Fear of a Black PuddingOctober 12, 2008
“I got so much trouble on my mind; I refuse to lose.
Here’s your ticket… hear the drummer get wicked.”
Fitting words for these times, I think. It’s been awhile. I’ve neglected to blog for months on end for a number of reasons. Mostly it’s been due to my self-imposed weekly song deadlines for the new album production project; after pumping out songs week after week, the last thing I usually feel like doing is spending MORE time in front of the computer. Also, I usually blog after a stint on the road, and since the beginning of July, there’s been precious little touring to speak of. The last 3MOB tour was riddled with snafu’s, and while there were definitely some high points, any blog I offered after that would have been a bit of a downer, so I abstained. I did my bi-annual Albuquerque show just over a month ago, which is always a worthy experience, however I was pretty anti-social and introspective right around then, and it just wasn’t time to come up for air yet.
In many ways, my recent trip to Britain jolted me back to life, though. So for any who are interested, I proudly present my Enormous UK Chronicle.
NOTE: This whole thing is really eleven blogs all grouped together and separated by these convenient dividers so you can go day-by-day. It’s a long read to do all at once. I recommend frequent breaks!
I’ve been flying a lot over the past 2 and a half years. And I had become enamored with the idea that as a frequent flyer with United, they automatically seat me in the “Economy Plus” section that most people have to pay extra for….
…Until I realized that the best seat in the Economy section is NOT in Economy Plus if you’re traveling overseas. It’s in the very first row behind Economy Plus; that little-thought of emergency-exit row that has full seat recline, has it’s own overhead bin, and STILL has the equivalent of TWO rows of open space in front of it (you can’t stretch out and sleep any better unless you’re up in a different cabin class). It’s also the first row in the Economy cabin to get served food and drinks, and no matter which seat you’re in, you can get up and sit down as you please without disturbing anyone. It’s what I like to think of as “poor-man’s business class”, and picking these seats is what has enabled me to beat a fair bit of jet lag for the past few months.
And had I been jet-lagged, I’d have been TOAST soon after landing in London. Keeping my wits about me was key as I did what I now know is a super-human feat:
I carried a musical instrument with me as I passed through British customs and was NOT detained, penalized, yelled at, beaten, or ridiculed.
They asked me all the questions that had led less fortunate American musicians to cancel tours (ah, Tim Corley, Britain hardly knew ye…), but as I had gone through the proper channels to obtain proper sponsorship and a proper Entertainer’s Visa, I presented my proper paperwork with proper confidence, and as even though everything was properly legit, I couldn’t help feeling properly smug as I exited with another stamp in my passport, and took it as a good sign of things to come.
(For the benefit of the non-Brits: everything in the U.K. can be categorized as either “proper” or “not proper”. It’s a pretty handy system of description, though I will attempt to use proper restraint in its use hereafter…)
I was met at the terminal by Jon Pearce. Jon was an immense help to me in setting up a bunch of the dates for this tour; we’d been put in touch through a mutual friend, and prior to my arrival, we’d never met. Though Jon didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, he had acted on my behalf like we’d known each other for a long time, and you just don’t find that kind of support in the music biz these days, so I knew I was working with someone of a rare, rare breed. I couldn’t wait to meet the guy.
What I didn’t know, but learned through conversation as he cheerfully and generously gave his time to drive me across London to pick up my rental car, was that this guy is an incredibly modest, yet absolutely proper bonafide rock star. Jon is the bassist for the recently defunct U.K. band Reuben. In the States we haven’t really heard of them, but in talking shop with Jon, it became apparent that he has, as they say, “been to the show” for real. Fast forward two weeks, and the first thing I did after arriving home (besides making a proper cup of tea; more on that later) was look up his band.
Holy crap. They rock HARD and WELL. Many people who know that I used to play in an up-and-coming Top 40 pop-rock band are surprised that I actually enjoy heavy music. It’s really that I enjoy most all kinds of music as long as it’s not pappy crap that’s devoid of original or honest thought. Reuben is a kick-ass heavy band… they remind me of the things I loved about Helmet and No Knife. If you don’t know Helmet or No Knife, you still have no idea what I’m talking about, but regardless, they’re a worthwhile act. Heavy music fans, I recommend checking out their myspace page… including the videos. Intense.
My journey with Jon was my first exposure to the concept of distance vs. time when driving in Britain. From Heathrow, the trip to pick up my car was approximately 15 miles. 15 miles of city driving anywhere in the world can amount to a fair amount of time on a Tuesday morning, but it took us over an hour and a half, going through backed-up streets, one-way detours, gridlocked roundabouts, and a bit of maneuvering through a brigade of London’s infamous double-decker buses. For all I know, this could have ruined Jon’s entire day, though he insisted that wasn’t the case, and he was so good-natured about the whole thing I could only believe him. Besides, he said, this was NORMAL London traffic; he hadn’t counted on anything less.
Finally, we arrived triumphant at the Abbey Road Motorist Centre near London’s West End. I went into the office to claim my reservation. They pulled it up. They rang me up. They told me to stand out at the garridge entryway to await my vehicle.
