Mention that you're going to see Big Country, and you'll probably get two stock responses from the casual listener: “Oh, yeah, 'In A Big Country,' I loved that song when it came out...”, or, “Wow, they're still together?” (The hipper among us might nominate “Harvest Home,” which bottomed out at #91 UK – but introduced the band to the British public, and peers like the Jam, whom they supported on their farewell tour.)
As any musician can tell you, that's the beauty – and curse – of being seen as a one-hit wonder. On one hand, you're guaranteed an eternal residency in the pop cultural memory bank; on the other, you struggle to convince people that there's more to the story. Like many '80s-era bands, Big County benefited greatly from the rise of MTV. However, once the bloom fell off that rose, Big Country's Stateside profile shrank accordingly – though the band made plenty of music that was as good, or better, than their breakout LP, THE CROSSING (1983).
So what to make of the notion that Big Country are returning for their first extended American tour in 20-odd years? Well, there's no shortage of excited people; as one fan named Patricia informs me afterward, she missed the 1993 US shows, “so some of us have actually been waiting for 30 years.” On this night, the occasion is a free concert at the Hard Rock Cafe – at the Four Winds Casino – surrounded by the standard issue sea of autographed rock star guitars, picks, drum heads, and things of that nature. (The row of oversized Kiss pinball machines lined up outside is a nice touch, though – but we'll return to the setting shortly.) `
However, nothing about this night proves ordinary, as we quickly surmise from Mike Peters's surprise cameo to sing a duet (“We Are The Light”) with the opening act, Ruffin, (a Chicago-based folk-pop singer-songwriter whose own fare is well-crafted). We're then left to wait on the darkened main floor, as the ritually lengthy equipment changeover proceeds – then, gradually, a martial fife-and-guitar intro rings out for several minutes.
Bit by bit, however, a series of guitar arpeggios make themselves heard in the mix, and before you get to react, BANG! The band seamlessly launch lift off into a new song, “Return,” driven by the guitar tag team partnership of Bruce Watson, and his son, Jaime – and a punchy chorus whose sentiment (“I'll be there, I'll be there, I'll be there when you return”) is well in keeping with the Big Country ethos of faith, hope and commitment.
What's remarkable here is how revitalized the band sounds; who could have imagined a way forward, after founder-frontman Stuart Adamson's suicide in 2001? Yet that's what's happening onstage, as the Watsons effortlessly switch off lead and rhythm roles – sometimes, in the same song – without missing a beat, while the kilt-clad Derek Forbes (ex-Simple Minds) proves a more than capable successor for his departed predecessor, Tony Butler. (He even gets his own “muso-ey” interlude – in this case, a flanged bass solo that leads into “Home Of The Brave,” another notable entry from the new album, THE JOURNEY.) Drummer Mark Brzezicki, as always, pushes the proceedings along at a brisk pace.
Singer-guitarist Mike Peters is the linchpin in this effort, of course. To some degree, his band, The Alarm, trod similar territory to Big Country during the '80s, so when his name surfaced as the new frontman, the choice shouldn't have surprised anyone. His voice and stage presence suit the wide-screen imagery of songs like “Harvest Home,” or “Inwards,” which sound big and grand in this small space, as well. When not inciting massed singalongs – such as on “Look Away,” Big Country's biggest UK hit – Peters periodically bounds offstage, and sings directly to whoever's facing him. The enthusiasm that he displays is contagious, and never lets up for a moment.
On first hearing, the other new songs (“Another Country,” “Broken Promise Land,” “Last Ship Sails,” “The Journey”) seem to be harking back toward the epic era – big songs about big things – aired to such powerful effect on THE CROSSING, STEELTOWN, and WONDERLAND They fit in seamlessly alongside warhorses like “Chance,” and the hard-hitting pairing of “Wonderland”/”Fields Of Fire.” Of course, “In A Big Country” is the last song to send everybody home happily across the finish line, driven home by Brzezicki's martial thunder. (One-hit wonder or not, ignoring the song started it all is a definite in-concert no-no.)
In some ways, however, the real highlight occurs after the encore (“Last Ship Sails”/”In A Big Country”), when the band unexpectedly troops back onstage, and take turns thanking the crowd for its support. Fittingly, it's Bruce Watson who makes the most memorable comments – which focus on a certain guitar that he holds briefly aloft, for everyone to see. Then, he gives the rundown:
“Imagine my surprise – I've traveled thousands of miles, and I came to this venue, and I found this guitar. This guitar belonged to us. Stuart had it made in 1985, and used this guitar exclusively on the 'Seer' album. You may have heard this guitar on a song called 'The Teacher.' It just reminds me of happy times, and I've had a great time tonight, thank you so much.”
Time will tell how the band's chemistry progresses in the studio, but if this show is indicative of the overall tour, they're off to a flying start; hopefully, Patricia and company won't have to wait another 20 years for the next U.S. tour. Not everyone gets it, of course, for voices like Popshifter, the burning question seems to be: “But is there still a market for big, fat, meaningful rock?” Based on this outing, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”