There is a particular weekend that happens every January by which I measure my life now. The Gathering is a coming together of fans of the band The Alarm in North Wales. I first attended The Gathering in January 2012. This was Gathering 20 so you can see I was fairly late to the party. I didn’t know another Alarm fan at that point, and for many years didn’t even know that The Gathering existed.
At some point in the late 2000’s I met my friend JK. At the beginning I didn’t know he loved The Alarm as much as I did. When we discovered this shared love we hatched a plot to attend the very next Gathering together. Fast forward to January 2012 and having recently moved back to my home town of Liverpool, John and I headed off to Pontins in Prestatyn. An amazing, joyful weekend followed – more music and camaraderie than I would have thought possible and my heart was stolen. I was a Gatherer.
The following year I was by then married to Pete. Pete is a massive Alarm fan too. So naturally we went to The Gathering together. We had a brilliant time, despite the cold chalets, and the dreadful food – it was our first Gathering together so it was special.
This year there was a major change – The Gathering moved house. To Llandudno. The difference with Llandudno is that we don’t all stay at the same place – you could pick your own accommodation. Pete and I stayed at the Imperial Hotel – a lovely old hotel on the promenade, just a few blocks from the Venue Cymru where The Gathering was taking place.
The format was very similar to previous Gatherings I’d attended – Friday night is an acoustic set, in the round. A cut back, stripped down version of The Alarm, and yet it is still one of the most powerful, noisy gigs ever. Part of that is because the crowd lifts the roof with almost every song, the other part is that Mike Peters and the other guys in the band don’t do anything by halves – acoustic means mandolins, violins, drums, guitars and a 3 and a half hour set list which just blew us all away.
We managed to get ourselves a great seat on the edge of the unoccupied main stage directly behind the “round” stage in the middle of the venue. We had a clear view of the stage and I took some (if I do say so myself) pretty amazing photos. I had my 300mm zoom on and a steady seat to reduce camera shake. I knew from looking around the venue that Saturday night’s gig was going to be manic and we weren’t going to get a seat at any point so I decided to concentrate on taking photos on Friday night because I was almost sure I wouldn’t be taking my camera on Saturday night.
One of the highlights of the gig for me was when Mike invited Dr David Edwards on to the stage to present him with a cheque for £40,000 from the Love Hope Strength Foundation. Dr Edwards has cared for Mike for 18 years and to see him on stage, and playing guitar, was brilliant. As fans we’ve been allowed to share Mike’s journey battling cancer and read about the ups and downs and it was lovely to be able to add our voices to Mike’s thanks to this man who obviously means so much to the Peters family.
The gig was superb with some of my favourite songs being played and one noticeable exception meaning the anticipation was there for it to be played on Saturday night. We had a late night, following a brisk walk back to the hotel, we ordered room service and browsed through my photographs, putting the best of them up on Facebook straight away.
Saturday morning was a leisurely breakfast in the beautiful conservatory at the hotel and then a quick walk due to the rain and hail back to the venue for the all important Guitar Masterclass. This is a favourite part of the Gathering for me. I don’t play guitar but I love watching the faces of the fans that get to play along with their hero right there in the same room as him. This year’s song was Marching On and in true Gathering style everyone gathered round Mike while he went through the chords and gave advice about how to play the song. There was a little bit of banter about round back guitars (the work of the devil) and some reminiscing about how the guitars raised to the microphone stance, that is a given with this song, began.
We had a quick mooch around Llandudno (not being geeky enough to stay for the quiz – I love the music but I sure as hell don’t know enough to answer Mastermind level questions!) then back for Mike’s Q&A. Very interesting session, and two every important pieces of news came out of this session. The Love, Hope and Strength Foundation which we all support so keenly were informed that there has been a match from our bone marrow donor drives at gigs in the last 12 months. A life saving transplant was taking place as we sat there. It was inspirational and more than a couple of tears were shed.
Less life changing, but equally important is the news of all the new songs that are being written, and the prospect of Dead Men Walking being reincarnated later this year. Very exciting news for those of us that never got to see that particular MP offshoot.
