Tour Diary: Newark, New Jersey to Oxford, England: April 2012

Monday 2nd April 2012

Simone and I catch an overnight flight from Newark to London. Aurora is on a different flight and Art is taking a few more days in New York to meet with friends. Newark looks like a dark kingdom in the dusk, something akin to Mordor, all jagged towers and plumes of ominous smoke. We had returned from New York City on the Thursday, stopping briefly in a car park off the motorway in Poughkeepsie to drop an LP off for Nate (Conor Oberst’s manager and CEO of the Team Love record label). This was followed by a show in Woodstock on the Friday.

Over the weekend I had the barn to myself as Art had stayed in New York after our Mercury Lounge show. As a result I had let the fire in the stove die, a role that Art had fulfilled manfully during our time as barn mates. I recall the immense cold of the night, the pines sentinel outside while icy fingers reached into my soul. The next morning I awoke to a malady that I have since referred to as ‘barn fever’. I could not get warm, I had lost all appetite and it hurt to move my eyes. I spent a lost day huddled by the rekindled stove, Indian rug about my shoulders reading Julian Barnes’s ‘Arthur and George’.

It was with this growing fever that myself and Simone found ourselves in the departures lounge, me with this raging fever and Simone reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and fielding emails on his phone. An Englishman sits alongside us and introduces himself as a friend of Jeremy’s. The English guy is pleasant and says he plays keys in a band called Brakes and was once in British Sea Power. He now lives in New Falls, New York. He makes an effort to light a conversation but I am barely keeping hold of my vital life signs and Simone is adrift on a sea of emails and administration.

I haven’t slept for at least twenty four hours and this is added to by the five hours fifty on the red eye to London. I don’t eat and drink little on the flight. I try to fall asleep in various positions but only manage some quiet shut eye when my head is resting on the seat in front. We arrive at Heathrow and are met by an eastern European chauffeur. He’s not big into talking or helping with our bags. We head for the flat of Simone’s literary agent and I manage to grab two hours rest on a mattress on the floor. I hope for the sweet and blissful release of sleep but I find I simply cannot drift off, which makes me feel worse than ever. I shuffle around the flat fearing that I may never eat or sleep again.

We get a cab to Portland Place. I buy a snickers bar and a Lucozade from a corner shop. They are the first foodstuffs through my mouth for at least two days. They taste sour. On arrival we are shown up to the Radio 2 studios. We set up. Bob Harris comes in soon after and shakes our hands. Simone heads off to the toilet leaving me with Bob in the studio; he behind the gargantuan radio console, me pale and confused with lap steel.

 

Bob is a very pleasant man and we chat about the numerous differences in language between English and American English. I want to say how much I admire him and that I used to listen to his show when I was a student, late on Saturday evenings but I can barely make any sense of my brain. Simone takes a considerable time deciding what songs to play and when he does, they are ones I haven’t played lap steel on or the keys have changed.  I look at my hands and ponder whether this will come off good or not. I am going to have to work hard. During the last song Bob leaves briefly to move his car so as to avoid getting a parking ticket- I thought the BBC would have a secret car park somewhere for the likes of Whispering Bob.

The recording is hit and miss. I look up to the producer, PR rep and label man in the control booth. They put thumbs up so I accept it as OK. We walk out into the corridor. I glimpse Steve Wright’s shoulder through a door as he broadcasts his afternoon show. He looks a big guy.  All I can think of is home and bed and the few days rest I am going to get. I manage to navigate London for home and that night the fever breaks after a marathon fourteen hour sleep. I am a new man by morning.

Friday 6th April 2012

Jack picks me up early, having driven from the Gower at dawn. Our first stop is Heathrow to pick up Simone and Simi from the airport and then onto the old capital of England, Winchester. At the venue, The Railway, I instantly feel at home mainly because I have played there so many times before with the Lucky Strikes. Oliver is the promoter and our host. He does an excellent job of both and looks after us. The Railway is decked out with plastic seagulls and homemade portholes – a theme for a club night later on. The gig is good and we stay at Oliver’s house, eating cheese and putting away a prodigious amount of whiskey and coke. Oliver and I talk a lot about the Southend music scene and Dr. Feelgood. We retire late.

Saturday 7th April 2012

The next day is very relaxing and  we are taken on a countryside walk into Winchester via a route starting at Twyford and then across to St Katherine’s Hill, which affords us views of the cathedral and its associated ‘hospital’, where the pious practitioners of the Middle Ages would offer free sustenance to poor and needy travellers. Word is that you can still get a portion of beer and cheese there. At the top of the hill, through a dense copse of trees, there is a ground level maze. The grooves seem to have been worn over centuries and the information board links it to an assize ritual of a bygone age.

We follow the path down across a field arriving at a church where we sit under an ancient tree for a while, its sprawling branches providing us with shade. We follow the river Itchen (which Oliver tells us is one of the clearest waterways in Europe on account of its short length) and play ‘pooh sticks’, which is a game enshrined by A A Milne in Winnie the Pooh whereby you pick a stick, drop it on the flowing water from a bridge and then race to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick is fastest. Simone and Jack are the most excited to start this game and it releases the inner boys in them. It ends with them swinging from a rope above the water further along the path.

We arrive in Winchester feeling exercised but spoil it all by eating pastries in a deli that sits across from the cathedral and is owned by TV chef James Martin. The day is fine and crowds mill about the terrace outside the cathedral. The building itself is subsiding and we walk its perimeter, through the herb garden and around the buttresses. We have no time or money to spare to go inside. So, with bellies full and legs stretched we leave Winchester to its sweet waterways and cobblestones. As we try to find the route to the motorway we find ourselves driving straight towards the giant statue of Alfred the Great, sword brandished in one hand. I wasn’t expecting it to be so large. Simone jokes about pledging one hundred Catskill swords to him.

Our next stop is Oxford, which today is fairly unremarkable although strangely I feel close to home and untroubled. The venue is a wine bar come pub. The gig is the best so far with the band in light and comedic mood. I even get chance to catch up on my reading. We stay in a Travelodge near Oxford. As all travelling musicians know, there is a degree of order about hotels. Travelodges are OK but Premier Inns are the next step up. Beyond that, you’re kings of the road.

Tour Diary: Stockholm and Uppsala, February 2018

3.45am, 16th February 2018. I’ve been unable to sleep and have been awake for twenty one hours. I’m outside my flat leaning on the front wall. A badger bundles down the street away from me, a cat arches in surprise when it rounds the corner. This is not a time for men. It’s cold and the neighbourhood is hallowed quiet, the deepest of dark starts. I’m travelling light; a change of clothes, a novel (a Tudor whodunit), notebook, comb, toothbrush and passport. 

Will’s car glides down the road. He moves fast. I picture him barely fifteen minutes earlier cutting through the suburbs of Westcliff to pick up Dave and then over the main road past Chalkwell Park (empty of dog walkers at this time) and along the seafront to Paul’s flat; then the three will go up and over the railway track and turn back on themselves to my place. Everyone is bleary eyed but excited for the journey ahead as we cut through Essex countryside to Stansted Airport. Yesterday Paul crushed the index finger of his fretting hand in a car park barrier so we inspect it on the shuttle bus into the terminal; it’s twice the size of its right hand counterpart and is black and oozing.

Hours later we enter Stockholm over a bridge. The city, spread across a series of islands divided by frozen lakes and tributaries, hosts no high rise leaving the sky wide and inviting. All the buildings have Art Nouveau style balconies and are mustard yellow or peach in colour. We take a short walk from Citytermalin to T-Centralin train terminal where we take the escalator down to a plush shopping mall style concourse. This is the main station – no-one rushes and there is a sense of calm even in the busyness. King’s Cross it is not. The Metro, green line heading south Hawk had said, any train going to Hågstra, Skårnpack or Farsta Strand. Four stops to Skanstull – count them off – Gamla Slan, Slussen and Medborgarplatsen. 

