Tour Diary: Swindon to Stowmarket – April 2017

Prospect Hill, Swindon, a rabbit warren of barely passable lanes and one way systems. Parking spaces a premium in this town, especially now there is the newly built precinct nearby. The same restaurants you find all over the country greet us, the setting sun shining a rose gold pallor over the brown brickwork of Morrison’s. Young men with tattooed sleeves and loosened ties sit on the steps basking in the early spring rays, they look glad to just not be at work and able to enjoy the sun, it’s been absent for so long and today feels like the first light of spring. A teenage couple kiss at the top of the steps, enlarged mobile phones perilously close to falling out of the tight pockets of their jeans. Two suspect looking men in track suits are trying to get into Morrison’s but are being prevented by a cordon of staff, a squat store manager at the centre, arms crossed. The staff look uncomfortable and the two track suits play up to the theatre of it, mock falling on the floor and petitioning the guards for clemency. We eat in a suitably generic Italian restaurant and are soon back in the pub playing to a good crowd. Ags Connolly is the headline act tonight and his classic country song writing style distils my mind, ‘as long as there are bars like this, I think I will survive’.

Post show we follow our good friend Tim Manning out into the night and on towards the Severn Bridge. There is barely anyone on the road except for the lorries slowly making progress, the Peugeot is rattling to the boom of Nico’s ‘Desertshore’ played loud, the baroque pump organ lending a sinister air to the West Country night. Over the Severn Bridge and into Newport and bed. Paul gets the short straw and sleeps on the floor.

Next day, without rush we explore the centre of Newport. Across the bridge and into the underpass, quickly surveying the remnants of the castle and the famous angel that featured on the cover of a Stone Roses single. There are mud banks upon mud banks with a new build punching through in silver and grey. Through the underpass and up into a high street that teems with life but yet seems so empty. Empty shop windows, boarded pubs but yet behind the main street is a new shopping centre with the obligatory ‘Muffin Stop’ and ‘Tesco’. It seems strange that these shops don’t invest in the already existing properties. We visit Diverse Records and an indoor market where we buy books and CDs to keep us flush for months. A group of misanthropes taunt each other on the benches outside the shops, ‘keep you dog under control!’ one threatens the other.

Settled in the Tiny Rebel Brewery bar we sit watching the late afternoon workers break for the weekend. We say our goodbyes to Tim and head for Bristol, which is a metropolis by comparison. A wrong turn and traffic but at the Premier Inn Haymarket the receptionist politely tells us there will be security on the door tonight with it being a Friday. A party town then.

Our show at Folk House is a wonderful introduction to our touring partner and Nashville resident Sam Lewis. He has been in the country a few weeks and is suffering the mid-tour woes of a bad stomach and lack of sleep. It’s an enjoyable show and myself and Paul manage to find a pub open late enough to have a nightcap. We have to search for it first and we dash across large inner city roundabouts and escape busy student clubs where outside a man on a mobility scooter plays bongos for spare change, until we eventually find an average pub on the other side of the bus depot where vomit and empty beer cans litter the ground; the remnants of those leaving the city for the outliers. The lights are bright in our new abode and it looks bare. The last few stragglers of the night listen to a guy in the corner playing covers of Blink 182 or Wheatus. Paul and I retire to the hotel room and watch the Jonah Hex film before I fall off to sleep, the last sight I see is of John Malcovich firing a gun indiscriminately.

It’s a long drive out of Bristol to Bangor. Colwyn Bay is magnificent in the early afternoon sunshine and makes the crawl through the Cheshire hinterland worthwhile. Bangor does not disappoint either. We are staying in Llanllechid, a small village outside Bangor and the cottage sits on top of a hill side, black slate shards cover the top and Lizzy, who trained up from London, likens it to the jagged vistas of Mordor. The sun is out and it’s so hot it could be summer, I feel I am burning. The Blue Sky Café is a gloriously light and clean venue where the sweet potato soup renews us. It’s a quiet show but the audience are lovely and give us a good feeling. We head back to the cottage and drink lager and play board games. I sleep in the living room and am awoken by Lizzy around 5am who sneaks out to watch the sunrise on top of the slate plateau. I can barely lift my head.

A few days later and we are back in the clog of north London. I arrive early and sit in the World’s End near Camden Town tube station and people watch. I then move onto wandering the neighbourhood around Cecil Sharp House, the houses so large and quiet. Branches overhang white washed walls, the rustling of the leaves peaceful, novelistic almost. I feel a thousand miles away from the bustle of Parkway. Post show Paul drives us out of the city, away, away into the hinterland of Essex.

