Saturday 18 November 2023

A Certain Ratio - Face Bar, Reading - 16th November 2023

I didn't really know a lot about A Certain Ratio until recently.

I had a record by a band called Thirteen At Midnight of a track called Shack Up, which I knew ACR had recorded (thinking, wrongly, they did the original version).

I knew ACR were a contempary band of Joy Division and New Order, signed to the same Factory Records, and that was pretty much it.

I spotted they were playing a small venue (the Face Bar) in Reading, covering the span of their 45 years in chronological order.

I did a quick YouTube search to listen to a few other songs by them (and watched a recent interview with the 3 founder members still in the band) and decided I'd go along.

Reading isn't my favourite place to go, even though it's quite close, because the one way system is confusing and parking is often extortionate.

I found, though, a car park a short distance from the venue, so arrived a few minutes before the doors opened - someone came and found a few of us outside and invited us in early as it was cold, which was good of them.

One of the things I liked about the way this gig was described was 'no support' - Few support acts add anything to an evening, so getting more of the act you've come to see could only be good.

The gig was in the 'Red Room' of the Face Bar, a biggish room with a low stage and seats around the sides - I'd imagine it's a disco most nights (the glitter ball above the floor adding to that impression!).

There didn't seem to be many people for the first half hour, but it filled up steadily and was full, if not packed, by 8:30 when the band appeared.

As promised, the sets were in chronological order.

The first song, 'All Night Party', was their first single, followed by Do the Du and Flight (their first 12" single), which I knew from a couple of CDs I'd bought after booking my ticket.

Some of the early tracks had a distinctly moody, Joy Division feel, and some of the later tracks at the beginning of the second set sounded more like some later New Order track.

Who influenced who or whether they shared influences is hard to say, as I know the two groups often toured or gig-ed together, but I liked what I heard.

'Shack Up' was as enjoyable as I'd hoped (really, this one track was my reason for being here, initially, at least) and the first set finished on 'Mickey Way', a track from the 1986 album, Force, which was a very jazz orientated way to end the first set on a high.

The band was formed of founder members, Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop, and Donald Johnson, plus a couple of youngsters (Matt Steele and Viv Griffin) on keyboards and bass respectively, plus a new young female singer, Ellen Beth Abdi.

Original singer, Denise Johnson, died at just 56 during the COVID epidemic, and the first song from the second set, the melodic "Won't Stop Loving You" was dedicated to her.

'Good Together' was another track I remembered and there were a few which, complete with Whistles, sounded more like Happy Mondays (another Factory stablemate) rave-era tracks than anything else, but they were energetic and, well before this, the crowd was having a good time.

They rounded out the second set with 'Day By Day', a recent track from a new EP in 2023 and then gave us 'Si Fermir O Grido' as an encore before the 10:30 curfew was reached.

Overall, I'd have to say this was one of my favourite gigs of 2023 and for a long time.

I didn't come with any expectations, but they were musically excellent, the chronological delivery of their songs was like a tour through the kind of music I'd enjoyed for the last 45 years and the way Martin and Don switched places on the drums and other instruments (tom toms, guitar and trumpet - So nice to hear some live brass in 2023 - Ellen Beth contributing a bit of flute too!) really impressed me.

They provided a good mix of styles over the years, which is probably part of their enduring appeal to those who know them - As this article says, they never wanted to be a tribute act to their early days, which so many of their contemparies are, whether you enjoy the nostalgia or not.

Sure, this was a trip down memory lane for many there, but one that spanned many eras and genres of music, not something that many, better known, acts could even aspire to.

If I get the chance, I will go and see A Certain Ratio again and my Amazon basket is now full of more of their albums!

If you're still uncertain watch this video.

Set 1
All Night Party
Do the Du
And Then Again
Shack Up(Banbarra cover)
Winter Hill
Knife Slits Water
Mickey Way

Set 2:
Won't Stop Loving You
Good Together
27 Forever
Get a Grip
Yo Yo Gi
Emperor Machine
Afro Dizzy
Day by Day

Si Fermir O Grido

Monday 13 November 2023

Big Country - Harlington Centre, Fleet - 10th November 2023

Big Country seem to play the Harlington Centre in my home town of Fleet quite often, so I finally decided it was time to go and see them this year.