Then we are up and out onto the wide open street. Snow is falling in big flakes but it does not feel cold. The city seems alive, I feel alive.

In Hawk and Sofia’s apartment we eat chocolates and strong coffee. I feel elated to have arrived at our destination, safe to be directed and organised by a native. We’re all too exhausted to go out, it is just enough to look out the window (being warmed by the radiator) and watch the Stockholm afternoon go by. The street is a wide boulevard, cars swing past with their wipers on, people are going about their daily lives, it’s the same as home over a thousand miles away. I’m a time traveller. I get lost in the busy vignette. 

Stage time 10.15pm, I’ve been awake forty hours. My body feels wrecked, Paul with his crushed finger is screaming behind me every time he forgets and uses his mushed digit on the fret board. We are collectively medicated by booze, caffeine or pain killer. Words hang in my brain my mouth just a fraction slower to get them out. People dance and people have fun. We finish and drink ourselves stupid.

Amongst the pounding music of Oasis and Dave loudly ordering beer after shot after beer I fall into conversation with a man who quietly exclaims, ’Why? That is the question of the artist and you must keep asking it for everything as you get older, why? Why?’, he pauses and looks to his wife, ‘The blood must continue to be heated even as you get older. The blood doesn’t have to boil necessarily. It is not always about passion but the growing companionship between a man and a woman’. It made sense to me in my inebriated state.

4am: back at the apartment and we are still talking with Hawk and Sofia about social media, the show and the state of Swedish and British politics, something about their king stuffing a microphone down his throat at a university presentation while drunk. There’s one bed and Dave is too big for us both to share. I try to sleep on the parquet floor but my head is full of bad dreams and I wake before 9am my hip and ribs burn from the tiles. Coffee.

Saturday is the day for exploring. Ann and Hasse have offered to show us the town so we walk to the very edge of the island we are on and from a snowy peak we survey the black tiled roofs of Stockholm, the yellow and orange plaster of the old town and Knight’s Island. The Stockholm Concert Hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded stands proud on the bank south of us.  A walk along a tow path and into the streets again for a coffee at Tårtan where we are told a famous comedy sitcom about retired sailors was filmed. Our Swedish companions are chewing tobacco gum called Snus. I respectfully decline. 

Back to Hawk’s flat before the tube and double decker train to Uppsala. Forty minutes through snowy hinterland. The cold feels bitter here and we leave the square brick train terminal following a wide boulevard and along a canal towards the HiJazz Club. Away from the station Uppsala seems empty of life, snowflakes occasionally fall, the wind slight but biting. Doors closed, curtains shut.  We stand outside the club, barred windows, the crunch of snow under foot, everyone’s face wrapped up silent and focused on getting into the warm.

Jilal the owner of the club cycles towards us and opens up. Inside the bar is small, shop like, with a small counter serving bottled beers and an array of CDs stacked on shelves. We are directed to an English themed restaurant/pub called Sherlock’s for dinner. The pub is dark with anaglyptic wallpaper and nestled amongst tower blocks. It reminds me of parts of east London. Fairy lights hang off most balconies, their pre-set patterns twinkling on and off being the only signs of life. It’s quiet, a commuter suburb deep in the delight of a Saturday night in. I am later told by a member of the audience that there is a Eurovision heat on and the Swedes take their Eurovision very seriously so were all most likely glued to their TV screens.

The show is good, a massive challenge physically, but a few students dance towards the end. I feel sad that we are leaving tomorrow, leaving the Plastic Pals who we have only just started to know. We’re all tired, Will and Paul especially. They sit in the front row hollowed and empty. The gig gets them back into the land of the living though.

Post show we return along the canal to the boulevard and the station which is thronging with young people heading back to Stockholm. Boys with tails and white bow ties, medals pinned to their jackets. They are too young for the military. It’s a tiring journey back to Hawk’s place and another late night.

 

Rolfe, Sofia’s Boston terrier meets us back at the flat. By 3am he is prized from his bed in the living room and relocated elsewhere so that we can sleep in peace. Another night on the parquet floor for me. Hours later I find myself staring directly into Rolfe’s eyes. In the pale morning light he has liberated himself from another room to find me using his bed for a pillow. Sorry Rolfe. An hour’s sleep at most before Dave’s alarm goes off. I feel neither alive nor dead. I am in the in between. And so, with a note to Hawk and Sofia hastily written saying heartfelt thanks and love, we creep out of the flat and into a bright Stockholm morning.

Tour Diary: Woodstock, New York – Toronto, Canada, March 2012

Wednesday 21st March 2012

Today is our first day in Woodstock, New York state, which is about a twenty minute drive from Palenville where we are staying. We follow winding roads with dense pine forest on either side which lead into a typical American pastoral town with a broadway and white timbered square steepled church. Simone heads to the chiropractor while Simi takes us on the grand tour. Our first stop is a thrift store, heavy on tie dye and overpriced curios (a standard Alice Cooper CD mounted in a frame for $99!). I purchase a sepia print of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young circa 1970, Neil finger shooting the cameraman. 

We head to a cafe called ‘The Garden Kitchen’. The heat of the day is intense and someone suggests an ice cream outside the church. Built in 1799 the church is now  the Artists’ Museum but all hope of taking in the much publicised folk art is dashed – it’s shut on Wednesdays. We grab a coffee instead and sit on a bench out the front. Simi gets chatting to her friend Alison, who happens by in her car. As they talk a police man drives up and asks whether we have been smoking too close to the museum because the internal fire alarm has gone off. He seems a pleasant enough cop and we chat and laugh with him as he inspects the museum.

Simone comes to collect us and we visit Jessie’s childware shop. It is stuffed full of knitted characters and hand puppets, scarves and jerkins. We sit outside in the sun eating food and drinking root beer. Next to Jessie’s is a T-shirt shop selling Woodstock memorabilia, mainly Grateful Dead T-shirts in luminous tie dye. As we sit a man in his late fifties, skinny and shirtless, his dirty jeans hanging off his pelvic bones jumps across the shrubbery at the front of the shop. He jumps from kerb to kerb, swinging from a shop awning. He looks manically around the road before walking off hugging close to the picket fence of the T-Shirt shop. Simone looks at me wryly. ‘Welcome to Woodstock’. Directly opposite Jessie’s shop is a white building which was once Bob Dylan’s house but now houses some sort of photographic exhibition. A cut out of Nashville Skyline era Dylan pouts in the dark recess of one of the windows. 

Walking back to the car we see a man on a mobility scooter, dirty looking with a great white beard that flows to his waist. ‘That’s Rocky’, Simi says anecdotally, ‘He’s one of Woodstock’s great characters. He used to dress up in high heels and lipstick and go by the name of Roxanne’. We head back home and rehearse more. We play a new version of ‘Helpless’ for Jessie and Pearl and we end the day with dinner and Simone thanking the great spirit for us visiting and sharing their home. Tomorrow we head for Canada for ‘Canada Music Week’.

Thursday 22nd March 2012

We get up early to try and make some miles on the road, heading up towards the Canada/US border. We move up through New York State, brown fields and tall pines for mile after mile. We drive through a town called Middleburgh, which I can only describe as a truly pretty American town with hacienda style porches and vacant rocking chairs sitting below American flags hanging limp in the morning sun. Up through Schoharie and Seneca Falls following onto Buffalo. We head across the border, stopping only briefly for the border control to scrutinise our faces. I am disappointed to find the immediate Canadian landscape exactly the same as the American hinterland we have just left behind; large mall outlets and manufacturing plants.

