Musicmuso.com were invited to The Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter on Tuesday 29th October to photograph, interview and review a concert by the legendary 80's formed group going by the name 'Big Country'.
I was (and still am) a big fan of the group and my able bodied photographer (Julian Baird) also has a soft spot for them as he spent many of his years in Glasgow and actually met the original lineup back when they released 'Without The Aid of a Safety Net' (the lucky buggar).....
Anyway, with only 2 of the original members left, we entered the venue a little early as advised by their tour manager (and all round great guy Andy Labrow) in order to catch the band sound-checking. After waiting for a while whilst their roadie/sound man sorted out the drum mic's and other intricate wiring, we were treated to the band playing a private gig for about 6 people, they played 'Chance', which is up there with my favourite Big Country tracks.
After the soundcheck, Andy advised us that although Bruce Watson (Guitarist) was feeling rough with a 'nasty cold', he was willing to have a chat with us, we quickly de-camped to the bar area, sat down and hit him with some questions, here's how it went;
MM - You're halfway through the Lands End to John O’ Groats tour, what have been the highlights so far? How was the Dunfermline gig?
BW - Every night of the tour has bought about different highlights, Dunfermeline was nice as we got the chance to catch up with friends. We wanted to play a variety of venues on this tour ranging from small to large to attract as many people as possible.
MM - How has Mike coped since taking up the position of front man in Big Country? Big boots to fill?
BW - He has fitted in really well, obviously he has history with Big Country (past collaborations at The Alarm annual ‘Gathering’ events), he has taken to the role like a duck to water.
MM - How have the fans reacted to the new band line-up?
BW - Very positively, with Tony Butler leaving to pursue a new role (he is now a music teacher) we signed up Derek Forbes (ex Simple Minds) as his replacement and with Mike at the helm, it’s allowed us to approach the new music with fresh eyes.
MM - What do you find more rewarding, gigging in the early days, amassing a fan-base or playing to devoted followers 30 years on?
BW - Hard to say, I guess the cycle of writing, recording, touring and then resting has appealed to us over the years and is still the case now, we are currently in the process of touring our new album and enjoying every minute of it!
MM - The new album still sounds very much like a Big Country album, was that deliberate?
BW - Not at all, a lot of the new material came from us just jamming at rehearsals for the 30th Anniversary tour of The Crossing, these ideas were then formed into tracks and we all bought something to the table so definitely not a deliberate sound.
MM - Have you considered doing a joint 30th anniversary tour with The Alarm (as Declaration and Steeltown were both released in 1984)?
BW - We are considering doing a 30th Anniversary tour for Steeltown (released in 1984), it won’t be with The Alarm as Mike would have to do 2 sets in the same night, imagine what his vocal chords are going to look like after 3 hours of singing…
MM - Do you feel (as a band) that you have accomplished all that you set out to do in 1981?
BW - I've not really thought about it and looking back, we never really had a set agenda, our only aim back then was to give every show 100% effort and enjoy ourselves. We’ve had our share of up’s and down’s but all in all, it’s been a relatively smooth ride!
MM - What advice would you/do you give to younger bands and acts just starting out?
BW - Don’t call yourself Big Country! Just go with the flow, if you enjoy what you do and it sounds right, it probably is, don’t be swayed by people’s judgements too easily
MM - If you could go back to 1981 with the knowledge that you have today, what would you tell your younger selves?
BW - That’s a tough one, the list would be too long! I would love to have a tardis to teleport through time though!
MM - What is the future for Big Country – can we expect more new material?
BW - We are focusing on touring The Journey at the moment, we still have some great ideas but no new material is currently in the pipeline.
MM - What are your favourite Big Country / non Big Country tracks?
BW - ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ by The Stones, no, make that ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ by The Clash
MM - Imagine you’re going to form a supergroup using musicians either dead or alive, members please....
Bruce Watson (Bass Guitar)
Zal Cleminson (Guitar)
Bill Nelson (Guitar)
Charlie Watts (Drums)
Viv Stanshall (Vocals)
We then hit the 'obviously under the weather but just about coping' Bruce with a round of quick-fire speed questions....
Regular or Decaff? - Regular
Snow or Sun? - Sun
Angelina or Jennifer? - Angelina
Pepsi or Coke? - Coke
Acoustic or Electric? - Electric
Vinyl or CD? - Vinyl
Wine or beer? - Beer
Starbucks or Costa? – They’re both the same aren’t they, bloody overpriced coffee!
Mac or PC – PC? (I don’t understand the Mac mouse)
MM - Bruce Watson, you are a legend, thank you so much for answering our questions, I hope you have a great show
BW - You're more than welcome, thanks for coming and supporting us!
We then disappeared for food and returned in time to catch the support band whose name I forget, I am sure they mentioned Chris Delaney (guitar) and the fact that he used to be a friend of Stuart Adamson? Maybe I was dreaming this? Whatever they were called, they played a great blend of 50's and 60's rock n' roll classics including 'No Particular Place to Go' by Chuck Berry, 'Rock Around the Clock' by Bill Haley and paid tribute to the recently deceased Lou Reed by playing a great version of 'Walk on the Wildside' which was well received. Sorry I forgot the band name guys, whatever you were called, you were great and I'd love to see you again in Exeter soon.
