Always underestimated, Big Country have hit their 30th anniversary as a musical force that’s both reinvigorated and hungry.
Through the eighties and early nineties, Big Country were a big goddamn deal. They played at Live Aid, opened for the Stones over two tours and sold millions of records. They were loud, vibrant, passionate and powerful.
Then, in 2001, disaster struck. Lead singer and song-writer Stuart Adamson committed suicide – an act which buried the band. The remaining members had no interest at the time of carrying on with Big Country. Apart from greatest hits packages and live albums, all was silence.
But time heals, and as anniversaries rolled by, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezecki and Tony Butler would get together and play. It was for for themselves than anything. Part of the healing process.
And as part of that, new songs started appearing. All of a sudden Big Country started to feel like a band again. Bruce Watson, the architect of the guitar sound that made them so distinctive, picked up the phone and called up a friend: Mike Peters of The Alarm. He had played with Big Country for the 25th anniversary shows. Now the question was, would he join as a full contributing member?
Peters didn’t think twice. He’s cited Adamson’s songs, especially the “Stay Alive” refrain of “In A Big Country” as a motivating force in his own battles with cancer. His anthemic, Celtic-tinged approach was a perfect fit. He joined, started supplying lyrics, and Big Country started recording their first album in 13 years.
Which brings us to Sub89, a rock venue in Reading, where TLC and I joined the faithful for the last gig of the UK leg of a tour promoting that new album, The Journey. With Bruce’s son Jamie joining the three-guitar attack, the line up on stage at Reading was close to the one that had played at Glasgow Barrowlands, their spiritual home, a few months before Stuart died. The one difference: the big yin on bass wearing a kilt: Derek Forbes, ex- Simple Minds, filling the breach after Tony Butler decided not to join the band on tour. Effectively, then 2013 Big Country is a celtic-rock supergroup.
And blow me down if they don’t make a thoroughly agreeable racket. Blasting into one of their biggest hits, Wonderland, it was immediately clear that this was no tired money-grubbing nostalgia trip. Big Country have punk roots, and they know how to take the roof off a room. Mark Brzezecki’s drums have always been complex and punishing, a torrent of fills and smashes that have the unstoppable energy of boulders flung down a staircase. Watson pere et fils bring that distinctive guitar sound and punch it out with force and skill. The genius move is in having Mike Peters front the band. He’s a showman, a raconteur, and to my mind fits into that fine musical tradition, the Welsh belter. Think Tom Jones with a battered acoustic guitar, Kelley Jones of the Stereophonics with a bit more soul.
Yeah, sure, they’re playing small clubs to an audience that knows and loves them. They’re preaching to the choir. But I wasn’t expecting the band to care this much, to put so much of themselves into the performance. Big Country are a band that have found their voice again, their purpose. It’s a real treat to see musicians of this calibre and stature play to a small crowd in a provincial town with such passion and sheer joy. Big Country are back: very loud, very proud, a living testament to the power of faith, reconciliation and healing.
The Journey is available now wherever you buy your music from.
The Journey tour rolls on until July, taking in Europe and America. They have one last UK gig in June, at the Forum. Well worth a look.