This story starts with a migraine, one of those migraines that forms on the bridge of your nose and moves up and over the head and back down to the teeth. It was mid-week and it had just gone 8pm, I feel awful; before turning in I lay in the wan light of my ipad screen checking emails – a message pops up entitled ‘Are you sitting Comfortably?’. It’s from my agent. Paul Heaton wonders if I would be his support for three shows: Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom, Sheffield City Hall and The Royal Albert Hall. It doesn’t happen like this, this is the stuff that happens in movies. I can’t believe my eyes, I punch through the pain in my head long enough to say yes.
Two weeks later and after much to and fro about tech specs, riders and crew details myself and Paul, my bass player, are cutting up the M1 to join the M6. It’s Saturday 24th November and I’ve barely slept. I’ve been standing in a long queue at Southend’s Kafkaesque postal sorting office since 7.30am waiting to pick up a missed parcel (a Christmas present). Our journey is long but passes quickly with easy conversation. We arrive amid a chaos of rigs and the loading of heavy duty flight cases. The woman at security says I can’t access the site without my pass and sends me round the Winter Gardens complex, a 1920s shopping complex containing and opera house and basement. There is a kids dance championship on and the halls are busy with distended lines of small girls in leotards, glitter skirts and animal costumes. I’m ushered into the Ballroom by a security guard and there it hits me, the enormity of the room, the incredible rumble of drums and bass being sound checked. White plaster faces festoon the ceiling spouting leaves and ribbons and chandeliers are spotted on every panel. It’s simply vast.
I stumble into Jacqui Abbott in one of the back rooms, she greets me like an old friend and shows me to the production office where the promoter, tour manager, site staff and head crew are having a meeting about first aid, additional security and the storing of flight crates. I wait my turn and gain the AAA passes we need. And so the afternoon passes quick with loading, parking the car, rehearsing, arranging merchandise, all the while more dance troupes careen back and forth in the foyer to their award winning performances.
We climb a flight of steps to get to the stage for our sound check. It stands at least seven or eight feet off the ground, lighting rigs above our head, a huge canvas backdrop depicting Paul and Jacqui behind us. Andy is our monitor tech and Rich is our sound man. The check goes smoothly, the reverb and volume of my guitar and vocals utterly overwhelming. This is going to be good.
It’s barely thirty minutes before the door opens and the night begins. I’m in a rush of activity and ritual preparation, I stand on the mezzanine as they open the doors and I watch as ten, thirty, fifty people run to the front. The place is beginning to fill up and the deep chatter of people begins to reverberate around the hall and those alabaster faces in the ceiling. And then we’re on. Someone shouts ‘Who are ya!’ amongst the few thousand people in front of us; there are no nerves just an internal calm of knowing what this is and how it plays out. My voice fills the cavernous space and it comes back at me in waves.
After the show me and Paul walk around Blackpool trying to find a pub to have a swift drink in. We’re struggling and we don’t have our coats (the backstage is too far a walk from the merch stand) and the temperature is plummeting. As we were discussing our plan to leave we watched the security guards evict a number of women drunk and aggressive from the venue. They slump now on a bench outside oblivious to the cold and our hurried looks as we pass. Every pub is a potential until we see the clientele standing outside, the vibe is wrong here, we’re wearing blazers and nice shoes and I have long hair. The Gresham Hotel looks promising until we get nearer and note the low rent seaside drug den vibe. We eventually settle on a bar called ‘The ‘Tache’. It’s edgy and some young lads sit next to us trying to catch our eye, I’m trying to give Paul a mind message to drink his pint of Bombardier quick so we can get out of here. We return in one piece.
We catch the end of Paul and Jacqui’s frenetic set, all giant balloons and glitter bombs, it’s brilliant. After a fraught ten minutes when I thought my guitar had been stolen (Paul Heaton’s guitar tech had put it in with theirs by mistake), we pack the car ducking occasionally as firework rockets zip over our heads onto the street; set off by the Gresham Hotel guests who are lighting every pyrotechnic in their possession indiscriminately. Weary and elated we drive into the night heading for Preston.
