Friday 30th January.
2015 will surely be marked as the best Gathering of musical content I have ever heard or witnessed in all my years as an attendee.
Experience tells that Gathering Friday is always the night for something different and yes, I was there when Mike played with the Flesh and Blood Orchestra and a year later when he played 10 brand new songs straight off the bat that began the ‘Poppy Fields’ era. In more recent times, I was there when Mike and the band performed ‘Feel Free’ in its entirety followed by a Mike Peters / Big Country set. For me, the Friday night is what sets the Gathering apart from any other music festival of its kind and what gives the event a unique quality in the landscape of rock and roll and I don’t think there is an artist in the world today, who could attempt nor imagine what Mike Peters put together over the last 48 hours.
Beginning as a neo-rockabilly trio with double bass and a high pitched snare drum – courtesy of highly versatile drummer Smiley, and brandishing a set of early songs like the opener
‘Reason 41’, all stripped down to display The Alarm’s pre-dawn influence from when the group toured with The Stray Cats in late 1980 just 6 months before recording ‘Unsafe Building / Up For Murder’, the group thrilled and bounced as the audience got behind them and soaked up the feel good atmosphere of ‘Bound For Glory’ and ‘Howling Wind’. If I am correct, a brand new song was unveiled along side a stunning call and answer version of Knife Edge b-side ‘Caroline Isenberg’. ‘We Are Majority’ followed with a reading of its original lyrics reminding me that what Mike is doing artistically today, he has done before but without causing as much debate because it was in the pre-internet era. There was also a nod to the The Stray Cats themselves with a bopping version of ‘Rock This Town’.
It was thrilling and unexpected way to begin and I don’t think anyone in the audience could believe what they were seeing and hearing. Mike then took centre stage with his one man band style acoustic and bass drum skiffle and took us through some of his lyric book back pages with fresh sounding versions of ‘Reason 36’ and ‘Room At The Top’ along side a haunting unreleased ‘Strength’ era song ‘Black Side Of Fortune’.
At this point Mike changed guitars to play an instrument I have never seen him play before, a baritone guitar but with the added twist of an electric pick-up, he also took out a Jews Harp and with an augmented line-up of drums courtesy of Smiley and keys from long time Alarm cohort Mark Taylor delivered a version of Knife Edge which had a power and passion that exploded in the familiar chorus only this time with the voices of community choir – Acquire harmonising to glorious effect. The danger Mike Peters brings to these, dare I say over familiar songs in modern times, is nothing short of commendable and while it may throw the older fans (like me), out somewhat here and there, it’s still thrilling to hear these songs as ‘new’ pieces of work which is what they once were when I first heard them on the Absolute tour back in 1985.
This was to be the scene setter for everything that followed for the rest of the evening, ‘Dawn Chorus’ was performed as a haunting torch ballad with beautiful Mark Taylor piano work followed by a reworked ‘Deeside’ complete with brand new killer hook line that was soon taken up by everyone in the room. It reminded me of an updated ‘Town Called Malice’ with a searing change of pace from acoustic to electric. Mike Peters spoke of the ‘Strength’ album that might have been had it been produced by Jimmy Iovine and unveiled an ‘Absolute Reality’ that while still familiar was cloaked in new surroundings that still had the audience singing way after the piece was over.
All through this period of the concert Mike Peters – the guitarist came to the fore and made me think that he must have been listening to loads of new music recently because this performance was so contemporary and taking The Alarm into places where bands like Black Keys and Royal Blood currently tread. ‘Father To Son’ was performed with a new lyrical emphasis and also a song called ‘Last Train’ that Mike said “was written during the Strength era but never recorded or performed”, and we were treated to something that would surely have been way ahead of it’s time if it had surfaced in 1985. Instead, in 2015, ‘Last Train’ came over like Johnny Cash singing Nine Inch Nails only this time it was an older, wiser Mike Peters quoting from his younger self. Astonishing.
Mike Peters then brought up even more musicians including very well received, opening act The Deportees along with his wife Jules Peters on percussion and backing vocals and long time collaborator Steve Allan Jones. The mass ensemble now featuring banjo, mandolin, double bass, violin, acoustic guitars, piano, drums, percussion and a 50 piece choir dropped into a version of ‘Strength’ that sounded so natural in this environment with an arrangement that demonstrated what a great song ‘Strength’ is.
It was like Bob Dylan and the Band, The Rolling Thunder Review and The Last Waltz all at the same time and the atmosphere was rising in intensity. The subtlety of these new arrangements have me intrigued to hear the new version of ‘Strength’ that is obviously in the pipeline. I know I will have missed a lot of detail in the midst of the moment and hearing all of this for the first time, but I’m still astounded by the fact that everything sounded so fresh yet still so familiar. The highlight of the evening and possibly the weekend came in the form of ‘Day The Ravens Left The Tower’ turned into a dramatic folk rock epic that began with Jules Jones Peters beating a lone Bodhran drum and reaching a crescendo with Deportees violinist to the fore. The lyrical beauty of this sang cannot be overstated and what a pleasure it was to hear live again and to such dramatic effect.
