Lindisfarne Concert Review

Magnum Thatre, Irvine - Friday, 30th October 2003

by Tom Cunningham

" I now regret not making more of the band’s final years "

It is a couple of weeks now since I first received the shock news that Lindisfarne were finally about to call it a day, and after the initial and inevitable reaction – ‘Oy vey, what will the goyem say?’ – had subsided, I firmly resolved that I had to be present at their last ever Scottish gig. 

For the second time in recent years, it was my immense pleasure to welcome Lindisfarne to the town of my birth on Thursday last. As greatly befits a day so close to Hallowe’en, the morning was enshrouded in an almost Gothic mist, though by afternoon the autumn sun had broken through, as falling leaves gave flight to the long-departed souls of the butterflies of summer. 

I arrived at the town’s Magnum Centre shortly after four, as I had arranged to meet up with Rod for a chat on the future of the ‘Stamping Ground’ web site. After being misdirected, and wandering the Magnum’s labyrinthine and bewildered corridors for some time, I finally made my way to the theatre, and spoke to the guys setting up the equipment on stage. From a stage door to the left, the towering figure of Mr Ray Laidlaw made its ever-imposing entrance, and greeted me by name. Ray conducted me to Rod’s dressing room, and there I came upon the man himself, engaged in the task of restringing his mandolin. There was no mistaking the Spartan simplicity of the room. I can’t criticise the décor, for the simple reason that there wasn’t any. Myself, I would have thought that for a member of the band that scored the biggest selling album of 1972, the management could have stretched to a cup, or even two cups, but it seems that this is not how things are done in North Ayrshire. 

Rod was his usual placid and indulgent self, apparently unperturbed by the mildly neurotic presence pacing up and down his dressing room floor, alternately regaling him distractedly with obscure points of Jewish theology and other matters not immediately relevant, and returning every so often to the business in hand - the future of his solo career, as well as the best way ahead for the web site.

After a while, Rod finished with the mandolin, then went off to pick up his Dobro, and turned his attentions to that. Ray joined us after a while, and began discussing the set list with Rod. I kept out of this, except when Ray actually raised the possibility (which in the event was not actually realised) of making January Song one of the encores. For the most part, I kept out of this exchange, which after all did not concern me, but I could not help interjecting that if back in 1970 the band had played January Song when everyone present thought that they were about to break into Fog on the Tyne, their career would have ended precipitously there and then. 

Rod suddenly announced that it was ‘time to go to work’, and invited me to sit in on the sound check. I was able to catch up briefly with Dave, Ian and Billy, which was wonderful, since it had been a while since I had seen any of them. There was a huge pile of sandwiches on the edge of the stage, as well as tea and coffee in two containers resembling small fire extinguishers. The lads gave me a cup of coffee, and invited me to help myself to sandwiches. I declined, on the grounds that there was probably nothing that was suitable to my dietary requirements. 

I couldn’t help reflecting that it’s too bad that I am a vegan. Had it been otherwise, I could have drunk all the coffee, and eaten all the sandwiches, in remembrance of the late, great Gene Clark. I wonder if any of the boys would have appreciated the gesture? I doubt it. 

For those who have never witnessed such an event, a Lindisfarne sound check is not nearly as exciting as it sounds. It consists mostly of Rod wringing a variety of curious noises from his guitar, while the other four stand around looking vaguely worried. 

The first of several strange occurrences then took place. I found myself wondering how long there was to go before the show started, as I still intended to go back to my Dad’s house in the nearby village of Dundonald, and have something to eat before coming back for the gig. I hesitated to ask, as everyone seemed preoccupied with the sound check. Rod suddenly broke off from playing his guitar, and addressed me directly, looking straight at me, and telling me: ‘The show starts at 7.30, Tom.’ He spoke to me as if he was if he was responding to a direct question, it was like he had read my mind. I tendered my explanations, rose from my seat, and left. 

Rod had very kindly put me on the guest list, and arranged for me to have two tickets. This was on the assumption that Lucy was going to be with me, but in fact I had left her at home to look after the various members of our menagerie. 

