Big Country + Gabi Garbutt 10.12.21 at Grand Central Hall, Liverpool
Over the years I’ve been to Liverpool for football matches on numerous occasions, mainly at Everton’s ground, but not to purposefully look around the city centre and certainly never to see a band. After this trip I will return for more, undoubtedly…although you have to say that with slight hesitancy right now, in the resurgent Covid gloom.
I took the train up from Birmingham (another gig the night before) with gig buddy Dave, arriving in the morning to give us some time to look around. Bags dropped off and a few pints in the Doctor Duncan pub to dodge a heavy shower and we were soon heading for The Cavern, and up the Beatle Street of fab four nostalgia, passing legendary band spot Eric’s.
Given the touristy reputation of The Cavern I wasn’t expecting much but we enjoyed hours in there – for a fiver entry – watching three local live solo performances, drinking some decent ales and eating unhealthy food. Loads of interesting photos, old posters and displays – loved it.
In this underground venue you couldn’t even tell it was a rainy and gloomy December day outside. What a great hideway.
The site is only yards from the original Cavern but knowing it wasn’t THE original site I’d expected something less absorbing.
Before the evening’s Big Country gig there was time for a wander down to the Mersey ferry port (Pier Head), with the Beatles statue and the Liver Building. The commuter ferries weren’t restarting until after dark so left the ferry across the Mersey for another visit.
We dropped in to The Vernon Arms on the way back up from Pier Head, drawn in by a welcoming after work Friday afternoon babble, heard from the street. Next stop the gig.
My Big Country previous
It’s 38 years since I first saw Big Country, with the late Stuart Adamson fronting them, after his breakaway from The Skids in 1981. The first time was more by chance as they supported U2 at Birmingham Odeon on 27 March 1983.
Later that year it was Reading Festival with old friend Big Gra (GGu). They were special guests on the night The Stranglers were headlining. It was two main stages back then and they alternated between the two to allow set up time, with a metal barrier down the middle so for going down the front you had to choose early. We opted for Big Country and, being near the front, that took us close to the pyrotechnics incident during Fields of Fire which flame grilled the band and the front rows of the audience. The flames shot up and out from the stage front and we clutched our faces. Some fell to the floor clutching their faces but all was OK.
It was the early albums that I listened to: The Crossing, The Seer and Steeltown but I didn’t see them again until decades later. After Stuart Adamson took his own life in 2001 I didn’t see much appeal of the return of the band in 2010 without Adamson’s vocals. But in 2015 I went to see them locally at the now closed and redeveloped Mr Kyps venue in Poole, with Simon Hough on vocals and it totally worked. Somehow he sounded just like Adamson while Bruce Watson and son took care of the distinctive bagpipe guitar sound. I remember being impressed.
Since then I’ve seen them five times before this trip, including trips to Belfast Limelight (2018); one of the hometown Dunfermline Skids double header Christmas gigs (2019); Southampton 1865 (2019) and two Butlins Alternative Music Festival appearances. These have all been excellent and the Dunfermline performance perhaps the best occasion despite not being last on.
This surge of enthusiasm in recent years has been aided by the fusion with The Skids, with Bruce Watson and son Jamie playing in both bands during the recent Skids comeback and in the last few years drummer Mark Brzezicki has also played with The Skids. This facilitates numerous double bills.
There’s a new bassist, Gil Allan who is with the band in Liverpool, another member from the Dunfermline homeland of The Skids and Big Country.
The Grand Central Hall in Liverpool L1 is pretty special. Built in 1905 as a Methodist Hall it is a beautifully maintained Art Nouveau design almost circular in shape. It’s just a short walk down Renshaw Street from Liverpool’s Lime Street Station.
The stage is backed by a 100 year old pipe organ. There is a large seated balcony which is closed off tonight, with netting obscuring the upper floor. It quotes a total 1300 seated capacity but I couldn’t see confirmation of the standing capacity downstairs. I guess about 750. It’s quite full, without being sold out or too packed. As Covid rises again and Christmas approaches this is no bad thing. (Not that I need have worried as I caught Covid anyway a few weeks later and screwed up Christmas totally.)
One thing that was a bit odd and pretty unsatisfactory was the area of seats for those that really needed them were at the back just on floor level, so no one sat there could see through the crowd to the stage. Other than that I couldn’t fault the place. Lovely tidy venue and good sound and accessible bars.
Gabi Garbutt and band (The Illuminations), from London, provided the support for this evening. I was quite intrigued with the retro yet modern sounds, fronted with a clean guitar sound and vocals.
Seemed quite like a late 70s new wave type band focused on Gabi and her guitar. Quite poppy with some edge to it and a full band to boosts the appeal. I was interested enough to go over and buy a CD, the debut, afterwards: The Discredited Language of Angels.
Big Country take to the stage and launch into a triplet of their finest. This could have been an encore: 1000 Stars, Look Away and Harvest Home. 1000 Stars is one of my favourites. (This YouTube clip is from one New Year’s Eve in Glasgow with Stuart Adamson doing that one). Great start.
Simon Hough’s voice is amazing – shut your eyes and it could be Adamson, but he’s English. The guitars are full blast with Bruce Watson full of energy – exhausting intensity – and Jamie full of enthusiasm heralding the gig as the best night of the tour and remarking on the great venue.
Bruce called out someone for a dodgy t-shirt – I didn’t catch what it was – and he was sent to the merch stand to kit himself out with a free decent Big Country replacement.
The set moves on including The Storm and Steeltown. This is the ‘Wonderland’ tour, from the greatest hits album of the same name so the selection would always be good.
I had a bit of a wander to snap some pics but the lighting wasn’t very sympathetic to a pocket camera, and a bit dark from back a bit. I was enjoying this one so didn’t try too hard having taken a few down by the right hand speaker. I did try a few phone videos which are illustrative peek into the gig more than serve as complete tracks to play.
As the set builds to a peak it’s Chance that precedes In a Big Country (YouTube phone clip), followed by Wonderland and the bouncing Fields of Fire (YouTube phone clip). Still does it after all these years – no pyrotechnics these days.
The largely male crowd, largely of an age (50s) were all enjoying this and it was one of the best Big Country gigs I’ve been to. They never disappoint mind.
At the end of the main set Mark Brzezicki comes out from behind the drums to do the announcements – the thank yous and the welcome to new bassist Gil Allan. Then they go off to cheers and applause to return with Restless Natives (another Adamson penned song of Scottish pride).
The gig was over and we were out of the door by 10.30pm, early enough to seek out one more old pub…The Crown near the station and ended up in The Shankly Hotel. A top day out in the city of music.
Postscript: That’s it for 2021
That was it. The final gig of my gig going year. Gig 43, all bar five crammed in after the July lifting of Covid restrictions on live gigs. 106 different acts in 28 venues in 14 towns and cities. A blast.
It wasn’t meant to be the last gig. We were set to fly to Glasgow on Friday 17 December to see The Skids, Big Country and The Armoury Show. That gig was postponed though at short notice but before we flew up thankfully. Two days later I tested positive for Covid – double jabbed – and spent a week coughing, sweating and aching. Christmas in solitary confinement. Rock on 2022.