UK 2011 Blog VI
August 29th, 2011
A quick drive from our digs in Middlesbrough (a much less auspicious place that Salburn-By-The-Sea, as indicated by the lack of hyphens) brought us to Norwich, a town that is overrun with college-aged people and twenty somethings, judging from the amount of coffeehouses, vintage clothing shops, music stores, and tattoo parlors. Speaking as a former student of Geology (yes folks, your narrator is a science man from way back. The whole band thing is actually a part of my dissertation, the title of which is, “Tour Life Neuro-psychotics: The Effects of 24 Hour Exposure To Sleep Deprivation and Malnourishment Upon The Reflexes and Temperaments of Caucasoid Men.” I’m thinking of a follow up as well, “Tour Wife: Masochist or Mother Theresa?” More soft-science than to what I’m accustomed, but anyway . . .) I was taken with the super-prevalent flint stones that make up most of the churches and halls in Norwich. Made me curious as to the history of the place. Silly, I know, those stones are just lovely smooth, hardened tears of our lord, right?
Indeed, our venue was one of these places. And a fine venue it was! It’s always a thrill for us to look at the upcoming events at a venue where we’re playing and see names like Mark Mothersbaugh on the schedule. Not to mention our good pals Old Sledge, who are due over here soon. The soundman was top-notch, as was the lighting lady and all members of the staff. I feel like we hit a great groove that night in terms of pacing and in-between song banter.
It’s funny, the stereotype that one might have is that an English crowd would be more reserved than a Scottish crowd. This does not bear out, however. No value judgements here, as we are eternally grateful to any and all who would come see us play, but we have found thus far that our English crowds are equally as open to laughter, hooting, stomping, and general excitability as our most exuberant Scottish crowds. However, one thing that separates all of them from our average American crowd (not all, mind you) is their willingness to pay attention! What should I expect, though? We Americans are so inundated on all sides by stimulus and generally expect every situation to be tailor-made to suit our expectations, why should anyone be forced to listen to a band that they paid a cover to see? Ludicrous notions!
Anyway, we had fun in Norwich and hope to get back there.
August 30th, 2011
We started our day in Newmarket, a little equestrian town where our hotel for the night previous was located. While out getting coffee, I had the usual exchange:
Shopkeep: Where are you headed today?
Me: Great Torrington, in Devon.
Shopkeep (appalled): Devon? Don’t you know how far that is?
Me: Yeah, about 5 hours
Shopkeep: That’s right, are you going to stop for the night in between?
Me: No, we’ll just drive straight. 5 hours of driving doesn’t even get us out of our home state, depending on the direction we go.
Shopkeep: Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet, dog. Streets is wild!
Me: You know it, dawg, gotta tip on out now that I’m ready.
Shopkeep: You more than ready, you GAME ROOSTER!
Hmm, that last interchange may have been from “The Wire,” but I think the rest is about right. Anyway, yes Britons, it’s true, we drive a lot, often on the same pathways we just covered. It’s kind of how it goes, you know?
Great Torrington is quite close to South Molton, where we’d played before. Devon is really gorgeous country, not too dissimilar from southwest Virginia. In fact, so much of this trip has reminded me of portions of Appalachia, it’s not surprising that so many Scots and Brits found their way to the hills of VA, KY, TN, and NC and helped to make this music that we love to play so well.
The show at the Plough Arts Center was a great success – over sold out, as a matter of note. We’ve adopted a few new songs while over here, and it has kept us fully engaged in the sets (not that we’re ever not, mind you). Not to toot our own horns too loudly, but I gotta say I’m pretty proud of how we’re sounding right now. It seems the trend amongst many younger bands of our ilk to be branching away from the traditional sound and on to something that straddles the line between indie rock and old time music. Perhaps it’s because we started left of field that we are content to remain more in the pocket (ok, I realize not entirely, but for the most part . . .). Our mission statement, at the moment, is to have music from the 1940′s matched with lyrical content from the present era, and I think we’re doing it fairly well, and I only say so because I’ve had a number of well-informed (and very kind) folks come up and say much the same to me both here and in the States.
A final navel gazing moment, if you would: One thing we are always a bit squirmy about is the frequent use of words like “zany” or “madcap” when used to describe us. It always feels to connote some sort of forced humor. Maybe it’s because, again, we are only too aware of whence we came (any veterans of the Cary Street Cafe days of fake blood, salad dressing drinking competitions, dropped pants, and haiku nights can attest to this). In comparison to some of those times, we’re regular stoics. Also, there was a time when we felt we needed the shock value to overcome some of our musical deficiencies, but these days we’re plenty comfortable with the music we’re playing, and any levity isn’t some kind of gimmick, but merely our natural character emerging: we’re silly sometimes, we find morbid things funny, we’re childish, we like to play music. That’s it. No artifice.
