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Big Country perform The Crossing – Glasgow Barrowlands

Nostalgia filters what it doesn’t need. That’s certainly been the case with the 1980s. The decade has been recast as a land full of shiny happy people, of yuppies and TV-AM, of Stock, Aitken & Waterman and Frankie Says t-shirts. It was a fine time, we all had highlights in our hair and a sense of fun in our hearts. It’s as if the world collectively watched The Wedding Singer and thought ‘yep, that.’

Except, of course, it wasn’t. The 80s was, at times, a terrifying place. As the Western world grew politically more right-wing, the threat of nuclear immolation was ever-present. At home, the miners’ strike seemed to paint a vivid picture of a nation cracking. People might have got rich in London, but they were getting laid off in Linlithgow. And that sense of foreboding informed many a serious young man’s work. Stuart Adamson was one – and the album he and his band Big Country produced, 1983s The Crossing, remains an astonishing piece of work.

The band are celebrating their 30th year by following the current vogue for performing an album in its entirety. Fittingly, they play Glasgow’s venerable old Barrowlands Ballroom, where they really came to public prominence in 1983 with a Hogmany show which was broadcast live on BBC2. There is little doubt it is their spiritual home.

Speaking of spirits, a shadow hangs over this gig, as it does over every show, since there will always be one vital ingredient missing. Adamson didn’t make it, taking his own life in 2001. Tonight, Mike Peters of The Alarm takes vocals, as he has done for a few years now. It’s good but it’s not the same. It never could be.

The band made an ill-fated stab at new material a few years ago, which was well-intentioned but neither needed nor wanted. That said, they are entitled to go out with their old material. Big Country, although led by a virtuoso and vastly underrated songwriter, were a true band, with all that entails. These are their songs.

Actually, that’s only half-right. As much as these songs belong to anyone since Adamson’s death, the crowd also have a strong claim. So much so that from the opening chords of early b-side ‘Angle Park’, everybody knows every word, every inflection. Big Country gigs were always special in that the crowd not only knew the song, but the live version too, and used to sing their own parts. They brought b-sides such as ‘Winter Sky’ and ‘Restless Natives’ to the level of hit singles through sheer bloody-mindedness.

Peters and bassist Tony Butler speak touchingly of Adamson while playing some early obscure tracks and one ill-judged but forgivable new one, the insipid ‘Another Country’. However, ‘Restless Natives’ gets things back on track before a joyous ‘The Crossing’ kicks off The Crossing. From this distance, it’s remarkable that so many pigeon-holed it with the anodyne ‘the guitars sound like bagpipes line’. It’s a truly odd record, an amalgam of folk heart and post-punk angularity. There’s a sense of longing, of open space and darkness. It is an album which played in communities where heating and hot water weren’t always basic rights. There’s the spirit of the farmer, the crofter, the miner, the factory worker here – hard lives lived with defiance and pride. It looks to the past while glancing with worry to what was the present. It’s simultaneously not of its time and timeless.

From the opening chords of ‘In A Big Country’, it’s sensational. The rhythm section still provide a noise which sounds like a rebellion striding over a moor. Bruce Watson manfully steps up to play Adamson’s parts, which he does to the best of ability if lacking the frills which the astonishingly talented Adamson managed. He’s supported by his son Jamie, and the family feel is apposite. Nobody here is attending their first Big Country gig. These are songs which have been carried through the years like mementos.

Peters steps into the crowd for ‘Chance’, which is only fair – it’s really more about their voices than his. ‘The Storm’ and ‘Lost Patrol’ are epic strides through Scottish history, more evocative and piercing than any academic study ever could be. ‘Fields of Fire’ is, aptly, incendiary. The place, packed on a Monday, is bouncing. Literally.

They close with the truly mesmeric ‘Porrohman’, a song which validates Adamson’s claim to songwriting immortality perhaps more than any other.  It feels like a journey – a song that never quite allows us to understand it, but to admire it all the same. And when it explodes near the end, so does the feeling in the room and suddenly it’s more like a revival than a rock show.