We eventually arrive in Toronto at around 3pm. It is a lovely clean city and we enter along the harbour road where people are running and cycling in the unseasonably hot day. It is like the city has come out in bloom just for us.

Toronto captures my heart with its brownstone buildings and fairy lights absolutely everywhere. The cafes and bars are full with people drinking and laughing. I feel like I am on holiday. There is a small town feeling about the place, as if we were not in a big city at all. The shops range from the vintage and thrifty to Hugo Boss and Prada. There does not seem to be a rundown area in the whole city as we go through Chinatown, Little Italy, the Greek Quarter and Korea Town. Our first stop is an instore at Sonic Boom which has to be one of the largest record shops in the world.

We are led ‘backstage’ into the stock room by Rob, a long haired and mild mannered member of staff. He’s sweating heavily and when I say that I am struggling with the heat, he rolls his eyes, ‘tell me about it, dude’. We’re cut from the same cloth. In the stock room there is Steaming Whistle beer, water and pizza waiting for us. 

Arthur and me hang by the pizzas like good soldiers when there is a burst of activity in the corridor immediately leading off of the small room.  A diminutive Martha Wainwright walks in along with assistants and a camera man. There’s barely enough room to swing a cat. Martha looks over at me and Art loitering by the pizza boxes and comes over. Effusively warm and welcoming she introduces herself. Pizza and chat with Martha reaching a natural conclusion I linger around the CD racks waiting for her set. She unassumingly comes on stage and plays one of the most captivating and beautiful solo shows I’ve ever witnessed…to around twenty people. It’s incredible.

I love hanging around Sonic Boom and the band that follow us (the Great Bloomers) are talkative guys, although we have difficulty establishing I live in England and not Toronto. They can’t quite get that I have travelled all that way for an instore.

Post show we walk around the immediate town. We meet Aurora’s friend Basia Bulat over lunch. Afterwards we head to Dine Alone Records HQ where we film two songs. The guys doing the filming and sound (Eason and JP) are really nice guys and put us at ease, despite the fact I am tired and a little grumpy by this point of the day. We finish around 9.30pm and head to legendary Pho Kung’s which is a Vietnamese restaurant everyone is raving about. It is shut so we settle for King’s Noodle Bar in Chinatown. The wonton soup with duck and dumplings is tasty.

Friday 23rd March 2012

I have a lazy start to the day and we spend the morning at Peter’s eating macaroni cheese and beef and talking about a range of topics from Canadian politics to the Royal Ontario Museum and the expensive shops in Yorkville. Myself and Arthur are itching to get out and see the city. We go to pick Simi and Simone up, who have stayed with a hairdressing friend of Simi’s. We spend most of the afternoon in a cafe, which is insanely hip and I have the strongest cappuccino I’ve had in a long time. I inform the barista that it’s the first coffee I’ve had in weeks, ‘Jesus man’, he replies, ‘do you need a cigarette after that?’

Tour Diary: North Yorkshire – Teeside – Leeds, October 2019

There is a suburban rural delight to Great Ayton, a paradox of semi-detached houses set amongst green grey mountains. Cottages and stone bridges. The first show is at the Velveteen Rabbit Luncheon Club, diners eat their starters and mains before heading down into the basement for my first set. People sit in respectful silence, some doze, others are drunk.  Dessert upstairs and then a shortened second set where the audience has dwindled and the sleepy eyes of those who remain tell of some fine food and drink consumed and the cosy friendship found in a Saturday evening meal. My billet is the spare room in Elaine Palmer’s house, it’s a room where I strangely sleep best. The enveloping mattress combined with the clean paint and angular corners relax my mind.  The next day I get out of bed about 9am – unprecedented for me.

We weave our way across the North Yorkshire Moors to Lastingham. Mist draws heavy and thick across the road. Pilgrim crosses of sedimentary rock  stand like ghostly figures to the side, abstract monoliths of stone jut out from the ground further into the bracken (it’s impossible to tell if they are ancient or modern from the warmth of this speeding car), sheep with their heads down chew industriously and oblivious on the short grass. The autumnal weather is perfect for our arrival at the Butcher’s Arms and the ensuing roast dinner. We explore the church opposite after our lunch. A celebration of the northern saints is emblazoned on portable triptychs explaining the roles of Patrick, Cedd, Chad, Aiden, Columba and Cuthbert. The tenth century crypt is peaceful and illuminated by the flicker of votive candles. I find the cold ruins of what can classically be described as Celtic crosses, Saxon in design but suggestive of a Viking acceptance. The remnants of a huge Celtic Cross sits against an ancient funeral bier and it is vast, greater than the span of my arms outstretched. I am struck with an earthy and primal feeling, I think of the moors we have just crossed, the damp and the cold; I think of Cedd leaving Lastingham for the coast and his sea journey to Bradwell in Essex and his church that still stands there, built on top of a Roman fort purloined by the pirate Carausius centuries before, so many histories interconnected and woven into place.

A dash back across the moors to Middlesbrough. Elaine drives us through Marton into the city centre where kids congregate around police cars in empty petrol station forecourts. The rain is persistent and heavy and it’s dark. The lights from the University of Teesside logo splash briefly onto the Westgarth Social Club. Reminiscent of a Russian doll we enter into a small atrium and walk up a set of stairs into a dark and empty social club before walking up a narrower set of stairs into an attic bedecked with fairy lights, books and bunting. The collective that is Spooker Rekkids have created a transcendental space, it’s a beautiful dream and reflects what can be done when people want to create with their communities. I warm the room up for Elaine who plays her best.

I sleep well again and am disturbed in the morning by the rag and bone man walking down the street calling out. At first I think he is mentally ill until it is explained to me that he walks an alert around the neighbourhood before the van shows up. In Essex they simply ring a bell as they drive around the streets.

I have a whole day to kill before I need to be in Leeds. First stop is Stokesley in the Ridings of Yorkshire. I exhaust what the market town has to offer in less than two hours. I drink a costa coffee and read my book, the barista keen to chat and find out my story.  I mooch around a couple of charity shops, James Herriot is branded here and there. Everyone in the street is older than me by twenty years or more, I pick up on the rhythm of the day here in Stokesley. A half an hour drive and I enter Boroughbridge, skirting Thirsk in favour of a battle site. I have recently read a book on Roger Mortimer, the First Earl of March in which the Battle of Boroughbridge was mentioned. Edward II faced the Earl of Lancaster at the Bridge here and the grim detail of the Earl of Hereford being stabbed in the anus by a Welshman with a halberd from underneath the bridge is forefront in my mind as I watch the River Ure tumble and froth below me. It’s raining heavy but I linger on the bridge,  a retirement home sits on the banks, elderly ladies in the warmth are being served tea by a blue jerkined carer.

I move further into the high street. People aren’t smiling and the elderly man in the tourist office, some form of sarcoma on his temple, looks wary when I offer my surprise that there is a Roman fort here in Boroughbridge too. “This is Yorkshire”, he says without a hint of humour, “we have everything”. He does point me in the direction of three ancient stones (2700 BC) called the Devil’s Arrows. I head off and am met with a bewildered non-committal response by the local butcher when I enquire if I am near them. “I don’t know what they are” he says. The sausage roll is excellent however. Five minutes’ walk from the butcher, in a claggy field by the motorway, stand three obelisk like stones with deep striated grooves. Two of the stones stand barely a hundred metres from a new housing development proclaiming 3, 4 and 5 bedroom houses. The contrast flaws me, the most ancient against the most modern, never have I felt so in the present. I kick around Boroughbridge a little longer, the café I sit in is silent and there are stern faces all around. The rain gets heavier, the atmosphere more claustrophobic. It’s liberating to leave.

