Tour Diary: Suffolk, Norfolk, Toulouse, Rudolstadt – Summer 2016

It was almost a leisurely drive past the flint churches and gable green hinterland of Suffolk, once we had left the grey cracked surface of the A12 that is. The Red Rooster Festival was set in the grounds of a stately manor in Euston, a small village not far from Thetford. I half expected to see the cast from Dad’s Army stuck in a comic scenario between the trees, ghosts of the seventies when this landscape was used as a set for the make believe Walmington-on-Sea. Me and Paul, erstwhile bass player, surveyed the park as we bumped and jostled across the field towards the parking area. We had heard the house and land (and the temporal title that went with it all) were held by a man in his late thirties- imagine having this we thought. What would you do with it? Go walking in peaceful contemplation we eventually surmised…or put on a festival.

The weather was bitter, not winter bitter, but cold enough for two British men on 3rd June. Our stage was called the Little Rooster Stage and was a small barn like structure (like a prop from a Sesame Street farmyard scene). Details backstage were sketchy so we dumped the kit and ambled across the long grass to meet Lizzy, taking in the western shirt stalls and picking up a carton cup coffee. The festival had yet to wake up or get going and it felt almost like a secret sect camping out in the woods. We sat and watched time pass. Throughout the gig I could barely feel my hands as arctic gusts blew in off the boating lake. I wax lyrical.

In the evening we drove north, into Norfolk, to Latcham and a small cottage where we drank and ate and wondered at the bric a brac of its previous owners; disused pump organs and dry old paperbacks grainy when touched. Me and Paul are consigned to a plush room in the garden annex where spiders have created a kingdom for themselves untouched and unmolested. We disturb the big ones and the small run to crevices and hide, the remnants of their fly victims hanging in the dust motes like a insectoid version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the drawers we find abandoned photos of twenty somethings on a boat from the early nineties or maybe eighties. They look happy but not relaxed enough to jape around in front of the camera too much. Maybe they needed to ease into the holiday. Older photos of children with post war hair partings and suited for school. More photos of lovers sharing birthdays, holidays and family gatherings. We wonder why anyone would abandon such memories for us, strangers, to see. We shut the cupboard door, it feels fair game for us – it’s unfathomable how it is fair game for them too.

We return to the festival the next day and play – it is warmer. Myself and Paul say our goodbyes to Lizzy and we’re done and are soon out of Suffolk and heading towards the Dartford Crossing for our next show in Eccles, Kent. It is my first house concert and feels like a community. We break half way through for jacket potatoes and a chat – it doesn’t feel odd at all and beats a soulless green room any day.

I drop Paul home near to 11pm, it’s warmer on the coast. The tide is out and I can see the lights of Sheerness on the other side of the Thames. There’s peace in night time suburbia. But the rustle of trees in the breeze is not the focus tonight, instead it is the fight going on at the top of the road. I skirt the fray as it rolls into the street before me and head for home on the other side of the train tracks.

19th June 2016

I’m out for the count, I’ve taken in so much alcohol and rich food this last week here in Toulouse that come show time I feel exhausted by the fats and sugar making their way through my slovenly body. Rio Loco Festival is nestled on the banks of the Canal du Midi that runs through the city and is a peaceful oasis compared to the week of Euro 2016 supporters merging onto the streets, the intellectual looking and older demographic of the Swedes, the young fun loving Spanish and the slightly more aggressive bent of the Welsh and Irish supporters.

The train journey here with two thirds of the Coracle Band was reminiscent I thought of the train journey Jonathon Harker takes at the beginning of Dracula, arduous and extreme. The Parisian underground as busy as London, the train from Paris to Toulouse covering hundreds of miles in just under six hours, endless flat arable scenery devoid of any human activity it seems until we reach Bordeaux and then the smaller stops of the Aquitaine region. I think of Eleanor of Aquitaine and wonder whether she missed her home when she married into the itinerant lifestyle of medieval monarchy. We pass Angouleme former home of Isobel of Angouleme, King John’s twelve year old bride and no doubt Eleanor, John’s mother, had a major part to play in the betrothal. I try to picture them in the field grass or perhaps on that hill church on the horizon but I falter- I can’t feel them today. The landscape rolls off into unknown and unchartered French territory I will never see. I think of John in Worcester Cathedral entombed in Limestone and surrounded by the deep chestnut hue of the rood screen.

