Tuesday 24 October 2023

Leisureland Tour part one

I used to have it down, hardly had to think about it, I knew exactly what time to set off to get to places on time, almost by instinct, but it’s been four years since I toured here in the UK and I’m out of practice. Now I have to think about it.

Salford - BBC 6 Music - work backwards from the requested arrival time. Look at the GPS journey time, add an hour - no, two hours - traffic delays, fuck-ups, falling asleep in lay-bys… Work out a departure time, bring it forward an hour because I’m sure to be running late…factor in time for a coffee detour…

So, if I want to be in Salford by 8:30 pm I need to set off at…ten o’clock in the morning. That can’t be right.

I left some time after eleven. Stopped for coffee at Cross Street Union in Holt. It’s one of the best - I wish it was in Cromer. Two espressos and off I went, half convinced that I was late but feeling good about it. I listened to the news on Radio 4 and felt indescribably sad, and heard political commentators droning on until my head hurt. I drove through heavy rain and traffic jams, misunderstood the GPS and drove through the centre of Manchester in the rush hour. Do they still call it rush hour? It seems more permanent than that.

I arrived two hours early.

I’ve always loved doing the Marc Riley Show. Now it’s Marc Riley and Gideon Coe together and it’s called Riley & Coe. They’ve lost an hour a night of cool broadcasting but it’s still the best music show on British radio - that’s as far as I know, so please don’t contradict me, argue the point, or tell me all about your mate on a community radio station in the Outer Hebrides who has the best radio show ever.

They were so nice together - shall I back end this one or would you like too?…would you like to introduce this one Gid?…no Marc, you go ahead, and I’ll look after the back end
‘Have I caught you in the honeymoon period?’ I asked.
Marc told me they’re like one of those couples or bands who need other people around to be nice to each other in front of.
‘Oh okay, so I’m your Billy Preston then.’
‘Yes that’s it - but we’ll be slagging you off too when you leave.’
I’m pleased for Marc to have a running mate again - I sometimes thought he seemed a bit lonely doing the show alone, but I’m sorry about the loss of an hour.

The engineer got me a great sound. He understood exactly what I’m going for. There’s a pressure to this, it’s totally live, broadcasting to thousands and thousands of listeners, close on a million right there listening to the show as it goes out. There’s no safety net.

I played Southern Rock to start the show and came back later to do three more tunes and an interview - Badhat Town, Drag Time and Standing Water. I put an extended instrumental into the middle of Standing Water, detuned the bottom string down to a D and back up later for the end of the instrumental. It was risky but I actually pulled it off. I usually do, but sometimes trying to get the string back up to an E note in the middle of playing can be a bit hit and miss.

The show in Gravesend was very special because the venue was a decommissioned lightship, the LV21. They told me not to arrive before about four because the tide was going to cause the ship to float rather than sit on the mud as it normally does, and this would apparently make loading the equipment a bit difficult.

When I got out of the car there was a strong smell of oil. At first I thought something was wrong with the car but it turned out to be the smell of Gravesend - it smells of engine oil.

I hadn’t been to Gravesend since 1986. There was a pub called the Red Lion. It had a hall attached which was a great place to play - Chas n Dave started there. Unfortunately it was sold and the new owners fucked it up. Close carpeting, wine racks, an ornamental fountain… They still ran it as a music venue - the new landlady explained: ‘This is a musicians pub, not only do we encourage musicians to play here, but also to come and meet one another and socialise.’ 

I’d played there when the place was in it’s old incarnation and it was great. But the Len Bright Combo played there to a very small audience in 1986, between the wine rack and the ornamental fountain.

Afterwards, when we went to settle up, the landlord told us he wasn’t going to pay us. We asked why not. ‘Because you can’t fucking play - that was a load of old toilet and you know it.’
‘We’re a professional group’ Russ the bass player said. First I’d heard of it but never mind.
‘Professional!! Don’t make me fucking laugh - we have a band comes in here on Tuesday nights that play Lynyrd Skynyrd and they sound just like them. Now that’s professional!’
I said that was okay then, but would he mind signing my PRS form.
‘You can fuck right off with that, go on - fuck off before I throw you out.’
The next day I phoned the PRS. ‘Oh no’ said the man, who in my memory sounds more than a bit like Kenneth Williams. ‘No, no, no, we take a very dim view of our members being spoken to in that manner. Now, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to check that he’s up to date with his licence…aah yes, the Red Lion, yes, I’ve got it here - oh dear…he’s two years behind with his payments.’
When I drove past the place a few months later it was boarded up.

