Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Camel's Back In Warwick

Sunday 20th December. Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick University.
Accommodation: The Ramada Hotel, Coventry.
Apart from the obvious ones, there are a number of requisites to being creative in music - requisites that largely - through emotional discomfort - are designed, perfectly, to counteract any pleasure that might be derived from the creative process itself.
One of these requisites is to feel that the profound quality of what you do is largely ignored by the rest of the world; this is also very closely related to the requisite which asks that you feel completely misunderstood and underestimated by critics and reviewers.

There is an important distinction here when examining these conditions. It’s important we note that - just because you feel ignored by the rest of the world, that this doesn’t mean that you’re not.

No, you mustn’t look at this in an ‘ironic’ or ‘romantically paradoxical’ way, thus creating a euphoric sense of what might be called reverse reassurance. Indeed, it’s far more than just a remote possibility that you have it exactly right.

The next important point is - when it just might come to pass that those out there in the ‘listening community’ are in actual fact recognising your existence, maybe even favourably, it is crucial you continue to feel ignored.

It was back in the year 2000; my fourth year in the Albion Band; a special ‘live’ Mike Harding Radio 2 ‘In Concert’ show. It was a day that fractured the back of a camel that had had an ever decreasing centre of gravity for a good eighteen months, maybe more.

An early start. A late finish. In between, before setting off from my Preston home, I first had to load up with amps, guitars - electric and acoustic, along with all the other accessories that feel ever increasing in both number and weight as energy levels and work schedules fall and rise.

‘Still’, I used to tell myself, ‘just be thankful you’re not a drummer’.

Leading up to the 8 p.m. show, there was going to be plenty of preparation through the afternoon, so it was important to arrive with plenty of time to spare.

As I hinted earlier, I’d been troubled for months now by the style and shape of the Albion’s (Band’s and agent’s) approach to its PR material.
It had been decided to promote the band on the basis of youth, given that we had the ‘twenty something’ Joe Broughton clowning about and playing fiddle for us (brilliant fiddle playing - I should add), and the ‘twenty something’ Kellie While singing lead on most of our songs (again, beautifully - I should add again).

As I think back, I’d have to say that my contribution to the band was quite substantial - both creatively and physically. I always looked at it as an investment, but it was an investment that saw me doing all number of things, one of which was sharing the driving (much of the time) with just one other band member - Neil Marshall, our drummer (brilliant drummer - I should once again add).

My limits were truly tested. Here was one scenario that was regularly repeated. We’d be only, say, three or four dates into a tour, and probably after yet another lousy night’s sleep, I’d be setting out, driving the bus to that day’s destination - the next stop along the way.

I’d often reach levels of tiredness that transcended the desire or ability to sleep. This required me to ‘think’ my way through the day, as in - the body would be going through motions that the spirit was not really party to. I’d be kind of - dead, in a way; just living for the moment it would end.

Looking, straining through this distortion of fatigue, the miles would pass - and then! Then I’d hear the sound of snoring from the seats behind. I’d look in the rear view mirror; turn my head slightly, and yes, these fellow band members, some of which, I felt, had never took it upon themselves to dig deep enough - through finance and intent - to learn for themselves the art of driving on the roads. And for yet another day they were once again being nicely taken care of.

I was in the process of learning that if you take care of your own logistics in life—as I had begun to do through a sense of necessity when arriving back in the UK in 1988—you might only have to be slightly accommodating, and that’s all that’s needed, before you can find yourself taking care of the logistics of others. And for me it wasn’t just a case of driving, it had gone well beyond that.

The snag with anything like this is that it’s never black and white; the hard part is weighing up your gains against your losses. And as with any number of things in life that we care about, our losses might have to become painful enough to force resolve upon us.

Now - in a literary way - I need to navigate my way back to Warwick.

We were to perform three songs, one I remember was a Richard Thompson piece; another I can’t recall; the third was to be either ‘The Complete Angler’, a song I wrote with Ashley, and on which I played mandolin and took lead vocal, or the Julie Matthews song - ‘Go North’.
The decision as to which one of those two songs were to be performed was to lie with the BBC producer of the show.

