Newcastle Walker Festival - Saturday, 3rd June 2000
by Tom F. Cunningham - photos by Charles Orr
Far beyond a simple concert review, Tom is giving us his very personal impression of a memorable day [R.Groll].
Riverside Park, Walker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Saturday, 3rd of June. The rain is clearly on for the day, the skies are grey, and it's cold. The most miserable June day I have ever seen. It was fine when I left my home near Stirling, Scotland, the day before, and how I wish I had brought my kagoul! Mud and puddles are everywhere, in fact the Riverside is just one big quagmire, and my completely inadequate baseball boots certainly make no attempt to lie about the cold and the wet around my feet.
Judging by the large numbers of police officers and St John's ambulance men on duty, the locals were clearly expected to turn out in droves. As it turned out, the Geordies for the most part had the good sense to stay at home. Net result, the day which had been so carefully planned for so long turned into the biggest wash-out since Noah's flood. Me, I had been tempted to leave the bens and glens for the very good reason that topping the bill at this millennium celebration was THE band of this or any other millennium, the awesome Lindisfarne, and not only that, they were playing for free!
I spent the evening in the company of my good friend, Charles Orr, and two charming and friendly locals whom he introduced me to, Michael Bailey, and Rachael Rhoades, both members of up and coming Newcastle band Morgan le Fay. By some strange process which I cannot quite fathom, I am wetter than anyone else in the place. Just the same, my heart goes out to the polar bear in the first aid tent, receiving treatment for exposure, and to the Eskimo receiving the last rites for hypothermia!
Through a gap in the hedge, I came to a bank from which I could watch the majestic River Tyne roll down to the North Sea. And yes, there was fog - or at the very least, a very definite Scotch mist - on the Tyne that day.
When I ran into Charles, the first piece of good news he gave me was that the concert was to take place in the marquee, instead of the open air stage on which various other acts appeared during the course of the day. This was a simple act of common humanity, which saved my life, as well as a few others besides. Sure, I would have braved the pouring rain, if that is what it would have taken, but in the marquee, huddled together, things didn't seem quite so bad. I felt a lot better after I had borrowed Charles' mobile phone, to call my girlfriend, Lucy, to ask her to make sure there enough hot water for me to have a bath when I got home!
To the set itself - eighteen songs, opening with "No Time To Lose", Alan's tribute to the "wide rolling hills" of the Scottish Borders which I had driven through earlier that same day. Unlike recent gigs I have attended, there was no intermission. Like any other Lindisfarne gig these days, it is almost easier to define the set in terms not of what they played, but of what they didn't. Noticeable absentees this time were "We Can Swing Together", "Winter Song" and "Train in G Major". No "Why Can't I Be Satisfied?" either. Dave's "Unmarked Car" was also dropped from the set. It was all much as I expected from recent gig reviews, and no surprises whatsoever.
Next song was one of seven from the "new" album. It was "Working my Way Back Home". After that, one of the absolute highlights, Marty's wonderful "Drifting Through", though played live, that long fade-out of the studio version gave way to a sudden end. In my opinion, and with total respect as always to Rod and Billy, this was out and away the stand-out track on the last album. Talking to people, I find I am not alone in this. "Drifting Through" is a real solid Lindisfarne classic, right up there with the great hits from the early seventies.
After that came "Ghost In Blue Suede Shoes", and then - another classic. A truly storming version of "Marshall Riley's Army", with Dave Denholm on lead vocals. I last heard this in Irvine last November and Billy took the lead that time. I am so glad that this truly great Alan Hull composition is now being recognised for what it is - not just an obscure album track that no-one ever plays, but one of the truly great songs, by Lindisfarne, or anyone else I was on my feet by this time. It was almost as if I had written the playlist myself. I felt as if the lads had agreed among themselves that they were going to deliberately set out to remind me just why Lindisfarne is my all-time favourite band, and then had proceeded to do just that.
Over the past three decades, I'm sure that a lot of people at outdoor "summer" festivals have endured drenched clothes and mud-splattered jeans, despising mere bodily comfort for the pure joy of a live performance by Lindisfarne. My own mood of almost Hasidic rapture now stepped up a gear and I was transported as the lads launched into the familiar opening chords of "Meet Me On the Corner", with all its infinite possibilities for vocal harmonies. Moving ahead slightly, I feel that if only a live e.p. featuring "Drifting Through", "Marshall Riley's Army", "Meet Me on the Corner", and "Fog on the Tyne" from this show was on offer, it would certainly be one of the high points of the band's long and distinguished recording career.
Perhaps the only thing which detracted from the euphoria at this point was the large number of bairns, streaked paint on their faces, who were running around in front of the stage. Maybe they had no idea who Lindisfarne were, and thought that the afternoon's talent contest was still on. Kind of reminded me of Jacques Brel's lyric which has been loosely translated as:
"The old women are there, too old to give a damn,
they've brought along the kids, who don't know who I am."
