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...