My view then, was that The Complete Angler was a great song, one of the best that Ashley and I had written; but here’s the crucial issue. For a start I couldn’t work out why we should be affording that decision to the show’s producer (unless, of course, it was about getting into his ‘good books’ which then might lead to more radio work?); then, secondly, it began to dawn on me; the producer; he actually owned the publishing on the Julie Matthews song.

I was getting a very bad taste in my mouth, and the show was still hours away. I knew, if I were being honest, I shouldn’t be doing this. But the truth was I’d be letting too many people down if I just walked away now.

Show time arrived. And I needn’t say which of the two songs had been chosen.

‘10, 9, 8, 7’, etc … ‘Now, live from Warwick, the BBC proudly presents Folk On Two with your host Mike Harding’, the intro went. We stood on stage, poised and ready, but before I hit those opening chords, host, Mike Harding was first to welcome the listeners to the program, and announce the first band up - us.

His reference to the Albion Band went very much like this: Founded by Ashley Hutchings, here’s a band that been around ‘forever’, but now, dragged into the modern age, it features the wonderful vocals of Kellie While and the brilliant fiddle playing of Joe Broughton, two young and shining talents who’s youth brings the average age of the band down to seventy.

And that was it, that was his introduction.

So the only reference to my presence on that stage was first of all - nameless, and secondly it appeared to negate my creative input on the basis of age. In my view, it was cheap … well, worse than cheap, it was offensive.
To quote a line in an earlier paragraph,
‘our losses might have to become painful enough to force resolve upon us’, and resolve was what I felt; I doubt it could’ve been any stronger; so it was only a matter of days before I announced my departure from the Albion Band.

Moderate Blessings And Relative Insularity

Friday 18th December. Travel Day (to Hove).
Accommodation: The De Vere Grand Hotel.
More snow and ice than I can remember. Do I like all these extreme winter conditions? No, not really. The wintery weather is OK as long as it’s all viewed through a window from within a warm and cosy house, and preferably a house you know you’ll be staying in for more than one night at a time. As moderate luck has it, we’ll be staying in the Grand Hotel for two nights, so I’ll count my moderate blessings.

The hotel is superb; very comfortable, and as stated on the tin - very ‘grand’. Outside it’s a skating ring, or to be grammatically correct - skating rink (English, what a strange language?). They both amount to exactly the same thing: you need to tread very carefully; but treading is exactly what you can’t do, instead you sort-of shuffle using very tight, short movements of the feet, and then every so often, feet together, you slide a little. It takes constant concentration, and is, in an accumulative way, quite exhausting.

The danger after periods of successful negotiation is becoming momentarily just that little bit too self-confident, and —just to see if it works—making the decision to revert back, almost, to your normal style of walking. So you widen your step, and no sooner is it widened than the arms and body go into an instinctive series of self-corrective motions, your confidence replaced by a surge of adrenaline and a sudden increase in heart rate; yes, you were doing it right in the first place!

I discovered a couple of decent looking Indian restaurants in the afternoon, both within sliding distance of the hotel; so considering that I was under no obligation this evening to present myself to the world, or Brighton, in the guise of a performer, I committed myself to an evening of relative insularity - just me and my Eastern cuisine. I later discovered that in my pursuit of solitude that I missed out on ‘the Band meal’.

You know, I wouldn’t describe myself as out-and-out anti-social, but I would normally, given the choice, opt for a quiet time alone, or a one-to-one situation, than an evening around a big table, listening to lots of banter, waiting for waiter or waitress to arrive, then for the food to be served, and having my choice of restaurant and evenings schedule determined to a greater or lesser degree by the whims of a collective force.
I spend enough time on tour already, being taken places - towns; theatres; hotels; journeys; departure times; arrival times; people; all things that I have had to surrender, or rather - suspend, any desire to self-determine.
I enjoyed the Indian, and I enjoyed my room.

Jackie said I could claim the price of my meal back (everyone else had theirs paid for), but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; it was ‘my’ food, and ‘I’ paid for it. And for one night it was ‘I’ who was in control.