I cocked my head slightly to one side and asked as politely as possible what a “garridge” was.
Jon was kind enough to translate. Turns out that in British, “garridge” means “garage”. Looking at it objectively, it makes sense… we Americans use a rather French-sounding pronunciation of the word. I quietly filed this away in the brain, expecting many future garridge encounters during my tour.
And then it arrived. My chariot. Ladies and Gentlemen, cue the kazoo music…
That is the esteemed Chevy Matiz. That one there is not my actual car, but that’s not a trick camera shot or the light playing tricks on your eyes, either. The thing was MINISCULE. Imagine two bicycles about four feet apart, strapped together by a lot of duct tape. It is the absolute SMALLEST car I have ever been in.
And the handling? Like a dream. A really BAD dream. Zero to sixty in no less than ninety seconds, baby. More if you’re on a hill. Actually, that’s not true: if you’re on a hill, you’ll NEVER hit sixty. Ever.
I began to wonder if it would be worth it to upgrade to an actual CAR. But one of the first things I noticed when I fired up the engine was that the gas needle was on “E”. I brought this to the attention of the Enterprise employee who had been assisting me.
“Ah yes, mate. That’s quite standard.”
“No it’s not.”
“Ah yes, mate, it is, I’m afraid. The most we ever rent a car with is a quarter tank.”
“I’ve rented cars all over the world. It is NOT standard, and if you rent cars with a quarter tank, then I’m not driving off in this until the tank’s a quarter full.”
“Listen, mate, I’m sorry, but…”
“DUDE. Fill the fucking gas tank.”
It came out before I could stop it. Maybe I was ornery after my flight and the London traffic, but I think it was just that I honestly felt this guy was jerking me around. Maybe it was also that that last sentence came out sounding very much like a pissed-off Jack Black-movie character, but the guy deflated instantly and called over one of his subordinates.
“Follow Jess here over to the petrol station and he’ll get you properly sorted. Sorry about that, mate.”
(Note to self: figure out what made him roll over… was it “Dude”? “Fucking”? The whole delivery? Must keep that one on-call for future garridge negotiations…)
Fifteen minutes later I had a half-full fuel tank. The significance of that is that the Chevy Matiz holds just over 30 liters of fuel… or just about 8 American gallons… and that a half-tank, or about 4 gallons, cost the Enterprise guy about 18 pounds… or, at the time, about 35 dollars. That’s a bit over 8 dollars a gallon, and my eyes bugged out a bit as I did the math. Over the course of the afternoon, as I drove from West London to just north of Cambridge, I realized that the advantage of the Matiz is kickass gas mileage. Suddenly I loved this tiny little car with my whole being. What a beautiful, efficient, wee little machine it was! We became fast friends, and I often sang a little kazoo-music theme-song for the car as we struggled up many-a-hill for the next two weeks.
I woke up Wednesday morning some miles north of Cambridge in the home of my good friend Rob Norton (who was indispensable in helping me get my paperwork in order for the tour) and his family; the two youngest members of which, I’m pleased to note, are going to make his hair turn grey faster than mine ever will. Rob and his lovely fiancee Lucy also kept my teacup full all morning, ensuring that A) I would be buzzing well into the wee hours after my gig that night, and B) that I would rekindle my love affair with proper British tea.
I don’t know WHY I forget about tea. I’ve been drinking it for years longer than coffee, and when it’s done right, its presence in my life completely obliterates the need for coffee of any kind. Those familiar with my coffee-addiction must realize what strong language I’m using here… but it’s true. And tea is so simple! But in America, where we have tea, we have OPTIONS, and this, I now realize, ruins the whole thing. Ask for tea in America, and you’ll be asked “What kind? We have Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey, Lemon Zapdoodle, Raspberry Beret, Chamomillian-Apple-Beet Menage, Matte Overload, and six varieties of Pear/Nectarine/Prune infusions with Ginsing and Honey…” It’s an invitation to pick the wrong thing, which most of us, invariably, DO.
Ask for tea in Britain, and you will also get one question in return: “Milk and sugar?” To this, you say “Yes”. You don’t ask for skim milk, you don’t ask for artificial sweetener, and you don’t ask them to measure things out or use some Starbucks-calculus to get the right proportions. They’re British and this is in their blood. The end result will be better than anything you have sipped in recent history. You just shut up and drink your tea.
So. The first stop on this tour was in the town of Clitheroe. Learning how to pronounce this word caused me no small amount of awkwardness. Was one to utilize the “th”-sound when speaking this name aloud? If not, exactly how would the “oe” at the end affect the pronunciation? Finally, I wondered, should my fears be realized and should the correct way to say it be, in fact, “clit hero”… well, I wondered if the locals would have a sense of humor about it. I mean… what does a town with that name call their sports team?
For the duration of my stay in Clitheroe (with a “th”) and other parts-north-of-Manchester, including a really fun opening show at the Keystreet Music Pub, I was assisted with this and many other problems by this guy:
Anthony Dewhurst is a hell of a nice bloke, as they say. He epitomizes everything you hear about when, as an artist, you hear that you should start a Street Team to help you with promotion. Anthony booked this show, promoted this show, filled the room with people on a night when there was football on the telly (note to Americans: that is REALLY impressive, considering their “football” is actually “soccer”), and then ended up putting me up at his place when it became far too late for me to attempt to make it down to Manchester as I’d originally planned.
