DESERT BLOOM: Memories from a Reporter's Lost Notebook

A look back at the first Cactus World News concert in Boston Massachusetts USA; March 1986

In historical terms, fifteen years may not seem like a terribly long time, but in 1986 the world was a very different place.

Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachov were in power, and nuclear proliferation was The Big Issue. Back then, things like cellphones, email, MP3's and the Internet were beyond fantasy; heck, people were glad to have calculators, forget laptops. Cassette Walkmans were widely available, but CD players were only just emerging. Word processing was something done on an electric typewriter, and faxes or international long-distance calls were still a significant luxury. For that matter, Cable TV (and hence MTV) was a rarity in some parts, and satellites were the exclusive domain of rocket scientists, not channel surfers. And the handful of TV channels you could get through your home antenna, all shut down just after midnight.

In the absence of so many of today's available diversions, contemporary music seemed to occupy a more prominent position in the minds and lives of young people. With fewer options to choose from, events like album releases, live concerts, and alternative music radio shows had a significantly higher public profile. In this atmosphere, Music provided not just great entertainment, or a memorable soundtrack for day to day life, but it somehow seemed to take on the mantle of something more vital, more immediate, and more important. More than any other form of artistic expression of the time, Rock Music not only encompassed aspects of fashion, media, politics, religion, current events, and social issues, but forged them into a cohesive alloy. In doing so, it moved beyond simply reflecting, to actually affecting, the world around it. Its influence became so pervasive that it became a means of distinguishing personal and collective identity. As a result, it wasn't just a focal point, but an embodiment, of contemporary youth culture. Rock Music, in a word, mattered.

Looking back on it now, the world seemed like a bigger place then. Fewer people travelled as widely, and mass media wasn't as globalised. In a world less-homogenised, foreign culture seemed more exotic, and specialised information from beyond one's shores was harder to find. But if you were willing to expend some effort, one place you could savour the triumph of international discovery was at a specialist record store. For me, (then a university grad and aspiring music journalist), this turned out to be Newbury Comics in Boston where Aimee Mann had worked in her pre- Til Tuesday days. There, one could buy the almost-impossible-to-find (and hideously expensive) air-freighted current issues of the British/ Irish Music Weeklies (NME, Melody Maker, Hot Press, etc.), as well as the imported vinyl LP's that they discussed.

Walking out of the store with an elusive issue or album tucked under your arm (and which might just have been printed or pressed in London that same week) wasn't just a thrill, it turned out to be a bit of a personal statement. Complete strangers on the subway would sometimes strike up a conversation simply on the basis of having noticed my latest imported purchase. Thus it turned out that music wasn't just my drug of choice; it became a passport of sorts. It transcended social boundaries and physical continents to link like-minded people the world over. Best of all for me, this aural addiction became self-financing. The money I earned stringing for local magazines writing album and concert reviews went straight back into funding my next musical discovery, in an attempt to stay a step ahead of the mainstream U.S. media.

* * * * *

Cactus World News was one of those bands that caught my attention very early on. The hint of a U2 connection intrigued me, and a serendipitously-discovered import of The Bridge EP on Mother Records exceeded all expectations. Such was its impact, that within a few weeks I went from extolling its virtues to anyone who would listen, to rationing the all-too-frequent requests to borrow it. When word came that the band would open their first ever US tour in Boston, I had no trouble rounding up a group eager to attend their stateside debut.

We arrived early that cold March evening at the Spit Club, opposite the back of Fenway Park's fabled "Green Monster" wall, and as luck would have it, a crew were filming a commercial for the Club outside the venue. Being somewhat alternatively attired (mid-80's ilk), my then-girlfriend and I were enticed by the offer of Spit Club membership cards, to act as extras in the commercial shoot. We were between takes when a van pulled up and the members of the band disembarked. Such was their profile at this point that I was the only one there that actually recognised and greeted them, having seen pictures in the British press.

Earlier that day, CWN had succeeded in doing back-to-back live studio interviews at both of Boston's premier Rock Stations, WFNX (alternative) and WBCN (alternative/mainstream). None of us could remember the last time a band had managed that. And while they seemed earnest and intriguing, they certainly weren't 'yes' men. The WFNX DJ opened with: "So, you're from Dublin, does that mean that you sound a lot like U2?" Whoops. Once the furore subsided, they made it clear that while they respected U2, they were very much their own band with their own sound, and would find their own audience. Score: Cactus- 1, DJ- Nil.

Later, inside the venue, we worked our way up to the front for what proved to be an unforgettable evening. Back then I was attending a couple of shows a week, but CWN made it clear from the onset that this performance would stand out. Without so much as a greeting or a tune-up, from out of the darkness they launched straight into the set, delivering "Worlds Apart" with an intensity that the recordings had only alluded to. I looked around me to find open jaws and blank expressions. None of us had known what to expect, but they had it all: Passion, Power, Integrity and Intellect, and their set served up the goods in spades.

Intriguingly, for a first concert in a foreign land, when most of the audience were not yet familiar with their music, they put on a strikingly confident performance. They didn't attempt to project their image to the four walls, nor bash the crowd into submission with a non-stop aural assault as so many others had done. Instead they dared to use dynamics to draw the audience into their world. Their musical range encompassed passages so ethereal they seemed capable of conjuring up memories beyond personal experience; all liquefied notes dripping from atmospheric beams of tantalising melody. At the other extreme (no pun intended) it extended to segments aggressive enough to render incarnate a musical approximation of a Volvo full of splintered glass going through the spin cycle. Their performance covered the horizons in-between and proved to be not just heartfelt, but somehow personalised and contextualised to the audience and the occasion. The results were stunning.

There's a fascinating dynamic that occurs when performers and audiences from opposite sides of the Atlantic encounter each other for the very first time. In this instance, we'd read about them, and I'm guessing they'd heard plenty about the USA, and on the night both groups appeared genuinely intrigued to meet in the flesh. I have no idea what they thought of us, but it seemed to me after an evening of studied observation (which included a fair bit of eye-contact), that their individual personalities were so distinctive and varied, as to make us later wonder how these guys ever met to form a band! Yet, there was no question that the four of them were on the same page musically, having created something sonically representative of their diversity.

At stage-right, on Bass, Fergal MacAindris certainly looked the part; all weighty boots, black clothing, and cool detachment. He anchored the groove with elastic note progressions, concentrating more on keeping things musically-tight with his bandmates than engaging with the audience. At the back, Wayne Sheehy, with his bald head rising intimidatingly above a notable rack of drums, oozed confidence in his muscular authority of the sticks. This was punishing drumming; (as in: THWACK!) felt, as much as heard, that could well have persuaded the infantry to head for deep water.

Up front, despite his bookish-rocker appearance, wiry Vocalist Eoin McEvoy held centre stage with presence. He commanded the proceedings, alternating his strumming to suit, and belting out vocals with verve. Finally, at stage-left, stage-right, stage-back, and stage-front, Guitarist Frank Kearns clearly had an axe to grind, using a mad-scientist's lair of electronic gadgetry to coax a phalanx of aural effects out of the guitar he brandished like a weapon. His sonic wizardry continued to turn notes inside-out even after the band had left the stage, with his guitar left hanging on his amp, feeding back through a cycled set of effects, slowly fading, until the house lights came up.

Needless to say, they surprised and impressed from pillar to post. It was the quickest 75 minutes I spent that year. At the end there was a genuine buzz at the realisation that we'd all witnessed something special. Not only was it the best club show we'd seen in yonks, but we now had this band pegged as one to watch for the long haul. On this evening, Cactus World News had announced their arrival in no uncertain terms.

Ross Kuehne, London - November 2001