“It’s about to get real Southern up in here! Y’all alright with that?” shrieks singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston as The Cadillac Three launch into ‘The South’, their biggest hit to date and final song of the night. The crowd answer with a roar. And that sums up this out-of-the-ordinary night at a sold-out Junction J1: it’s been Southern with a capital ‘S’. Which means big hair, big guitars, laid-back smile-on-the-face bravado, and “hell yeah”s by the truck load, as this trio from Tennessee play to a very excited Cambridge crowd on a cold November Monday in East Anglia.

So it seems that not only is Nashville, Tennessee, the epicentre of American country music and all that entails, but it’s also at the heart of the genre put forward by The Cadillac Three (TC3) ‘southern rock’, ‘swamp rock’, “or whatever you wanna call this shit” (Johnston). It involves the musical style you’d normally associate with country guitar, Dobro, down-and-dirty lyrics with the attitude, noise and posture of rock stars. Think Kid Rock three times over. There’s a rich heritage that goes back to ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and is maintained to this day by the Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon and TC3. It advocates good times, family ties and the southern way of living. And now for the first time in Cambridge, The Three were here to spread the gospel — “God bless y’all for coming out tonight, God bless the South!” screamed Johnston, not for the first or last time.

Following on from the excellent support act, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, TC3 swaggered on stage all mess of hair, baseball caps, singlets revealing tattooed arms, and go straight into ‘Bury Me in My Boots’ title song of their new album. It has a chorus line about whiskey, Johnston called on all the rednecks in the house, half the audience cheered, and we were rolling.

Drummer Neil Mason is all energy and big grins at the back of the stage. Lap-steel player Kelby Ray looks like the cerebral one of the group, calmly rocking out from his seated position stage-right and scanning the crowd in a slightly removed way more Lennon than McCartney. And then stage-left was the charismatic Johnston, who quickly built a rapport with the Cambridge crowd, repeatedly expressing his gratitude that we’d come out to see these “three long-haired hippies from Tennessee”, bigging up the vinyl on sale at the merchandise table as “the shit”, and chuckling away at the Cambridge accent when someone called out a request (he proceeded to do a pretty good impression, and we laughed).

The first few songs passed by quickly in a fairly indistinguishale haze of steady-paced songs about drinking, girls and Tennessee ‘Tennessee Mojo’ being the epitome of this section. Then the set built into a more varied and interesting phase, dropping into a slightly quieter section as Mason took a break, leaving Johnston and Ray to a fierce rock ballad about ‘Runnin Red Lights’ for the love of a girl. Their “girls” are in fact behind the sound desk tonight, they all get a point from the boys on stage and a “love you baby”, as Johnston reveals they’ll soon be “The Cadillac Four” because his wife’s expecting. This gets a big cheer. On we go with ‘Peace Love and Dixie’, ‘Graffiti’ (about growing up in small-town America) and ‘Get Your Buzz On’ again about whiskey. It’s great: not at all bogged down with melancholy or angst, just three guys playing high energy southern rock and clearly having a great time.

In the main set they play 14 songs from their debut, ‘The Cadillac Three’, and their new release, ‘Bury Me in My Boots’. They end with ‘Down to the River’ and some brilliantly indulgent guitar hero solos: “best thing about being in a band is I get to do this shit”, says Johnston before another burst of guitar, “see what I’m saying? Sure beats selling insurance!” Though he politely apologises to any insurance salesmen in the house; a couple of guys behind me cheer in an embarrassed kind of way indicating that they are.

Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown return to the stage with The Three for the first song of the encore, they dedicate ‘White Lightning’ to “The Cadillac She” (their girls), and finish with the hugely catchy anthem, ‘The South’

It’s all about the South
Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Carolina
Don’t you wanna get down and dirty
Cause Florida I’m thirsty
Hit me with your Tennessee whiskey and crank it up loud.

A little geography lesson in the lyrics there in case you weren’t sure which bits are ‘The South’. It’s a brilliant way to end the night and the band are roared off stage by the Cambridge crowd. The Cadillac Three have toured this side of The Pond repeatedly. Johnston says it’s their “eleventh or twelfth” visit, and promises that if “y’all keep coming back we’ll keep coming back”. “Hell yeah”, that seems a good idea to me.

Words by Andrew Caines