Things were on a much better footing for this show. It sold out almost immediately the tickets went on sale, a great start to the tour. I found myself hoping it wouldn’t be all downhill from Gravesend out. It was a relief to see the place packed with the kind of rabble I love playing for. The last show I did was in Moorestown, New Jersey. That show was sold out too and although the audience were a delight to play for they were a bit reverential. Exceedingly reverential in fact. I like a bit of backchat. As long as they shut up while I’m playing.

My cousin Dave and his wife Michelle were right in front of me. Dave is a London cab driver, the real deal - I’ve often wondered if he was the inspiration for Will Self’s Book Of Dave. A good few people, friends and fans, had come down from London, others had come from the Medway Towns. Afterwards, when everyone had gone home, we watched Later With Jools Holland. It was a relief to finally see it.

I love the LV21, it’s perhaps the most unique venue I’ve ever played in.

I had a few days off before the next show, which was in Folkestone. The rain was beginning to come down as I left Norfolk, and as I drove through the Kent countryside it became torrential. There was no let up.

My friend Andi from the now defunct Lime Bar was there to help set up. There was a stage and he’d lit the place with dramatic uplighters. Holy Trinity Church is a classic town centre church, massive and awe-inspiring even to a none believer. After the soundcheck I sat in the vestry listening to rain pounding on the roof and watched water pouring out of the mouths of gargoyles in black and white on the CCTV. It was almost biblical.

My friend Wendy who is the verger booked the show. Her husband Tim is the church organist. Wendy isn’t religious, it’s a job. She loves it, she’s been there longer than the vicar, who, if I’m honest, sounds like a bit of a twat. He wasn't in attendance.

The rain had affected the attendance and the small audience were gripped by what you might call church behaviour. No barracking, no well oiled rabble. Everything was hushed, the applause muted and concise. I spent half the set wondering if I was doing okay, worrying I might be disappointing everyone. When I finished playing it was evident that I hadn’t. It was atmospheric, ethereal, more like a recital than a rock concert.

Driving to Birmingham was hard. The rain slacked off as I got further north and into the Midlands but it was slow going. I got to within twelve miles of the venue and the GPS said there was still an hour to go. I had to drive through the city centre to get there. I like Birmingham, it’s wacky, and quite unlike any other British city: red brick, and an accent which, though renowned for its ugliness, sounds poetic and quite beautiful to me, almost like Chaucer.

The Rock n Roll Brewhouse is the taproom and clubhouse above an independent microbrewery in the Jewellery Quarter. I was worried about the PA - it was more like a sound system - a wall of speaker cabinets across the back wall of the stage driven by a massive Peavey PA amp, it looked like a disaster, but I worked with it, I made a couple of adjustments, flattened all the eq on the PA amp - those things are built to sound good flat, the eq is just there to correct the odd problem. The room sounded great, the PA sounded fabulous.

The show was sold out in advance. i could get used to this but I don’t want to - I’d prefer to somehow live in a certain amount of trepidation, it keeps you on your toes.

I have to thank the Birmingham promoter, Adrian Goldberg - not only did he sell out the show, he also sold the merch afterwards - I’d asked him to give me a hand, but prima donna that I am I just stood around gladhanding it and signing records while he did all the work.

I also want to thank Gary Weston, Rob Flood, Wendy Parsons, Andi Elliot and Cathy Burton.

Next show is at the Pig in Hastings, or is it St Leonards? Then the Prince Albert in Brighton followed by the London show at the Lexington which is apparently just about sold out. And then I’ll be in the west country and it’s anyone’s guess how that’s going to go.

If this is going to be a real tour diary I should tell you what the set list was but I'm not going to - if you want to know you'll just have to come to one of the shows. Or ask a friend.

Please be kind. Pick up the litter in your neighbourhood, and support the local food bank.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Later With Jools Holland

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of artist who would never appear on Later With Jools Holland. Over the years I’ve turned this into a great comfort to myself: imagine the stress of it -  the compromises, the trying to not look like complete shit, the crash diet because everyone knows that television adds twenty pounds to your weight, the other bands all sniggering at my incompetence and total lack of cool…

And I’d be sure to be the poor sod that plays alone with an acoustic guitar, 
sandwiched between the piano and the studio audience. They’d probably make me play Whole Wide World… I’d have to do a short interview with Jools, and he’d probably want to play the piano with me. No, much too much stress, I’m better off at the low level I’ve been operating at for the past forty something years - underground, which is another way of saying almost cool.

As time has slipped by the possibility has become a thing of dread to me. Occasionally some publicist has said it’d be a good idea - there’s some remote possibility… And this has been enough to turn me into jelly - not that I’m scared or anything - I could take those bastards on…except,  of course, that they’d win. It would be a battle, and I’d prefer to stay home thank you very much.