August 31st, 2011:
We rolled into Camden Town around 4pm after a leisurely morning around Great Torrington. I personally went on a nice run around Old Torrington, a series of trails that takes one around some ruins and also, so I hear, the site of an old leper colony. Camden is clearly a very hip place, full of folks in what I suppose are fashionable clothes (Jesus, I sound like my dad), tons of vintage shops, record shops, buskers, pubs, etc etc. We met up with some old friends who live in London, including Sam the Kiwi, an old roommate of mine from college days and, Emma, a childhood friend of both Graham’s and me, and sister of Lars Prillaman, of the Young Napoleons (and currently The Fox Hunt) with whom we’ve played before, and will do so again.
The Green Note is a great little (stress “little”) vegetarian tapas restaurant and venue. We had a fabulous and healthy dinner of salads with tons of little tasty treats in them: haloumi, Peppadews (that’s a patented pepper, folks), artichokes, falafel, feta, roasted vegs, and more. After 4.5 weeks of delicious but often rich and fried food, this was a well received meal indeed. Nothing too heavy directly before playing for me, please. Makes me sluggish. As Graham puts it, “If I’m too full, I no longer care.” We’re all just instinctual beings, right?
The place was packed out with folks, including the mother and brother of our favorite Edinburgh-ian, Leonie LeMaistre. What a treat to get to meet more of her family! Only made us wanna come back to Edinburgh sooner! In all, this gig reminded us a bit of our average gig in the states, as it was more like a bar environment, with some talking going on (though, a lot of listening, too). Maybe because it was a big city show, we felt a little loose on stage, and were goofing around a great deal, even cussing on stage! Heaven forfend!
We left out of London after the show for, what else, a Travelodge! I wish we could have spent more time in the city. Kind of hard to deal with 7 people and a van of gear in such a large city, alas. Don’t worry London, presuming the Gulf Stream doesn’t cut off within the year, freezing the UK under a mile of glacier (not an impossibility folks, the global conveyer belt has been known to shut down from time to time, especially if a large cap of fresh water were to melt from the northern icecaps due to global climate changes. Still, that’s just more scientific lies, pay it no mind. Shall we go for a drive?), we’ll be back!
September 1st, 2011
OK, after 5 full weeks over here, we finally make it back to the Banham Barrel! As referenced in every UK blog at some point, the Barrel is a fabulous pub way out in the middle of Norfolk, surrounded by fields and farms. It specializes in ciders made by the owner, Jonty. Nowadays, Jonty’s son, Frank, actually runs the place, but Jonty is still very much around. The Barrel is, as far as we can remember, one of only two places we’ve played on every trip over here (the other being the Alamo Bar in Paisley), and we love it for many reasons: excellent hospitality at the hands of Jonty and his wife Wendy (last night it was tasty shepherd’s pie and local green beans!), award winning ciders, both sweet and dry, and dancers! Excellent, no-holds barred, exuberant dancing that starts on the first song and continues through the encore.
This night was a great deal of fun and we were able to reach the level of raucousness that can only be brought about by a floor full of sweaty gyrating Brits (or Yanks, or Malays, or . . . you get the idea). We caught with our pal Liam, of the Harvey Boys, drank a fair amount of cider, and talked with some lovely folks. We’re now back in the van, headed to the Didmarton Bluegrass Festival, our final two days. We shall see what kind of impressions we provide and are left with.
Whoof, gotta pause for a sec, just caught a MASSIVE whiff of animal manure right in my face from the van window . . . ok, that’s over.
While we wait for time to pass, let’s talk about David Rollo, our driver for the last week. He’s great! We’ve gotten used to his laid back attitude, though it took a few days. After enduring the wrath of Gerald “Wrong Turn” Roche for nearly a month, it’s a bit unnerving to have someone be patient with our dawdling and wanders. David is a musician and a funny guy. He tries to be mean on occasion, but he’s still working on selling “Get in the Fucking Van!” with the proper angry conviction. His Ford Transit is also a fair bit smoother than the Vauxhall box van we have used in the past. Again, we’re not used to not shaking.
It’s also a different glimpse into the world of Scottish people. When we arrived in London in 2008 for our first trip over here and met Gerry, we just assumed, “Well, this is how Scottish people are.” We quickly realized, “No, this is how Gerry is – quick, sharp and hilarious.” Like, here’s something we didn’t know before: Some people put chips (fries) into hamburger buns and eat them in sandwich form! Genius! It’s called a “chip butty” apparently.
We’ve taken to calling him “Big Wave Dave,” as he likes to (kind of creepily) shout hello to other drivers and women walking down the street. Pretty funny, really. He also keeps talking about showing us his “Bobby” and needing to take a “Jobby.” Oh those crazy Scots and their funny words!
And now a few bulleted notes entitled “The Adventures of Crybabies in the Land of Withholding.” Note: at the moment I write this, we’re filling up our tires with free air and window washers with free water at a service station, so . . . yes, hypocrites.
- 20p for ketchup. Really?
- It costs more if I sit down for coffee rather than take it away. Really?
- What do you mean you’re not “allowed” to give me a takeaway box? REALLY?
- £5 for an hour of internet. Seriously?
- £2 fee for using a credit card. Hmm, thanks!
- My friend isn’t allowed to sit down with me at your empty coffee shop because he hasn’t bought anything. What service!
