Lindisfarne take on Under The Bridge on April 16 2017.
There’s good, and there’s astoundingly good: there’s amazing, and then there’s exemplary.
Tonight, within the shiny, palatial portals of the Under The Bridge Club, Lindisfarne managed to be all four: not at once, obviously, but at varying intervals throughout their 2-hour-plus performance, the Geordie folk-rock legends (and trust me, they are legends) took us on a magical journey of the kind today’s fast-buck, quick-fix music scene sadly witnesses all too infrequently. Of course, I knew from the start they were never in any danger of being crap – indeed, had I thought there was the slightest chance of that, I wouldn’t have asked to review the show- but to say that they exceeded all my expectations would still be a massive understatement.
Like many bands of their era, Lindisfarne have been touched more than once by the grim hand of mortality: indeed, the sudden death in 1995 (at only 50) of principal singer/songwriter Alan Hull almost seems in retrospect like a precursor to the now-almost -weekly passings of his peers. Nonetheless, they seem determined to not let the grave have its victory- and all power to them. Unfortunately, as is also the case with so many of their contemporaries (Wishbone Ash, Barclay James Harvest, Sweet, Badfinger) ongoing dissent between assorted surviving founder members has resulted in two versions of the band doing the rounds: thus, whilst Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell tour as “The Lindisfarne Story”, an acoustic tunes’n’tales show featuring audiovisual inserts and many a wry anecdote, it’s down to guitarist/mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist Rod Clements to lead this version.
Here, he’s ably supported by lead guitarist Charlie Harcourt (from the band’s second, mid-70s- incarnation) Steve Daggett (keyboards and vocals since 1986) Ian Thomson (a wizard on bass guitar AND double bass since 1990) and perhaps most notably, on guitar, piano and the majority of lead vocals since 1994, Hull’s son-in-law Dave Hull-Denholm: in recent years, fellow North-Easterner Paul Thompson (better known as a founder of both Roxy Music and Concrete Blonde) has sat behind the kit, and though tonight, his role is taken by the similarly-named Paul Smith, the combined six-piece still make for quite a team. Therefore, whilst I have no wish to denigrate the “other” Lindisfarne, I can fully appreciate this line-up’s claim to the name: what we get tonight is a quality “folk’n’roll” show touching on a variety of emotions from melancholy to humour, confusion to unabashed joy, and a full-on participatory, join-the-family experience that many bands (in particular the self-indulgent prog widdlers I spend half my time watching) have forgotten how to deliver.
For the band, the principal joy seems to stem from the very act of playing this music: from the rousing chords of opener “No Time To Lose” to the final bouncing, drum-thrashing chorus of “Clear White Light”, the passion, appreciation and love they hold for songs and audience alike is not only evident, but paramount. Equally, while the “other version” may present themselves as a “storytelling” concern, Clements (clearly relishing his role as this line-up’s “last man standing”) is by no means averse to adopting the same approach- prefacing most songs with his trademark dry wit (“on the album, this is called Train In G Major, but I can’t sing that high anymore, so tonight, it’s called Train In E”) and taking time out to explain how he and his deceased bandmate developed them. Upon which very subject, Hull-Denholm is, frankly, a revelation: sure, there are few who would envy the task of following in such charismatic footsteps, but the similarity, especially with one’s eyes closed, is so authentic it’s terrifying. The fact that he isn’t even a blood relative is immaterial- there’s clearly something in that there Tyne “watter” that passes naturally from one musical generation to the next, and even if he was singing his own material rather than “Walk A Crooked Mile” “One World” or the evergreen “Lady Eleanor” (dropped into the set surprisingly early) he’d probably still end up sounding like his mentor. On the other hand, that in itself is no bad thing: lest we forget, the bloke was a genius.
