Can you recall going to an Irish football or hurling match in your life and NOT hearing the pumping anthems of Big Country in the speakers? Yeah, me neither.
Their song “In a Big Country,” with it’s pipes and booming power chords, is a popular sports anthem played on each side of the Atlantic.
These celebrated Celts returned with The Journey, their first studio album in 14 years and first with frontman Mike Peters from The Alarm.
“When the band asked me to sing for Big Country, it was something I didn’t need to think twice about,” Peters, a good friend and a favorite singer of the late Stuart Adamson, told the Irish Voice.
Adamson took his own life. “It’s been an incredible honor getting to know the music of Big Country intimately and a pleasure to be around such great musicians. I find singing the lyrics of Stuart Adamson very life affirming,” Peters says.
In a wide ranging interview with Peters, he acknowledged the strong personal and professional ties with the band’s Irish history and heritage.
“We’re the Irish that couldn’t swim,” he says of their Scotch and Welsh homesteads.
He recalls the influence of a certain band from Dublin on the careers of both Big Country and The Alarm.
“Both bands were support acts for U2 during their War tour,” recalls Peters.
“I remember there was this time in London where Bono brought me up to sing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and he asked Stuart to come sing as well. I remember seeing him go through the crowd and I reached down from the stage to help Stuart through the barricade and that’s the first time I met him.
“We were friends ever since, and it is a bit surreal that I am now replacing him as the lead singer of Big Country.”
The reconstituted Big Country has been making huge waves in Ireland, with appearances at the Oxegen Festival and high profile gigs.
“The Irish crowds are so passionate,” enthuses Peters. “We played in Dublin and Belfast just a few weeks ago, and there is just this big connection that we’re from the Celtic nations. There is no doubt a special relationship there.
“We just played the Olympia Theater. There was a case of champagne delivered from Bono and the boys from U2. On the card it said, ‘Great to have your voice back in Dublin.’ That meant an awful lot!”
Even in the reunion itself there is a U2 connection. Green Day and U2’s hit cover of The Skids’ “The Saints Are Coming”, Adamson’s previous band, sparked Big Country’s 30th reunion.
Written and produced by the entire band, The Journey is a return to the classic Big Country sound, a shared vision of widescreen guitar melody, harmony and lyric.
The lineup features Peters, co-founder Bruce Watson, longtime drummer Mark Brzezicki, bassist Derek Forbes from Simple Minds, and guitarist Jamie Watson.
“New music is always in the blood with Big Country, and so it becomes the life blood of the band’s need to evolve,” says Brzezicki.
“The new songs, along with the chemistry and timing, felt right.”
The songs crackle with life and vitality -- meaty riffs, thunderous drums, and spine-tingling vocals. Mining the lyrics about the band’s struggles is an irresistible pursuit as you listen to The Journey.
Themes of survival and redemption resonate on tracks like “In a Broken Promise Land,” Angels and Promises” and “Strong (All Through This Land).” Peters admits that the band’s commitment to staying together and re-engaging with fans was a huge inspiration for him as a lyricist.
The music snarls on the disc. “Home of the Brave” has a shimmering keyboard riff with thunderous drums, while “The Last Ship Sails” is a nod to the punk energy that both The Alarm and Big Country arose from.
There are moments, like on “Another Country,” when the communion between band and singer actually sounds a bit like U2 while maintaining a distinctive personality on its own.
“It is a strange and sad story that let me to this point, but there is an element that is positive in that the band rallied and dealt with it by healing and moving on,” Peters says.
“To me, the lyrics stemmed from Big Country themselves. They had seen everything in their life snatched away from them. They never walked away from the band and when Stuart died, they could have had the desire to be creative die with it. I admire the fact that they didn’t.
“As a lyricist, I was inspired by that. How they had to walk out and face the audience again and honor their fallen brother while introducing new players. They didn’t want to blame Stuart for what he did. They turned this into a new beginning.
“That’s a great way of living your life and it was inspiring to see that courage and intelligence at play as they confronted their emotions. I observed them making their music and their lyrics just evolved. It is a beautiful story of friendship and survival.”
In 1983, Big Country released The Crossing, the seminal album produced by Steve Lillywhite that broke the band massively worldwide with classic singles “Fields of Fire,” “Chance” and signature song “In a Big Country.”
The run of success continued throughout the 1980s with the release of the their second album Steeltown (1984), which debuted at number one in the U.K.
They opened for the Rolling Stones on two separate tours in the 1990s, and Mick Jagger has called Big Country “one of the best opening bands we’ve ever had.”
“The band has to live up to the metaphor and expectation of what we created in the past, so we wanted to play something we would be proud to play right next to our historical back catalogue,” Peters says. “That was important to us as we recorded The Journey.”
The Alarm, a country cousin of Big Country in musical and philosophical ways, has its own legacy of amazing rock anthems to preserve as well, yet Peters is committed to keeping it separate.
“I don’t want to do a disservice to Stuart or the Big Country fans,” he says. “My role in this band is to keep the legacy alive.
“The Alarm is a very creative and different style. All the songs are written on an acoustic guitar, as an example. Big Country operates from the opposite ends of the spectrum. They start writing the melodies from a big place.
“I just did an Alarm tour in the UK and I will be returning to the States as The Alarm, so that band is very much alive as well.”
While some bands may shy away from playing for nostalgia’s sake, Peters is intensely proud of the songs.
“For me, I always wanted to write songs I could sing my whole life because I always wanted to do it,” he reasons. “The songs and messages survived, even when the music industry that created us is all but dead.”
Peters was relieved to get such a warm reception by Big Country fans, many of them he knew from all the years when The Alarm supported the band on tours, or when he supported them as an acoustic solo artist.
“It’ s tough not to see Stuart Adamson up there, let’s be honest,” he allows. “I stand off to the left to give Stuart his rightful place in the center. The audience picks up on it and to the fans’ credit, they are open minded enough to give us a chance in this new configuration.”
Big Country and their fans weren’t the only ones thrown a few bad cards from the deck. Peters has been fighting to keep In remission ever since 1996 when he beat cancer. In 2005, Peters discovered that he was suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Ever the survivor, Peters started a cancer foundation called Love Hope Strength to help with the fight against cancer.
“We had everything thrown on us -- death, illness, becoming fashionable, becoming unfashionable,” he says with a laugh. “I am proud we are still standing.”
Peters is excited to sing Big Country songs, old and new. He says that in some sense, he will be singing the songs with the fans because he is a fan himself.
“I think its important for the fans to interact with this band again and I applaud them for crossing the line the suicide caused to then be at a place to celebrate his life. We don’t want the music to be shadowed by the way he ended.”
The Journey is a defiant, inspiring masterwork by Big Country, a band that has a lot more to say. Big Country plays on June 6 in Asbury Park, New Jersey at the Wonder Bark, the 7th in New York at the Gramercy Theater, and the 8th on Long Island at the Paramount. They have a Facebook page for more information.