The next night and a local show and Peggy Sue’s Piano Bar on the London Road in Leigh on Sea. We barely have time for five or six songs but we play our best against the restraints of the sound system and have a good time. Friendly familiar faces everywhere.

My birthday sees us heading west to Glastonbury.  I have been gigging on my birthday for years and today I feel frustrated that I cannot spend the day enjoying some time at home. The Good Friday traffic is atrocious and sure enough the hours drift by going over the Dartford Crossing, M25 and then the A303 where Stonehenge, without exception, causes traffic congestion from all the rubber necking. It’s hard not to look at it. At last (and for the first time) we arrive in Glastonbury. The high street is dominated by crystal, shamanic healing and occult book shops. There’s a general decrepitude about the buildings, decay and smoke damage, dirt and grease. It may be my frame of mind. We dine at a fish and chip shop that proudly claims it was rated the twelfth best chip shop in the country by the Guardian. I wouldn’t disagree and sated we head back to the pub where I get talking to a group at the bar. One couple has a small dog, not a Chihuahua I am told but something similar. It’s a pup and regularly falls off the bar stool it has been placed on to scamper about looking for affection.

We play the show and a lock in ensues mainly in honour of my birthday. Two Welsh ladies from Merthyr Tydfil who talked throughout the whole set latch onto me for an hour or so and bend my ear on flower power and the Glastonbury Festivals of old.  Another lady offers me an escape route but only to find that she wants us to go up to the Glastonbury Tor right now, near to midnight, to feel the energy of the leyline that crosses Bristol and the pyramids of Egypt. I am scuppered on Calsberg Export and the local Butcher come soundman for the evening makes a comedic face behind her as she eloquently explains the mysteries of the Tor. I politely decline and make my excuses to join another conversation. When the promoter falls asleep in the chair we know it is time to retire.

A fitful sleep, three hours tops and I’m up again checking the car in the cold April morning for parking tickets. I wander the town, hollow and aimless. I eat eggs benedict in a Pink Floyd themed café dribbling absent mindedly on the table; I mooch the abbey gift shop. A medieval fair is being held and people wander the streets in period dress. I meander through a craft fair in the town hall being sucked into the sales patter of the craftsmen. I call Paul to get him up, pick up some fresh sausage rolls from the butcher Soundman and we’re off across country to Stowmarket.

It’s a pleasant drive past Stonehenge this time and into the green and yellow rape fields of Suffolk towards the John Peel Centre. Stowmarket high street is devoid of any joy and we sit in a Subway with a group of biker kids eating a turkey roll that constitutes our dinner. We play, we mingle and then we say our goodbyes to Sam and ease across town and onto the A12 towards home.

Tour Diary: Stockholm to Uppsala, Sweden – February 2018

2017 slipped into 2018 with little fanfare for me. January has been slow, the cold and darkness seemingly endless. A malaise of inactivity punctuated only by flu and a period of even more concentrated inactivity. I’ve written a couple of new songs, ‘Icy Paw’ and ‘Sleep’, both are subdued, both about the bleak bones of winter but yet the one destination I’ve been waiting for through all of this has been  a trip that will plunge me into even harsher cold, even greater hardships.

3.45am, 16th February. I’ve been unable to sleep – currently twenty one hours awake. I’m outside my home leaning on the front garden wall. A badger bundles down the street away from me, a couple of cats arch in surprise when they round 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 book (a Tudor whodunit), notebook, comb, toothbrush, passport. Will’s car comes down the road. He moves fast. I picture his car, barely fifteen minutes earlier, cutting through the suburbs of Westcliff to pick Dave up 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 subdued but excited for the journey ahead. We cut through Essex countryside to Stansted Airport.

Once in the air the sun is so bright above the clouds, like a summer’s day. Spring love fills me, the life above the clouds always sweet. Barely 90 minutes later we are flying low over white fields and pine trees, few houses dot the landscape. And then we land at Skåvsta Airport, Sweden and find coffee and muffins before the long journey by coach into Stockholm. The roads are quiet and straight, I try to sleep but can’t.

We enter Stockholm over a bridge, the city is composed of a series of islands bisected by frozen lakes or tributaries , no high rise, the air wide and inviting.  A collection of mustard yellow and peach walls backdrop Art Nouveau balconies. We are put down at Citytermalin and it’s a short walk to T-Centralin where we take the escalator down to a plush shopping mall style hall. 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. And 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 just 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 like a wide boulevard, cars swing past with their wipers on, people are going about their daily lives, it’s completely the same as home over a thousand miles away. I’m a time traveller. I get lost in the busy vignette. More coffee is followed by a quick scout down the street for guitar strings and on to the venue, PSB.

