At some point in the late 1960s the live music scene changed from one where the bands played long tours through many cities and towns to one where they did shorter tours focused on the major cities only; round the same time the university circuit became a staple of acts’ touring schedules. Carlisle was a casualty of this change being a city of less than 100,000 people and having no university.
The latter resulted in one famous miss: “From Hull [sic – Newcastle], we went to Carlisle which, again, had no university so we drove on to Lancaster. We played a nice big hall there.”
Paul McCartney – From the “Wings Over Europe” tour book
As young teenagers, we would look wistfully at the gig guide in Sounds showing everything seemingly happening somewhere else. Occasionally, a gig would be announced in the city and we would rush to the box office to grab tickets. Occasionally in this context meant single figures per year.
Like many of that age in that time, we relied on word of mouth, elder siblings, friends, the goodwill of the girls at the local record shop and the music press to hear of and listen to music. And samplers; in my case ‘The Rock Machine Turns You On’ and later CBS, Island, UA and Atlantic cheap releases showcasing their catalogues. By the time the middle of 1971 rolled around my musical hot spots were mainly located down the left coast of the US which seemed a whole lot more exotic than that offered by the Cumbrian equivalent from Silloth to Barrow*.
Magna Carta weren’t on my radar other than a general awareness they were some sort of folkie outfit and I’d never heard of Gillian McPherson. But to borrow a phrase from the football world – you can only see what’s in front of you, so off we trooped.
A venue less suited to live music than the Market Hall would be hard to find. A large municipal assembly hall, it was cavernous, high roofed, had interlocking movable chairs and had a stage high enough to deter the boldest of invaders. Its pièce de resistance was the roof lights which resulted in the “light show provided by God” as Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter remarked the following spring.
Recollections of the night itself are pretty hazy at 50+ years’ remove but here goes:
The room was daylit and the audience fairly sparse – the atmosphere wasn’t great. The support act, Gillian McPherson, was a folk singer from Northern Ireland who had her first (and only) major label release out – ‘Poets, Painters and Performers of Blues’ on RCA. She came out looking the part with long hair and long skirt. She played a short set in a jazzy folk vein of which I can remember ‘They All Want Somebody To Blame’ with an emotive lyric and the album’s title track. The set was received politely. McPherson’s album was out of print for decades but was eventually re-released in CD vinyl replica form on Korean reissue label Big Pink in 2018. The session team on the record was the Mark-Almond band who were, coincidentally, the second show I went to, and included Tommy Eyre on keyboards who later went on to marry Scarlet Rivera of ‘Desire’ and Rolling Thunder fame. Gillie McPherson later moved to south-east France where she continues to perform and issue the occasional recording still in the jazz-folk zone.
Magna Carta had recently played the Royal Albert Hall performing their 1970 album ‘Seasons’ with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra so the contrast with Carlisle’s Market Hall must have been pretty stark. The band at the time comprised core duo Chris Simpson and Glen Stuart supported by guitarist Davey Johnstone. Again, memories are patchy but I can remember ‘Airport Song’, a tale of life on the road, and an overall sense of a pastoral folkie sound with some nice, if slightly twee, harmonies. However, this teenage rocker was more interested in the guitar player especially when he switched to electric with effects pedals. The band released a live album ‘In Concert’ from a show recorded at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw two months later which I listened to while planning this piece and the big impact tracks were likely ‘Time For The Leaving’, ‘Country Jam’ and ‘Ring of Stone’.
Johnstone next surfaced on Top of the Pops playing guitar on Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and has been playing with Mr Dwight ever since. He’d apparently been offered a job with Cat Stevens at the same time so made a good career choice. According to Wikipedia, Stuart left to run a pet shop in Surrey in the mid 1970s, while Simpson continued to perform and record as Magna Carta with a revolving cast of other musicians; most recently a tour of the Netherlands in October of 2022.
Seeing my first live show definitely whetted my appetite for gigs to come although the real springboard came thanks to the Grateful Dead scheduling one of their Europe 72 shows 60 miles away at Newcastle City Hall. A bus that took me straight to the heart of what’s now labelled americana.
* Technically at the time Barrow was in Lancashire
This is the only video that I could find of the iteration of Magna Carta that I saw in Carlisle that night.
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