I knew that Stuart Adamson, their original singer, had died tragically in the early 2000s, but I didn't know much else about the band except a few hits.

After booking the tickets, I bought a copy of their greatest hits album, so knew a few more songs.

Doors opened at 7:30 and at 8:00 a man with a plugged in acoustic guitar appeared on stage.

He introduced himself as Billy Liberator (for some reason, I keep thinking he said he was Billy Whirlwind!) and played a few of his own songs. They sounded OK and he told us how happy he was to play Fleet and to support Big Country and he got a polite applause for each of his songs.

I felt he could probably do with getting a band to back him or focus on songwriting, as the songs sounded decent musically and OK lyrically, but it was all a bit flat and he wasn't terribly charismatic.

Overall, though, not a terrible support act, but not one that made the evening.

He was on for about half an hour and then, at 9 sharp, a man in a Fidel Castro cap appeared and sat at the drums as a video of a thunder storm played on a video screen behind the drum kit.

By now the hall was pretty much full and most people cheered him loudly (I didn't realise, but he is one of two founder members still with the band and, of all things, English!).

He started drumming and 4 more men appeared. From left to right across the stage, they were a youngish, bespectacled man with a beard and a guitar (Jamie Watson), a lanky, bit fit looking, 60-ish chap, also with a guitar, a chunkier man of a similar age, with spiky hair, not unlike 1980s style Rod Stewart, with an acoustic guitar and finally a slightly younger looking fellow with a bass guitar (Gill Allan).

They quickly broke into a song that I vaguely knew, but the sound was loud and energetic.

Possibly a bit too loud as Simon Hough (the chap with the Rod Stewart haircut) 'blew up' his monitor!

To be honest, I think this hampered the gig a bit, as the vocals were always a bit lost amidst the guitars.

The lanky chap introduced himself as Bruce Watson in the expected Scottish accent after the first song. He is, along with the drummer, the remaining founder member of the band.

They obviously pride themselves on their guitar work, but the thing I noticed was that the distinct 'bagpipe' sound they achieved on records was only partly replicated live.

This site explains how they did that on record, but they managed a reasonable facsimile and the songs I knew didn't sound dramatically different live.

I recognised and enjoyed the second song as the song I thought was called "Walk Away", but is actually "Look Away"!

A few other songs followed that I didn't know. They were similar in sound, but well played and distinctly 'Big Country' in that respect and most of the audience cheered them loudly.

'Steeltown' was another I know, and 'Ships' was a slightly slower track, before a few more tracks I was less familiar with until we got to the final 'hits', which included 'In a Big Country', 'Wonderland' and finished on 'Fields of Fire'.

They came back quickly for the predictable encore, which was a track I didn't know and then Mark Brzezicki (the drummer) came forward and in a very home counties accent explained how he was heading home to Slough and that Fleet was a favourite venue of his because it was his local one!

He introduced all the band members again (Bruce had done this earlier, more or less, too) and then said they missed Stuart Adamson and then they were gone.

I suspect they were out at the merch stand (a lot of people had tour T-Shirts on during the gig), but I was out to my car by then.

I'd enjoyed the gig, but it wasn't one of the best I'd been to.

They were energetic and certainly played well, but the vocals were a bit lost in the mix and, not being a hardcore fan, a lot of the songs sounded very similar without the benefit of being familiar.

However, for the modest price I paid for the ticket and being right on my doorstep, I was happy and with 2 of 4 original members in the band, they're more 'original' than many of the '80s bands touring today.

If you liked Big Country a bit in period, they're still worth a listen today!

Setlist (from numerous gigs on the same tour)
1000 Stars
Look Away
Close Action
Lost Patrol
The Storm
Just a Shadow
Harvest Home
In a Big Country
Fields of Fire