Absolutely everything can be observed, interpreted and written about from an endless number of angles. When it comes to touring, in many ways every single night is different from the last, and yet there is also a brain numbing repetitiveness to it all.
On the whole, the differences that do occur from one night to the next are to do with things like: what the parking is like behind the venue; the number, and the size of dressing rooms, and who gets which one; the shape and size of the stage; whether the show starts at 7:30 or 8pm; if you performed well or not; what the sandwiches backstage were like; who changed their strings that day . . . and so on, and so on. Now I’m sure that already I’ve named a few topics that might be of interest to some, and I’d have to say that to an extent I am also interested in some of the above - that is, for a very limited amount of time.
Some changes come with consistency and regularity; they can be expected. I am aware of course, that the familiarity that causes contempt in my world is not the familiarity of another’s. So when offering anything in way of one’s music or words to others, it has to be a considered process; by that I mean it is considered in view of how much of the writer’s own world might be of any relevance to the listener or reader. Of course, if you are trying to please everyone, then there’s the danger of not expressing who you are.
There are those who are completely individual and self-focused in what they do; some of them are seen as complete and utter heroes, heralded for their disregard of what anyone else might think; others are ignored, or are written off for being self-indulgent.
This has always been an issue for me with music, and it leads me to the loaded question of - on what basis an artist goes about their work, and why.
I would stay with this subject if I wasn’t typing this in my dressing gown, and I didn’t need to take a shower.
Later, and cleaner:
I am aware that there are those who would like to know more about the day-to-day events that take place behind the scenes; the musicians curious as to the kind of amplifier, mandolin, effects pedals that such-and-such-a-body uses; curious of who said what to who, and when; whether everyone ‘gets on’ or not.
And ‘friction’, yes, in particular this is what grabs the attention of a great many out there; it’s remarkable to me just how drawn we can be to watching conflict - in any shape or form. I’ll stay with this point for a moment longer because to me it’s so striking (and so disturbing) a part of the human condition. I can speculate as to what it is exactly that slows us down as we pass a motorway crash, or that makes the conflict of the Big Brother household such compulsive viewing for many; in fact I will speculate.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is exactly how it is, but I’d have to start from the premise that we are, on-the-whole, somewhat fearful creatures; we carry fear with us - as probably all living things do in their own way. The truth is, of course, that it helps keep us alive, or it certainly has done so far. We quite naturally want to be safe, and being such a creative species we’ve developed so many ways of removing ourselves from real life; so consequently we become removed, bored, depressed, etc.
These are unique symptoms of, what we call - modern life.
Being bored and depressed might be extremely boring and depressing, but there are perks; along with it comes a sense of safety, albeit not necessarily a conscious one. What, in this context, I’d have to ask, could be more self serving then than having ones position of safety enhanced by the observation of disaster?
Something else I’d have to ask also is, how many individuals who are damming of those who slow down at a crash scene, if they put their hands on their hearts, would not have to admit that in truth they too are just as interested as anyone else?
If we do have anything to be critical of, or indeed self-critical about, then surely it’s not our innate humanness that’s the problem, it’s more the unwillingness to becomes conscious of what we do.
It’s a bit unfair, I know, lumping those who want to know what strings you put on your guitar with drivers who slow down at crash scenes, in fact right now I can’t see any connection at all - I will work on it though.
Monday 2nd March. Day off.
Just hung around Dumfries. Other than a visit to a Costa coffee house and a walk round a very chilly Scottish town centre, I’d describe this a stunningly uneventful, yet welcomely restful day.
Tuesday 3rd March. Theatre Royale, Dumfries.
Some of these Scottish theatres most certainly have a bit of character to them, this one is most probably the smallest on the tour, with a capacity of just a 200. It was full, and the audience was fantastic and vocal.
As well as CDs, we’ve been selling memory sticks; 1GB USB drives that hold good quality MP3s of both the N&C album, and also my Initial Variations album. Apart from it giving me something to talk about on stage, they carry a few extra bits and pieces; bonus tracks from other albums, info, pictures, etc. These are selling more than the CDs.
On Sunday I was given the cash from the Nicol and Cool merchandise sales thus far; I won’t disclose exactly how much the figure was, but I can assure you that I will not be retiring in the foreseeable future. Still, it was enough to feel nervous about having it sitting in my pocket and not in the bank, so I found the only Post Office in Dumfries, and handed the cash over to the teller with the usual imagined scenario of ‘this money will vanish without trace into the ether’ going through my mind. I’m always so surprised when I check my online balance to see the money sitting there.
I’m forever undecided after a ‘rest day’ as to whether or not they are a help or a hindrance. I recall that old and very politically incorrect gag, the one that goes: why don’t they allow Irish workers to have tea breaks? Because it take too long to re-train them. Certainly a non-PC joke from the dark and distant past, I know. But sometimes after a day off that’s just how I feel - as though I need to learn everything over again. In similar vein, Phil made a comment today about reaching the point where we were feeling blasé about being on-stage. I knew exactly what he meant; this is nothing to do with ‘not caring’, contrary to how it might sound, it is more to do with the idea of the stage, and being on it, becoming so familiar that the division between that and any other place you might be, becomes virtually non-existent.