Another break for some food, a quick rest and then back into the fray for Saturday night’s gig. Now we knew this was going to be a long one – it’s always that way at The Gathering but this was truly amazing. We got into the venue at about 7:30 and stood near the back. Being not of the tall variety of human there is no point in me standing near the middle because all I’ll see is the back of the people standing in front of me. And even at 7:30 we were still too late to be on the front row. I’m also quite claustrophobic so the front isn’t my favourite place at an Alarm gig. I know what will be happening later on and I’m not strong or brave enough to be in the middle of it!!
Just after 8pm the countdown began, we get a five-minute warning and the anticipation starts to build. Then there they are, on stage kicking off with what is arguably one of their most best-loved songs. Not a lot of bands do that – they usually save the best till last but there we were dancing and jumping around to 68 Guns right off the bat.
To be honest there is a massive gap in my Alarm musical catalogue so a lot of the first part of the set was new to me, and I don’t mind that. I love the Alarm and even if I’ve never heard something before I know I’m going to enjoy it. It started to get really busy at the back so we decided to try to move off to the side…. Pete went to do a recce and came back with the news that it really wasn’t that crowded at the front so we headed down and stood off to one side of the stage and got an amazing view. There were some odd people down there so after about half an hour we moved to the other side which was much better. The songs just kept coming, and only because I’ve seen the set list (courtesy of LHS man Rob) do I know exactly what was played. It felt like someone had stopped time and we were going to keep going all night.
Towards the end of the night you know all you’re going to get is the good stuff – from Where Were You Hiding, to Strength (an amazing cut down version), to Rain In The Summertime, to 45 RPM, to our very own wedding song Walk Forever By My Side. This is “our song”. Always has been. We have hand written lyrics from Mike of the song, to celebrate our wedding. I’m happy to share the song though because you know that there are hundreds of other people around you feeling the same way you do right at that moment because of the words of that song.
Then we got One Guitar with children from the local school, including Mike and Jools own two boys Evan and Dylan, up on stage. A lovely touching moment – definitely the next generation right up there.
I forget how many encores there were – three, maybe four. But finally we got there… Blaze Of Glory. The only way to end an Alarm show. And one that has us all there – “our hands are raised up high”…… it’s an amazing moment of unity – you can look around and you know everyone else is standing there, arms above their heads, singing their hearts out for all their worth. It is our song. It is what the Gathering means to me.
A few hardy souls stayed for the dancing at the after show but we headed back to our hotel knowing there was till more to come tomorrow. Up bright and early the next day and the wind and rain that had plagued the previous two days were gone, to be replaced by glorious sunshine. Perfect conditions for our walk to the end of Llandudno Pier. En masse we set off with our flags and our LHS collecting buckets and made our way to the end of the Pier for a sing-song and a bit of a communal hug to remind ourselves how special this temporary family is to us all.
Back at the venue and Mike begins what I think is the most amazing part of the weekend. He stands and has his photo taken with everyone that wants it. And signs things. And has a little word with everyone. It’s amazing and something he doesn’t have to do. God knows he must be shattered after the previous two nights but he’s there. Saying hello, saying thank you, making sure anyone that wants to, gets the chance to shake his hand and have a few minutes with him. This is why we love him, and why year after year people go to the Gathering, to Snowdon Rocks, to Ben Nevis Rocks, and now this year to Holy Land Rocks. To walk with Mike, to raise funds, to raise awareness, to give something back.
The song goes “Walk Forever By My Side”… we do Mike. Every step of the way.
A footnote – for anyone wondering (yes JK, I mean you) – during Where Were You Hiding When The Storm Broke it is customary for everyone to throw a pack of playing cards into the air at a certain point in the song (“All cards are marked, And all fates will collide….”). Because of where I was sitting on Friday night I managed to throw my cards straight into the head of someone standing in front of me, and on Saturday night I realised I’d forgotten to put the cards into my handbag. Epic fail on both counts. I can only promise to redeem myself at the gig on February 14 in Liverpool 🙂