Tuesday 19th November 2013 I’ve moved into a new house and my favourite place I’ve found is sitting in the bay window with my guitar, writing and looking out on my immediate scene. My place overlooks a park and I watch the kids smoking on the bench when school turns out. I see women walking dogs on autumnal mid-mornings. I’m beginning to understand the rhythm of the place and its people. Old sights are merging with new ones. This morning I saw an old sight in my new setting as the battered white van pulled up just opposite the black railings of the park to take me on a short run of shows with my band The Lucky Strikes.
The first gig is a new venue for us – The Cookie, in Leicester. I have always played on the outskirts of Leicester, the old haunts stuck on industrial estates or at the back of multi storey car parks. It’s a first to be in the town centre but it is cold, cold, bitter bone cold and I forgot to bring my coat. We load into the room downstairs and meet Matt the sound man. He has the height of Dave, the haircut and glasses of Will and a thick set beard...if the band had a child it would be him. The music is loud and I feel nauseous as the bass rumbles my stomach but all is good and we settle into a post-soundcheck meal at a pub called The Globe. The food is homely and warm and we are reluctant to venture back out. Could we not forgo the gig and stay here? Springsteen plays on the radio as we eat, the dark wood of the room becoming increasingly darker as the gas lights take over from the natural daylight, which has been decaying fast these last few weeks. Someone informs me later that it is the only gas lit pub in the entire country.
The gig goes well and we meet some of the lovely musicians who supported us. Nile MacGregor and Weiki are both insightful and soulful solo artists who take us to a late night bar, the Firebug, after the venue has turned its lights off and the audience have gone home to the warmth of their beds. It’s 1am and the place is buzzing with a happy sort of life, not the dull dim light where drunks go to drown their sorrows. We talk about the local Leicester music scene and the use of these hi-tech glasses that can tell a computer where the person is looking. We leave them both in their discussions, happy to have shared some of their time.
We repair to the hotel. Me and Dave share a room and talk until the wee wee hours, drinking can after can of Fosters. My voice is on a collision course.
Wednesday 20th November 2013
Most of the morning and early afternoon is spent in the hotel lobby in Leicester. Paul always brings a crossword book with him on tour so we all spend a lot of time thinking up the answers to 5 down and 24 across. I watch the ebb and flow of the room with its strange mixture of clients. There are clusters of business people having meetings and working on their laptops. They meet up on one table occasionally to discuss things. They’re not with the hotel and I wonder whether they are travelling salespeople or whether they just use the lobby as an office because they work from home. Elderly couples sit and talk and a man enters with a book and a coffee. It’s a great place to be, a hotel lobby, you can see new people every day; exotic travellers, strangers and the same lady behind the bar to make your tea.
A business conference is taking place in one of the function rooms and there are a lot of people with name tags milling about. Dave and me nearly walk in on a powerpoint presentation. We’re tired.
The run to Sheffield is easy and we make it in good time. The weather is even worse, cold sharp rain lashes down and our plan to go hat and tattoo shopping is quickly jettisoned for a quiet pint in our next venue, Shakespeare’s. The alcoholic content of the beer is astronomical in places, 8.1% for one which sports a badger swinging from a rope, cutlass in hand and bandanna on the head. I settle for a milder 5.5% ale called Crazy Horse. It tastes of compost.
We dine at a pub just off West Street called the Three Tuns. It’s unique feature being that it is set on a steep hill and the pub narrows as it progressively sticks out from the incline. I must have driven past this pub hundreds of times when I lived in Sheffield but yet I never registered it or thought it a place to visit. Was it Rousseau that said you should explore your home before venturing abroad? There are so many things to see that are right under your nose. You could fill your world with experiences without leaving your home town.
It begins to snow and the backstage room is so cold. None of us can keep warm but it is made better by seeing Simon, our fiddle player, who has made it from Sowerby Bridge. He teaches me and Will how to northern soul dance. My back is fused from the cold and I’m slightly delirious from it but we give it our best.
The gig is good and we meet a lady who had seen us play at the end of Southend Pier. She says she is in one of the photos, second row. It is things like that which make this worthwhile, another is sharing the stage and bus with your friends. Simon walks about the pub with the badger beer urging people to try it, his brewer’s eye agog at it...it’s full bodied.
Thursday 21st November 2013
We are kindly put up by Craig, the man behind WagonWheel Media- the Americana promoter in Sheffield. We stay up late again and wake to a cold morning. We head for breakfast at the cafe we always eat at when in Hillsborough. I could stay there all day watching the football sailing over the school wall into the road, time and time again, the little children shouting at passersby to lob it back over into their field of play...but we must be pressing on. We must leave behind friends and move on to the next.
