Saturday, 18 November 2017

BIG COUNTRY, Norwich Waterfront, 11 November 2017

More retro-rocking, with another band that has special significance for me.

"In a big country / dreams stay with you..."

When New Wavers The Skids, hailing from Dunfermline in Scotland, called it a day in 1981 I was mortified. They were the first band I ever saw live. Of all the gigs I’ve seen – and there have been more than a few – the details of that great night at the Lower Common Room at the University of East Anglia remain crystal clear.

After that, I thought that would be it for witnessing guitarist Stuart Adamson’s distinctive, soaring melodies live (rightly, he was christened “the new Jimi Hendrix” by no greater authority than iconic indie DJ John Peel). Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when in the September of 1982 a new, uplifting sonic assault in the manner of The Skids blasted out of the radio. That was ‘Harvest Home’, the first single of Adamson’s new band Big Country, and this time he was front and centre, lead singer as well as guitarist.

Together with Bruce Watson (second guitar), Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brezezicki (drums), decked out in signature tartan shirts, for the next six years Big Country jumped and weaved across the world’s concert stages, taking Adamson’s Celtic guitar sound and life-affirming lyrics further than The Skids ever had. Memorably, in 1987 I saw them support David Bowie on The Glass Spider tour at Wembley Stadium. Adamson’s impromptu take on the riff of ‘Rebel Rebel’ was the best thing about that gig.

It couldn’t last, of course – nothing ever does. Sales began waning with 1991’s fifth album, No Place Like Home. Unlike their nearest contemporaries U2, Big Country didn’t (or couldn’t) reinvent themselves to keep up with, or stay ahead of, musical trends; in 1991, U2 released Achtung Baby, an album informed by electronica and dance music that largely consigned to history their previous incarnation as humourless anthem rockers. Big County, meanwhile, stuck with what they did best.

The other side to Adamson’s upbeat soundscapes was a tendency towards depression, which didn’t go well with the guitarist’s alcoholism, or the downturn in sales. The original line up of Big Country called it a day with 1999’s Driving to Damascus. Two years later, to the distress and sadness of many, Adamson sadly took his own life.

These days, it seems, no musician is really dead. This year at Lowestoft’s Marina, we’ve had tribute acts for The Carpenters, George Michael, Johnny Cash and Queen: if people still want to hear their songs, it seems someone will always be prepared to go out there and sing them. 2017’s Big Country are a different proposition. Original members Brezezicki and Watson now play alongside the latter’s son Jamie on guitar, with Scott Whitley (bass) and Simon Hough on lead vocals and acoustic guitar. Touchingly, there’s an empty space in the middle of the stage in honour of the absent Adamson.

(Copyright: Dawn Tomlin)
Watson Senior (left) makes for an amiable and amusing master of ceremonies, so impressed by an audience member wearing a years-old tour T-shirt that he let him have a new one for free. The band’s live attack is as impressive as it ever was, with Hough doing a remarkable job of approximating Adamson’s vocal style.

The set list is taken mostly from the first three albums, when the Big Country sound was at its most urgent: turbo-charged singalongs like ‘Fields of Fire’, ‘Lost Patrol’, ‘King of Emotion’, ‘Look Away’ and, obviously, ‘In a Big Country’ rattled the rafters as effectively as they did in the old days. A notable change of pace was the contemplative ‘Ships’, which hinted at what might have been if Big Country had experimented more confidently with their musical template.

The set-piece performance came with ‘Chance’, arguably the best song in Big Country’s catalogue. Fittingly, it’s a companion to The Skids’ first single, ‘Charles’. That dealt with a factory worker worn down by his dead-end job, whereas ‘Chance’ is about a young woman whose life is stolen from her by her partner after he abandons her with their two sons. The call-and-response chorus – “Oh, lord, where did that feeling go? / Oh, lord, I never felt so low” – is both melancholy and punch-the-air elevating, particularly when the guitars crash in at the end after a minimal build up. At this distance, those lyrics can, perhaps, be seen as an insight into Stuart’s sometimes depressed mind-set… Whatever, when the audience at the Waterfront sang the chorus back to Big Country they were louder than the band, a show of passion which clearly delighted the visiting Scotsmen.

