The following review was published in the Orange County Register,
Big Country thrills in full-length return – George A. Paul
Nowadays, finding someone who demonstrates the transformational power of rock music can be a real chore. Look no further than Mike Peters. Since the ’80s, he has crafted some of the genre’s most inspirational tunes with the Alarm. Last year, the Welsh singer/guitarist started doing the same thing with a reconstituted Big Country. In their heyday, both U.K. acts delved into similarly rousing, politically tinged territory and got early career boosts by opening shows for likeminded U2. Peters (above) and Big Country singer Stuart Adamson were friends, and before the latter’s tragic death in 2001 they toured together. Adamson said he felt Peters would be a great frontman for Big Country if the opportunity ever arose. A decade later, it did.
Original lead guitarist Bruce Watson initially recruited Peters for a charity gig that morphed into a European Big Country tour. Soon after, the revised lineup – including fellow founding member Mark Brzezicki on drums, Watson’s young son Jamie on second guitar and onetime Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes – decided to record fresh material together.
Their self-produced and -distributed disc, The Journey, the first new Big Country material in 14 years, marks an impressive return for the group, with Peters keeping true to its past creative spirit. Upon hearing the results, Watson thought the songs should be grouped into three acts, by subject matter: redemption, healing, moving forward.
During an exhilarating 100-minute set at the Coach House, more than half of the album got an airing, compelling selections faring well alongside several others off Big Country’s gold-selling 1983 debut LP, The Crossing. Peters’ Love Hope Strength Foundation, started in 2007, set up a stand outside the entrance. The musician has Leukemia and went through an intravenous drug treatment prior to this U.S. tour. Through mountain climbing events and other fundraising efforts, the nonprofit has built cancer centers in Africa and Wales and signed up 35,000 people to a bone marrow registry, resulting in 500 matches in the U.S. for those with blood cancer and needing transplants. The current campaign is called “get on the list.” Peters recently spent time at England’s Parliament to lobby on behalf of LHSF.
The last time Watson and Brzezicki toured here as Big Country was 1993, and Friday night also served as their Orange County debut, according to some exhaustive fan sites. A good-sized crowd turned up at the San Juan Capistrano venue for the band’s re-emergence and they weren’t disappointed. One couple even travelled from Australia to witness several West Coast concerts.
Longtime enthusiasts stood and pumped fists in the air to rousing old anthems like “Fields of Fire (400 Miles)” and “Harvest Home.” Peters made personal connections by shaking hands, pointing to audience members, venturing between the tables and, at one point, holding a child.
Big Country opened with the brawny cascading guitars of “Return” and group harmonies. Then it was onto “A Thousand Stars,” propelled by Watson’s trademark guitar-as-bagpipes effect. He played with mouth agape and gleefully leaned against Jamie. Before a brawny “In a Broken Promise Land,” Peters relayed the story about how he first met Adamson at London’s Hammersmith Palais while the Alarm was on tour with U2.
Watching Brzezicki, an in-demand session drummer throughout the ’80s and ’90s who worked with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, the Cult and many others, was a real treat, and he played his large kit with such finesse. The careening “Inwards” provided a welcome rhythmic spotlight, as did a stunning “Wonderland.” A heightened sense of drama enveloped “The Storm,” for which Watson used an E-bow to get the tranquil siren sound and Peters quickly strummed his black, signature-festooned acoustic guitar. Another epic, “Porrohman” (where Jamie’s assistance really shined), came during the encores – and was equally enthralling. Meanwhile, Peters delivered vocals with passion and authority at every turn.
When he sang “you gotta make the journey with me” on the new album’s title track and later ratcheted up the fervency of the 1986 hit “Look Away,” it was easy to get swept up in the euphoria of it all. A forceful “Last Ship Sails” verged on punk. The poignant “Hail & Farewell,” inspired by Scotland’s New Year’s Eve celebration Hogmanay, found a kilt-clad Forbes (born in Glasgow), holding his smartphone up to a microphone in order to play what seemed to be an actual bagpipes sound.
Then Peters brought a mini birthday cake to Brzezicki, and the crowd serenaded him.
As the clock approached midnight, Big Country closed with its best-known stateside hit, “In a Big Country,” which reached No. 17 in summer 1983. The extended, fiery rendition did Adamson proud. The guys gave individual farewells, explaining how much it meant to them. Easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.