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.

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.

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.

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