(Copyright: Dawn Tomlin)
Before they left the stage, Brezezicki (left) came to the microphone to inform us that he and Watson had been working together in Big Country for, astonishingly, nearly forty years. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: brilliant music is timeless.

I’m already looking forward to next year when they come back to Norwich to play their first album The Crossing. I will carry you home...

Thursday, 19 October 2017


Personality politics in Shakespeare’s late tragedy make for a politically relevant night out.  

Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Image copyright: RSC)

I’ve recently started volunteering at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft. One of the reasons I was drawn to it, apart from an interest in all things entertainment, was because, thanks to advances in technology, the Marina now presents screenings of theatrical productions from around the country. The town is in for a varied cultural feast in the coming months, as the Marina plays host to Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Tennessee Williams’ febrile drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shakespeare’s Roman epic Julius Caesar, among others.

I can’t recommend this way of watching theatre highly enough. It’s like you’re sitting in all the best seats in the house at once, with the benefit of a zoom lens so you can focus on intimate details of expression and nuance, as well as take in all the action that’s happening on the stage in long shot. When you consider that the average seat at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or at the National Theatre is around £30, £15 for this all-inclusive viewing experience is staggeringly good value for money (even if it is slightly surreal being able to watch the televised audience eat their ice cream during the interval).

The Marina’s presentation on Thursday 12 October, direct from London’s Barbican Theatre, was Coriolanus, another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays and part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season, that also includes Titus Andronicus and William Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. The RSC delivers a comprehensive package, including a pre-match style chat with the director Angus Jackson, who provides some historical context and insight into why the production was staged in modern dress. Principally, Jackson reasoned that the “hierarchy of togas” among the Roman nobles, Senate and Tribunes would be “hard to spot” for a modern audience.

(Image copyright: RSC)
There was more to it than that. One of Shakespeare’s last tragedies, it’s full of contemporary resonances which the decision to dress the production in a modern way reinforces. When the “common people” begin rioting because they’re starving, the ruling caste of patricians appease them by creating two people’s representatives, or Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird, left), who change the previously inaccessible political process of the Roman Senate. The way Morrison’s Sicinus and Laird’s Junius are styled and played – though its subtly done – brings to mind the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon Labour’s Diane Abbott, militant MPs who in one way or another have had a radical impact on British politics.

The Tribunes’ nemesis is the charismatic but arrogant Roman general Caius Martius (Sope Dirisu), who Rome's blue-collar class blame for depriving them of grain, while Martius himself makes no secret of his contempt for them. When Caius wins a decisive battle against the bordering Volscians, led by his old adversary Tullus Aufidius (James Corrigan), for the town of Corioli, he is re-christened ‘Coriolanus’. The jubilant patricians encourage him to stand as Rome’s consul, a political move that brings Coriolanus into conflict with the Tribunes, resulting in his banishment from Rome and egotistical desire for revenge at the head of Aufidius’ Volscian army.

In the RSC’s 2017 Coriolanus, you can see reflected modern leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who are big on personality but have a casual disregard for reasoned policy, political allegiances and civil liberties – the Tribunes suspect Martius could become a tyrant, and he only ever has his own selfish interests at heart (or those of his mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynn), the only person who can sway his will), an attitude which proves to be his downfall.

Dirisu’s Coriolanus has a formidable, chiselled physicality, particularly in the battle scenes and a protracted duel with Auffidius, although he is slightly more one dimensional as a political speaker and in the family scenes. In Shakespeare’s most linear tragedy, where the central figure lacks the complexity of a Hamlet, Lear or a Macbeth and is more of a symbol, perhaps that’s deliberate.

