Friday, 27 December 2019

Recent gigs: The Wonder Stuff and Big Country


A couple of late entries in this year's gig calendar  -  both are bands that I've liked for a long, long time but have never seen play live, and both are bands that have soldiered on after tragedies have cost them members over the years.
Firstly, and in the usual reverse order, it's The Wonder Stuff at Bristol's O2 Academy on 12/12/19.

As I said, I'd never seen the Stuffies before but I had seen main main Miles Hunt and violinist partner Erica Knockalls play as a duo at Gloucester's Guildhall back in 2015 and promised myself I'd catch their "other" band some time. Four years later I finally made good on that promise and I'm very glad I did. But before that I picked up my old friend Glenn ( Borrowed Time superstar! ) and headed down to Brizzle through sluggish, late-rush-hour traffic. This gig was a kind of joint birthday present for us both, with Glenn's birthday being on the 10th and mine on the 14th  -  as they are most years it seems. After enjoying the culinary delights of the local Subway ( vegan subs, yum! ) we headed into the venue for an evening of refined musical entertainment. Glenn hung back by the balcony, saying he would join me later, whilst I got down to my customary spot at the front where I met up with die-hard gig-goer David Rose ( of David Rose's Gig Diary fame ) and his friend Robynne. Already on stage and giving it some ( sparkly ) welly was this urchin:


Could it be? Yes, it could. It's only that bleedin' Jim Bob innit? Yep, formally half of the sadly-missed Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine ( another band I saw at the Guildhall back in the day ) the man also known as James Robert Morrison was here to sing us his pun-packed, wordy and wry songs of life, love and losers. I'd wondered how the drum-machine-driven, sample-heavy Carter songs would stand up when played acoustically  -  pretty well, as it turns out. Jim Bob was in fine voice and played with all the passion and energy I remember from Carter gigs back in the ( gulp! ) '90s. Standouts from the old material were Do Re Mi So Far So Good ( I'd actually forgotten that one! ), a wonderfully moving Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over and a heartfelt The Only Living Boy In New Cross  -  still my fave Carter song, with Jim holding that looooong note on the chorus perfectly, and prompting me to babble in David's ear that the song was "pure poetry". Of JB's new songs the highlight was Victim, a stark and honest account of the time he was mugged and the effect it had on his mental health.
After the expected "You fat bastard!" chants, Jim Bob finished with the equally-expected Sheriff Fatman and remarked "Well, my parents were married when they had me so I'm technically just fat."


After a brief interlude in which more and more ridiculously tall people began to appear between me and the crowd barrier, Miles Hunt bounded onto the stage ( well, as much as any 53-year old man can bound ) and instantly went into a cheesy Las Vegas compere kind of routine, telling us The Wonder Stuff were here to play some new songs, followed by two old albums in their entirety  -  "and to do that, guess I'm gonna need me a band!" At which point the band duly appeared stage left and kicked off the show with newie Feet To The Flames. This was an absolutely cracking song to start off the set which showcased Miles' impressive vocal range and showed how confident the new material is. After four more new songs the Stuffies took a 15-minute break  -  the first band I've seen do that since The Dandy Warhols sat on that very stage many years ago and smoked cigarettes for 10 minutes...


They then came back out to run through second album Hup, celebrating its 30th (!) anniversary this year, starting with the kicking and snarling 30 Years In The Bathroom and the teen-punk snottiness of Radio Ass Kiss. By the time Miles claimed The Wonder Stuff had invented Country music ahead of a joyous Golden Green I was completely sold. Cartoon Boyfriend was a massive singalong, Unfaithful a showcase for Miles and Erica ( see photo at the top ), while Piece Of Sky was poignantly dedicated to those we've lost in the last 30 years. The only weak spot for me was Let's Be Other People which I found turgid but was quickly followed by the all-conquering Don't Let Me Down, Gently. Which was nice.


With barely a pause for breath they moved on to first album The Eight-Legged Groove Machine. Apparently they'd missed the 30th anniversary of this last year so, when the idea came up "in the boozer" to play Hup in its entirety, the decision was made to play TELGM as well. Obviously gluttons for punishment.
If anything, this section of the gig was ( wonder ) stuffed with even more bangers: It's Yer Money, Unbearable and Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More were all sweet 'n' sour indie pop classics, while the surreal Ruby Horse reminded me of Robyn Hitchcock with its lyric about the sun shining down like marmalade... and it certainly pleased the guy who kept shouting for "Ruby fackin' Horse!" all the way through the set. The Stuffies finished with a rampage through the stuttering Poison ( "P-p-p-poison!" ) and then came back out for a final Good Night Though, a track from Hup which had come adrift and found itself a more appropriate place at the end of the set.
Miles said "Thank you, Bristol, you were a pleasure!" And the feeling's mutual. What a great gig! I'm so glad I finally got to see The Wonder Stuff and will definitely have to catch them again.