Back to the last album, and "Born at the Right Time", "One Day", and "Jubilee Corner" in quick succession. Then came the sublime "Lady Eleanor". Marty's flute intro sounded better than ever. I turned to Charles, and said, "How can they ever replace him?" The fact that Marty now takes lead vocals on this Alan Hull classic just goes to underline how crucially important he has become to the band. Marty truly was on form tonight, the indispensable who is about to be dispensed with. I wonder, was he making some kind of point, or simply getting on with the business of being his own sublimely brilliant self?
Next came "Any Way the Wind Blows", again with Marty on lead vocals. In recent times, Dave has always provided a high point by taking the spotlight with a rendition of an Alan Hull classic. This time around, it was "January Song".
At this point in the show, the reason for the dismal weather conditions suddenly becomes apparent. It is all Billy's fault! He had taken to the stage wearing a jacket, and a baseball cap. He now took these off, to reveal the "Thunderbird Inn" t-shirt that he has been seen wearing at various gigs over the past few months, since the band's tour of the western states of the USA. The Thunderbird, or wakin'yan', I should explain, is a heavy Lakota deity. It lives in the west, and brings the rain. Lightning flashes from its eyes, and thunder comes from the beating of its wings. I wonder if Billy remembers me warning him last September in Aberfeldy about what would happen if he kept on wearing it? Now the rain came down in torrents, and the following night, the news ran a story about flooding in the North-east of England. [For an even better understanding of the special meaning to Tom, one should know that he's running a website for the Thunderbird North American Indian Society .
The wee man, incidentally, was strangely subdued. No wisecracks, no daft stories about Spangles. For the first time in years, no surreal anecdote about fish and chip shops. The PA was fine for the singing and the instruments, but for some reason, it was hard to make Billy out when he spoke. Maybe Billy decided to forget the humour, as it wouldn't have worked under such conditions. Then again, there was an undertone to the whole occasion that was as sombre as the leaden Newcastle skies overhead.
The point about the rain was next - unconsciously - underlined in the almost shamanic imagery of "Call of the Wild". Then came that standard of recent times, "Devil of the North", with Rod on lead vocals.
The show drew to a close with a crescendo of Lindisfarne favourites, delivered with such gusto and such force that no-one asked for or expected an encore. "Run For Home", with Marty singing lead on the verse which begins: "I've been to the places in town where the faces.", then "Road to Kingdom Come", "Fog on the Tyne" - the tight, sharp version of recent times, chaotic yet inspired like Alan wrote it, none of the seventeen minute singalong version rubbish - and finally "Clear White Light", with Marty once more on lead vocals, and sounding as much as ever like call to prayer. Suddenly, it was all over.
Strange thing was, this was Marty's last gig before leaving the band, and I had kind of expected there to be some kind of announcement. Maybe even something about who his replacement is going to be. Closest we came was a parting shot from Billy, paraphrasing the Two Ronnies:
"It's good night from him, and good night from the rest of us."
If I hadn't known in advance, I would probably not have picked up on the fact that Marty was leaving us. I might have realised something was amiss though by the sight of Marty coming over to the barrier in front of the stage at the end, and all the men shaking him by the hand, and all the lasses lining up to kiss him. I could have kissed him myself!
Marty's contribution in these troubled years has been immense. Not only was he the apostolic successor to Jacka, he even filled in a large part of the void left by Alan. Now that he is gone, it will be like losing Alan and Jacka - and Si - all over again. The various enforced changes have conveyed an appreciation of just what a fine balance of widely differing but mutually complementary musical personalities it was that came together in the original line-up. Now that defining balance has finally been lost, most probably for good. Alan was - and is - the soul of Lindisfarne - but Marty became its heart.
What with all the comings and goings of recent years, Lindisfarne has become something of a soap opera. And what's going to happen, now that everyone's favourite character just left town?
The stage was deserted, and the small band of survivors began to drift away. There was nothing for it, but to bid a fond farewell to my friends, and hit the road back north. Leaving behind Newcastle's wet and empty streets, I disappeared into to the darkness of a night where even the blackest shadow cowers, fumbling all the while for my tape of Lindisfarne's greatest songs, the one with the old men on the cover.
Thoughts of home and warm baths fill my mind, but despite everything, I don't feel too despondent. The other piece of good news I heard from Charles was that Rod has a solo gig lined up in Berwick on the 21st of July, so I have something to look forward to. Just a few weeks more, and I will be driving down the "Roads of East Northumberland" once again.
The wakin'yan' that flew over Newcastle that day told me several things. One of those was that if I hadn't been so daft about Lindisfarne, I would have been a whole lot warmer and drier. It also told me that some things are so precious - sacred even - that they are well worth running the risk of contracting pneumonia!
I'm so glad I was there, this wasn't just another gig, it was a piece of history..
Tom Cunningham June,2000