After the show, instead of heading for the usual Travelodge, we headed home, well, ‘my’ home. The journey was, in one respect, straightforward - almost all M6; the weather though was horrendous. Still, we made it back in around two and a half hours. Phil slept in the spare room.
A Sensational early morning sky in Peel, Isle of Man.
Wednesday 4th March. Centenary Centre, Peel, Isle of Man.
I knew this was going to be tight; the ferry left Heysham exactly on time at 14:15 arriving in Douglas at 17:30. Peel is on the opposite side of the island (the west side) from Douglas, and although the width of the island is only 12 miles, by the time we were off the ferry and had negotiated our way to the venue there was about half an hour to set up equipment and sound-check before the ‘official’ door opening. The show was one of just three on the entire tour due to start at 8 pm, all the rest having a 7:30 start, but as this time approached, all kinds of technical issues with the PA were holding everything up. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the audience, many of who were lined up outside the building for a good forty five minutes to an hour on a far from warm evening. Some, I later heard, had not surprisingly got so fed up with waiting in the cold that they asked for their money back.
There’s always a point in a situation like this when you just say, ‘OK, lets busk it’, and you get on with the show despite all the known or potential hitches; more often than not though things do take care of themselves.
Chris the promoter had arranged for everyone to eat at friend Nicola’s house just around the corner from the gig; he’d made a Thai curry with fresh scallops. The band members went and ate while Phil and I stayed at the hall; we had a show to do. When we eventually did get a chance to check the food out for ourselves, the wait was truly worthwhile, the scallops were sensational; and having our part of the show behind us meant we could just sit back, relax and enjoy .
Thursday 5th March. The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal.
Here in what’s called The Malt Room at the Brewery Arts Centre the dynamics were quite different to all but one of the other shows on the tour. The other show I’m talking about is The Phoenix at Exeter; at both these venues there was no seating for the audience. It’s quite notable the difference it makes to the entire feel of an evening. I know it was a problem for some people tonight; you see, much of the Fairport audience are now of an age where sitting is by far the preferred position from which to observe pretty much anything, well, at least for any length of time, that’s for sure. A few did leave, but not that many - they’re also a hardy bunch.
Coincidence of the year was walking straight into Ray and Joyce, my previously mentioned friends from Newcastle-on-Tyne, as they were leaving the very café that Phil and I were about to enter. They had, en route for Manchester just decided on a whim to have a brief visit to Kendal. They had no idea I was performing there. They re-entered the café with us and we sat, chatted and ate on what they recommended to us.
Phil’s daughter came to the show, and later took Phil back home. For me, also, it was a welcome case of sleeping in my own bed again, this time not just for the one night, but on a somewhat more continuing basis; there’ll be no more Travelodges for a while.
Friday 6th March. The Arts Centre, Southport.
A local gig, near enough even for my Mum to attend. Exactly where the lines falls between a local gig, and one that’s not local, is something I’m unclear about. 20 miles? 30 miles, perhaps? More to the point is the fact that there only appears to be two categories; the first one describing a venue falling within this unascertained distance of up to, lets say for now 25 miles; the second category is literally ‘any’ distance beyond that. It could be that it’s just one of those things in life that has been given a broader category, being designated as inexact subject matter. This is fine as long as one doesn’t have an overriding need to put everything into some kind of imaginary box that says everything that needs to be said about what’s in it - that’s what we do though isn’t it?
My first thought would be to create zones, with zone ‘A’ being a gig played in your own house, and zone ‘B’ in your own town. We’d have to get the Musicians Union to rule on the rest.
One thing’s for sure though, Southport wouldn’t have seemed all that local to me once upon a time; a lot of it is, of course, about the distances you’re used to travelling. There was a time when most of what I did was in Zone ‘B’, that’s going back some time now, but it wasn’t so easy back then getting people to book me in other towns. I was dead big in Preston though, could work all the time there. I was one of those, somewhat valued, but not really respected all that much people that fall into the category of - ‘local artist’.
It’s a strange and weird paradox you know; you can be liked very much as this ‘local artist’ but it doesn’t equate to the kind of respect given to someone who is not quite so easily available.
This reminds me of an event some ten years ago, could be a bit less, no, come to think of it, it was more than ten; well, this event, a fund raiser, was organised by a committee of people who had the intention of giving Preston an Arts Centre. The town (now officially a city) has never had the kind of arts centre found in many other towns and cities around the country; a place where different areas of the arts are combined, but not necessarily in the traditional manner of that which is found, lets say, in local museums and art galleries. I should add that in Preston we have the Harris museum which also incorporates an art gallery and library, and is, in my view, superb.