On the massive other hand . . . free health care. I suppose I’d gladly pay 20p for ketchup packets if I could go to the doctor and pharmacist for free to, you know, stay alive and stuff. Still, the extra 50p to sit down at a coffeeshop . . . hmph!
And, on another massive other hand. Charles Darwin is on the £10 note. Charles Darwin. And, like 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution. Charles Darwin. What the hell is wrong with us? Is it in the water? Is it because we let our pets sleep in bed with us?
September 4th, 2011
It’s early, I’m very tired. We’re currently hurtling down the M4, on our way to Heathrow Airport. We’ve been at the Didmarton Bluegrass Festival for the last three days, and while we got back to our hotel at a reasonable 2:30am last night, it was one of those things wherein, as I was falling asleep, I had one of those panicky “What if I don’t fall asleep tonight?” thought flashes (not hot flashes, thought flashes), which then kept me from getting the 3 hours of sleep I was planning on. So here I am, Eddie on one side of me, David on the other (the Twin Sentinels of Stink, let’s call them. Nothing but gaseous emissions from one end or the other). So let’s recap the last two days.
We rolled into Didmarton after a leisurely afternoon spent at the hotel, enjoying a bit of mattress-time, shower-time, TV-time, internet-time, and just generally lavishing in the purple comfort of a Premier Inn for one last time before heading home. When we arrived, I was personally transported straight to any bluegrass fest in the USA. Campers, pickers, bonfires, banjos, even a confederate flag! Also, a really funny (to me) flag with the American stripes with a Union Jack in the place of the 50 stars. Not sure what exactly that means, but I like it!
We hung around backstage, listening to various bands, including The Flats and Sharps, a group of teens who ripped through a set of incredibly fast and clean bluegrass music worthy of Galax or any fiddlers’ convention. They’re real sweet guys, unsurprisingly, though I did have a commiserative moment with the mandolin player’s dad, who’s an old time fiddler and hasn’t been able to successfully communicate the joys of Old Time to his 220 BPM-loving bluegrasser son. Ah well, some things can only be appreciated with age, perhaps. Things like, you know, playing the same tune 30 times through until you can see through time.
And speaking of that, another great band we heard was called Hogeye, and featured the fiddling of Jock Tyldesley (more on him in a moment) and the guitar playing of Barry Southern, who I had shared a drunken jam at Richmond’s own Penny Lane Pub (ironically enough, since Barry is a Liverpudlian) some years ago. There’s that great moment where you stare at someone for long enough, trying to dredge this person out of the thick marshy mud of yer memory before they emerge and you are able, with confidence, to say, “Umm, don’t I know you?” Anyway, Hogeye was playing some great old time music, including a tune called “Bound to Have a Little Fun,” one of the first I ever learned, and have never heard anyone else play.
The band that took the cake for us, however, was the New Rope String Band, also featuring Jock. There’s really no use in me going into great description of this band, as words won’t do it justice, so I’ll put it like this. Often, reviewers like to use “vaudevillian” or “antics” to describe our on stage activities, but they’re kind of misnomers. We’re just kind of off the cuff and very silly guys. Now, THESE guys are chock full of vaudevillian antics. Great props, spot on timing, incredibly creative and well-executed gimmicks, and great musicianship on top of everything. If you live in the UK and haven’t seen these guys (and you like us), go see this band!! Jake and I were in the very front and were laughing basically nonstop for 45 minutes.
We played the final set on both Friday and Saturday nights. Flattering to be the headliner on each stage, given the amount of great music that had crossed them throughout both days. On Friday night, we got two encores. I walked to the mic for our second and said “We’ll pay a coupla bluegrass tunes,” and there was a resounding “NO!” from the audience, which was nice to hear. We had been a little concerned that some of our stylings might be a bit too left-of-center for this crowd, but they really dug everything we did (including the “Zappa Medley into Cheesy Beef Boogie” of last night’s encore). It is, of course, so gratifying to have other musicians and crowd members stopping us as we walk around to gush about our music. As I said in an earlier post, our heads are getting BIG!
Other highlights, for me, anyway:
- Hanging out and picking with our old pal Helen Keen, who once put us up and has been a booster of the band for a while. She’s a great banjo player, and, as it turns out, can belt out some great Guy Clark songs too!
- Playing a 1923 Lloyd Loar F5 (the “LaBarge”!! It’s not every day that one gets to handle the Stradivarius of mandolins, is it? Sure, I could pay off my mortgage with it, but, more importantly, I can play it! Not sure if it’s 33.3 times nicer than my dear mandolin, but it was damned nice, there’s no doubt. Thanks very much to my new pal Phil for the opportunity.
- Listening to all the Brits sing bluegrass in their best Southern accents! Love it! There was some seriously good picking afoot in the campground. Made me quite homesick for the community of freaks and hillbillies we have come to know and love at all the finest picking fests in the U.S.A!
And now we’re on our way home. Don’t wanna get hopes up TOO high, but it looks likely we’ll be back over here next spring, and maybe also next fall! Wait and see. We had yet another fabulous time over here, and want thank heartily all of our hosts, soundmen, and a special big thank you to Loudon Temple, Gerald Roche, and David Rollo for all of their hard work on our expense.