He also came up clutch in helping me with THIS problem:
I have been aware for some time now that there is a difference between the standard voltage used in the UK and the standard voltage used in the US. I am also aware that the plugs they use are enormous and unwieldy things that you would never believe actually fit into a wall socket, and so, prior to this trip, I purchased what I thought was a voltage converter/wall adaptor.
In truth, it worked great as an adaptor. As a converter… not so much. The first clue was that, upon plugging in my brand new RC-50 loop pedal and pressing the power button, nothing happened. The second clue was seeing the smoke starting to emit from the (US) adaptor plug. It was fried instantly. Anthony was on the phone in seconds, finding me a replacement for the night, and, not sure if he’d found a sure thing, took off to go bring me HIS loop pedal to use for the night. One of his mates turned up with a (proper) adaptor shortly thereafter, though, and the evening was saved.
Well, “saved” in as much as I was able to start using my brand new loop pedal in front of a live audience. Heh. As many of the audiences from the first few shows of this tour will tell you, it took me awhile to get the hang of the RC-50’s advanced features… it’s got a bit more going on than my old RC-20, that’s for sure!
The Keystreet is a wonderful venue, and one I hope to return to. The place is run by a very nice couple who are all about the music. They also have a great sense of humor. In chatting with a few folks at the bar, I noticed that the bar mats boasted one, simple word:
By way of explanation, they just gave me one:
I wondered if this would be the next energy-drink sensation to cross the ocean and sweep the nation, but in truth, Clitheroe is the only place in the entire U.K. where I, err… found some Pussy.
The next AM, I went with Anthony and his mate John (note: British use of the word “mate”; both of these gentlemen quite prefer the ladies) to a proper traditional British brekky. This consists of sausage, baked beans, toast, eggs, fried tomatoes, and British-style bacon, which is somewhere between Canadian bacon and Australian bacon, but is not really either of those. Oh, and tea. John requested an additional item on his breakfast plate: Black Pudding, which is one of the regional delicacies.
Black Pudding is sausage made by cooking blood with some kind of filler (grain or fat, or both) until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled. In recognition of the fact that many Americans aren’t familiar with this, I will give my own biased American view on the matter: When you get a cut, and you bleed, eventually your blood congeals and cools, and forms what we call a SCAB. Scabs are generally dark in color, but as I’m sure you can imagine, if you cooked it, it would turn quite black. So while the interesting name “Black Pudding” may conjure up happy images of Bill Cosby offering sweet treats to delighted children, in truth, it amounts to a plate of baked sheep scab. I apologize profusely for my horribly uncultured American sensibilities, but I was totally aghast. I was assured that it is, in fact, delicious, and for all I know, I’m missing out on the greatest thing ever. But I will live with my fear and be okay with it.
Next, off I went to Manchester, where I had a gig at the Thirsty Scholar. The Scholar is a pub right on the edge of the Manchester University campus, and as I would find out repeatedly during my tour, I had come during “Freshers Week”, so there was a very real possibility of the place being overrun with 18-year-olds enjoying the start of their first-ever weekend of independence.
As it turned out, this was one of my favorite gigs of the whole tour. The crowd was fantastic… it was the same vibe as a really great college coffeehouse show, only the place was packed with people drinking BEER. Let me go on record as saying that I believe a legal drinking age of 21 is bad for a country with regard to social behavior. Every other country in the world proves it, time and time again. Granted, the American drinking age is in place largely because of the drinking-and-driving problem, which, given the sorry state of public transportation in most of America, is a necessary evil, but it still makes me upset. There was a time when the US had a fantastic light rail system… so fantastic, in fact, that the Europeans copied it. But then the automotive industry bought up the rail companies… and the track. And they tore it down… so they could sell us cars. But that’s a tale for another time…
Where was I? Ah yes. Fantastic show. Great crowd. Afterwards, I crashed at the abode of yet another of Britain’s finest bassists of heavy rock; Darryll Clarkson. Darryll plays for yet another of the UK’s finer heavy music bands: Profane, and without making this entire telling a subversive advertisement for heavy British music, I must also suggest taking a gratuitous listen to them via the link below:
Darryll and I stayed up far too late, discussing the awful state of the world and the corruption of my country’s government, and he turned me onto something magic: Old Speckled Hen. The OSH is what the Brits call a ‘bitter’. We have similar beers in the States that we refer to as ‘pale ale’, however most Pale Ales leave me with the desire to immediately grimace and spit, and nearly every bitter I tried in Britain, and the Hen in particular, made me want to slosh it around in my mouth for a few minutes and savor the taste. Delicious. **hic**
The next morning I awoke, had some fantastic Yorkshire Tea, and stopped in to an electronics store to buy myself a proper 9 volt adaptor for my pedal (I had been using the one I borrowed from Anthony’s friend for the previous two nights). Then it was off to South Wales.