But if it’s theatre or music you’re after it’s either the Guildhall, which is a fairly major venue, or it’s all the way to the other end of the spectrum - the pub scene.
There are two problems here; the Guildhall is run more and more on a purely commercial basis which, of course, means that many of the less populist and fringe areas of the theatre are excluded. The other problem is in the pub scene, here music has been so accessible and available for so long that a great many of the public have come to regard it as little more than something you have on in the background. It’s a culture where many of those in it happily spend 10, 15, 20 pounds on a round of drinks, but don’t like the idea of paying money directly to a musician.
The ‘arts centre’ as I see it is a place that falls between the two, maybe closer to the theatre end than the pub end, but a meeting place for those actually interested in listening, tasting, and having their thoughts provoked. It’s also a venture that has to be, as most if not all arts centres are, heavily subsidised.
Now when it comes to organising a fund raising event like this, one would imagine that both the organisers and those in attendance would demonstrate the appropriate level of respect for all those giving up their Saturday night (yes, I remember it was a Saturday) to perform there. There were singers, comedians, actors and musicians, some better than others, but nevertheless they gave a part of themselves to this cause.
I sat there for almost the entire evening awaiting my cue to perform, and as I sat there I witnessed both the audience’s intoxication level, and consequently their noise level increase, as one artist after the next took to the stage only to be drowned out by the rabble.
‘What was I going to do?’ I asked myself. It was obvious that nothing was going to suddenly change for my spot; but I knew I couldn’t do it - if I wasn’t going to be listened to I’d just be unable to continue; and I was already angry.
Over the years, and with the nature of the work I’d had to do, I’d become somewhat accustomed to having at least a proportion of my audience(s) talking through my performance(s), but little by little I’d grown increasingly resolute toward the idea that there was something just plain dysfunctional and disrespectful about this.
I wouldn’t want to imply for one moment that the disrespect is just on the part of the audience; an artist or musician who puts him or herself in that position, and I should add - is unhappy about being in that position, is essentially the other part, and willing part of a jigsaw puzzle of disrespect and denigration.
So there I was, waiting. Now I was up, it was my turn, in fact the next ‘turn’ was me. As the din continued I took a number of very slow deep breaths as I carefully placed each of my guitars onto the small makeshift stage. Once I had everything into position, I looked over towards the MC, and nodded; a signal that I was as ready as I’ll ever be.
‘Now ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together, and welcome to the stage . . .’ went the introduction. The crowd was silent. ‘Hmmm, I wonder how long this will last?’ I thought to myself.
I launched energetically into the first number, and as sure as eggs is eggs, as the song developed so did the crowd noise. When it was finished I had to have a serious word with them.
It was a long time ago, and the memory is a bit foggy but I do remember appealing to them quite earnestly to demonstrate a little more respect towards the performers.
All had become quiet once again, for a while at least, and then alas, the pattern of events started to repeat itself.
I could feel my set list becoming shorter by the minute, and the third number was to be my last.
My party piece back then was an arrangement of ‘Last of the Great Whales’, a song with a powerful message, and a guitar part swathed in a particularly big reverb effect that would make the guitar sound just massive. Into the song I went, and once again, what began as whisperings, this time developed really quite seamlessly into much more, so seamlessly in fact that maybe they figured with it being such a gradual and incremental increase in volume that I might not notice.
Two and a half verses in, and I’d had enough; I hit the guitar hard over the sound hole with my hand clenched, with enough force so as not to not damage the guitar, but with just enough force to create a catastrophic and Armageddon-like effect, it literally sounded as though the PA had exploded. Now they were bloody quiet. I told them to ‘shut the fuck up’, and I walked off.
I should make it clear that this is not a tale of bravado or anything like that, it is more an account of a position I felt brave enough to take after a great deal of doubt and soul searching.
I’m glad to say that these days it’s a problem I don’t run into very much if at all.
Tonight at the Arts Centre, Southport had a certain feel to it; a winding down; one gig to go, a good to see my friends, feel.
Saturday 7th March. The Town Hall, Birmingham.
Four thousand, three hundred and twenty eight miles later, and the last show of the tour. A striking venue in what can be described as Fairport’s stomping ground. To the eye the building is incredible; it’s hard to miss; however, if you’re negotiating the one way system it’s then hard to find.
But find it we did at the end of a leisurely drive down from Lancashire.
Everyone had a good final evening I think. There’s always a tinge of sadness; an air of sentimentality to a last evening. And the gathering at the evening’s end; it’s difficult to say goodbye, not just from an emotional angle, but it’s the logistics also; there are so many people to say it to.
I felt glad though that the tour had come to a close; I was tired. It’s back to life on civvy street now, with all of the mental adjustments that go with it for the next couple of weeks, or even longer; yes, it really does take a while to remember who you were before everything was reduced to a process of only having to concern yourself with putting on a bit of a show at the end of the day.
I have just about enough time to collect my thoughts, to get my laundry done, then it’ll be back on the road with Steeleye Span.