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In a Big Country, Reasons to Stay Alive

It may surprise music fans of a certain age to know that various members of Big Country, The Alarm, and Simple Minds are performing together as Big Country in 2013. On paper, this tour has the makings of just another 1980s nostalgia trip. Yet, the reality is much more nuanced and emotional: in the face of tragedy and hardship, a group of longtime friends set out to fulfill the promise of a song — and a singer — that refuse to give up.

I’m at Denver’s Marquis Theater, listening to singer Mike Peters talk about his battle with leukemia and a series of treatments he recently completed. He describes the anxiety he and his wife, Jules, felt a few days ago as they sat in a doctor’s office near their home in Wales, waiting for a blood analysis and hoping that the balance would swing in favor of Mike rejoining Big Country as frontman for a two-month US tour (he also does double-duty as leader of The Alarm). The good cells won, by a hair, and here Peters stands in the basement of a 280-capacity club, eager to march onstage tonight and pull out Big Country hits such as “Fields of Fire” to a crowd of folks who’ve waited 20 years for the opportunity to sing along. And tomorrow, after five hours sleep, Peters will climb a mountain for his charity, Love Hope Strength Foundation; hoist his guitar 11,000 feet into a big, blue Colorado sky; and get the entire village of Vail to chant the anthemic chorus to “In a Big Country.” “Dreams,” as the song says and Peters proves, “stay with you.”

It was every British band’s dream to hit it big in America, and 1983’s “In a Big Country” became the theme song for such aspirations. Lyrics with a moral compass formed a thread of unity between Big Country (whose original lead singer and primary songwriter, Stuart Adamson, tragically died in 2001) and like-minded bands such as U2, The Alarm, and Simple Minds. These were Irish, Welsh and Scottish comrades who preferred their guitar riffs and wide-eyed optimism dressed in combat boots and local tartans. According to Peters, the bands took their songs to venues from coast to coast in the 1980s, and were often booked on tours together, rotating opening and headlining slots as their popularity waxed or waned throughout the decade.

Fast forward 30 years, and the guys are still in each other’s pockets (just visit the bands’ Wikipedia pages if you want to catch up on personnel changes): The Alarm’s Peters took over vocal duties for Big Country in 2010, while original Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki and guitarist Bruce Watson are joined on the current tour by Watson’s son Jamie on guitar, and Derek Forbes from Simple Minds on bass. After so many years, Peters says none of the guys knew they’d end up in one band together — except Adamson, perhaps; fortuitously, the late singer performed in a Mike Peters tour T-shirt during his very last official gig with Big Country in 2000. Even Bono keeps tabs on his old friends: he sent Peters a bottle of champagne before a recent Big Country performance in Dublin.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 1995, Peters plucked words from the verses of The Alarm’s “Strength” to name the cancer charity he co-founded in 2007 with fellow leukemia survivor James Chippendale. (Read about Love Hope Strength Foundation’s amazing work here.) “Give me love/Give me hope /Give me strength /Give me someone to live for.” The lyrics to “Strength” are not only cornerstones to the charity’s marketing success — plastered on stickers and wristbands — but are quite literally helping Peters and others survive; on the record he sang, “Will you donate the lifeblood coursing through my veins?”; on tour with Big Country in 2013, he implores fans to “Get on the list,” by having their cheeks swabbed to determine if they might be a match for a cancer patient in need of a marrow donor.

Big Country, with Peters in tow, recorded a new album (The Journey, released in April) and is enjoying reconnecting with fans on the road across the USA. Judging from the reaction of the audiences in Denver and Vail, this new configuration of the band is rocking just as hard as it did in its early days. Yet, it’s bittersweet to watch Peters, Brzezicki, Forbes and the Watsons recreate the bursts of energy that made Big Country’s hits so appealing. As the guitars ring into the night, and Peters raises his fist in one of many moments of victory, the life force emitted from the stage reminds us that, sometimes, all we need to stay alive is a song.


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