Stage time 10.15pm, about forty hours awake. My body feels wrecked, Paul with his crushed finger all bloody and pussed is screaming behind me every time he forgets and uses his mushed digit on the fret board. We are 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. Ann, a lady who heard us on an Uncut CD back in 2013, comes with her daughter and husband and we talk so deeply that my brain feels rejuvenated by the conversation. Amongst the pounding music of Oasis and Dave  ordering beer after shot after beer I remember the words my companion spoke – ‘Why? That is the question of the artist and you must keep asking as you get older, why? Why? 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’.

We have lost our Swedish friends and in our adventure home Paul writes swear words on the whited out screens of cars. Will trips over a pavement tries to recover but hits the deck. We shirk both off to a Swede called Yanka who is looking after them. 4am and we are still talking with Hawk and Sofia about social media, the show, the state of Swedish and British politics. My head is full of bad dreams and I wake before 9am on the parquet floor, my hip and ribs burn from the tiles. Coffee, coffee, coffee.

Saturday is the day we can explore and Ann and Hasse have offered to show us the town. 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. I tried to look it up but I find no trace. The coffee is good.

A quick walk back to Hawk’s flat and then tube and double decker train to Uppsala. Forty minutes through snowy hinterland and an interesting chat about Swedish word gender and we are in Uppsala. The cold feels bitter here and we leave the square brick train terminal up 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 up and opens up for us. Inside the bar is small, shop like, with a small counter serving bottled beers and an array of CDs in shelves. We are directed to an English Themed restaurant/pub called Sherlock’s. The pub dark with anaglyptic wallpaper is nestled amongst tower block after tower block of apartments. It reminds me of Clapton or another east London suburb where young professionals are massed and quartered. Fairy lights hang off most balconies, their twinkling on and off 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 post show that there is a Eurovision heat on and the Swedes take their Eurovision very seriously. People decry that the university culture does not mix well with the local population yet both could offer each other great things.

The show is good, a massive challenge physically, and 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.

The journey back along the canal, 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 perhaps. It’s a tiring journey back to Hawk’s place and another late night. We say goodbye to Anders one stop before ours and then Bengt at the exit to our station and finally Olov on the corner of Hawk’s block.  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. Another night on the parquet floor for me. An hour’s sleep at most before Dave’s alarm goes off. I feel neither alive or dead. The inbetween.

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. A deathly queue for the coaches back to Skåvsta and a long wait in the airport where Dave tries to set alight to my hair with a zippo and Paul and Will watch Italian football. An hour’s delay, a bus to the car and off into the Sunday night of Essex. When I return the chill in my bones hasn’t left me, the heating goes on – home.

Tour Diary: Scunthorpe to Naseby – Autumn 2017

A flicker of time, a flicker of images, all accreted into the memory bank to be lost, re-filed or loaned out for stories in later years. The Autumn Tour 2017, me (ready for long drives, nervous for new songs), Paul and Lizzy, reunited for a set of shows. We start high with Café INDIEpendent in Scunthorpe, always a beautiful show and always for good people. The next morning in a café we talk about life, aspiration, Dr Who with Steve and Pip (our hosts) and I struggle to understand the choice given to me of either pork or Lincolnshire sausage. I’m tired, my hearing is not what it used to be but the echo of ‘when in Rome…’ sticks me true. The image turns – a sunny motorway no traffic heading into Sheffield. Such a familiar city to me but a stranger now, like my younger self. A long stretch in the Greystones pub, eating and drinking, waiting, waiting. Neil McSweeney drops in to talk about his new rats and to join us on stage for a number. It’s a busy night the stage lights blinding my train of thought on stage. We survive.

Next a local show in Chelmsford, the Bassment. Hoxton bands with leather biker jackets and attitude. Corporate rock, early noughties rock. No-one listens, no-one notices our coming and going but we enjoy playing, sharing the stage with each other, me, Paul and Lizzy. Mary and Lizzy smuggle Frittata like snacks in and we feast. In the car park out back, in a queue for halloumi wraps I meet a girl from Columbia, she cannot fathom the elderly Spanish who retire to Bogota. The euro gets you far but the crime is insufferable. She has never lived in Bogota, she came from Madrid and lives in Chelmsford – she thinks it’s OK, kind of quiet. I say it’s a lovely city, I don’t know why, I’m not sure I even believe myself.