Leeds is sprawling and new age compared to Sheffield’s small village feel. Again the cold puts us off and we are tired so we plum to sit in The Duck and Drake with steins of tea to keep warm. Dave goes up to the room we have to sleep. The pub is large and ancient and sits below a train bridge where freighters and commuting trains rumble through at all hours.
We set up the PA as there is no soundman for this gig. We live by whits alone. Leeds crowds are always so engaging and forthright. It’s lovely to play for the audience and see old friends and new fans alike. We play two sets and fill them with everything we have. We leave the stage buzzing and promptly stay up until 4am drinking different ales at the bar with the great bar staff- supportive and lovely to the last.
Friday 22nd November 2013
Morning sunlight stabs through the curtain. Leeds city centre is alive and awake for its Friday morning. We lurk about the room stunned and groaning. Last day of the tour and we have churned ourselves over too many times. The cleaning ladies downstairs jokingly berate Dave for leaving his beer cans on the table. They are kind and interested in what we play. We cut from Leeds quick as if by leaving we will somehow leave the cold behind. We don’t, we drive further into it.
Hebden Bridge is a picturesque town nestled on the river Calder. After a pub meal, desperately trying to generate some body heat and a swift visit to the sweet shop to get some sugar in the system we wander over the bridges, reading the quotes from Ted Hughes engraved on the walls. We are supporting Nine Below Zero, featuring Mark Feltham and Brendan O’Neill who both played with Rory Gallagher on his last album or so. They are phenomenal players and we eat Tibetan stew from The Trades Club as they soundcheck.
We play a lively and fervent opening set. We are giving one hundred percent and I turn to Paul at one point, his face beaming from ear to ear. We’re going home tomorrow and it gets everyone excited, makes everyone play the best they can because who knows when we’ll be out again. The crowd are great but it ends too soon.
I meet a man called Southend Bill. He was from Southend, Snakes Lane, he says. His life is interesting and he tells me how he went AWOL from the navy on account of his beliefs and was detained in Southend by the military police. He then read about a hippy commune in the Colne Valley. Wrongly suspecting this was up in Yorkshire he had made his way up the spine of the country and ended up in Hebden Bridge. He laughed as he told me he soon found that the Colne was back down in Essex, near Colchester.
The evening is for celebration and we toast the tour as Nine Below play their set. The gig finishes and the venue turns into a night club and before our eyes we are surrounded by curving dancing forms. Dave and I head off into the night in search of food but the steer two ladies give us to a pizza shop disappears as we close in on its dark and shuttered shop front. We return to the club to find Will dancing his soul out with Liz the venue booker and the clientele.
I get introduced to a gentleman who takes me into his confidence about the show. He was a singer for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and he talks passionately about how his father had shared a pram with Ted Hughes and how Ted had been a deeply misunderstood man and how Sylvia Plath had felt imprisoned within the tall valley walls of Calderdale when she arrived here with him. He holds my shoulder and effuses.
It’s too late but we drive back to our hotel in Todmorden (‘Murder Death Town’ one local reliably informs me) but it’s sweet and cozy. The George Inn is still open so we head inside for a night cap. The place is rough looking and festooned about the rooms are women dressed in basques and looking like zombies. As Will dances about the pool table playing the best of three with a middle aged man called Graham (who had suffered a heart attack not long ago) we discover the gruesome costumes are because the Rocky Horror Picture Show had been in town. We retire again in the wee hours sleep coming fast.
Sunday 24th November 2013
And so we return home. I spend my Saturday evening catching up with home things and making sure the Strikes Christmas album is underway. I look after the dog who seems to have missed me, constantly nuzzling me for attention. The cold has followed me home but at least I have fresh and warmer clothes to hand. I get a call from my agent; there’s a spot for an acoustic act tomorrow at an upmarket Christmas fair in Tobacco Docks, at the heart of the Docklands in London.
The fair is housed in the tobacco storage itself, hundreds of years old with original roof beams, so one of the caterers tells me. The air is bitter and I can’t feel my hands. I meet up with my contact there and he and the soundman, Gareth, help to set me up before shoving thirty pounds of food vouchers into my hand. I wander the halls and stands of the fair – hot mulled cider from Kent, boutique cheese and exclusive champagne. My vouchers are unable to purchase anything but coffees and overpriced pork bites from a Jamie Oliver stand.
I have two sets which I play ok, my voice still struggling from the tour. It’s cold on the bandstand and I can barely feel my fingers. I play the late set time and a group of city folk are reeling drunk in front of me, downing frappacino cocktails and wearing jaggermeister bobble hats. I finish and give some quieter ladies my left over vouchers, heading to the train station and home for the rest I have been thinking about since a Leicester hotel room.