Saturday 19th December. The Hove Centre, Hove Town Hall.
Accommodation: As last night.
There’s a distinct accompanying feeling when arriving at an unlit venue on a freezing cold winter’s night; a venue that appears empty and completely locked on all sides.
There will most likely be people in there; the PA will have arrived well before us. But it’s a sense of - ‘how long are we going to have to wait, banging on the windows and doors, before someone appears from along these dark inner corridors, to either tell us —using the combination of hand waving and mouth movements—that we are on the wrong side of the building, or perhaps if we’re lucky, allow us in to relative warmth?’

Here, today, there was something desolate about what was in front of me, and my mind’s eye flashed back to Arizona in the 1970’s when I passed through the ghost town of Jerome; a feeling that fused together two locations that couldn’t have been more different.

Big match on tonight: Nottingham Forest v Preston North End. Looking to grab whatever brief piece of commentary and live match excitement I could - pre-gig and interval, I was ready and prepared with laptop and mobile internet dongle, I just had to find an area of the building that provided me with an adequate signal. I walked the corridors, went from top floor to basement, from east wing to west wing, and alas, such an area could not be found.
It is interesting how quickly the frustration of not being able to follow the match was replaced with a feeling best described as indifference, on learning that Forest won 3-0.

Sage And Tyne

Wednesday 16th December. The Sage, Gateshead.
Accommodation: Thistle Hotel.
Second time here for the band; it’s a new and pretty spectacular concert hall. Going from the more antiquated venue to the very modern helps put into perspective some of the progress made over the years in acoustic design, and these developments are significant. The on-stage sound at The Sage is a dream; you can hear each person, vocal and instrument with a clarity I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else.
Pre-concert, and it feels good, poignant even, looking out from this stage at the vast array of seats that are yet to be filled, then what seems to be just moments later, each of those seats will be taken, and the show begins.
It’s a modern, well organised operation here; the staff - smart and efficient, good food backstage, all stated and scheduled times
—onstage, off-stage, etc —adhered to.
Outside, the weather was becoming increasingly unpleasant - but what do you expect, this is the north-east - still though, a bit extreme for my liking.

Thursday 17th December. The Guildhall, Preston.
Accommodation: Home.
Probably less than forty five minutes out of Newcastle, and it began to snow. The further west we drove, the heavier the snow became.
If it had only been a case of motorway driving, the journey would’ve been quite a casual affair, but the Pennines—the range of hills and mountains that separate our intended destination, Lancashire (on the west) from Yorkshire and the North-East of England—has, at the best of times it’s very own weather front - colder, windier, and in this case snowier.
It wasn’t long before the cars and trucks were slowly crawling along these country routes, and then not much longer before all traffic gradually came to a standstill. From a passenger seat perspective, however, this wasn’t at all bad; the scenery was spectacular, and I soon had the camera out.

It was obvious there was not any real danger of getting stuck - we were getting too close to the M6, and once on that stretch of motorway it was a straightforward drive south to junction 30. What we were more concerned about was Gareth and David in the van somewhere behind us (hopefully) - the van that carried our sound system. The weather was worsening.

Our concern centred on the fact that when the band was about to leave Newcastle, Gareth was desperately trying to locate the whereabouts of young David. It seemed he, David, had gone out on the town after last night’s show and either hadn’t returned to his hotel room, or was, for what would be somewhat obvious reasons, completely unconscious.
Gareth’s problem here was that he didn’t know David’s room number, and because of data protection, the hotel wouldn’t give it to him.

David, as stated above, is young - maybe twenty one or thereabouts. He’s also extremely likeable and personable. Part of why he’s so likeable is that although he comes across as a confident soul, he also has an air of innocence about him, bordering on naivety maybe. But the more one finds out about him the more you can’t help but see him as an accident always about to happen. Today was just one example of this; whether it’s with women; dubious characters he befriends in dubious drinking establishments; losing or misplacing of money; you name it, trouble and David are never that far from each other.
Already he’s been in hospital for all kinds of tests as a result of the detrimental effects of some highly questionable (yet legal) substance he’d been inducing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him.

