Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Country

14th April 2012 and something I thought I'd never witness again,is happening right before my eyes. One of my all-time favourite bands BIG COUNTRY are charging about the Mandela Hall stage in the heart of Belfast. OK, it's not quite the Big Country of old as Stuart Adamson (RIP) is no longer with us, Mike Peters has taken over as lead vocalist and Bruce Watson's son Jamie is on guitar. This gig is part of the band's 30th Anniversary tour and an opportunity to see "The Crossing" performed in it's entirety. My relationship with the band goes back to 1983 when I got blown away hearing "Fields of Fire" and from that moment on I became a devoted fan. My first BC purchase was the 12" version of "Fields of Fire" (bought on the same day as "Change" 12" by Tears for Fears - strange what you remember!) and over the next few years, my record collection expanded with rare Japanese 7" singles, LP's, cassettes, limited edition 12" versions and 7" double-packs. I never got to see them "live" until December 1984 when they were promoting the "Steeltown" album - this was also my first ever gig. Myself and fellow BC obsessive Dale Martin, made the journey down to Wembley Arena where we saw pre-fame The Cult rock the arena for half an hour before the main event. Although, I don't remember too much about the BC performance, I just recall being overwhelmed with the atmosphere, the music and the singing along. If I had to pick out a track that reminds of this December night, it would have to be "Steeltown". Another BC highlight would have to be getting free tickets to a Whistle Test gig at the Hexagon in Reading. This took place on 14th April 1986 (26 years to the day from the Mandela Hall gig!) and what a night this turned out to be. The band were just beginning to promote "The Seer" so the set-list featured the likes of "Remembrance Day" and "I Walk the Hill" and they fitted right alongside classics like "Chance". It was a brilliant concert and afterwards, I was lucky enough to catch the band getting on the tour bus and managed to get their autographs. A few months later the concert was broadcast on BBC2 and I still have a copy on video. "Peace in our Time" was the last BC album that I bought and felt any attachment to and post 1990, BC drifted in and out of my life. The band were no longer selling bucket loads of albums and they could no longer sell out the likes of Wembley Arena, it was inevitable that the band would finally split. I did get one final opportunity to see them "live" and strangely enough on the same bill was The Alarm (another favourite band of mine) fronted by Mike Peters. I went to the gig with a heavy heart, as I thought this might be the last time I see 2 of the bands that had meant so much to me over the last 15 years. The fact the concert was taking place in a sports hall in the local leisure centre (Stantonbury Campus) showed how far both bands had fallen. Although, I enjoyed the concert, I couldn't help feeling that this was the end and the ignominy of playing a sports hall must have been a low-point in BC's career. December 2001 and the news filtered through that Stuart had committed suicide. This came as a total shock and this was the first time a real hero of mine had died. Of course, I did all the usual things, dusted down BC records, watched BC videos, listened to concerts I had recorded off the radio and just remembered all the great songs that Stuart had written with not just BC but also The Skids. Over time, the 3 original BC members got back together and in the last few years having recruited Mike Peters and Jamie Watson have been recording and touring. So, that leads us up to Saturday 14th April 2012 and a hot and sweaty night at Mandela Hall. The BC fan-base doesn't seem to have changed much over the last 30 years, an 80-20 split in favour of men...oh and most of the male fans seem to have a lost an awful lot of hair and gained a few inches around the middle!! The warm-up music before BC took the stage was predictably a mixture of late 70's punk/new wave and as XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" was being played, the lights went down and the band strode onto the stage. OK at first it was a bit odd seeing Mike Peters up there rather than Stuart but as they started with 2 of my all-time faves - "Angle Park" and "East of Eden" - I soon embraced the new-look BC. One of their most recent songs "Another Country" was next up and was soon followed by the rarely played track "Balcony", if only they had played "Flag of Nations (Swimming)" that would have been the first 2 'B' sides performed within half an hour! "Restless Natives" and the awesome track "The Crossing" followed before the opening bars of "In a Big Country" leapt out of the speakers, the crowd screamed and oldish men jumped about. This was the beginning of "The Crossing" and over the next 45 minutes we were treated to Mike entering the crowd and singing along with the crowd to "Chance", an atmospheric "The Storm", a barn-storming "Harvest Home", lots of singing along to "Lost Patrol" and a rousing finale of "Porroh Man". Then they were gone, well for a few minutes at least, we clapped and cheered and not surprisingly BC returned and performed 4 encores. Jamie introduced "Tracks of my Tears" as one of Stuart's all-time fave songs, "Look Away" and "Wonderland" kept the crowd rocking and as a finale, there was a cover of "Rockin' in the Free World". It was a great evening and the references to Stuart were kept to a minimum but were well received. OK it was never going to be my best ever BC gig but it certainly exceeded my expectations. I did miss Bruce and Stuart charging around the stage during the climax of "Harvest Home" and Mike will never have the same presence as Stuart but these are only small gripes. Maybe they'll be back in 2014 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of "Steeltown"? If they do return, I'll be snapping up a ticket. STAY ALIVE

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