This left me with a problem. Was the other ticket to go to waste, or was I going to find someone to take with me? The only candidate worthy of consideration at such short notice was my Dad, aged 81, and after some initial reluctance, he agreed to accompany me. 

I have a friend from Glasgow, named Alan, who in Lindisfarne terms is not actually a member of the ‘church’, but he is certainly among the ranks of the ‘believers’. I had alerted him to the fact that this would be his final chance to see the band in Scotland, and so he came along with his entourage. We arranged for him to ‘phone me at my Dad’s so that we could arrange to meet up for a drink before the gig. In the event, the ‘phone call never materialised, but there was so much happening in such a short space of time that I scarcely noticed. 

Arriving at the Magnum, I went to the box office and identified myself by name, as Rod had directed. The lady handed me a brown envelope containing the tickets, and told me that there was a message for me written on it. Naturally, I assumed that the message was from Rod, or at least one of the other members of the band. 

Try to picture my astonishment, as well as the chill that ran through me, when I read the words:                   
            ‘I’m inside – Alan’

An explanation followed that he had been unable to ‘phone me as arranged, as he had been having problems with his mobile. I realised that the message was from my friend from Glasgow, and Reason, as the expression goes, returned to its throne.

Dad & I took our seats in the front row, along at the extreme left, immediately in front of one of the huge speakers. The volume level was absolutely astonishing, and it blew us both away. I think that Dad was completely bemused by the music, and no doubt the next time I take him to a gig, he’ll take his remote control along, so that he can turn the volume down a bit! 

For once, I made no attempt to jot down the set list. I had – deliberately – left my black book at home, determined to enjoy the occasion as much as possible. Suffice to say that the songs performed were pretty much what I had been led to expect from the reviews of the other shows on the tour (except Edinburgh, of course). 

‘Fog on the Tyne’ set the scene for all that followed. It was absolutely wonderful, it sounded as fresh as if it had been written last week. I’ve been listening to it for the past thirty years, and you would think I’d be sick of it by now. Not in the least, and I’ll be listening to it for the next thirty years, unless I’m called to join the Alan Hull fan club before then. The most wonderful thing was that Alan was indeed present in spirit – this wonderful legacy of songs is truly his apotheosis. 

Billy’s sad announcement of the band’s approaching demise at the end of the third song or thereabouts sounded to me vaguely reminiscent of David Bowie’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide Note’ of thirty years before. 

Anyone who had come along in search of tired and irrelevant music would have been severely disappointed, and would have ended up wishing he’d stayed home and watched Top of the Pops instead. I particularly enjoyed Dave’s renditions of Alan’s solo numbers, ‘Statues and Liberties’ and ‘One More Bottle of Wine’. These were two of the main reasons I decided to come along to this gig, even before I knew that this would be my last chance. 

Another highlight of the set for me was ‘Run For Home’. This song, in my opinion doesn’t really work on the ‘Untapped and Acoustic’ album. The arrangement sounds kind of thin and the keyboards are sadly missed. This time around, however, it sounded just great, an unbroken and flawless wall of sound. I also loved ‘The Man in the Unmarked Car’. ‘Wejibeling’ in its original form would have been unattainable in this set, as Marty’s flute was too integral a part of the piece to have been dispensed with. The new long intro sounded truly avant garde, and at first I didn’t know what was happening. As Rod launched into the familiar guitar intro, all became pellucidly clear. I never really much cared for ‘Devil of the North’. It always sounded to me as if it was trying too hard to be a Lindisfarne classic, and not really succeeding. It was never going to replace ‘Fog on the Tyne’, but at this time of asking it sounded much, much stronger. I really enjoyed that ‘thump’ sound that Ray inserted after the line ‘shout it from the roof-top, bang it on the drum’, and of course, like Rod’s songs in general, the words are there for you to listen to, and think about them. 

It really didn’t sound like the end of the line, there was so much that sounded as if it was really finally coming together. A lot of great new touches had been added to other songs from ‘Promenade’ and ‘Here Comes the Neighbourhood’. If this had not been the last tour, I would already have been looking forward to and planning for the next one already. 