I fritter another two hours in the car park at Weatherby Services reading a magazine. For once the journey into Leeds is easy and I sit in my car waiting for the ticket machine to turn over to 6pm for cheap parking. I’m in the gay quarter and I watch a drag queen cross the road in a silver sequined dress with a foot high purple beehive. This place is frenetic and the energy constant. A Monday night in Leeds, wilder than most weekends in Southend for sure. The show at Oporto goes OK. It’s muted in the performance space, the opening act struggling with a dead guitar, the second act equally struggling with a dead lead while the bar area is alive with the loud chatter of students on the Monday night lash. My friend Tre turns up to take me home and I nearly drive us both into oncoming traffic by jumping a red light I didn’t see.

I sleep terribly, I fall asleep around 2am only to be woken at 3.41am and there I lay in state listening to the neighbour shut the side door of his van at 4.09am and drive off to wherever. The white noise of traffic becomes busier around 5am and I swear someone puts their wheelie bin out around the same time, there is no other explanation for the thud I hear and which draws me to the window to check my car is OK. At 6am a dog walker with thick West Yorkshire accent harshly whispers below the window to his errant dog, ‘git here, cumon’. So many thoughts turn over in these hours and in these strange rooms. The next morning is a struggle and after a cooked breakfast at Enzo’s with Tre, bleary and tired, I punch through the ring road of Leeds and into the country below.

Tour Diary: Newport and Glastonbury – May 2019

Light drizzle accompanies us out of Giant Wafer studios, down the gentle hill and across the tiny stone bridge of Llanbadarn Fynydd into the real world once more. I have just spent the last five days recording a new album, the first since 2015 and I feel equal measure of jubilation that it is finished and pure exhaustion. Paul is with me and two months ago it didn’t seem a bad decision to tag two dates in Newport and Glastonbury onto the end of the recording. We follow the road through densely green fields and enter valleys of equally verdant nature, the drizzle enhancing the fresh loam smell you get this time of year. We’re hanging out for a coffee and we drive through the picturesque towns of Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells, a local butcher offering a home kill butchering service, the roads busy enough to be considered bustling in this part of the world, sleepy in most others. We don’t want to leave the guitars in the car and it barely takes a few minutes to drive through each town. On the road to Abergavenny we buckle and stop in the road side tea room of Mynydd Ddu. The café turns in unison when we enter and we instantly feel under scrutiny, the kind you get in places where they don’t see much through traffic. The ladies behind the till are friendly and refilled with coffee and the sweetest of brownies we skirt the boundaries of Abergavenny into Newport.

The show is lightly attended, Chelsea are playing Arsenal in a football final and it seems to have everyone’s attention.  The Tiny Rebel tap room where we eat pizza is gearing up for the big game and it’s testament to Paul’s professionalism that as a Chelsea fan he’s happy to be away from it. It’s great to see our friends at the show and Matt from Diverse Records always puts on a nice gig. A few technical difficulties and we don’t overplay. Back at our friends Tim and Dawn’s house we eat more Pizza and I sleep the best I have slept for a week.

Tim, ever the host takes us to Tredegar House the next day and we mooch about the grounds. We hear how this used to be the estate of the Morgans, one of whom was a famous pirate. The motorways drone in the near distance. We have coffee and browse a second hand bookshop. We leave Tim and Dawn and head for the Severn Bridge and it’s a pleasant and sunny drive to Glastonbury. It feels like we’re returning to an old friend as we take the back route through sleepy hamlets and straight country roads towards the Tor which stands proud on the skyline.

We are soon crashing out in the family room the Hawthorns Hotel have provided. I feel empty and shattered and for once, in a long time, I crave to go home to my flat and shuffle about the kitchen making my own coffee and have my schedule to myself. It feels like an endurance test. We walk around Glastonbury just before sound check looking for a sausage roll for Paul. He’s got a craving but it’s late afternoon and we struggle to get a vegan pastry slice and an ice cream, which we eat outside the ruins of the abbey. It’s hot and sunny and a young girl walks past with a cheap guitar we watched her trying in the music shop further up the road. A young Indian man was trying to buy an electric guitar too using £50 notes, the owners being particularly suspect about their legitimacy. I detect their accusatory questions suggesting it’s fake money. The man is polite and I wonder if their hostility is even being picked up by him. We have coffee, it’s overpriced.

Back at the hotel we fall into talking with a man who calls himself ‘Sean of the Shed’ because he lives in a woman’s shed, which is a step from his former dodgy crime ridden campsite on the Mendips. He talks about the listed mansion house he is renovating including all the extra work they have to do because they have found a rare breed of bats in the barn. We’re soon joined by another guy who has recently returned from Rwanda. We talk briefly of the genocide there and having just read a recent article about the country I’m interested to hear if the Hutus have returned and there is a more acceptable peace there but he can’t really comment. He talks about fishermen singing in the dawn light but nothing of the horrors. Talk eventually, inevitably moves onto the earth’s chakras and we take our leave.

The gig goes well with a small but attentive audience. It’s good to see the regulars and catch up with Steve the butcher, who has now become a local parish councillor. We retire early for Glastonbury (by midnight) and are watching quiz shows on TV not soon after. We’re out on the road by 10am the next morning and it takes a gruelling six hours to drive home.

Recording Diary: Giant Wafer Studios, Llanbadarn Fynydd, May 2019

Trying to gather some thoughts about the recording of my new album is hard to do without making it too mundane (who wants to hear about the constant repetition of songs, tuning guitars, sitting on sofas waiting for the keyboard take to be done) or too technical (how we placed the microphones to get the sound of the floor toms right or the fact we moved the rotation ratio on my Lex Rotary effect just a little bit higher for that song). When you extract these things then you are not left with much.

It may be better to start with who was involved and that is key because six people fundamentally turned the songs I have written into something far deeper sounding, with intricacies and melodies that I didn’t have the musical lexicon to achieve on my own. At the foundation, on the drums, was the incredible talent Pete Flood. I met Pete as part of the Emily Portman Coracle Band back in 2016 when he handed me some wild garlic that had been growing in a car park in Oxfordshire and told me to eat it. Every morning after breakfast and coffee he would sit down with his charts and play these intricate rhythms that we would all follow with excitement. Paul Ambrose on bass knows all my songs back to front (even the ones we don’t play publically) and there is an organic feeling built over so many shows with him that he was an essential choice. Tom Lenthall played keys and sang. He’s been on my last two releases and he has that enviable ability to play  tastefully without over playing and whatever he does brings depth to the whole arrangement. His harmonies combined with Lizzy O’Connor’s make my soul rest back into my frame. He also does an incredible impression of Gollum! I have known Lizzy since we first met playing in the band Deer Park back in the early noughties. She’s an all-rounder superstar who fills in all the bits we’re missing from snare rhythms on ‘I Cannot Lie’ to grunge Guitar on ‘Fan of the Band’. She also knows where my vocal lines are going intuitively. Helen Bell from The Froe is a key part of the sound too adding string arrangements that are really different from the norm – she makes everything sound so classy. And finally, Andy Bell, producer and good friend managed the whole session. He coached all the performances you will hear, challenging the way we approached the songs as a band, hearing the whole as we all sat in our respective rooms listening to our own parts.

We recorded the songs in a studio just over the English-Welsh border in Llanbadarn Fynydd, Powys. Giant Wafer sits on a gentle hill above the village and you access it via a small stone bridge barely the width of a car. The control room backs out onto a small holding with chickens (the cockerel taking pleasure I am sure in waking us every morning around 5am) and horses. I can write about the gear and the rooms but suffice to say it’s remote and is the perfect bubble for me to focus on the job at hand. A few people wandered to the community shop across the river one day however I stayed in the studio for the full five days.