Fade to black. A new image returns, one of Stonehenge. Always constant it will outlast the cars and people that slow to look at it today. I point out the barrows that flank it further down the road, no-one bothers to slow for these except us. The Hawthorns Hotel, The Bishop of Bath and Wells, dreadlocks, the Bishop of Glastonbury, old bones. The audience drink heartily tonight and Paul nearly falls into the fireplace mounting the stage for the show. We share a bed in the room overlooking the street and we watch an interview with Henry Rollins on BBC News. Drunks philosophise in the street outside, “ I am not interested in anything Henry Rollins says” pipes up Paul “on account of him wearing black pants and screaming at people in 1984”. But we watch and we are moved by the eloquence and the honesty. I could cry with the profundity of a man that says his best friend is a road manager who he pays a salary to.

The image turns again. I am in the garden of Cecil Sharp House watching Jon Boden sing by a bonfire in a steel barrel, silhouettes creep up to the windows in the block of flats opposite and open the windows ever so slightly to let the beauty in. I am then in a car overshooting the turning for Gwhidhw in Cardiff. There is no Paul, he is unwell, unable to get out of his sick bed. An inordinate amount of time finding a safe car parking space – thieves operate in this area. Girls decorated and flaunting, transmitting an air of ignorance for the acts but balanced with the quiet appreciation of girl students studying classical singing and neuroscience. “We thought we would just try it out – it said folk night”. I think to my days of discovering music on a punt. Wondrous years.

A night drive to Newport, crumpets and coffee, Mojo and Sita desperate for cuddles and attention. Mojo’s dew claw scratches a scar down my hand. Another bright day follows, Tim nonchalantly takes us on a trip to Caerleon, seat of Roman frontier against the Sitares. Roman fort, hobnailed footprints of men long dead and a legionaries’ swimming pool. Roman amphitheatre! Rudimentary Roman walls and the Legionary museum and garden. A walk over the river Usk back into the green country. Harvest moon, harvest moon! So large a celestial body. Swindon’s Beehive again and a quiet appreciative crowd. Lizzy is taken with a trio who enter, dressed well with accompanying cat. She swears they are mischief makers.

And onwards, with ancient history in our minds to Chester. Up through Hereford, Ludlow, Oswestry. Chester such a sensation. A seventeenth century new town I joke. A mooch for food and books. Booksellers look on me like I was speaking voodoo when I try to find a particular title. Christmas is slowly creeping in through the gift aisle. Winter food in a cellar . Butternut squash salad with walnuts and dates. A show followed by drinking and another Roman amphitheatre. An addictive game that Carl introduces us to – ‘Shut the Box’- is played throughout the night in late night bars. An early start, three hours sleep, Lee creeping out of the house late for work. On the road again stopping at Keele services for coffee, fruit and sandwiches, hangover. Lizzy tries every remedy to sort her throat and head out. She discovers brandy is the best tonic.

Driving around the village of Naseby, the church being the pivot to our careening car. A quick trip to the Naseby battlefield monuments. A tractor turns the soil in the field before us, I try to imagine the smoke and musket balls but can’t. Finally there and a house concert in the rain, good community vibes and a dog called Charlie. My eyes are blurry as I try to navigate the lanes through Northampton, I am confused and wanting to speed. In Epping it is kicking out time as the drunks sprawl on pavements and Lizzy darts out and onto the central line for home. The image falters and snaps back into Camden Town. Paul is back, feeling better, the Spread Eagle on Parkway smells of drains, Suggs is there making his way to the loo, we make eye contact, ‘don’t talk to me’ his say. A lovely show, Rory is always such a good promoter and human being. Traffic in London is unbearable, Paul plays Husker Du quietly in the car on account that his speakers are broken.

Final scene. Too many bicycles, too many cars. Stony faces of learning protrude from sandstone institute doorways. Cambridge. Unseasonably warm on Norfolk Street – so dead, so empty as if everyone is having a good time somewhere else. In the basement of CB2 we play to a select few. The waiters bang the doors close by. Lizzy plays quiet and then we leave, some for trains others in cars. I take a wrong turning on the way home, through Little Waltham and past country pubs back onto Essex Regiment Way and the vast new development of Beaulieu on the outskirts of Chelmsford. These used to be green fields.

A flicker of time, a flicker of images, all accreted into the memory bank to be lost, re-filed or loaned out for stories in later years.