( After the gig, when I finally caught up with Glenn, we got stuck in a massive tailback on the M5 due to late-night roadworks which meant I didn't get home until gone 01:00 am. It was worse for Glenn  -  he was going to work the next day, then playing a gig that night in London! And, of course, we all woke up the next day to the disastrous election results with Labour more or less wiped out and Boris Johnson's Fascist  Conservative party continuing its lemming-like course of destroying everything worth saving in this country. Talk about a comedown. )


And, just a few weeks previously, I saw another old fave for the first time ( huh? ) at Gloucester's groovy Guildhall  -  Big Country in a small venue. This was the 35th anniversary tour for their second album, Steeltown, and I'd luckily acquired a ticket from David Rose ( it's that man again! ) who had double-booked gigs so couldn't make it to Gloucester.
I was an early fan of Big Country, buying their first single Harvest Home on 12" vinyl the week it came out, after hearing them on Radio One ( probably on Kid Jensen's show ) and reading a Sounds review which described them as "sparklingly innovative". I was given their first album The Crossing for Christmas 1983 and was instantly hooked by its juxtaposition of tough indie rock, folk influences and melancholy lyrics. I have to admit that, when Steeltown came out, I was beginning to think it all sounded a bit samey ( plus the second album's production sounded a little muddy after The Crossing ) so I drifted away from the band. I think they even played in Gloucester, at the old leisure centre where I'd seen the likes of Thin Lizzy and Ian Gillan, but I didn't go, unfortunately. This local gig was a chance for me to make amends.


I went with Glenn ( of course! ) who knew the promoter so got in on the guest list. His band Borrowed Time had supported The Skids here back in February ( see here for review ) and, of course, Big Country share DNA with that other gang of Dunfermline art-punks.
We missed all but one song by support band The Q ( perennial Jam-copyists but very good at what they do ) and then Big Country ambled onto the stage with very little fanfare and launched into the anthemic 1000 Stars. ( It may seem redundant to call BC songs "anthemic" 'cos most of them are but this was a perfect, rousing start to the set. ) I'd expected them to play Steeltown track by track but they mostly split the set between the first two albums which worked fine.


The first thing I noticed was just how well they captured the classic Big Country sound, even without the leadership of the late, great Stuart Adamson. Having two founding members in Bruce Watson ( guitar ) and Mark Brzezicki ( drums ) certainly helped, while Bruce's son the hugely-talented Jamie Watson again showed, as with The Skids, what a fantastic guitarist he is, more than equal to the BC challenge. Frontman Simon Hough, however, was in a difficult position. His vocals were strong and clear but it's bound to be difficult to replace such an individual, powerful voice as Stuart Adamson's. Hough comes across as a nice bloke who does a fine job but lacks the stage presence of his predecessor. The focal point of the band was often Bruce who had loads of salty banter with the audience and the other band members and was clearly loving it. Playing with , as ever, a HUGE grin on his face he was a delight to watch, especially when rocking some classic "dualling guitars" poses with Jamie. At one point the Celtic-influenced sounds of the twin guitars and the old school jamming prompted me to shout into Glenn's ear "Thin Lizzy or what?"  -  and then they dropped a snippet of Whiskey In The Jar into the song. They know what they're doing!


After such muscular rockers as Flame Of The West, East Of Eden and Look Away ( from third album The Seer ) they played my absolute favourite BC song, the mournful, romantic Chance. This was just wonderful and it seemed to be everybody else's fave too, as we all joined in with the surging "Oh, Lord  -  where did the feeling go?" chorus. A spine-tingling moment.
They finished the set with ( of course ) the mighty Fields Of Fire. Which was an anthem. It was proper anthemic. It reached 100% anthemicity. I really can't avoid using the word "anthem" at this point. Look, it was just bloody great, alright? They then encored with Restless Natives which, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't know at all but was a suitably powerful, quintessentially Big Country song to end with, all heart-on-sleeve lyrics and swirling guitars.
So, it's taken me a very long time but I've now seen two great bands who I really should have caught back in the day and all I can say is we're lucky they're still out there.

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