We recorded 15 songs overall, including two different versions of ‘Clifftown’, an up one and a down one. After a leisurely start we would track the main frame of the songs with live vocals and then add overdubs and then move on to the next. We averaged out about three a day and broke the whole thing up with tea breaks, lunch and general aping about which you need as a release from the intense concentration you must have during takes. The only significant challenge was  a song provisionally called ‘Come Back’. Andy felt we needed to make it different from the tumbling circus vibe we were labouring but nothing seemed to fit. We reluctantly abandoned it and it was only when we had a listen to some Joni Mitchell did we hook upon an idea based around Paul’s bass part. Thus it was born.

Recording finished around 8pm each night and following dinner we would head over to the barn opposite for late night sessions of pool. Andy, Paul and Tom were expert shunters while myself and Lizzy occupied the ‘merits for effort’ category. And those were our days, regular and productive. Towards the end of our week people started to drift away and it’s like a holiday, you never want it to end. Pete was the first to go, his drum parts all secured and then Tom and Helen shared a car home to Birmingham. Lizzy went early the last day and not long after myself and Paul gave one final wave to Andy before we all parted, we to Newport for a show, Andy to Hay on Wye.

Hopefully the album will be out in early 2020 and if you really want the technical detail then drop a message below!

Tour Diary: Eaglescliffe to Leeds – February 2019

There is something virtuous about early morning starts at the weekend. Sunday 17th February 2019 and I am on the road before 8am heading towards Great Ayton in North Yorkshire. I have a run of shows with my friend Elaine Palmer who is a singer songwriter based on the borders of North Yorkshire and Teeside. She is stuck on a train in Doncaster so I sit with her family eating soup and catching up; it seems an age since I was last here, although we reckon it was late summer last year.

Tonight’s gig is at a vegetarian restaurant called ‘The Waiting Room’, which is a stone’s throw away from Eaglescliffe train station. Yarm is not far away, a town which I recall is the home of Janick Gers from Iron Maiden. I wonder if he’ll come tonight? A knitting group sit in the corner industriously sewing knitted flowers onto baskets. They look Really intricate and beautiful. Elaine is joined by her cellist Harriet and we all sit and break bread with the most amazing food. The show goes as standard and I stand under the carousel binding that headers the stage. I feel a little rusty but I enjoy the feeling of playing to new people and I am soon falling into a bed exhausted.

I spend a leisurely morning the next day with Elaine, swapping stories and comparing notes before I am off and into Lincoln for a solo show. I cross the fens and get that famous view of Lincoln Cathedral sitting on its hill many miles before I enter the city. My satnav takes me through Denham on Trent and I pay 40p to cross the small toll bridge. I’m astounded they have it manned 24/7. One audience member that night tells me the farmer who owns it makes a killing and Christmas Day is the only day it is free.

I love Lincoln and have happy memories of visiting one hot summer day in 2003 with a group of friends when we were living in Sheffield. I recall sandwiches on the Castle green, a Cumbrian piper outside the Cathedral and Will Carr Straddling a cannon for a  cheap laugh. We gazed upon  Magna Carta that day but today it’s raining hard and straight so I flit between coffee shops. I am cornered by the owner of a second hand bookshop in the Jew’s House (the oldest house in the UK if I am right?). I innocently ask him what books he likes and he sets forth on a blow by blow account of Hannibal’s harrying and triumphs over the Romans. When I finally escape I peek into the Cathedral, which is covered in scaffolding, impressive as the stone work itself; if I could be so uncouth. I walk the perimeter trying to look at the masonry and gargoyles and come eyeball to eyeball with a young man sitting in a doorway. I sense he might be homeless but there is no obvious baggage or bedding and he doesn’t ask for any money. Just a menacing stare.

The show is in St. Mary’s Guildhall which I read was probably built for the purpose of housing Henry II’s winter crowning ceremonies of 1157. It’s a welcoming crowd and a beautiful setting.  James, one of the organisers, lives in the St. Giles district of the city and his 1920s house is set back from the road giving it a gloriously secluded and peaceful air. The next morning I drop him off at the train station before heading over the flatland once again towards the A46 and Newark. The sky is a magnificent blue and small planes wheel over me in as Smooth Radio pumps out the 80s ballads. It’s a moment of clarity and justification that I find rare these days.

Fast forward a few days and Elaine is in my neighbourhood for shows at the Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh on Sea and The Harrison in London. The Leigh gig feels like a homecoming but I find it tiring being organiser, performer and promoter. Everyone seems to like the show so maybe I did my job OK. Likewise, in London, we do our own sound and I feel a sense of achievement in getting it right. Paul gives me a lift home and I feel pretty spent up.

Finally it’s another early start on Sunday 24th February. I certainly don’t feel as virtuous today. Lack of sleep that night makes me feel hollow and the fog is dense on the drive up to Leeds. I’m on a mission to visit the Battlefield at Towton, which is only twenty minutes from my venue tonight. Towton was one of the bloodiest and pivotal battles of the Wars of the Roses and the massacre of human life that took place is sobering. I wanted to feel that and although the sun came out in a glorious spring like fashion I struggled to find the site beyond the Crooked Billet pub. The area seemed poorly signposted and although I got to visit the now gone medieval village of Lead and walk around the fields I gave up and headed into the labyrinth that is Leeds city centre. A good feeling show at Oporto in the heart of the city, which is being hosted by a wonderful human and performer, B W Pike. A man asks me to lend him £100 at the parking meter, half-jokingly but half sincerely I think.

It’s sad to leave Elaine and I feel like we were just getting into the swing of things. It feels an anti-climax and these things always do. There’s never any balloon drop or wild after show send off, just the acknowledgement that you survived, you did OK and you need to get on and do some more. The pubs and clubs are busy with drunk students and shady track suited men, hoods up, poncing lighters off the street life. I weave home to my friend Tre’s house. She’s come from watching the Cup Final and is horrified at how Leeds city council prevents you from turning left at certain junctions when clearly that would help traffic flow massively. I can only agree.

Tour Diary: Edinburgh to Birmingham – Autumn 2016

It’s 8th October 2016 and Edinburgh is holding onto the last tendrils of a summer long departed as we drive into the city. We had set off at 8am driving up the spine of the country and then onto the east coast and that beautiful seascape that greets you as you cross the border. The chill is only just noticeable as we set up in the corner café that is tonight’s venue, The Bluebird Cafe. Canonmills is a part of town that I’m not familiar with but I am told Stockbridge is just on the other side of the petrol station and I recall autumn 2014 wandering the second hand bookshops there with Ross Wilson and finding the trophy of Ann Wroe’s ‘Perkin’, an engaging account of the man who was (or wasn’t) Perkin Warbeck. History has the best whodunnits. The Bluebird Café soon fills up this autumn night and me, along with my friends Paul and Lizzy, play until we run out of songs and are heavy eyed.

The next morning and it’s a quick coffee and sandwich before we leave the crisp air of Edinburgh for the west side, through Glasgow with its giant hoardings proclaiming ‘People Make Glasgow’, to Ayr. Celt95FM is playing Americana but diffuses into static before Irvine Beat Radio plays us into the coastal town with The Byrds’ rendition of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. It’s a good omen.

We park in Wellington Square which leads down onto a green and the beach. The Isle of Arran sits squat in the near distance as children play in the unseasonal October sun. Drinking a milky coffee outside Renaldo’s ice cream café I watch a man gesticulate to his six year old son on the slides ‘Pull your trousers up!’ he calls and makes a flapping motion towards his hips. He gets more irate as the boy looks back in confusion and mimics the flapping motion before twigging about the trousers.

