audience amused. Hoyt Axton and his band immediately livened up the audience. His musical performance was exceptional. He has a great voice, gutsy one minute, melancholic the next. He was backed by a very tight band, including two female singers and a hot instrumentalist who delighted the audience with Orange Blossom Special.

Axton opened with Boney Fingers, and surprised many by featuring Della And The Dealer, the one the audience wanted, early on in his set. His was mainly good-time music, and the audience tapped their feet, clapped and cheered along.

After a short interval, Don King took to the stage and performed solo. It was a display of charisma and command that was much more than one man and his guitar had any right to achieve. Keeping chat to the minimum, he whipped through his set clearly but emotively, covering a pretty wide span of well-known pop and country songs. He closed effectively with You’re My Best Friend that had certain sections of the crows singing along.

When Billie Jo Spears came on stage she knew she had the audience in the palm of her hand. They gave her a rapturous reception, and she repaid them with one of her best ever sets. Backing were Tennessee Mash, providing a tight and beautifully controlled foundation for the songs. 

She included most of her hits, including, naturally Blanket On The Ground, Sing An Old Fashioned Song and ’57 Chevrolet, plus her two recent American hits Standing Tall and Natural Attraction. Brimming with confidence, Billie Jo was having fun, and the audience indulged themselves and soaked up the foot-tapping music.

By now it was beginning to get a little chilly and the sky was clouding over, but the audience were unperturbed, because the stage was being set up for the Man In Black. Then in the midst of chaos there was Johnny Cash, standing stage centre and drawling the words to Folsom Prison Blues, which every man, woman and child in the audience seemed to know, word perfect.
The lights flash brilliantly on the stage as the light rays beam off the polished instruments. Now sure of the audience, Cash performed as flawlessly as any country legend could. He conjured up nearly ninety minutes of previous hits.

As countless as they were, he was still scratching the surface of his entire career. While mixing new album cuts with the favourites, a nice interaction developed and the crowd wasn’t cheated.

Cash brought the Portsmouth Festival to a close with an outstanding performance. Musically it was a highly successful three-day binge, though financially, it has to be recorded, it was a disaster.