Wales, of course, is a separate country from England, much the same way Scotland and Northern Ireland are. The differences between the way these countries are all “separate” from each other aren’t too different from the way the individual States are separate from each other in the US, but this is not an issue you want to press in Britain. Just as there is an element to the Bible Belt population in America that would still secede and become its own sovereign nation in a heartbeat if given the chance, there are still plenty of bad feelings toward the English on the part of the Scots, Welsh, and the Cornish down in Cornwall, the southern area of the U.K. that didn’t get to keep its status as a separate country (Call those folks “English” and you will be punched squarely in the face). And of course the Northern Irish, it goes without saying, have been beyond pissed about their lack of sovereignty for quite some time now.
I’d been to Scotland before, and know that it truly looks and feels different from England in enough ways that you absolutely know you’re somewhere ‘else’. I wondered if the same would be true for Wales, as it sits in the same latitude as most of England.
Quite so. I only saw a relatively small portion of the southern countryside, but it is GORGEOUS. Green, mountainous, unspoiled; those are the first three words that come to mind when describing it. Once I got off the main motorway and found my way through the maze of incredibly narrow, windy little roads that led to the towns I was staying in and playing in, I got hopelessly lost for the better part of an hour, but it was sort of a welcome distraction. I thought I’d gone back in time… these little communities were more charming and rustic even than those I’d seen in Germany. I felt like I was going to be stopped by a knight on horseback at any second. The language barrier wasn’t a big help either. See, most things in Wales have names in… Welsh; a language that, in print, appears to have been produced by a toddler with a typewriter:
As I soon discovered, looking at a map in Wales, for me, was pointless. I couldn’t retain the strange-looking words long enough to see if they matched up with the all-too-infrequent road signs, and so I just sort of winged it.
I did, eventually, find both the Bed & Breakfast where I was to stay the night, and the venue where I was to play, thanks to the kind directions of Rob Southall. Rob is the head of the Islwyn Guitar Club, and was the very first guy to offer me a show in the U.K. He took a bit of a risk on me, as his group is obviously more in the business of hosting guitarists than either bassists or singers (much less both in one), and they opted to book me into the larger of the venues they deal with: the Blackwood Miners Institute, and I appreciated that. In essence, he is the reason I was able to pull this whole thing together, so I was very pleased to meet him and play for him. Also on my personal VIP list for the evening was Mr. Andy Long, the club’s secretary, and a solo bassist himself… I have every reason to believe Andy was key in pulling a few strings to get me this gig. ;]
The gig was great. I played to a room that largely had no idea what to expect from me; it seemed that many of the folks in attendance were really sticking around to check me out because of some word-of-mouth they’d heard, and that they stayed the duration with notable enthusiasm is a testament either to how well things went or to their good manners. :]
The show opened with a set by solo bassist Alun Vaughan, who I’d been looking forward to meeting and hearing play for quite awhile now, and he did not disappoint; it was a short but focused set of intriguing music, played effortlessly and with good taste. After Alun there was also a guitar duo who were to do a short set before I took the stage, but I haven’t much to say about them, as they played about twice as long as they were supposed to, which I found pretty presumptuous.
The next twenty-four hours of the tour felt at the time, and still seem in retrospect, like two separate days. I began the day in Wales and ended it in Lille, France, having traveled via car, train, bus, and boat to make it to the next gig. Here is my day, conveniently broken down via timeline:
1 AM – Bed & Breakfast in Wales – sleep after packing for overnight trip
4 AM – wake up, shower, pack car
4:45 AM – start driving to London through fog I’d only read about in ghost stories and didn’t believe actually existed
7:30 AM – take the wrong exit off the motorway
7:45 AM -miraculously find my way back into Central London
8 AM – after having asked a hotel valet how to get there, arrive at Victoria Station and look for parking
8:10 AM – now freaking out, decide to park a half mile away at the bus station, because at least I can find the parking lot
8:20 AM – walk over to Victoria Station, staring in disbelief at the car park I must have driven right past
8:30 AM – in line to buy a train ticket to Dover
8:50 AM – now on a train, I attempt to nap, but am too wired and anxious from my drive
10:20 AM – get off train to make my connection, which I find out is actually a BUS… seems this weekend they’re doing a bunch of work to the rail track, and the buses are remarkably slow
11 AM – arrive at connecting station to find I’ve missed the train that would have gotten me to the ferry on time
11:20 – board next train
NOON – arrive at Dover Station… hurry to catch the bus to the Ferry Port. Sign says I’ve just missed the bus and that the next one comes in 20 minutes
12:04 – ask a Taxi driver how fast he can get me to the SeaFrance Ferry Terminal. He says “ten minutes”.
12:13 – Taxi pulls up at the terminal for “SpeedFerry”. I tell him this isn’t the place. He insists this is what I told him I wanted. I tell him I have never heard of “SpeedFerry”, so there’s no way I could have said it. And that he needs to get me to the SeaFrance terminal without charging me extra. NOW. (Insert Jack Black voice again)
“Okay; I do it for one pound extra.”
“Fine. Just GO.”