My new album, Leisureland, has been very well received. It took me by surprise. I signed up with a German label, Tapete Records. I was going to put the record out myself but I talked to a publicist, Sean Newsham, who said he’d love to work with me in whatever way I was comfortable, but that he worked with Tapete, and if they were interested that would perhaps be better than trying to do it myself. I didn’t tell him to fuck off, but I pretty much dismissed the idea out of hand. Then I had a think about it and thankfully I came round to the idea.

The album came out and there was the usual flurry of reviews and mentions And there were interviews - I don’t do many of those, or at least I didn’t. I wasn’t at all used to it. At the end of the first interview I found myself apologising to the interviewer - ‘We’ve been talking for an hour and I haven’t asked anything about you!’ I got more used to it - there’s seemed to be one a day, five days a week for a while. Sean mentioned the possibility of a feature in The Guardian, an interview with Alexis Petrides, and suddenly that was a reality.

And then he started to mention Later With Jools Holland

That surely wouldn’t happen! It was a possibility, nice to be considered. Let’s move on.

And then it was happening. I was utterly terrified at the prospect. Amy ran into Michael Lindsay Hogg (Ready Steady Go!, Rolling Stones Rock n Roll Circus, Let It Be…) Michael asked after me and Amy told him I was at home suffering the Later terrors. I saw Michael a couple of days after that and he gave me a talking to: ‘I want you to get on a plane to London, I want you to get in there and show them who you are and what you do. And have a great time, enjoy it, you’ll be fine!’ Okay Michael.

It was a project, the stuff of pop stardom. I played in Cambridge, New York, drove home after the show, packed a bag, had a couple of hours sleep and drove to Newark airport. I probably passed Amy on the way as she drove home from the airport after a trip to Nashville, carrying a yet to be diagnosed dose of Covid. It’s fortunate that I left early and missed her. As it was when I came home after the trip I had to hole up in the guest room with the bass amps until she tested negative.

The show was being filmed at the Alexandra Palace Theatre so I booked into a nearby Premier Inn for two nights. No, you don’t get hotels, limo rides, champagne, flowers, and all that - pop stardom is a much harder job than it used to be.

I landed early on Sunday morning and  travelled almost the full length of the Piccadilly Line, Heathrow Airport to Arnos Grove - thirty two stops - clutching my guitar and small rolling suitcase. The train filled up with people heading for art galleries, Sunday employment, assignations and visits to far flung aunties. It emptied and filled up and emptied again, Somewhere around about Holborn the Arsenal supporters got on, large men in triple XL football jerseys. Football fandom evidently doesn’t keep you in shape. They were great fun, i enjoyed their banter. There were Arsenal dads with their Arsenal sons, and they all seemed much nicer than Roger Waters. One Arsenal dad was accompanied by a daughter who must have been about ten. She was togged out in full Arsenal strip and looked radiant. I imagine she’ll play for England one day.

I finally reached the hotel. I spent a lot of time sleeping and lying around. My friend Marc Valentine drove down from North Norfolk with my amplifier, spare guitar and sundry bits of equipment. We got him checked in and set out on an expedition across the North Circular to a BP petrol station which hosted a Marks & Spencers, or M&S as I believe they prefer to be known - must make an effort, must keep up

We retired to our rooms with healthy sustenance from the M&S. More lazing around, more sleep… I was determined to not succumb to jetlag and I think it actually worked. Suddenly it was the morning of the show - the day had finally arrived. Sean met us in reception in time to go and get coffee before we had to report to the place of execution.

I think Sean’s expectation of coffee was more Starbucks oriented than ours. There was no way I was going to Starbucks or Costa on the day I performed on Later. Marc and I are serious caffeine addicts. We’d done some research and decided on a place somewhere between the hotel and the Alexandra Park Theatre where we could get properly caffeined up ready to promote an air of steely calm that would hopefully cover our combined nervousness. We left Marc’s van parked in an Acacia Avenue kind of neighbourhood and followed the aroma of roasting coffee, which actually turned out to be the smell of burning toast.

The coffee was okay and thankfully not over-roasted, and we arrived at the theatre sporting a thin veneer of quiet but slightly jittery confidence.

I’d braced myself for a day of being shouted at, being told what to do, being told off and told that what I wanted to do was not possible. A day of being abused, belittled and cowed at every turn. Bear in mind that I haven’t done any mainstream TV since the seventies.

I was amazed at how kind, how professional, and how downright nice everyone was. They were quiet, calm and very accommodating. We installed ourselves in the allocated dressing room and shut the door. Keep calm, keep quiet, don’t get rattled by anything. Eat, hydrate, breathe… It was really good to have Marc and Sean there.

They called me for a soundcheck, a run through, a rehearsal for the cameras. It was intimidating in that big space, the Alexandra Palace Theatre with all the seats taken out and four sets of band equipment set up facing each other. 