I initially harboured the gravest doubts about the post-Marty version of the band, but these have now been completely allayed. This final, 21st Century, version is arguably the second classic Lindisfarne line-up. Inevitably, the instrumental range is very much more limited, but this no longer seems to be a problem. 

This was my first Lindisfarne gig since Rothesay more than three years ago, and how desperately I now regret not making more of the band’s final years. Re-reading my review of the Rothesay gig, I see that it was muted and unenthusiastic. There were a lot of negative vibes about that night, none of which was remotely the fault of the band. But that night was never going to live up to the legendary Walker gig, Marty’s last appearance with the band. 

Summer 2000 was a time of adjustment, but all of those problems have now been fully addressed. I no longer have the feeling of waiting for Marty’s accordion, flute, whistle or whatever to come in, and then missing it when it doesn’t. The awkward ‘makeshift’ feel that has attended some of the band’s transitional phases has completely lifted. 

As regards Rod and Ray, how do you thank someone for having been such an important part of your life for thirty-three years? The truth is I have no idea, so I won’t even attempt it. The guys I do want to thank are Billy, Dave and Ian. These guys have accomplished the impossible. The natural assumption back in that bleak November day in 1995 must have been that the band could not possibly continue without Alan, but they kept it going and held it together in an indisputably viable form. Rod and Ray were among those who originally set the beacons burning way back in 1970, but the other three helped keep them proudly alight. Of this final version of the band it has to be said that they not only perpetuated but actually revitalised a band which had badly lost its original sense of direction, and was in danger of becoming stale. Recent performances and recordings have been a whole lot truer to that original and trademark acoustic folk-rock sound than the original line-up was, for example, in the mid-eighties. The last eight years have been a whole new lease of life, the sheer brilliance of which no one could possibly have foreseen. 

When I first saw the three newer members in Fintry in 1997, I have to confess that I regarded them with varying degrees of suspicion and resentment. After all, you could hardly expect me to be pleased that Alan, Jacka and Si had departed, only to be replaced by three guys whose names and faces were as unknown to me as mine was to them. I owed them nothing, and if they have succeeded in overcoming my initial misgivings, and won me over, then they have done so on their own personal merits pure and simple. 

My Dad was highly honoured at being introduced to the band (except Ray, who disappeared early) after the show. I explained to the lads that he had been listening to Lindisfarne for the past thirty years, but that this was the first time he had done so voluntarily

As I recall, Dave told me in the course of our conversation that in the wake of Alan’s death there had been serious reservations expressed among the band members about doing new material. I can understand why - a post-Alan version of the band was a sure-fire recipe for disaster, and the new stuff could so easily have been quite nice really, but just not up to standard. On the other hand of course, a solid diet of the old material would have invited the inevitable comparisons between the new boys and their illustrious predecessors, and reduced the former to being at least halfway to a tribute band. The ‘Untapped and Acoustic’ tour was certainly fun while it lasted, but I seriously doubt that it could have been sustained for longer than a couple of years. 

As things turned out, the new songs have been a revelation, and in the context of the live set they fit in seamlessly with the classics of earlier decades. So far as the diehard fans are concerned, I’m sure that almost all, or actually all, of us would agree that the last tour’s set-up could have been sustained indefinitely. 

It was especially poignant for me that Lindisfarne’s last gig took place in the town where I was born. I was living just down the coast, at Barassie, back in nineteen seventy-neveryoumind when one Christmas Eve I walked the mile and a half down the North Shore Road into Troon, and bought my first ever LP that I hadn’t got second-hand off one of the kids at school, ‘Fog on the Tyne’. So this was pretty much alpha and omega for me. It’s a strange experience when I go down to Troon, it is like being in a time warp. All the old people are gone, and all the grown-ups are old or dead. Sometimes I meet people I haven’t seen in several decades, and they tell me: ‘You’ve changed since the early seventies, Tom. You’ve grown your hair since then!’ 

In the intervening years, the band has never really grown old, but maybe the audience has begun to. Charles Orr told me a funny story that summed up this ‘old peculiar feeling’ perfectly. A man sitting near to him during the show remarked:

‘Thirty years ago we were sitting here passing round joints. Now are passing round Werther’s Originals!’ 