12:22 – I arrive at the SeaFrance counter to claim my reservation. I am told I’m too late for that ferry, and that my ticket is non-refundable, but that they can transfer me to the next one that leaves IN TWO HOURS.
12:27 – I buy another ticket on another ferry line that is leaving in a half hour
1 PM – I am aboard a ferry leaving for Calais, France. The ride takes 75 minutes, but we lose an hour going to France. The adrenaline is still moving through me, I can’t sleep, and I’m starting to get a little delerious.
3:15 – The ferry docks in Calais, and I haul ass through the terminal looking for Marc Johnson, owner of Bass’Cool, and my host for the evening
3:30 – Marc and I jump in his girlfriend’s car, and we take off like a shot for what will hopefully be only a one hour drive to Lille, because he’s already pushed my performance time back from 4:30 to 5.
4:29 – We hit gridlocked traffic upon entering downtown Lille, so Marc and I hop out of the car and hoof it over to check-in at my hotel; we grab the key and head immediately off to EuroGuitar, which is only a few blocks away.
4:47 – I’m setting up in EuroGuitar, taking my pedals and cables out and setting the amp up the way I need it in front of a very curious audience… and then all at once, the adrenaline subsides and dehydration and exhaustion catch up to me and punch me in the face. I also catch sight of my reflection in an office window, and realize that I look BAD. Like, rough around the edges would be a severe understatement. I look BAAAAD. Marc asks me if I’d like some water.
“Coffee, too, please. Water and coffee. As big a cup of each as they have.”
Marc looks at me like I’m a bit nuts. At that moment, his assessment is spot-on, as I am a bit nuts.
5 PM – I down half the water in one gulp, do the small cup of french coffee like it’s a shot of tequila, then down the other half of the water in another gulp. I wait ten seconds. Then I feel my heart start again. Then I start playing.
I think I was not actually IN my body for most of this performance. I remember only a few pieces of it, but Marc took video, so I know it happened. This is a link to some of that video… it’s the opening, and it starts right at that point I mentioned where I felt my heart start beating again:
5:45 – Having gotten my second wind, we left EuroGuitar and went to a local rehearsal studio that Marc had set up for a bass masterclass. Masterclasses are always an iffy thing, as they involve a bunch of players getting into the same room, supposedly to learn and better themselves as players under the direction of a guest musician. The only thing is, these players will invariably be at different levels of development and musicianship, and depending on how large the class is, it can be difficult to find a pace that suits everyone. Plus there was the language barrier to consider, though Marc is a fabulous translator. In all, I thought the class was a great success, and was really impressed with the players that came to check it out.
10 PM – Marc, myself, and most of the guys who attended the masterclass… we all went to dinner. And what a dinner. I’m uncultured enough and bad enough at French to tell you that I don’t know what the food I ate is called, but I can tell you unequivocally that if you are ever in Lille, you need to go eat at this restaurant. Oh my GOODNESS.
11:30 PM – We took a walk around downtown Lille, and it really hit me that I was IN FRANCE. It’s not like Portugal, Spain, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, or Italy. It is its own thing, and I definitely need to go back and explore it further. Truly captivating… I was grateful for the tour.
12:15 – Back at my hotel, I had been up for nearly 23 intense hours after only 3 hours of sleep, and with a head full of Bordeaux, I was ready to zonk out. Somehow I managed to repack a few things to prep for the next day’s journey back, but I don’t remember making it a minute longer than 12:46. Zzzzzzzzzz…..
I slept the Sleep of the Dead, and awoke completely recharged, ready to do most of the travel from the previous day in reverse order. I was picked up from the hotel and brought back to Calais, and Marc had a breakfast-care package of French pastries for me to try along the way. I felt the most stressful part of the whole tour was behind me, and looked forward to smooth sailing.
And then traffic stopped on the French motorway. For half an hour. We basically crawled along because of what would eventually reveal itself to be an accident. Luckily I hadn’t pre-bought my ferry ticket this time, so going on a later boat wasn’t a financial travesty, but I did make a call to up-and-coming bassist/singer/songwriter Kev Cooke to let him know that the way things seemed, I’d be rolling up to the venue that night with no time to spare.
The ferry ride was uneventful… I had a big lunch, expecting to be stuck on trains, buses, and in the car for the remainder of the afternoon and evening. And I was. I took the cab back to the train which took me to the station where I needed to catch the (sloooooow) bus which took me to the next station where I boarded the train that took me back to Central London where I walked back to my car and then drove up to the town of Milton Keynes. That whole process took until 9 o’clock that evening. See, I had done my entire trip thus far using directions I printed off of Google Maps before I left. The directions were great for giving me the general whereabouts of each destination, but I’d been making phone calls to my respective hosts along the way to guide me to each venue once I was in striking distance. I was late enough to Milton Keynes that I couldn’t call Kev, because he was ON STAGE, opening the show. So I called the only other number I had, which was for the nice old couple that owned the pub I was trying to get to.