The real highlights, however, come post-interval : alone, and armed only with one acoustic guitar and one double bass, he and Thompson tear into the most heartfelt rendition of “Winter Song” imaginable. Granted, they do fluff the intro, resulting in much hilarity- but the song itself holds over 450 people spellbound, a cursory glance round the room revealing more than a few tearful, misty eyes and not without good reason. After all, this composition, more than perhaps any other, was Hull’s shining, defining moment: the track that led many a pundit to cite him as the “British Dylan”, and today, a poignant reminder of what extraordinary gifts he was capable of bestowing upon us. “The creeping cold has fingers, that caress without permission/ And mystic crystal snowdrops only aggravate the condition/ Do you spare one thought for the gypsy, with no secure position/ Who’s turned and spurned by village and town at the magistrate’s decision…when winter comes howling in” – the minute Jake Bugg or Noel fucking Gallagher write anything quite so beautiful, let me know. Likewise, should any modern-day banjo-wielding spaztard claiming to be a “folk singer” just because they own a pair of moccasins – the phrase “Mumford And Sons” springing immediately to mind- ever pen such a rollicking, frolicking ode to revelry as “Road To Kingdom Come”, have them report to me immediately…
For much the same reason, it’s also great to hear “Song For A Windmill” and “Travelling Band”, from Hull’s solo debut Pipedream, aired: on the latter, the far throatier, less similar-sounding Daggett takes lead vocals, but the same underlying principle of “irreverent reverence” still applies. Of further note is the neat line they’ve latterly developed in moody, swaggering country-blues: the likes of “Coming Good” and “Devil Of The North” could easily fit onto a Steve Earle or Joe Ely album, and though their line-ups may have been inconsistent since the early 90s, it’s evident their progression has not. Even some of the veteran material now has an added bounce- “Wake Up Little Sister” seems more sultry, dare I even say raunchy, than its recorded version, while “We Can Swing Together”, the band’s very first, “pre-hit” single, is now twice its original speed, more reminiscent these days of Stackridge’s “Dora The Female Explorer” than the mid-paced, Toon Army-scarf-waving anthem infamously drowned out by its own sing-along at Newcastle City Hall in 1972 (an event vividly documented on the jaw-dropping live album ‘Magic In The Air’)
Yet ultimately, this last only reinforces what we already knew: that essentially, despite their undeniable skills at moodiness and melancholic introspection, the ‘Farne were always at heart the country’s no.1 party band. Sure, like every great outfit, they displayed manifold strengths in an entire gamut of moods, happy to sad to angry- but no single act ever captured that beer-swilling, cabbage-reeking college “refectory” atmosphere better than they did, and it’s those songs- in particular “Meet Me On The Corner” and “Fog On The Tyne”, the two singles that outsold every other British act in 1971 – that resonate most. Again, I look from left to right, and there’s not one punter not joining in: yet despite the warmth of feeling, the communal act still seems a strangely emotional one (quite possibly, because of the numerous losses the band has suffered) and at several points, my spine shivers accordingly.
Having been born in 1974 (and a Southerner into the bargain) there’s absolutely no way I could have ever experienced this band at their true peak: even their late ’70s-early ’80s revival (which if truth be known actually ended in relative ignominy, thanks to bad comedy singles like “I Must Stop Going To Parties”) is for me a distant childhood recollection from the faded memory banks of Multicoloured Swap Shop and The Kenny Everett Video Show. Yet tonight, I definitely felt palpable hints: the spirits of Alan Hull and Simon Cowe were in the room somewhere, raising invisible bottles of Broon Ale one could most certainly not purchase from the bar, and by the time That Drumbeat heralded the mass chorus of “Run For Home”, I had absolutely no desire to do so.
“We’d normally pretend to leave and come back at this point, but we cannat be fookin bothered, and we knaa ye probably feel the same…so we’re just ganna carry on playing” quoth Hull-Denholm (or words to that effect) before the final two numbers: if it hadn’t been for my customary bank holiday “debauchery” beckoning at midnight, I could have easily watched them play for another hour. To paraphrase the infamous exaltations of “Schcorpions” frontman Klaus Meine, as proclaimed during a spectacularly pointless cover of “Long Tall Sally” at the 1989 Moscow Peace Festival, “whar garnar harf sarm ‘Farne tanart”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Lindisfarne’s Greatest Hits is available here.