‘Walk Forever’ was up next with a lyric change to ‘By Your Side’ and described by Mike Peters as a sort of “renewal of wedding vows” or words to such affect, and what a version came through the PA system. The choir brought a gospel flavour to the chorus and with a restructured vocal delivery throughout, it reminded me of The Beatles ‘Long And Winding Road’ and once again brought something to a song that will always hold meaning for people who have taken it into their lives through marriage but can sometimes feel over sentimental to those without that personal connection.
‘Spirit Of ’76’ crashed into the packed to the rafters room with an opening that seemed to take its queue from the version that was edited down into the 7″ single release of early 1986. This new ‘Spirit’ made total sense instantly with the opening ‘I Find Myself In Reverie’ verse sung over a salvation army style double bass, drum and tambourine back beat. The violin took the guitar motif and with an updated second verse there was some nicely detailed backup vocals from Steve Allan Jones and Jules Jones Peters. Behind the musicians, The Acquire choir was giving it everything they had in the vocal department and for the finale it was arms aloft singing in every corner of the concert hall.
The Declaration 2014 version of ‘Sixty Eight Guns’ took up where ‘Spirit left off and this year was greeted like a brand new classic and certainly not with the shock (and in some circles – disdain), it drew when first performed this time in 2014. A reminder that you can never make a judgement on any piece of music on first listening. The beauty of music is always in the discovery and the assimilation of ideas expressed and why I have remained a fan of Mike Peters throughout all his years. There are layers to his work that are always being revealed even in the songs I think I know the most. It’s another fascinating aspect of this era of Mike’s creativity. I sometimes think Mike might even have planned this as long ago as 1985 and the reason why he kept all his note books and hand written original drafts of the lyrics we think we know so well.
‘Blaze Of Glory’ was followed by a well wishing dedication to U2 singer Bono and the evening was brought to a close with a version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ which signified the end of this retelling of the chapter in the book of Mike Peters life which could well be marked ‘Strength – the point of no return is now the start of the beginning’.
Saturday 30th January.
I arrived at Venue Cymru anticipating / expecting a great night of rock and roll especially after all I had witnessed the evening before and also had a chance to see Mike Peters deliver a rousing speech for delegates at the ‘By Your Side’ appeal reception at 7:15. His energy for life is phenomenal and with his wife Jules there is something about the two of them together that you can see in all that The Gathering stands for. In the main hall the individual members of The Alarm served up a set of solo material that was respectfully received by an audience who were treated to further glimpses of what makes these musicians tick outside of their work with The Alarm.
The now traditional countdown heralded the arrival of Mike Peters and The Alarm and a deep drone began the anthem that is ‘Into The Twenty First Century’. The show got off to a crackling start with each word sung taken up by over 1,000 voices. ‘Superchannel’ had the audience bouncing and ‘Coming Home’ carried us even higher. It was stunning, the band was as tight as I have ever heard them and sounding as fresh as you could wish for. There was a sense of something very special taking place. The first half of the set flashed by in the blink of a strobe light as each song added to the atmosphere and intensity flowing throughout the audience who seemed completely at one with the band. There is no barrier at The Gathering anymore. As 45 RPM ripped through the proceedings Mike Peters appeared at the back of the hall and sang solo renditions of ‘Breed Apart’ and ‘One Step Closer To Home’ before reintroducing Acquire Choir who had been smuggled into the raised seating and together they performed ‘The Stand’. As ‘Where Were You Hiding’ was being pumped out with Mike Peters utilising his bass drum to full effect no one had realised that the band had also got back up on the stage and launched in to the song at the half way point. Music was now coming at the audience from all points in the venue and on queue and in celebration, a million playing cards were launched into the air. What a sight it was.
‘Breathe’ and ‘Permanence In Change’ showed the continuity in writing that bridges all the eras of Mike Peters career and from here on in it was down the home straight with a restored original version of ‘Sixty Eight Guns’. ‘My Town’ was phenomenal and demonstrated that The Alarm’s modern material can stand toe to toe with the ‘old stuff’. ‘Blaze Of Glory’ was given the full ‘Declaration’ treatment and every member of The Gathering from front to back, side to side joined in the traditional ‘Hands are held up high’ ritual.
‘This Is The Way We Are’ and ‘Right Back Where I Started From’ paid homage to the roots of Mike Peters and his music, creating a musical link that was made complete in the ‘Spirit Of ’76’ (which was having its second outing of the weekend), only this time as it was recorded in 1985. The song relates the excitement of a young Mike Peters being confronted with the challenge of The Sex Pistols just as the Mike Peters of today continues to challenge us as an audience with all that he is and both versions of ‘Spirit Of ’76’ played this weekend could easily be retitled as ‘The Spirit of Today’. These are ‘heady’ days indeed.
The second encore of the night began with ‘Rescue Me’ and closed with Mike Peters and the band joined on stage by his children Dylan and Evan. It was great way to end what is after all a family Gathering made up of people from all walks of life united under one flag of Love Hope and Strength.
Photos: Jeff Pitt (www.jeffpittphotography.co.uk)