Wellington’s is a basement bar and we play to a small community of people as Nan and the bar staff busy themselves in the kitchen at the back, the smoke from the grill  and the clattering of crockery telling of a warm and homely place. It feels good to be there, some sense of overriding joy and community love and spirit. We leave Ayr with the sun blazing and snake through the country roads towards Dumfries, stopping at a small petrol station to refill. Hawks sit on top of telephone poles eyeing the lowlands and the sun fades, winter is definitely on its way. Darkness by the time we approach the M6 and the slow slip over the Cumbrian moors. The country stacks up behind us, home soon.

13th October: Paul and I have an easy run into Camden Town and we leave our friend Steve sitting in the boot of the car while we sound check to make sure we don’t get a ticket. It’s good to see old friends and share a bill with Samantha Whates. We play songs from our EP which is so nice to revisit. I feel a little strung out by the end and it’s nice to get back into the safety and silence of the car and watch the lights of Camden fade into the darkness of the motorway home.

14th October: this is the day for exploring, we feel alive to be out of the same old seaside town. To Scunthorpe! But frustration soon hits. We get snarled up on the road out of Southend then snarled up on the A14 near Cambridge and a final snarl up on the ring road around Lincoln, although it does afford us a brief glimpse of the cathedral and castle. I maintain Lincoln is the best example of a cathedral in Britain and I tell Paul about Hugh of Lincoln and his pet swan and how the animal is carved in the effigy of Hugh, curled up at his feet, together forever in those echoing vaults of eternity.

I’m always heartened to see a book exchange and sure enough Café INDIEpendent does not disappoint. A vacant furniture store from the 60s the Café has been given a makeover with a canopy of opened umbrellas for a ceiling, a child’s play area and coffee to travel up the A1 for. It feels like home as soon as you enter and we lounge around upstairs as the night falls. We attack the meat stew hungrily and listen to The Most Ugly Child, a great band and our friends from Nottingham way. We play, we laugh and retreat to the village of Winterton for the night. We drink and laugh some more before hitting the hay.

The next day I wake up groggy. I drank maybe a little too much and my throat feels clogged and fat. A cold is on its way and I do all I can to salvage it. Lizzy recommends blending rum and whiskey together but I can’t try that at 10am before a drive to Derbyshire. We leave and head out into a lattice work of country lanes that are quiet as the grave. The flatness of Lincolnshire is apparent here and the sun barely creeps above the horizon.

Belper is hilly like Sheffield and made of the same beige sandstone. The landlord of the Queen’s Head tells us how Belper was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and that Slater the Traitor was the name given to the industrialist who took those then modern techniques and methods to America. He pointed out Long Road where Strutt had built the first terraced houses and they remain there today. We wander down towards the main road eyeing up the shops for food. We find the seven foot Mr Potato Head that was gifted by the twinned town of Pawtucket in America. We are told the denizens of Belper don’t like the potato man at all and it regularly gets vandalised. Sure enough when I mention it at the gig a reply from the dark comes ‘you can have him!’ We think he’s kind of cool and he tops off our industrial heritage walk.

After our exploration I feel tired and settle for haddock and potatoes at the Nourish Bistro in the hope that it may revive me before heading back to the venue. It doesn’t and I leave Lizzy and Paul to wander the town as I head back to the venue and sleep on the stage for an hour. By the time the rest of the band arrive (including Helen who will be joining us on fiddle for a few shows) the soundman is around and restraining an 18 month old German Shepard/ Husky cross that pulls at its lead. I swear this beast could put its paws on my shoulders if it stood up on its hind legs but Zac just wants to play.  It’s a quiet night but a fun show.

It’s a short drive to our friend’s house in Kirby in Ashfield where we are staying the night. The street is suburban quiet but Martin’s house is like an amber lantern of frivolity. We hear guitars and laughter as we walk up the driveway. It feels good to be amongst friends. I sleep in fits and starts and awake to a cold drizzly day. Martin cooks up some blinding sausages and we nurse our coffees and peek out at the kids’ football match in the field opposite. It’s raining hard now and the children prance about in the weather as if it’s nothing. I feel ill.

16th October: The Dog and Partridge in Marchington is a village pub and we waste hours there drinking tea and Lemsip. We are a fully viral band. It’s a pub show and we play to a Sunday afternoon crowd, some listen and some try their best to ignore us. I appeal to some biker looking guys at the bar by singing something about Judas Priest but they turn their backs. It’s OK though, it’s a good show and we are gone and home by midnight. Tomorrow is a day off and I daydream about the lie in and shopping for food.

18th October:  A full morning of meetings about the recent Estuary Songwriting Project, whilst there Diane Collier entrusts me with a bag of home cooked muffins and a letter for her son who is coming to the show in Norwich tonight. We’re full of cold and despondency Lizzy, Paul and I as we mount the stage for the first of two forty five minute sets. I love the Bicycle Shop as a venue but tonight we play to five people and it’s hard to get the damned thing going. I sit alone just before stage time eating a Greek salad on a table cluttered with chairs and Arabic ephemera. The muffins are delivered at least. We are clear by 10.30pm and soon in Latcham where Lizzy makes up some whiskey concoctions and we sit on the sofa watching ‘Let the Right One In’ – everyone is low and dejected and it feels like a rehab clinic for ailing musicians. Me and Paul reacquaint ourselves with the garden building. The spiders have gone.

19th October:  Paul didn’t sleep well and is ailing today. Lizzy makes a chicken broth that is fit to bursting with vegetables and goodness but it doesn’t feel like it’s doing any good as we weave the hour or so towards Cambridge making continuous loops of a roundabout to find somewhere to park. I feel like an empty shell, my body craves something and I go out full hog with ham, egg and chips followed by ice cream. It gets me up past the waterline. The football is on, Manchester United and Barcelona perhaps. Men shout and draw in sharp breaths as the drama unfolds. It’s a long bill tonight and we take to the stage nearer to 11pm. A short sharp set before load out and home. I can’t sleep and by 3am I am up writing and watching rubbish on You Tube, my house creaks – the usually unheard chatter of the night.

20th October: a local show at last! I love the Asylum in Chelmsford. We listen to Pantera, Europe and Jane’s Addiction, Paul and Lizzy play pool – it feels like a night out rather than a gig. We play a good show and Helen heads home to Birmingham afterwards. A job well done we stay after for a few pints.

21st October: the last show for a few days and we’re all working towards that rest period. Otterton Mill in Bromham buoys us when we arrive. It’s packed with local art and trinkets and we eat warm quiche as we set up in the beautiful surroundings. The audience is full of interesting people and bizarrely I pick up lots of stories about Sheffield, about the US air crew that crashed in Endcliffe Park during the Second World War trying to avoid a group of children playing – I make a note to try and visit the memorial when next I am in town. I get given a tooth from the mill wheel as a memento of the gig. Returning home in the early hours I place the tooth on my coffee table and it greets me in the morning as if it always belonged there.

27th October: Brighton always seems like a local show and we set up in the room above the Marwood Coffee Shop. We take our chance to move around the city in the fading light, the pier alive with people huddled together against the encroaching cold, the new observation tower like a neon needle pierces the sky on the foreshore; Pop hits play over the inbuilt Tannoy system, the funfair shut and dark. Back at the venue the walls are papered with articles from Uncut, Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap gurning at us as we play to a small but appreciative audience. Tom Waits plays on the café PA, ‘Misery is the river of the world. Everybody row!’. We share the bill with Ziemba, a New York artist hailing originally from Michigan. It’s Art House stuff and she gyrates across the room and amongst the audience as deep synth chords penetrate the air. She hands me an incense pouch after the show made from the flowers of her back yard back in Michigan.