The conversation that ensued would probably not translate as “funny” if reprinted here, but I ask you to draw on whatever frame of reference you need to imagine me on the phone with an older British couple who are simultaneously passing the phone back and forth while arguing about the best way to send me to their pub, all the while not really knowing where I actually AM. While this is going on, imagine that I am driving through a whole lot of ROUNDABOUTS… big traffic circles used instead of intersections-with-traffic-lights throughout most of the UK. I never really learned the proper rules of driving through roundabouts, so I really took my life into my hands each time I entered one, and given the amount of times I was instructed to double-back and change directions during my conversation with these folks, it’s a wonder the car and I escaped with our lives.
But they got me there. I pulled up to The Dolphin, ran inside, walked straight up to the stage, and within ten minutes or so was getting ready to play. I was bummed that I had missed Kev’s opening set… it’s not often I get to hear another bassist/singer/songwriter, but as he was opening the following night’s show in London, it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d made these mistakes. [That’s a completely inside joke for Kev and those who know him. ;]
This was a fun night… I got to meet quite a few people I had only “known” through the internet until then; some Street Team members, some Producers from the current album project… it was quite the meeting of the minds in that respect! Jon Pearce was able to make it to this gig too, which was very cool of him, and I also reunited with the legendary Rhys Anslow for the second time in two days… he’d been at the Wales gig, and had come all the way to Milton Keynes to catch this gig as well.
Rhys took that last pic from Wales, as well as this one from The Dolphin:
Of all the gigs I did during this tour, this one seemed to have the most people in attendance who were already fans of my music, and this made for quite a different show. It’s a whole different game when you’re playing for people who have a frame of reference for what you do as opposed to a room of folks that you have to win over for the first time. It was a very comfortable night, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Afterwards I was graciously offered a place to crash by Kev, and as Rhys was also staying with him and coming to the London show the next night, the next 24 hours became something of the “UK Horanimal Street Team Hang of the Century”. It was good times.
I had followed Rhys and Kev back to Kev’s place after the gig, where we enjoyed a nightcap and some conversation before turning in. The next morning we awoke at our own pace, milled around, had some breakfast, some tea, and some parking tickets. Yes; it seems we’d left our cars a bit too long on the wrong side of the street, and we each got nasty little yellow notes under our windshield wipers. 30 pounds each. I chalked it up to what I’d have had to pay for a night in a Travelodge anyway.
For most of the afternoon we nerded out; I gave the guys an impromptu lesson, and Kev’s mom made some spectacular lasagna. Then I needed to head down to London to meet Rob Norton before the gig, so I took off about an hour ahead of the other guys. Kev printed out some directions for me to get out of Milton Keynes.
These directions somehow got me deeply lost within the Milton Keynes city limits for at least thirty minutes. When I finally saw a sign for the M1 motorway, I screamed in victory and took the exit. As it turns out, going this way added another half hour to my journey. I know this, because as I (finally) exited the motorway into Northern London and stopped for a traffic light, I noticed that the car directly in front of me looked suspiciously familiar, and contained at least two passengers I recognized: Rhys and Kev. Unbelievable.
I gave up trying to follow my printed directions and simply tailed them all the way to Bar Monsta. In a stunning display of serendipity, Fate had seen fit to leave just enough room in the parking zone right in front of the club for two small cars, and we zipped the wrong way down a one-way street to take them:
I felt bad for not arriving in time to hang with Rob… until I realized that Rob hadn’t arrived yet either. It seems he had been looking for parking for close to an hour, and that if we hadn’t taken those parking spots when we saw them, we might still be circling the streets of London right now, looking in vain for a spot.
I had expected this gig at Bar Monsta to be the centerpiece of the tour… when planning the whole thing out, it seemed absolutely imperative that I have a London show booked, as there are just over a hundred people on my London-area mailing list, many of whom I have heard from personally over the past two years, imploring me to do a gig in London. It seemed I would be doing the majority of my UK fans a great disservice, and that I’d never hear the end of it, if I didn’t make sure I performed in London on this trip.
So while it was fabulous to finally get to see Kev play that night (and, as was joked, to have a “proper spare bass” around in case mine had problems; Kev’s looks almost exactly like mine…), and it was fantastic to play for some more new faces, I have to comment that of the twenty (20) people attending, seven (7) of them had also been to the show the night before in Milton Keynes. So of the 100+ people I was attempting to satisfy by coming across the Atlantic Ocean and making this show happen, a whopping 13 of them could actually have been bothered to come out and see the show, and did so. The promoter lost money on the night, and as that was my best line on a follow-up gig in London, I shouldn’t expect it to appear on the schedule the next time I try to put something like this together. I guess those that know someone who went can ask about it, as I really did think it was a cool show, but alas, for those short-sighted enough to have thought something as preposterous as “oh, I’ll just have to catch him next time”…. ah, London… I hardly knew ye. :(
After the gig I said farewell to Kev and Rhys…
…and from there I encroached upon the hospitality of London’s elite musician-superstar-power-couple, namely: Steve and Lobelia Lawson. They and their fabulous flatmate, Cat, were beyond wonderful to me, and looking back, we really got to spend far too little time together considering the duration of my time in the UK. But it was fab regardless, and as Steve is just about the most web-savvy musician on the planet, they had massive internet access, and I was able to catch up on my email for the first time since arriving at Heathrow.
