Irvine - Saturday, 6th November 1999
by Tom Cunningham
"Dark Side of the Troon" - Lindisfarne in Irvine, 6th November, 1999
Lindisfarne's latest British tour kicked off at the Magnum Theatre, Irvine, on Saturday night, and seeing as how Irvine was the place of my birth, I kind of figured that it would be ill-mannered of me not to turn out and welcome them personally.
Irvine is a rather unprepossessing town on the North Ayrshire coast but Troon was where I bought my first ever Lindisfarne record (the second or third album I ever bought). I had heard some really good things about a recent album release, "Fog on the Tyne". One track, "Train in G Major" came in for an extremely honourable mention by a kid whose opinion I respected. Of course, I had heard the hit single, and that was a pretty good advert, so that was the past.
The show kicked off with "Devil of the North", which on recent outings has usually come near the end. I last saw the band in Aberfeldy, in a one-off appearance headlining the local folk festival, on the 12th of September. Less that two months on, the show had been changed around considerably.
Essentially, the plugging of the "new" album has been much toned down and older material has been brought back to the fore. This time out, the band have raided some of the darkest recesses of their repertoire, surprise inclusions during the first half being "Alan In The River With Flowers", "Scarecrow Song", and "Together Forever"- complete with a brand new intro that made it hard to recognise at first - and "Jackhammer Blues".
Highlight of the night? For me, no argument there. It came in the form of a long- neglected classic, which I honestly never expected to hear performed live again. It was "Marshall Riley's Army", Alan Hull's impassioned commemoration of the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. I still recall, just over twenty years ago, Alan introducing this number at the Candleriggs Theatre in Glasgow, making reference to "our wonderful Conservative government". Youths with shoulder-length hair, and wearing Newcastle United shirts, danced in the aisles. This however, was the 1999 incarnation. Marty's tin whistle stood in for Jacka's mandolin, as on a lot of the other material, and Billy sang "and sixty years have since gone past, but you're still down there if you're working class"- notice "sixty years" instead of "forty years". I have to say that I have loved this song since it first appeared, it has always epitomised Alan Hull and the Lindisfarne sound for me. And, judging from the audience reaction, it was obviously a big favourite for other people too. Left out this time was "Call of the Wild", but "Log on the Fire", also from "The News" album was included.
Second half, Dave sang a couple of songs consecutively. First of these was a new version of "City Song", with interesting harmonies from Billy and Marty. Then, another surprise, as Dave delivered a fine version of Alan's solo effort "Money Game" - you remember it, "Oh Anna, what is money worth anyway?", yes that one, and perfectly fine it sounded too. We also got a reworked version of "Don't Ask Me", with Billy on lead vocals.
In recent shows, a notable omission has been the 1978 hit, "Run For Home". This was one of the old songs that was reinstated this time around. It sounded fine, but to be honest, it brought out the limitations of the range of instrumentation on offer. This and "Meet Me on the Corner"could really have done with a keyboard of some sort. Marty had left his sax at home, and Billy did the same with his banjo - probably just as well. Rod made full use of at least three different guitars and a mandolin, but isn't there enough room in the bus to cram in his fiddle as well? It would certainly be a welcome return. Much of what was performed was done on three guitars, a bass, and drums, but at times this didn't seem enough to reproduce the trademark rich acoustic texture. Marty's flute made its by now traditional appearance on the sublime and timeless classic, the inevitable "Lady Eleanor". And let's face it, Lindisfarne wouldn't be Lindisfarne without the harmonica, and in respect, Marty obliged as ever. Oh and either I am hallucinating, or else Marty over the past few occasions on which I have seen the band has been using a jif lemon as a sort of percussion instrument. I must ask him to explain this some time.