It’s a bad journey home as tunnels are shut at the Dartford Crossing, as is the exit to the A13. We doggedly drive the darkened roads trying to find our way back to the neighbourhood. It feels endless.  Must these tours be all about the roadworks of Britain?

29th October: Winchester -the streets are full of Frankensteins and Draculas sporting bolted necks and wielding bloody cleavers for Halloween. We slip between the zombies and ghouls to a pub for a pre-show meal. We’re supporting The Worry Dolls, old associates from a few years back who I had done some session work for. It’s good to see them.  It’s extremely hot in the green room, a dry sapping heat generated from the computer servers that whir in the corner. We stay for their show then slip away quick.

30th October: Match day in London, it’s a local derby between Arsenal and Tottenham and police crowd the streets as we load into the Union Chapel. Paul goes off to try and park the car coming back with reports of Hotspur fans being arrested while lying prone on the street. There’s a feeling of danger in the air as we play safe in the hallowed hall filled with music.

9th November: Birmingham – close to the end now. The people of the Red Lion Folk Club are always so interesting and it’s a pleasure to play with The Fair Rain again. An elderly lady asks me the difference between an E major and an E7 chord; as I explain and jot the details down she declares unreservedly that she fell quite in love with me tonight. It’s nice to know. We barely have time to eat, sound check and play before we are back in the car heading home. We leave at half time through the fire exit, the fire doors firmly closed behind us as the Fair Rain take to the stage once more.

Tour Diary: Blackpool – London – Sheffield – London – November 2018

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.

Tour Diary: Norwich to Aberdeen – May 2014

Wednesday 14th May 2014

The drive into London is warm and the sun shines on the Ford plant at Dagenham casting it in a light that I suddenly find homely and familiar. I know the A13 like the back of my hand; the green and yellow rape fields make way for heavy industry and dockland traffic before entering the suburban spartanism of Dagenham and Barkingside. I’m leaving it all behind today, all the hubbub of a daily toil, to go to Liverpool.

The real tour starts today, that’s what we have all been saying for the last week. I am opening for my friend Blue Rose Code but also playing as part of his band on pedal steel, resonator guitar and backing vocals. The first three shows had sprawled across the previous week, taking in Norwich, Leicester and Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. Norwich had been one of those serene gigs. After the show I drove through small villages back down onto the A140 and A12, the midnight air cool, the trees dark and sentinel in the blacked out fields around me. So quiet the night, I was half expecting to see the ghosts of lost cavaliers come bustling through the hedgerows, awoken from their eternal slumber to continue the defence of the King’s divine right.

Leicester was the challenge gig with its one way systems and what seemed like an endless amount of traffic lights. A late, late night that sucked at the soul, the dog welcoming me home at the front door shortly before 3am. Finally, Waterbeach (near Cambridge), hosted us with such welcome. A small Methodist chapel built in 1863, an attentive crowd and homemade cake. Cambridge and Norwich have always felt so much like home. In Waterbeach we were barely fifteen miles from Ely and I recalled the times I had visited that town with my parents. I had walked on the roof of the cathedral once and had visited Oliver Cromwell’s house.

But back to today, Stoke Newington is fairly quiet and I manage to park in a leafy street near JP’s house. Ross and Samantha join us and we are soon ambling the van along the high streets of Bounds Green and Green Lanes, heading through Finchley to the M1; our exit out of London and on to Liverpool.

The journey is fraught with traffic jams but we eventually get there and sound check for the gig, which is housed in the function room above the Leaf Cafe. The cafe is bustling and the upstairs room is decked with multi coloured lights and garlands of bunting. It was instantly shaping up for a good night.

Post gig we end up in a cocktail bar near our hotel, The Nadler. The streets are sprawling with the young and the drunk. Women loiter on street corners crying or yelping with equal enthusiasm. The bar is warm and clinging. For some reason, I can’t recall why, I had foolishly brought my reading book out with me. A drunken girl tries to engage me on what book it is…it is J G Ballard’s misanthropic 1965 killer ‘The Drought’. The conversation mercifully dies quickly as she ricochets off punters into the night.

There is an air of danger about Slater Street where our hotel is situated and where we wait for some greasy pizzas. A fight is imminent; we can feel it in the air as three well dressed lads stumble in and try to make eye contact. We leave sharpish. Lights are out around 2am.

Thursday 15th May 2014

A day off. JP needs to catch a mid-morning train back to London so we break the morning with a vegetarian breakfast. The coffee is good and we are left to chat. Ross and Samantha are keen to hit the charity shops, which Ross swears are the best in the country. We duly head down the streets and back ways in pursuit of Oxfam. The architecture of central Liverpool is simple but awe inspiring. Everything seems taller than other northern cities and divided into blocks, a little like New York, which are mostly composed of large warehouses (no doubt converted to flats). Charity shop shopping fulfilled, we hit the road for Derby.

Ross is due at a studio to record parts for a new children’s album by David Gibb. Myself and Samantha tentatively head towards the Cathedral Quarter of the city. We are not holding out our hopes but when we get there, the road leading up to the high street is pretty and keeps us occupied. Samantha buys some new earrings and we eat the best coronation chicken sandwiches ever, courtesy of the Old Bull Inn. I fit in a strawberry milkshake, the sugar pepping me up enough to get back into the van.

Recording done, Ross suggests we just drive north until we find a place to stay. I suggest Whitby but all agree it might be too far of a trek east. We settle for Berwick upon Tweed. Ross knows some people there. The drive is never-ending and we stop at a service station near Lucker. The place looks abandoned by life and haunted only by the ghosts of travellers. Truckers bed down in their cabs in the park adjacent, their shadows playing across the windscreens. It’s quiet as a grave. A man in denim dungarees wanders round the back. He looks like a killer. The air is thick with pollen. You can smell it.

We arrive late in Berwick and head for Spittal and the Roxburgh Bed and Breakfast, which is an eighteenth century house sitting right on the beach. We drop our stuff off in the rooms and head straight for a curry, which is over the bridge in Berwick itself. As we cross, the moon hangs low and red on one side and a viaduct, lit in greens and reds, stands proud on the other side. Berwick is dead and we trace the roads until we reach the Magna Indian Restaurant. The waiter, chin in hand, looks vacantly from the window but stirs when he sees me enter, putting on the charm and patter on cue. We are the only customers so we order and eat quick.

Friday 16th May 2014

This feels like a holiday. Samantha and I share a room and we wake to the bright sun and the beach. People are walking dogs so we make tea and look out of the window while springers play across the sand. J G Ballard is proving tricky. His prose is fantastic but the subject matter is bleak and I’m not in the frame of mind. Samantha meditates. The particular form she practices is also championed by David Lynch and we discuss how he has set up a school to support it.

Berwick boasts its own pleasure hut in the form of The Fun Pavilion. It’s not a patch on Southend but we wander the machines anyway to relive some of our youths. An old lady pumps a machine with 2p coins. It looks like she does it all day, every day. She doesn’t seem sad about it but I do. We make eye contact before I move on. We take a leisurely drive down to Alnwick and wander the gargantuan Barter Books, which is a second hand book shop established in a train station. There’s free coffee and every genre of book you can think of. A toy train completes circuits on top of the thriller and history sections. I wander for at least an hour. I am attracted to a folio society edition of Meso American civilisations but its £40 and will get trashed in the van. I grab a complimentary coffee and try to ring home. My girlfriend is at an awards ceremony in London and I want to hear from her. I don’t get through. We eventually head into the town and have lunch on the square before heading off to Newcastle.