The following morning I was faced with a tough decision I had encountered nowhere else before or since on this tour:
Coffee or tea?
I’ve already discussed the awesomeness of British tea. What I haven’t mentioned is that the UK is really just discovering American drip coffee, and that in general, they are HIDEOUSLY UNTALENTED in making it. I had been offered coffee many times already, and each time the option had turned out to be some sort of Nescafe instant stuff, which Americans of course understand tastes like the Plague, but in Britian, well… they don’t really have drip coffee machines, so what other options do they have? There are a number of Starbucks across the UK, and I stopped into one at one point just to see if it would be exactly like every other Starbucks on Earth. And they had a big sign up at the counter: “SORRY – NO DRIP COFFEE”. Like I said: hideously untalented in this regard.
But I was starting my day in one of the few households in all of Britain where I could be guaranteed a real, honest cup of quality coffee, because A) Steve is a fellow coffee fanatic, and buys only the best shit he can find and makes it in a french press, and B) he is married to a discerning American woman who would probably not tolerate anything less. So, I went for the coffee. It was like hearing from an old friend. :]
Steve did me a fantastic favor before I left that morning: he lent me his GPS unit. Okay. No he didn’t. He lent me his “Sat Nav”. Ask for a “GPS” in Britain and watch people squint at you. If I had known this back at the garridge when I first rented my car, I might not have run into such difficulty in finding stuff. Live and learn.
Anyway, the SatNav told me that my next destination, Plymouth, was a four and a half hour drive. Steve told me that this was “bollocks” and that in fact it would take me between five or six hours, accounting for tiny roads and traffic. As the load-in time I’d been given was 6 PM, and it was already 11, I got going with intent.
Not speeding, and stopping once for gas, it took me almost exactly four hours and forty-five minutes to get to Plymouth (a nice, developed city with a prominent university population). Further, upon arrival at the Ride Cafe and checking in with the bartender, it seemed that nobody would arrive to set up any of the night’s music gear until 7:30. Even then, the night started with an open mic, and I would not be taking the stage until 10 PM. So I had a LOT of time to kill, which would have been fantastic if today had not been the day the British weather decided to show me what I had been missing all through my trip so far: rain.
In retrospect, I’m glad I had a few hours to myself that afternoon, as I walked to a local cafe, got some tea and a newspaper, and proceeded to catch up on how the planet has started its untimely descent into oblivion. This was the day the House of Representatives didn’t approve Henry Paulson’s bail-out plan for the American economy, and it was all over every bit of news I could get my hands on.
I live in Reno, Nevada; one of the only places in America where gambling is State-sponsored and legal. And I assure you that if I took up a collection from all my neighbors “for safe keeping”, got a fat sum of money together, went down to a casino, bet it all, and lost it all, I could NOT go ask the State to “bail me out”. I could whine about how it wasn’t all my money to begin with, and how my neighbors had trusted me with their cash, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Granted, the State allowed me the opportunity to gamble at my own risk, but that’s just it: it’s AT MY OWN RISK. So I applauded those congressmen who had the balls to say “No” to my country’s inept administration.
I had to take it back a few days later though. What a bunch of assholes.
Those who are helping to produce my next album know that I have a song in the works called “Ready for the Riot”. It talks about what this whole economic mess has become, and I think it’s going to be a shoo-in for inclusion on the record next year… (if we’re not all living Stone-Age style by then, I mean).
I will end my topical mini-rant by simply recommending that, after you finish reading this epic story of mine, you set aside a couple hours to watch a new movie that just came out. It’s called “Addendum”, and you can find it here:
(end of digression).
…anyway, I went back to Ride Cafe, had a little dinner, and took in the open mic that went from around 8 until 10 PM. It was packed! What a great crowd. Over the course of my constant touring around America a few years back, I had watched the ebbing of most open mics’ popularity, so this was a fantastic contrast. There were at least eighty people out on this Cafe’s patio, under a tent, checking out the music and drinking heartily. So nice to see.
What was even nicer to see, and totally unexpected, was that as I set up the stage for my set, about thirty of these folks congregated around the stage… there was an actual, palpable air of anticipation. I’m not entirely sure how they heard about it, as I had almost NO existing mailing list in Southern England or Cornwall, but these folks had come out to see me perform. It was like the “anti-London”! ;]
I played what was, looking back on it, probably my most “well-played” show of the tour. I was alert, excited, and was just ‘in the ZONE’ that night, and the cheering of what I was told was over a hundred people definitely fed that fire. Good times.
After the gig I loaded a PA system into my little car. I was told by John, the enormously friendly bloke who ran the open mic, that the promoter for my next two shows had contacted him and told him that I would need to bring my own PA for those, so he was to lend me one. At first we were a bit unsure as to whether the mighty Matiz would have the room, or be able to carry any extra weight, but as I have mentioned, I grew to love that little vehicle, and it came through for me like a champ.