The Premier Inn Preston West feels like the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t sleep and post breakfast I stand in the puddled and cold car park building up the gumption to get back in the car to drive to London. The traffic is horrendous through Ealing and Acton, so many four wheel drives in this city, surely public transport is better for those not packing a double bass and hold-alls of merch? We’re playing the Slaughtered Lamb tonight, one of my favourite venues. Our friends The Kings of the South Seas play a blinding set based around the themes of the arctic and polar exploration. London seems eerily quiet even for a Sunday and we make good time home. It’s bliss to lay my head on the pillow but my eyes will not shut….
Another early start and we’re back up north heading towards Sheffield. The City Hall, if you know it, nestles at one end of Division Street. I used to love this road and when I lived here in the early 2000s this was my inspirational walk. It has changed and I am not sure it’s for the better. There used to be a fantastic book and record shop, Rare and Racy I think, that is now shut and closed. Paul and me stand outside it, the windows covered with night club fly posts. The other record shops are boarded and closed, a profusion of coffee shops have replaced them, Mexican wrap palaces and city slick bars.
I get lost backstage and feel foolish- I am Spinal Tap! The tour manager helps me out and we go on to play a great show to a respectful crowd. The lighting technicians chat away to me at the side of the stage before we go on, they’re tipsy and in good spirits. I mention The Tache in Blackpool, “it’s a g-y bar!” the head lighting guy exclaims – that might explain the looks, although I’m not convinced, I’m sure we were going to be strung up.
I had seen so many great acts in Sheffield’s City Hall over the years and I couldn’t help but think of the time I saw Gary Moore, on the very spot I was standing, refusing to play Parisienne Walkways in about 2002. After the show I talk to the merch ladies and they fill me in on their kids (who eat them out of house and home) and their love for a band called Shinedown (me neither). We talk of Gary Barlow and the suburbs of Sheffield. We pack up and we go back to the hotel, Paul and I talking rubbish while we watch Piers Morgan interview serial killers.
A day off and we start it with a sophisticated breakfast in a Waitrose café. This is what it feels like to be retired! Welsh Rarebit, pot of coffee and the papers. We drive home and I commit to helping my niece revise for her GCSEs, Weimar Germany and the Invasion of the Ruhr. How, when, why, what. Blind nationalism holding hands with the tragedy of World War I. I sleep for the first time in days, deep, deep.
Wednesday 28th November. I play records and go shopping before Paul picks me up. It feels good to be at home if only for a few hours. We pierce the heart of London and we tick the sights off as we pass the Tower of London, Monument, the Southbank, Cleopatra’s Needle, Buckingham Palace, Harrods, The Royal Albert Hall. The security man at the stage door curses and storms because he can’t remember any of the phone numbers he needs to get my passes; we can’t keep our kit in his office while Paul finds a place to park so I stand outside with the kit. Paul Heaton fans wait outside hoping to glimpse him. I am wholesale ignored.
We walk around backstage marvelling at the inspiring framed photographs of the great and good, Menuhin poised under spotlights, Edward Elgar, Slash(!), Dylan, Cream, Simon and Garfunkel and ballet dancers I don’t profess to knowing. Our dressing room sits right behind the stage and the vibrations of the drums are like torture at times. We wander, we rehearse, we drink tea. My friend Neil McSweeney comes down from Sheffield and it’s great to have him help us to prepare the stage. One of the nicest moments of my musical journey was to watch Neil play his song ‘Glencoe’ to a packed gig in Sheffield Library’s lecture theatre in 2013ish. I stood at the back of the stage and watched him work his magic.
And then it’s show time. The Events Manager sits with us underneath a pulsating digital clock at the side of the stage. She preps front of house and dims the lights. It counts down to 7.30pm. And then we’re on and the room, well the room takes whatever I have to give it and turns it into this golden sound. The tones from the speakers and the space excite me and for a rare moment I can sit back in my mind as my voice and hands are on autopilot and enjoy the sounds we are making. It ends far too soon and after the glitter and the giant balloons, after the bustle and handshakes, after the road crew dismantling the rigging and the journey through London’s south streets I am fumbling for keys in my darkened doorway, stumbling over a bottle and well-wishing card from my niece just to say thanks for the revision help.