There was a time when a Lindisfarne concert at Newcastle City Hall was as synonymous with the festive season as Fenwicks’ window and Christmas tree-shaped gingerbread treats at Greggs.
It wasn’t unusual for the folk-rock band, which spent 33 years singing and sewing itself into the cultural tapestry of the North East, to book in a double handful of dates at the historic venue to help get the Christmas party started.
As well as a set packed with classics from the Lindisfarne audio archive – Lady Eleanor, Meet Me On The Corner, Winter Song, We Can Swing Together, Run For Home and, of course, Fog On The Tyne – the gigs served as a bit of a Christmas carnival, with hats, crackers and sometimes even Santa.
A framed photo in the downstairs bar at the City Hall offers a perfect snapshot from December 1976 – as well as showing my lovely Nan having a gossip not a Quality Street’s throw from drummer Ray Laidlaw’s cymbal.
“Aye, we had good times,” smiles Ray ‘Jacka’ Jackson, a founding member of the band whose harmonica, mandolin and vocals did much to set their sound apart in the late sixties and early seventies, when they enjoyed much chart success.
“We’ve done 130-odd shows there all told,” he adds, shaking his head at the reality which none of the original Lindisfarne line-up (Ray, Alan Hull, Simon Cowe, Rod Clements and the aforementioned Ray Laidlaw) would have ever predicted. “And who would have thought we’d be doing it again?”
As fans of the band will doubtless know, 2013 saw Ray Jackson’s Lindisfarne – a new line-up featuring musicians who have been part of the band over the years as well as Roxy Music drummer, Paul Thompson -– bring the spirit of the Christmas shows back to the City Hall for a triumphant trio of concerts.
So triumphant, in fact, that he’s booked another three dates for 2014.
“All this started when I teamed up with Dave Hull Denholm and Ian Thompson (both from the 90s incarnation of Lindisfarne) when they put a plaque up at the City Hall to acknowledge Alan’s contribution to the city as a songwriter,” explains Wallsend-born Ray, who has lived down south since 1985.
“Seven months later we heard the City Hall was going to be closed by the City Council. I had a word with (Lindisfarne’s former manager) Barry McKay and asked whether he had any ideas and he said: ‘why don’t you do the Christmas shows again?’.”
Ray says he explored the possibility of bringing more of the original members back on board, but it wasn’t to be. So he assembled a line-up including Ian and Dave, together with Charlie Harcourt, who had been a member of Lindisfarne Mk II – an offshoot put together by Ray and Alan during the first split of the band in the early seventies.
“I hadn’t played with Ian or Dave before the plaque unveiling, but I couldn’t believe Dave’s voice and how similar it was to Alan,” says Ray. “When me and him sing together I sometimes have to look over my shoulder, it’s eery.”
Tickets flew out the door for all three gigs.
“It was really great. The audience loved it. We did a live recording which we’ve brought out on CD. People can buy it at the gigs, or at Amazon or one of the other horrible internet places,” he laughs.
Having spent 15 years not performing at all after leaving Lindisfarne in 1990 around the time of the band’s Fog On The Tyne collaboration with Gazza, (“That was the end of the road for me”), Ray says he can’t quite believe the way things have turned out.
“After I came back here for The Hull Story in 2005 (a celebration of Alan Hull’s music which marked the 10th anniversary of his death), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed myself. I suppose it was like a drug I’d been denying myself,” he says.
“I thought I was done with all that. I’d worked in sports marketing and PR and got back into my painting, which I enjoyed.
“But after the Hull Story gig, I got a call and joined a folk rock ‘supergroup’, The Gathering and got back into it all properly. I couldn’t have predicted any of this though.
“It was so strange. When we first got into the rehearsal room and I listened to the old albums – I heard the music afresh. I realised that the songs the band produced in the 70s – they were, and still are, bloody brilliant.
“The politics and the mood and the instrumentation. They’re so organic and still so fresh somehow. I had the old shivers up the spine again. I was thinking ‘wow, how lucky was I to have been in a band like that’.
“I love the fact that we can still get out there and play them to a sold out City Hall at Christmas.”
* Ray Jackson’s Lindisfarne play Newcastle City Hall on December 20, 22 and 23. For tickets, call 0191 277 8030 or visit www.newcastlecityhall.org