I was given The Crossing for Christmas when I was 5, and it’s been in my life for three decades since. To me, it almost is Scotland – broader, stranger and far more interesting than many give it credit for. It’s like an old friend I don’t see all that often, but when I do the time melts and we are right back where we left off.

Tonight is a night for all of us who have ever experienced chills when listening to it and not quite knowing why. I don’t so much listen to The Crossing as experience it. It hits me hard in a place where my identity, history, family and sense of self come together. It did it when I was a child – I couldn’t explain it then and I can’t adequately do so now. It’s a reminder of the legacy of Stuart Adamson, a man who wrote more classics than he’s ever been given credit for. It will, of course, never be the same without him. But his old friends – on both sides of the stage – have done him proud tonight.

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12 Responses

  1. A wonderful review which descerves a wide audience…..a review which touches on the music, and what the music means to people and how it puts across its passion.

  2. Thank you Scott. Music is sometimes as much about feel as sound, I think.

  3. Great review, some of the best analysis of The Crossing that I’ve ever read. And at least you got the songs right, which is more than The Scotsman could manage!

    Personally I quite like Another Country. The recorded version sounds a bit lightweight but IMHO ‘insipid’ is unfair for Monday night – I was surprised by how good it sounded and how well it was received.

    You’re absolutely right that the play-through of The Crossing was sensational, but for me the other highlight was Tracks of My Tears, with Peters changing the lyrics – “I’m just a substitute, he’s the permanent one.” Very moving.

  4. Thanks Tom, much appreciated!

    I should have mentioned ‘Tracks of My Tears’ – a genuinely emotional moment when the whole place was thinking about Stuart, especially when Mike Peters said this was Stuart’s favourite song. It was hard to keep a pair of dry eyes there.

    I just didn’t think ‘Another Country’ deserved to sit alongside the other material on display. ‘Balcony’, for example, isn’t a great song, but I thought it fit in with the rest of the night. I just thought ‘Another Country’ was a really stark reminder of what was missing.

  5. You got Stuart to a T. He was broken hearted by what was happening to his home in the 80s and he translated it into song as nobody else did or probably could. I knew him, I worked with him. I miss him. Christine Beveridge BV The Crossing (and no it wasn’t fxxxing Kate Bush)

  6. Thanks Christine. And thought I knew the name!

  7. A fantastic review! So glad someone got it so right. My second Big Country gig and they were 10 times better than when I saw them last year. I hope there is much more to come from these guys!

  8. Thank you Sarah! I’m glad you enjoyed it. They were excellent on the night.

  9. I’m feel I should explain my comment about Ms Bush who wrote and performed ‘The man with the child in his eyes’ possibly the first track that I every listened to the words all the way through.

    I must have a different ear from everybody else. Vocals come from three places, throat, head and abdomen. I would have said that mine came from a mixture of my mouth, ears (head) and my abdomen when I summoned up the courage, whilst Ms Bush most definitely sings from a taught throat technique that apart from the above mentioned track – I happen to dislike. I’m not familiar with the work she did with BC but as a singer find it astonishing that anybody could confuse the two. Perhaps they were led to believe this. Who knows.

    I was disappointed not to get the call for the second album because Stuart did personally – face to face – ask me if I was up for it and I definitely said yes. I was involved with Orbidoig then and it didn’t seem important to ring and ask him why at the time.

    He was a true fan of Stevie Reid my ex and probably witnessed the situation after I left for good.

    You may decide not to post this, but please do remember that – although I can only speak from one perspective – I was there. Perhaps the existing members of the band might explain it to me. Bruce was taught by my half-sister and expressed a desire to make contact but never did.

    It’s up to you and I’ll understand either way.

    Christine B; Whippet Christine etc

  10. We’re happy to have it posted here Christine.

  11. Fantastic information and opinions about one of the truly GREAT bands in Rock History. I do SO wish Stuart was still with us in body….but his heart and soul will ALWAYS speak to us thru his music. May God Bless Us All.

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