Friday, 15 April 2011

812 BIG COUNTRY, Bristol O2 Academy, Thursday 14 April 2011

It seems stupid in retrospect, but I nearly didn’t bother for this one… Big Country, one of the post-punk “rockist” bands I picked up on in the early 80’s (primarily due to the presence of Stuart Adamson, former guitarist of my childhood punk faves The Skids), were joining the plethora of bands scratching that reunion itch, reforming for a 30th Anniversary Tour. This, however, was more poignant than most, given the untimely and tragic suicide of Adamson, Big Country’s vocalist/guitarist and driving force, 10 years ago. With his distinctive guitar work the signature sound of Big Country, how would this work?

Research revealed the “guest” addition of contemporary, vocalist Mike Peters of the Alarm, who had impressed me with Dead Men Walking a few years back, plus guitarist Bruce Watson’s son Jamie, to augment the surviving original trio of Watson, beefy bassist Tony Butler and drum virtuoso Mark Brzezicki. So I decided to treat this as an “Ex Simple Minds” scenario, and roped the Big Man into coming (not that he needed much roping, really...). Further pre-gig research by Rich revealed uninteresting supports, so I picked him up after our kids’ bedtimes, haring down the M4 and parking up in time to grab a drink, then head down onto the more-than respectably full floor to take up our usual positions, stage left at this increasingly familiar venue.

Big Country took the stage at 9 pm to a windswept symphonic intro, against a mountainous backdrop, kicking into an initially thin-sounding “1,000 Stars”. However, Mike Peters, last onstage and grinning like a man who’d won the lottery and, given the choice between a pile of cash and the chance to front his favourite band for the night, had chosen the latter, immediately fuelled the already enthusiastic crowd into a frenzy of clapping, sing-along fun and frolics and all-inclusive communality. “Welcome to the Harvest Home!” roared Peters, as an intro to Big Country’s second number and debut single, and we were really away.

Thereafter, the sound was perfect, the performance loud, dynamic, strident, powerful, enthusiastic and all-inclusive, doing full justice to the legacy of this classic, oft-overlooked band. Watson, still rock–star skinny, took lead guitar chores, and apart from a few bum notes at the end of an obviously gruelling set, again did justice to Adamson’s intricate, distinctive windswept and expansive riffery, while son Jamie, a rakish, flaxen-haired mini-me, fleshed the sound out with solid rhythm guitar. Mike Peters put on an astonishing performance, deftly walking a tricky tightrope between attention grabbing frontman and humbled and appreciative fan, telling between-song stories about his own friendship with Stuart Adamson, and also how Big Country’s music gave him strength in his battles against cancer. Achingly sincere stuff, but it never descended into maudlin sentimentality.

A wonderful and dramatic mid-set “Porrohman” saw Peters abandon the stage as the song built like a thunderstorm, and reappear walking through the frenzied mosh; the subsequent release of “Inwards” sent shards of guitar riffery shooting through the air, and the lyric, “I don’t want to go home on a night like this,” summed up most people’s thoughts; a sinuous, celtic-tinged “Storm” segued into a none-more relevant anti-war “Where The Rose Is Sown”, and set closer “Fields Of Fire” raised the roof with a massive communal sing-along, which was even topped by encore “Chance”, the hook-line resonating around the venue for ages.

An inevitable final “In A Big Country” rounded off a startlingly swift 2 hour set + 2encores, the band taking a bow and Peters thanking the crowd for, “making me feel part of the family.” Tony Butler, fittingly, had the last word, dedicating the night to Stuart Adamson and again praising the audience for, “making me feel proud to be a part of Big Country again.” An emotionally-charged night was bookended with Butler’s final words, referencing the lyric of their final number; “Stay Alive!” Overall, they could not have given a finer tribute to their departed leader and to their own legacy than this brilliant performance tonight. This was everything I wanted it to be, and so much more. A superb night!

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