Billy did his usual comedy routine between numbers, and this took a slightly surreal turn while he was introducing "Born at the Right Time", one of the definite highlights of recent times. He launched into a long and apparently pointless anecdote about "Spangles", something I have heard him talking about before. Spangles, for anyone who lives overseas, or isn't old enough to remember, are a type of sweet that used to be available during the fifties and sixties, and Billy obviously has fond memories of them. He suddenly broke off, deciding that his guitar needed tuned. Marty took up the theme, and then suddenly made the announcement that the oddest thing he had ever seen in a fish and chip shop was a deep-fried pizza with a fried egg on it. Billy re-emerged to announce that he had once eaten a fried egg with a fried egg on top. Marty's intervention was certainly an interesting piece of improvisation, the pizza angle certainly being the clearest non sequitur that I have heard in years. This is a further unfathomable facet of the experience that is Lindisfarne. I have seen them five times over the past couple of years, and chip shops always get a mention. Why, I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it's some kind of obscure Northumbrian religious observance. Me, I wouldn't know. As a result of all this, I came close to using the title "In Search of the Lost Punchline" for these reflections.
One story I really did enjoy though was this. Billy recounted how he and Ian had been sitting in the bar before the show, and it was all sort of "let's join hands and contact the living", things were pretty quiet. Dave walked in, and commented on this, adding a crack about this being the "dark side of the Troon". If you recall my apparently pointless explanation of my geographical origins at the top of this article, you will understand the effect this had on me! I have no idea just how much time Dave has spent in this part of the world, but, believe me, he was spot on.
The finale found the band unashamedly playing to the gallery. After "We Can Swing Together" had got everyone up on their feet, the band went into the curious little ritual whereby they pretend to go off, everyone shouts and applauds, and then they come back on again. In the light of all I had seen thus far, I would have put money on "Fog on the Tyne", along with "Run For Home" a notable recent omission, making a re-appearance, and I was right. A pretty good version too, quite close to the original, complete with that acoustic guitar intro that is pretty well indistinguishable from the intro to "January Song". I always hated these 17 minute versions of "Fog on the Tyne",
you know the ones, "You lot over here sing, and you lot shut up, then we'll switch it around, and we'll see which half of the audience can sing loudest". But this was a very welcome no-nonsense version, in all the glory of its defiant and probably mis-placed euphoria, the only flaw being that the instrumental break was played on harmonica, augmented only by "la la la" vocals. Then came "Clear White Light", and that was it for another show. Then came something I had never seen before. Billy announced that the band would be headed for the bar shortly, and that they would see us all there. Sure
enough, all six of the lads made an appearance a short time later, and seemed relaxed and happy to chat and sign autographs for all comers. Years ago, I read somewhere that Lindisfarne were the "ultimate people's band". Nothing has changed there, obviously.
I hung around for a while, expressed my appreciation to the lads, and left. I almost didn't come, as I assumed that it would just be a re-run of the other recent shows. But no, the band have never lost their ability to keep us all guessing. Only they could play a song that was written thirty years ago, and make it sound like something brand new.
It was nice to see Louise and Gary too. Louise was there to sell the merchandise, and was her usual charming self. I'm not quite sure why Gary came along, but it was nice to see him anyway. I notice that "Rock of the North" is now on offer as a video.
Any disappointments? Just one. No sign of "Driftin' Through", Marty's contribution to the "Neighbourhood" album. This song is a Lindisfarne classic, it helps me to remember exactly why I became a Lindisfarne afficionado in the first place, all those years ago. That instrumental fade-out is the best and the freshest thing I have heard in ages. It was out and away the best thing on the last album, which is saying something, given the competition. By chance, I found myself sitting next to self-confessed fellow Lindisfarne "anorak", Charles Orr. Charles shares my assessment of this song, as well as a lot else besides. I hope the band take note!
Something I would ask the audience to think about, though. The lads did us proud, they showed they are able and willing to respond to us and give us what we want to hear. But's let's face it, "Here Comes the Neighbourhood" was a cracking album. Its distinguishing feature is its consistent high quality.
I hear lots of albums and think, "that would have made a good single" (or at best an e.p.). Enough for an a-side, a passable song for the b-side, and the rest is just a waste of vinyl. You can't say that about "Neighbourhood", there isn't a weak track on it. Arguably, it is the strongest Lindisfarne album in over a decade. OK so the band have a proud tradition, but they have a present - and a future - too.
I wish the band all the best for the American tour next year. Who knows, if Billy can find that punchline, and if the Americans get the joke, Lindisfarne might yet belatedly achieve the mass popularity in the States which they so richly deserve.