When I told my Scottish husband that I was reviewing Big Country, his reaction – “Bloody tartan knicker wearers.” Translated from grumpy Glaswegian, this means that they are so Scottish, they have become a caricature of being Scottish. Think Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart (who is in fact English, but this is another rant altogether and we won’t get him started on that).
I think once you get into your 30’s, 40’s and beyond, you can fall in love with nostalgia. Bruce Springsteen sang about “Glory Days”. A time when you were thin, wrinkle free and worry free. That time before work, kids and responsibilities rubbed a bit of the shine off life. So now when I want to feel my “Glory Days”, I turn to music, and the packed house at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne last night, tells me I’m not alone. The joy was clear from the smiles on the faces of fans spending a night feeling 16 again, which is about how old I was when Big Country burst on the scene with their debut album, The Crossing in 1983. From humble beginnings in Dunfermline, sitting on the north side of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh (Firth is a River estuary), they had phenomenal worldwide success.
The first sign that you’re at a “senior’s” gig, is all the people sitting down. Everywhere. And there are no chairs in the Corner. First of the 2 opening acts was Nathan Seeckts and his band. Nathan is clearly a little bit country and a (very) little bit rock and roll (if you don’t get this reference, ask your parents) with an accent somewhere between Austin and Ashburton. And one of his band members is purely there to play the harmonica! I might struggle with this. But as they get going, I can see the passion they put into it and I can’t help but admire people who live to play as he clearly does. And although country music grates on my soul and makes me compulsively grind my teeth, I kinda liked Nathan and his band. And the harmonica player was pretty good. Well done guys.
Megan Sidwell was up next. Clearly a Kiwi, she had a lovely “easy listening” voice with a great vocal range and decent guitar skills. Go Girl! I definitely felt the flavour of many great female singer/songwriters who have gone before her. It was clear that she wrote the lyrics and they meant something to her. Appreciative friends and family were in attendance. Including embarrassing (I’m going to call her) Auntie “Jackie” (who’s in fine shape but does not need another glass of chardonnay) and her enthusiastic screaming.
I was very surprised to learn that Big Country were not coming on until 10.40. Surely at their age, they should be tucked up in bed with their Horlicks by that time, as should most of their fans, myself included. But the inbetween songs were friggin’ awesome! Oooh, Flock of Seagulls, Heaven 17, I used to dance to these at The Underground. The curtains across the stage are closed and the Human League are pumping the crowd up. Auntie Jackie is loving it and so am I. I almost don’t want Big Country to come on. I’m wondering if there will be that surge for the front that you get at other gigs or will that just be a collective stumble as 2 pints is normally the limit? The crowd is a mixed bunch, from people who must have got Big Country from their parents, to people who are Nana and Pop to the younger members of their families. And predominantly men. I have a think about that for a moment. I think Big Country were perceived as a macho band that guys related to and aspired to be like. Not too pretty (in a time where pretty ruled the charts) and who portrayed a manly, outdoorsy kind of man. Like Jamie from Outlander (swoon!).
The curtains part and before me is a bunch of middle aged men, and one young one (ginger with glasses). The crowd are ecstatic. They open with Porrohman from The Crossing. At nearly 8 minutes long, it’s a big one to start with, but it showcases that guitar sound that became synonymous with Big Country. Apparently it takes 4 guitars to sound like bagpipes, and the sound is full and fills the room. Bruce Watson, the only original member left in the band, tells us that on this tour, they are playing The Crossing in full, mixed in with tracks from other albums. The good natured banter between Bruce and the young ginger bloke, reveals that this is in fact his son, Jamie. Jamie has great guitar skills and adds soaring backing vocals to the already amazing skills of Simon Hough, who took over the unenviable task of filling the void left by the death of Stuart Adamson. Adamson died in 2001 and I was living in Glasgow at the time and felt the nation grieve as one for the voice of one of Scotland’s most successful bands. Back to the present, Bruce pulls a brown pouch out of his shirt pocket and tells us that this is a gift from a fan at that afternoon’s meet and greet and it is a kangaroo scrotum pouch, or “Baw bag” to use the Scottish vernacular. He’s going to keep his plectrums in it. They continue with the anthemic 1000 Stars and Look Away. How is it that listening to these songs makes me feel like I’m standing on a mountain top, breathing in pure oxygen and I can see those 1000 stars in the sky unpolluted by light and civilisation. Is this why they were so successful?
The boys (aka, the crowd) are loving every song and can sing them word for word. There is much male bonding going on. Arms around each other, jumping up and down, shouting back the refrain from Chance…………..”Oh Lord, where did the feeling go, 2,3,4. Oh Lord, I never felt so low”. Followed by Wonderland which segued into Thin Lizzy, Whiskey in the Jar (although I prefer Metallica’s version of this). They left the stage with In a Big Country unplayed so an encore was assured.
After enough time for a towel down and a quick cuppa, the band returned for a 2 song encore. First was the folky Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys) and naturally, they finished with a rousing version of In a Big Country, the song that undoubtedly set them on a course to fame and fortune, and allows them to make their bi-annual pilgrimage to Australia. “If you keep coming to see us, we’ll keep coming to see you” says Bruce. And from the passion and enjoyment of the assembled, I have no doubt that they will keep coming. The night finished with a tribute from drummer Mark Brzezicki who has been with them from almost the beginning, with a few breaks on the way. “Thanks to Bruce Watson for keeping the spirit going and to Stuart Adamson, we miss you brother”.
This was an awesome show and reaffirmed my love for nostalgia. The music was tight, Simon Hough’s vocals were just amazing and he had a yodely quality to his voice that took what Stuart brought to these songs and built on that, without being a sound-alike. Jamie Watson was brilliant and I could feel the ownership he must feel for these songs, having grown up with them and for his Dad’s involvement in their creation. It is lovely to see the next generation carrying on a legacy. Scott Whitley on bass was happy to be the brunt of Bruce’s jokes while still keeping the beat with his partner time, Mark Brzezicki. I was slightly perturbed at one point that 3 out of 5 were English, and wondered if I’d skipped a question at the Scottish Devolution referendum in 1997 that asked if this was OK. It was an entertaining and passionate show and when they come back in November 2019 (which they have promised to do), I will go again and drag the grumpy Glaswegian along with me.
Review Contributed by Wendy Smith