We pick JP up at Newcastle train station. I am elected to go into the station to find him. I place myself next to an elderly man collecting for war heroes, which in turn attracts the charity and attention of an actress from Coronation Street, with someone from TOWIE in toe. The scene soon becomes hectic as people scramble for autographs. I side step and wait for JP.

The Cluny is like an old friend and it’s good to be back. The place is packed and the weather is sweltering. Ross, the soundman, is there and we catch up. He’s professional as ever. We are feeling the vibe on this and I’m flying good. I even manage to avoid a spilt cup of Espresso that Ross launches across the dinner table mid flow. My support show goes really well and I settle into a great set with the band. I meet old friends and myself and Ross (Wilson) end up chatting the night away both at the venue and at the hotel. We order two exotically titled ‘London Pizzas’ (Margaritas with chips on top) from a takeaway close to the hotel. The man delivers four, so we munch away, relinquishing one to a drunken Irishman in the hotel bar. He’s stunned and thankful.

I unsuccessfully try to enter the hotel room without waking JP but he has left his double bass on the floor, prompting a comedic bluster across the darkened room to my bed, where I sleep fitfully.

Saturday 17th May 2014

I wake up with a fug in my head. We leave Newcastle in short order and take the scenic route to Glasgow. The city is one of my favourites. Great Western Road and Byres Road capture my imagination every time. We head to a secluded road of mansions where we are met by Nick, an independent radio producer. We huddle into the studio and record a session for BBC Scotland’s ‘Morton Through Midnight’. Morton himself is listening in from the Shetland Isles and as he interviews Ross I lie on the floor of Nick’s office, relaxing my back and looking up at the ornate carvings on the ceiling. I try and take a photo but it doesn’t come out well.

We spend some time trying to find our hotel which is further out of the city by the Glasgow Rangers stadium. The Swallow Hotel is a tired looking place but we each have a room to ourselves, which is fantastic. We get ten minutes to relax before heading to the venue.

The CCA is a stylish Arts Centre in Sauciehall Street. The front is taken up with a book and gift shop. As you move further in, you enter a tall hall with a mezzanine, Cafe, a cinema and the venue itself, which sits on the first floor. Ross has invited a number of musicians to join us: Mattie Foulds on drums, Jesse Moncrieff on Violin and Rachel Newton on Harp. It’s a beautiful sound when everyone is playing together and I feel privileged to be among them. The crowd is attentive and with over one hundred people there, the after show hubbub is manic. I am feeling tired and exhausted following our late night in Newcastle so it is with some relief that we head back to the hotel fairly early and have a whiskey in the hotel bar before drifting off to sleep while watching ‘Meet the Fokkers’. I do not have a TV at home so it’s always a novelty to watch it as much as I can when away.

Sunday 18th May 2014

Refreshed, alive and happy we converge in the Swallow Hotel lobby the next morning. The breakfast room is very busy and the breakfast sub standard. But I’m hungry and in need of caffeine so it suits me fine. We stumble into the morning light. I’m excited because we’re breaking new ground today, I am entering into unknown territory, for today we head to the Highlands. We are off to Aviemore via Edinburgh.

We have an in store gig at Coda Music and it’s a struggle to get everything in and set up in a small space. It’s a superb record shop. A man feints about four songs in but he is OK and is surrounded by care and attention. A quick sandwich in an Italian cafe before we head to Aviemore. Over the Queensferry Bridge into Fife, the Highlands and Speyside, we wind around the base of mountains behind articulated lorries. The tops of Ben Macdui and Braeriach are snow capped while the lower foothills are barren save for stone and gorse.

The Aviemore Bunk House is our bed for the night. It is a hostel for walkers and the walls are paper thin. Myself and JP pick our bunk from the six on offer and take some time to ourselves. I’m worried we’re going to have to share our room with four burly sports fanatics but JP isn’t convinced, after all, we’re the entertainment for tonight. The Old Bridge Inn which sits snug next to The Bunk House is a pub come restaurant for the local traffic, which includes hikers, holiday makers and locals. The gig is noisy and sweaty. A couple from Inverness are staying in their mobile home in the car park opposite and advise me that Aberdeen, our next stop, is not as wonderful and bright as I imagine.

Post show we wander up to the twenty four hour garage to buy snacks and I leave the others to their soup and rolls and retire to bed. From the corridor I can hear the three male hikers in the room next door snoring. I’d met them on the stairs when we had arrived earlier in the day. Thankfully, the noise doesn’t penetrate to my room just the muffled clacking and subdued chat of my band mates in the kitchen below.

Monday 19th May 2014

JP gets up early for meditation and a run. I linger in bed tired and disorientated. We bumble to the Active Cafe opposite the Inn and up the ridge. I settle for Summer Isle Salmon with scrambled eggs. We chat and laugh and eat Banana loaf. Who knows when next we’ll eat. Today is the last day of the tour, Aberdeen.

I have long waited to visit Aberdeen. There are numerous reasons why but it has long held my attention. I have recounted this wish to many a Scot on the tour and have been met with incredulous looks. The opinion in Scotland is that Aberdeen isn’t worth the travel. The Granite city, the oil city, even Jonathon Meades made a documentary on its architecture. How bad can it be?

As we close in on Aberdeen we hit a run of Whiskey distilleries – Dufftown, Aberlour, Knockando and GlenFiddich, there is one behind every mountain turn it seems. We enter Aberdeen to the strains of Fleetwood Mac, heading for a session with Bruce MacGregor at BBC Scotland. Bruce talks to us on a speaker from Inverness and we set up in the cafeteria while staff eat their lunch, eyeing us suspiciously. Will they be there when we play? Will someone ask them to refrain from making a noise with their crisp packets? It is a good session and Samantha battles courageously though the giggles in the first song.

I speak to a man outside the studio. He’s been painting the white lines in the car park and helps us out of the space while avoiding his new handiwork. He was having his lunch when we were setting up. He’s interested in what we do and I’m likewise impressed with the neatness of his paintwork. I have a trembling hand and all the edges of the walls in my kitchen at home are unpainted. We wander Union Street and grab some noodles, wander through an impressive HMV and get my first caffeine fix for the day.

The Lemon Tree is reminiscent of a working men’s club and has a good sound. We all feel a little jaded from travelling. The audience are very sweet and welcoming. I would like to return. It is only after the show that I learn we are driving back to London. We leave Aberdeen around 11.30pm and stop just outside Montrose for a MacDonald’s. JP and me had sworn we wouldn’t eat one this tour but a post midnight burger outside the drive through on the steel and plastic picnic chairs feels good. It’s breezy and cold and we don’t stay long.

Thick fog, a diversion on the way to Carlisle, we struggle on. We pass mountains, dark and ominous, like beasts sleeping in the night. The moon is a dirty dull yellow and hangs crescent shaped over them, casting a spooky light. I wonder if anyone is sleeping out there tonight. I think of H P Lovecraft and close the window. I try to stay awake for JP, who is driving, but I crash awkwardly on the front seat as we enter Lanarkshire. I wake as we pass the turning for Kendal. The mountains of the Lake District range into the distance in the dusky morning light. It’s beautiful. Heavy dawn rain near Liverpool, the traffic starts to get busy around 4.30am and we reroute through Stafford for Petrol.

There is heavy traffic through Finchley, Bounds Green and Green Lanes. We unload, I repack everything into my car and drive through the suburbs of Stoke Newington and Homerton. The pavements throng with Hassidic Jews and Caribbean women. I will sleep when I get home, I promise. It will feel good. I promise. Curve up onto the A13, through Barkingside, through Dagenham like a life returning on itself. Grays, Tilbury, Pitsea, the white Hollywood style Basildon sign, the Estuary, silvery water breaking on the beach. Home.