All memory now as we lurch from sound check to gig. The sun peaks out through the heavy rain clouds as we play, Emily Portman singing her wonderful dark fairy tales as the cameramen slide with velvet moves to capture our set for television. It feels alien to play instruments that are not your own but the audience are warm and inviting. We eat well afterwards and twice I have to confirm to officials when making arrangements that I am not with The Super Furry Animals who are playing later in the day. I have the shaggy Welsh look I suppose. We wander about the site before heading back to the hotel. The English themed pub below the hotel, The Melting Pot, lives up to its name and a group of Irish and Welsh supporters sprawl across the pavement drinking, breaking glass and fighting. We enter the hotel via a side entrance, heads down, not making eye contact. Rachel asks whether she can leave her harp in the reception area but we quickly change our minds when the receptionist opens the sliding doors to warn off brawlers from the hotel frontage. It is like a zombie movie where the zombies are violent football hooligans – we’re exposed and there’s nothing between us and the football horde except a polite Frenchman. Me and Ali Roberts shout for Rachel to grab her harp and get in the lift. The doors close and we are safe into the bowels of the hotel. Sleep comes easy and the hubbub of fighting and drunk football fans act only as a lullaby to take me into sleep, like the drone of traffic on a busy Brocco Bank in Sheffield in 2003 I feel the city is alive outside my window and taking care of life while I retire to the womb of bed and soon sleep.

The next morning we are all bleary eyed and I eat my croissant in the hotel breakfast room as the French TV talks of Brexit and the death of MP Jo Cox. I feel disconnected from my own country, far away from it all. I look at the hotel staff for reaction and they are indifferent or objective. It is not their world but that of some place over the Channel . I appreciate the perspective this morning. The driver arrives to take us to the station, she is heavily pregnant and struggles to work the boot. And the trip unwinds the way it came, Toulouse to Paris Montparnasse to Gare Du Nord where me and Rachel have to dash to catch the train after a nightmarish episode booking the harp onto the train. I experience the infamous Parisian shrug from a freight porter. St. Pancras the old familiar and a cab through the north via Old Street down into Liverpool Street and the cosy commuter familiarity of the branch line out to the Essex coast.

9th – 11th July 2016

Another trip to the continent with Emily Portman and the Coracle Band. This is the one hundred metre sprint. 3.50am wakeup call and the bleary eyed drive to Stansted airport with Lucy Farrell in tow. We’re getting each other through this trauma, the airport is heaving already by 5.30am. We sip coffees at ‘Joe and Juice’ in a misguided attempt to wake ourselves up. The coffee sits heavy on my stomach and the young boys with their Top Gun toting blonde highlight comb backs shake their juice and whip the coffee cream as if it’s a Friday night out with the cast of Happy Days. They’re just Essex boys culled from the quiet and polite environs of Great Dunmow and Braintree, this is not international, this is interEssex.

Flight and touchdown at Frankfurt Hahn where Otto, a German of some six foot five plus meets us and drives the five hours to the centre of Germany it seems. Rudolstadt. Homes of cliff top mansions, piney escarpments and articulate older people apologising they cannot speak English like impeccable grammarians. I never learnt German at school and I am the poorer for it. We arrive at the hotel, which sits on the side of the valley looking down into the town of Rudolstadt. Exhausted, nauseous and elated to see friends we order large beers from a nearby town and drink deep.

The hotel becomes our base except for a sojourn in to the busy market square where the festival is in full swing. Restaurants are packed and we settle for an Italian just to keep out of the heat that beats onto the cobblestones. The gig on the Sunday afternoon is in the courtyard of the castle. We arrive just in time from sound check having braved an audience in a hot auditorium to play a few songs and to watch Emily answer questions from Folker magazine and the audience. It’s heartening to hear the audience ask questions about Emily’s ability to sing, write and tour while having a family. Emily deals deftly with questions about Brexit too. The Germans seems puzzled more than anything else as to why the vote went the way it did.

Gig done I replace the fluid I sweated out with lager and am soon swooning back at the hotel over more beer and ice cream to die for. I share a room with Andy the soundman and we stay up watching terrible pop acts lip synch to Euro pop in a town square to largely middle aged audience. DJ Otzi gyrating like a dad at a disco- this is where he went to.

Another morning to kill before a return trip to Frankfurt. Jens ripping up the autobahn as he texts his girlfriend. I note there are so few lorries on the road. Where’s the freight? Where are the traffic jams? We stop to mount a viewing platform to see the sky line of Frankfurt. Pictures taken and an officious lady from Ryanair quibbling over my guitar. More horrible coffee to hurt the stomach. The plane is off and I have three seats to myself. I watch the German landscape twist and turn beneath the port window – discounted perfume and four for five deals on lotto tickets. I don’t know what any of this means, the lives and lights of a nation at night disappear beneath milk white cloud and the eternal darkness of space.

On the corner of my road, under the creaking branches of the trees at the edge of the park I wave to Lucy as she heads for home, another fifty minutes for her to stay awake, read road signs and get home to hers. For me it’s bed so easy. The sprint is over. I survived.

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