(Image copyright: RSC)
Coriolanus is given dramatic context by Paul Jesson’s Menenius, the likeable patrician Senator who initially champions Martius’ nomination as consul. Jesson’s is an engaging and humane performance, made all the more affecting when he collapses emotionally after his pleas for Coriolanus to spare Rome are rejected by his former protégé. James Corrigan’s Auffidius (right) – who, for me, earns the acting honours in this production – through a mesmerising combination of humour, suspicion, pragmatic insight and respect (that might be slightly homoerotic), eventually realises how dangerous and unpredictable a force Coriolanus is. Haydn Gwynne shares the acting plaudits, sensitively and unwittingly sealing her son’s fate by appealing to his better nature. Her performance is so good that you almost overlook this rather obvious piece of plotting that sets up the climax of the play.

With stark production design based around a grilled metal wall and shutter, this Coriolanus succeeds as a grim warning about personality politics. Once again, William S. proves himself to be one of the most prophetic writers in the English language, with a play that’s hundreds of years old but still remarkably up to the minute.

All in all, a satisfying cultural night out in Lowestoft and a significant feather in the theatrical cap of the Marina.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Situated on Waterloo Road in Lowestoft, Richard Toombs’ café is a much-valued community and cultural drop-in.

The best place to stop near Lowestoft sea front.

I don’t care what some people may say, but Lowestoft is slowly changing for the better. Unlikely as it may seem to some residents and visitors, a mini renaissance is currently taking place around London Road South. There’s Desmonds, the coffee house and impressive pizzeria, that offers such delights as Curried Goat Night. Local character Desmond Baldry has livened up the pop culture-themed interior by having his image inserted into the vintage memorabilia on display, where he can be seen opposite entertainment luminaries from times gone by.

Elsewhere, there’s the Honey Bee Vintage shop, a vegan deli, The Beach Hut vintage furniture shop and, on Waterloo Road, The Coconut Loft. This establishment, run by Richard Toombs, in a way sums up the Lowestoft approach to the bohemian and the arts. First and foremost, The Coconut Loft has become something of a community hub, as people have been brought together by the delicious Italian coffee and choice menu, as well as by how attentive and friendly Richard’s engaging staff are.

The success of the café side of the business – and its deli – has enabled Richard to expand the Loft’s horizons, to the point where it now hosts exhibitions by local artists. It’s not just Suffolk landscapes and coastlines, either: if Richard likes the work of an artist who produces more conceptual and avant garde art – something that could become a local talking point, say – he’ll consider that too, and that’s to be applauded.

One of The Coconut Loft's galleries.
I only discovered The Coconut Loft two weeks ago. After a long, informative chat with Richard, he revealed that the establishment also holds a knitting group – not really me, I have to say – and, on Thursdays and Fridays, #Writers’ Corner. In search of like-minded creatives, I went along, met the effervescent Suzan Collins who runs the group and, before I knew it, I was a guest at the Meet the Authors event, part of the East Anglian Festival of Culture, which ran over 9 and 10 September. Not a bad result for a chance meeting in a café.

It’s very useful and encouraging, if you spend a lot of time on your own writing, to have somewhere to go during the day to be able to work alongside and chat with people of similar interests, the more so if it’s in a convivial environment where coffee and cake are on tap. #Writers’ Corner has been so friendly and inspiring that in the last fortnight I’ve stepped up my writing output, to the point where I’ve done three blog posts after a major slump when, for various reasons, I didn’t do much for nearly a year. Another nice thing about The Coconut Loft is that your books can be exhibited in the charmingly named ‘Book Nook’, one of the two beach huts set up as creative spaces in the café, this one in Ipswich town colours (no booing, please).

Groups and businesses like the #Writers’ Corner and the Loft are to be valued and supported, particularly in towns like Lowestoft, because they’re part of the cultural life blood of the community.

If you haven’t been in yet, pop in for a coffee and say ‘hi’ to Richard. It’ll be a pleasant eye opener.