On this particular day—the way things eventually transpired—there hadn’t been any real justification for anxiety; everyone eventually arrived safe and sound in my hometown of Preston.

I was so pleased to be going home again, the only downside being that it was for just the one night; tomorrow’s a travel day - we head south to Brighton.

Enjoying The Walk

Some of these notes below were made during the final week of the Winter tour, some I’m adding now as I look back at events and locations, recalling and reviewing the mental imprints and pictures I carry from them; the backstage corridors, stage doors, the town centres I walked through before sound-checks; the faces of friends and those who came backstage to say hi after a show.

Of course, to write ‘as-you-go’ makes life easier than writing retrospectively - in theory it is, anyway; but this, of course, does involve a degree of consistent self-discipline.
Even then it’s not only a consistency factor that holds the key. 
As discipline and resolve don’t come in standard sizes, I find they sometimes can’t quite keep up with the movements of circumstance and mood swings that constitute ‘life on the road’. It’s not as though ‘resolve’ itself weakens, it just gets out-punched on occasion; but then, given time, hopefully, it can re-assess, then re-group, before rising to the next level of resilience.

Another thing I’ve encountered - and each time it’s as though it’s the first time - is the obstacle that often stands between a piece of work in progress, and the completion of that work. There’s a significant part of me that lives only for the finishing line, yet another part that would actually prefer to leave things hanging. Maybe I do have an issue with commitment after all?

Metaphorically speaking, it does seem important to ‘enjoy the walk’. That is to mean, if the goal becomes the only focus, then little or nothing can be gained from the process of getting there. 
I was once likened to the captain of a ship, who fixed his eye only on the horizon, consequently neglecting the upkeep and well-being of his craft and crew - the very people who where assisting him on the journey. 

However, in the same breath, if the only preoccupation is with one’s immediate circumstances, then the absence of direction and intent will arguably limit one’s achievements.

Monday 14th December. St George’s Hall, Bradford.
 Accommodation: Home


I have a huge fondness for both Bradford and for the St George’s Hall.
Ever since I played here with Al Stewart in the 1970s, this has seemed like a special place. Then, some thirty two years later came the poignancy of that final concert on my maiden 2002 Steeleye Span tour; a beautiful night, and one I wrote about in the diary I was keeping at the time; these were my words …

'Friday 20th Dec 2002
St Georges Hall, Bradford.
Theatre capacity: 1500 Sold out.

Final show. 
Checked in at the Hilton at 3pm; I'm feeling close to home now. Carol arrived about an hour later from Preston. Originally the plan had been that we would go straight home to Preston after the show, but now I'm thinking that it's only right and appropriate to spend the rest of the evening with the band and crew. 
Emotionally, I arrive at this last tour date with both - considerable sadness, and relief. This has been one of the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences of my career. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this will not be the end of my working relationship with these guys. 
It's possible to state that tonight's show was the very best of the tour, we were relaxed and 'up for it' as was the audience. The on-stage sound seemed faultless. There were quite a few familiar faces and friends in the audience, some of them joining us back-stage after the show for wine and food. Later, back at the hotel, the band and those closely associated with it, gathered together for one last time. We found a cosy, but appropriately sized function room, where we discussed the events of the past four weeks, and ate Indian food - after all, we were in Bradford. Tomorrow morning Carol and I will head back to Preston - and wait for Christmas.

Tuesday 15th December. Parr Hall, Warrington.
 Accommodation: The Viaggio. 


A small, old fashioned looking venue; maybe could do with a face-lift, perhaps, but I’m not completely sure; it does have plenty of charm.
The crowd was great tonight; the hotel was dubious. 

One thing that absolutely amazes me, especially at this time of the year, is how as a paying customer at many hotels, you’re expected to put up with parties and discos that can go on as late as 1 p.m.
Tonight we were comparatively lucky; the music stopped at around 12:30. My room sat more or less directly over the disco, and it literally shook with the volume of the music - just what you want after twenty five concerts, eh?