I was doing one song on my own in the middle of the floor - Badhat Town from the Leisureland album. The sound was instantly great - no one complained about my amplifier or the crappiness of my acoustic guitar pre-amp. The monitor man actually came and asked me how I was getting my sound - he was really into it. I ran throught the song once and then again, and then we were done.

They explained how it was all going to work and someone took me to meet Jools so we could run through the song we were going to play together. I like Jools - he’s intelligent, warm, maybe a bit shy. He’s very human and he loves music. He made me a cup of tea and we had a chat. Then we got to work on the song.

When I first heard they wanted me to do Whole Wide World I felt a bit crestfallen - other artists get to do two songs off their new album but I’m not good enough to stand on that alone… But that’s how it works - other artists don’t have a hit - if you have a hit you’re going to have to play it, so it’s really a badge of honour. I didn’t want to play it on my own - look at Billy No Mates trotting out his hit - so in the days leading up to the recording I asked if Jools would play it with me.

It was fun. He has an upright piano in his dressing room. We ran through the tune and I asked him if it was okay. He looked surprised and asked if it was okay for me. We made some adjustments, I suggested a more celebratory ending going to a G chord and an A chord before landing on the E. He loved the word celebratory. We talked about Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, driving through Lincolnshire in the moonlight. I told him how I'll sometimes play a single chord on an electric guitar very loud for minutes at a time, how I can hear so much stuff in it, and I always wonder if other people can. He told me he’ll put his ear to the piano as a chord fades and hear all kinds of things going on.

We ran through the song on set and then there was time for a rest before make-up time. A knock at the dressing room door, a lady came in and asked what I was going to wear. I told her she was looking at it. I’d come dressed for the job. She said that was fine, I looked good. There was ironing, pressing, steaming available should I need it.

Make-up was a laugh - a nice older lady who understood the hazards that age brings with it. In the old days they used to slap stuff on until you looked like someone’s auntie or an exhibit from Madame Tussauds. They’re much more subtle with it now. 

Then it was downstairs for the photos.

You could sense the nervousness. Everybody all together for the first time - The National, Say She She, Jorja Smith, Anthony Szmierek… I found myself standing next to this cool looking older guy - not as old as me, no one’s as old as me, but not a youth - we got talking and he turned out to be Roddy Bogawa, director of the Syd Barrett documentary, Have You Got It Yet?

The show went by in a whirl. I don’t think I felt at all nervous - I’d done all that beforehand, which is, I think, how I deal with it. I had a good chat with Jools - most of it was edited out of course. My favourite bit didn’t make the cut: at the end of the interview he leaned over the piano: 

‘You know, I couldn’t hear a word of what I was asking you.’

‘That’s okay’ I said, ‘I was miming.’

We played Whole Wide World and I loved seeing the look of joy on his face. I wish they’d put my guitar up in the mix, the same with Badhat Town, my guitar wasn’t loud enough. I sing a lot louder than anyone expects, I can’t help it, I have a loud and powerful voice, I need something to sing against. I also make spaces for the singing in the way I play. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know what I’m doing. Take the guitar away and the voice is out of context. I should have talked to the sound engineer but I didn’t. It sounded great in the theatre when we were doing it but a little lacking in the broadcast.

Afterwards I had a good chat with one of the production people. I said I’d been scared of being bowled out, exposed for the charlatan, the imcompetent, that I am, but I’d begun to realise that everyone feels like that. She told me there wasn’t an artist in the room who didn’t suffer from imposter syndrome - 'if you get to this level in your career without it there’s something wrong' she said. I’ll hold on to that.

Once it was over the other bands were a lot more open, a lot friendlier.  Anthony Szmierek came and talked to me - he was such a nice guy, the whole band were. They come from Hyde - us and Harold Shipman… He told me how nervous he’d been, he could barely keep it together. They were set up next to the piano so I was facing him with Jools between us. He said he watched me talking and then playing and it gave him confidence. That was such a nice thing to say. I like them, they’ve only been together for two years. I hope I see them again.

It was a strange anti climax. We packed up, said out goodbyes and stumbled out into the darkness in search of Marc’s van. Marc dropped us at the hotel and set off back to Norfolk with the equipment. Sean and I sat in a daze, basking in that weird WE DID IT afterglow, then he set out for the tube station and I went back to bed. Taxi, flight, drive home, gig at the Avalon in Catskill. Still no jetlag!

What can I say? It was scary as fuck, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The photographer told me to sit on a flight case and imagine I was waiting for a bus. I'm pretty sure I was the only artist with a senior citizen's bus pass but I didn't say anything. I've been waiting for this bus for a long time.