A Postscript – ‘So Good to be Here…’ – Newcastle, 1st November 2003

I was originally minded to write a review of the Opera House gig, but having no desire to attempt to compete with the fine efforts already submitted, I’ll content myself with a few words and reflections of my own. 

I’m really glad I came down for this. The long and tedious drive from the shadow of the Highland line and back, arriving home at four in the morning, was well worth it. 

The show itself was everything that could be desired, and that sublime moment when Rod stamped on a balloon, with the perfect timing of a percussionist or comedian, to emphasise the end of a musical phrase in the instrumental passage to ‘Fog on the Tyne’, was well worth the price of admission in itself. I only hope that it has been properly preserved for posterity, as I’m sure that most of us are destined to be watching footage of this gig for several decades to come. 

The concert was a religious experience – for the final chapter of this band’s long, glorious and varied history was a Revelation. 

Varying shades of extreme scepticism have I heard expressed about the rather mystifying pronouncements in the official statements about the band’s demise, to the effect that they are no longer producing ‘valid new music’ and what have you. It was all summed up for me when I met Martyn Gaunt in the foyer during the interval. ‘Creative spark gone, my a***!’ he told me. I certainly wasn’t going to argue. I have a feeling that in years to come, we won’t be talking of this as ‘The Final Tour’. Instead, it will be recalled as the ‘Creative Spark Gone, My A*** Tour’. 

The only half-ways valid reason I can think of for the band splitting is that one of those days someone might just mistake the picture of the old men on the front cover of the original version of ‘The Very Best of Lindisfarne’ for a representation of the members of the band! 

One of the factors that lured me south was the hope and semi-expectation that some of the former members, Marty Craggs, Simon Cowe, or even the legendary Jacka might have been recalled for the farewell appearance. I’d have hated to miss it if any of them actually had returned. The fact that in the event this prospect failed to materialise didn’t really matter. The night belonged to Billy, Dave, Ian, Ray, & Rod, the five immense and heroic figures who had steered the band through the final phase of its epic journey. 

My only real disappointment was that Ca and Kev weren’t present – I had assumed that they would be there, and it took a shine off things when I learned that they wouldn’t be coming along after all. Up until the bitter moment of realisation, I had been going around the Bistro bar getting on everyone’s nerves, by constantly asking: ‘Where’s Caroline???’ 

It was however marvellous to meet everyone else from the site at last, and the atmosphere in the Bistro beforehand was something that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I went around smiling warmly at everyone I passed, knowing that the probability was that this stranger was a close friend of mine, who had hitherto manifested him or herself in my life only as a cluster of electronic impulses in one or other of the message forums. Everyone I did get to speak to, I made a point of telling them: ‘It’s so good to be here…’ 

I didn’t stick around for long at the end, knowing that I had a lengthy drive ahead of me. Besides, I felt pretty much overwhelmed by the whole thing. I wandered down the darkened City Centre streets, along the Great North Road, past Town Moor – a place that has come to hold such significance for me - back to West Jesmond, where I had parked my car. 

A couple of strange things happened to me. On the way out of Newcastle, I got slightly lost, and came across a street called Thornhill Road. Thornhill is the village I live in, about ten miles to the northwest of Stirling. Maybe I should have followed it, maybe it was a shortcut, I don’t know! 

Stranger still, when I eventually recovered sufficiently on the following afternoon, I ‘phoned my Dad to tell him that I had made it home. He was still quite hyped up after his experiences at the Irvine gig, and still a bit put out that he had missed out on meeting Ray. As he always does, every Sunday without fail, he roped me in to helping him complete his Sunday Express crossword puzzle. The curious thing was, he tells me that one of the clues this week was ‘Another name for Lindisfarne in the northeast of England’ – Holy Isle! 

On Saturday night, I felt as if I’d died and gone to Heaven. Now I just feel dead, and the awful reality of the band’s demise has really hit home. The prospect of life with Lindisfarne didn’t seem nearly so bad while we still had gigs to look forward to. What exactly the future holds is not entirely clear, but I look forward to playing my small but enthusiastic part in it, wherever the ‘Road to Kingdom Come’ may lead…