We move on now to the main event......
“Big Country? weren’t they an 80s band?? Tartan scarves and guitars that sounded like bagpipes or something like that?” That is the populist memory of the band formed by former Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson in 1982. After the release of their debut album 'The Crossing' success followed as part of the wave of Celtic Rock bands that included U2, The Alarm and Simple Minds at its forefront.
After releasing 8 albums, splitting in 2000 and the tragic death of Adamson in 2001 - fast forward to 2011 - Big Country reform with Watson’s son Jamie playing guitar and Mike Peters (from The Alarm) as front man. A couple of years later and Big Country - now with Derek Forbes (formerly of Simple Minds) having replaced recently retired original bass player Tony Butler - release a new album. The album, entitled, 'The Journey' - sees them revisit the spirit of their early albums and the John ‘O’ Groats To Land’s End tour that follows it, sees the band stop off in Exeter. Many in the crowd have come out to hear all the hits, as like many bands of this era, the publicity and airplay is not there even though they continue to produce new material.
As the lights go down and the sound of 'Flower of Scotland' rings out, the band took to the stage, opening up with 'Harvest Home' (their debut single) the band hit their stride immediately with the twin guitar sound produced by Bruce and Jamie interchanging the parts that Stuart and Bruce used to play so well, the crowd jump on board, with the odd person pogo-ing and plenty of fists punching the air.
Mike Peters is an engaging front man and gets the crowd singing along during that first song. The crowd for its part, doesn’t need much exhorting. Following Harvest Home is 'Return' a mid-tempo rocker from the latest album, this song feels like an old Big County favourite and fits nicely into the set. You can hear from the lyrics that Mike Peters has tried to remain faithful to Adamson’s style of writing. This opening sequence pretty much sets the tone for their set – old crowd favourite followed by new song – all greeted with similar levels of passion by the audience.
Next up another song from The Crossing, '1000 stars' which being more familiar has the audience moving again.
Mike then makes his first visit into the audience as Derek Forbes plays the opening bass lines of the title track off the new album, 'The Journey'. He introduces the band one by one to applause from the crowd before jumping back on stage to sing the song.
The band continue with highlights being 'Look Away' and the crowd pleasing 'Chance', both of which have the audience bouncing and chanting the words back to Mike.
That Big Country can do this successfully is down to the strength of their new material, which surely would have made Stuart Adamson proud of what his band has become. The crowd is an interesting mix – mostly people 'of a certain vintage' but this writer was surprised at the number of people that were probably not even born when the band released their first album – and even more surprised that they knew all the words!
Big Country have always inspired a certain devotion in their fans and these fans have helped to keep the spirit of the band alive and seemingly for a new generation to discover and enjoy. This latest incarnation isn’t – and doesn’t pretend to be an exact replica of the original, which is the sensible option and with a new album they are forging their future, albeit with a nod to elements of their past.
The gig ends with the classic singles 'Wonderland' and 'Fields of Fire', Peters again cajoling the crowd into shouting themselves hoarse trying to out-sing a full band with PA and encouraging everyone to bounce along. All the way through, the band is powered along by the superb Mark Brzezicki, a drummer who has more of an influence on his band’s sound than most others. His performance is an absolute tour de force. The bouncing, singing along and general crowd involvement is a tradition at Big Country gigs – the only differences now with their 80s heyday are the lack of hair; in the “moshpit” and the politeness of those involved, generally checking on the welfare of their fellow moshers after some of the more raucous moments of a rousing set.
After a short break, the inevitable encore commences with fan favourite 'Inwards' during which Peters goes on a walkabout in the audience – amusing, as crowd members aren’t sure whether to try and give him some space or mob him – another sign of the politeness that a Big Country crowd has gained. This is followed by “Last Ship Sails” (with Peters now returned to stage front) – a stomping punkish number lifted from the latest album which pays tribute to Adamson’s time in the Skids, also enforcing the confidence the band justifiably have in the new material. Inevitably, the show climaxes with their anthemic sing-a-long theme tune – 'In A Big Country' in which Mike is back down in the audience, bouncing around with them. Smiles and handshakes follow with all members of the band given the microphone to address the audience. They thank the crowd and seem genuinely grateful for the response that they’ve just received.
Whilst the more obsessive among the fans would yearn for the band to play some of their later material, they seem to know that to survive in the current climate, a band needs to sell tickets as the internet has more or less killed album sales for all but the biggest acts. By playing a large part of 'The Crossing', Big Country are playing to their strengths – the quality of the material stands up and guarantees their (admittedly) devoted audience a great night.
In all honesty Big Country can never be the same band that they were when Adamson was at the helm, but you can see from the current lineup, the passion is still there to make good music, that they care about and believe in. Their performance tonight as a band was tight, you can see that Bruce and Jamie have a chemistry playing together as well as being father and son. Mike’s singing, although occasionally strained, fits the songs perfectly and he builds a connection with the audience from the moment he takes to the stage.
Here’s to the band and hopefully many more years to come.
The Alarm Official Website (Mike Peters)
Writing Credits - Adrian Grainger, Mark Griffin and Steve Muscutt
Photo Credits - Julian Baird