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.

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