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.