The bond between the Matiz and I grew even moreso later that evening, as I opted to go extreme-old-school and sleep in it at a truckstop that night. It was a total throw-back to the days of yore; the seat wouldn’t recline all the way due to the PA system in the back, it was pouring rain outside, and of course, it got COLD. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent the night in your car at a truckstop in a town called ‘Saltash’ out in the pouring rain, baby. Hear the drummer get wicked.
Shockingly, I awoke the next morning uncomfortable and with the beginnings of a cold (duh. I am a tool, or as the Brits would say, a knob). I washed up in the truckstop and resolved to do three things as soon as possible:
1. find a place that would serve me authentic (read: “proper”) Cream Tea
2. find a place that would sell me an authentic (proper) Cornish Pasty
3. find a proper Bed & Breakfast that would let me check in early and take a nap and a hot shower.
Amazingly, I was able to do all three of these things, in that order, with not forty minutes transpiring between each blessed event.
“Cream Tea” doesn’t mean a cup of tea with cream in it. The word ‘tea’ is also used to reference a meal-time. The way you might go to a restaurant at 7 PM and order eggs and pancakes, thusly having “breakfast for dinner”… well, in this instance, you’re having “cream for tea”… specifically, you’re having scones with jam and clotted cream, which is unbelievably good, and should be readily available outside Cornwall, dammit!
I didn’t go out of my way to find this. I simply took the route my SatNav was providing on my way to Falmouth, the city of my next gig, and happened to pass a sign that said “PROPER CORNISH – CREAM TEA!”. Turns out what had eluded me all over the rest of Britain is so common down there you can’t go a mile without finding it.
Less than 30 minutes later I passed through a quaint little town… the first of many, as I didn’t see anything in Cornwall that wouldn’t qualify as “quaint” or “little”. I don’t remember the name. All I remember was passing the sign that said “FAMILY BUTCHER – HOMEMADE PASTIES”, and nearly turning into oncoming traffic to get to the place.
A pasty is that pure form of genius so basic that it’s silly: it’s essentially steak and stew baked inside a flaky pastry. You will never believe me until you try one, after which time, you will never doubt anything I say.
Falmouth was a relatively short drive after that. It is – well, beautiful, for one thing, but definitely little, as cities go, and so quaint you feel like you’re on a movie set. It’s right on the water, and what struck me over and over again as I wandered the waterfront was that it DOESN’T SMELL BAD. I mean, it has everything one would expect from a port town… except the fishy smell. It was a fantastic tourist experience, and they seem to be aware of this: when I asked around as to where I’d find a Bed & Breakfast, the overwhelming response was “Why, check in the tourism office!”
I did. They asked me what I preferred (“cheap”), and made a phone call, and poof – I was able to check in to a wonderful, quiet, warm, clean room before noon. I slept and showered enough to keep the sniffles at bay, and went to the gig around seven.
This was the only road-kill of my entire experience on this tour. I wasn’t even upset about it, really… every other show had been such a pleasure that it almost HAD to happen. It was just a combination of factors that didn’t add up for a good show. This night was originally booked in the city of Newquay, but had been switched to Falmouth with one week’s notice (Jon had notified me of the switch moments after I arrived at Heathrow). So the new venue had no clue who I was or what to expect from me; they only knew that they’d received a phone call and that “some American bloke” was now playing a night in their pub; there was no time for the promoter to do any actual promotion, or to get the gig listed in any local papers, or to get any posters up anywhere. So though there were hundreds of students in the streets outside the pub, only the middle-aged, salt-of-the-earth regulars filled Finn MacCoul’s that night, and they were pleasant as you please, and I played well, but they just… did… not… GET… me. At all. They just carried on as if I wasn’t even there. It was a reminder that as a performer, there is one thing worse than being disliked by an audience, and that is being ignored.
I had what the SatNav and my Google maps all told me was a whopping 20 minute trip to my final gig of the tour in the town of St. Agnes, so I took my time the next day… stayed as late as possible in the B&B, went for another walk along the waterfront, and turned off the SatNav to intentionally take the long-way through Cornwall.
It’s truly one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth… just green hills that go on and on and on. At one point, on a bridge, I had to pull over, get out, and walk around a bit, pinching myself to see if it was real:
Eventually I made my way to St. Agnes, which was odd… I thought the SatNav was giving me bad directions, as I knew I was supposed to be heading towards the water, but I appeared to be in the middle of a vast farmland. Then more hills appeared out of nowhere, and less than ten minutes drive from that is the UK’s own little version of California: I was suddenly on this beautiful, San Diego-style coast with cliffs and dunes.
The people in this area are something special… they’re a different breed than those anywhere else in the UK… it’s not that they’re “Cornish”… it’s really more of a free-spirited, universal view that they possess. In the short afternoon I spent wandering around, I encountered a fascinating mix of surfers, entrepeneurs, gen-exers, and even American transplants… and though they have the accent, most of these folks totally eschew most of what I would say “being British” is about. That is neither an insult to the kind residents of St. Agnes nor an insult to the rest of Britain; it’s simply my impression of the energy I felt from these people. It was startlingly different, and the contrast was very cool.
I played that night at The Taphouse, and this was the only venue I encountered that had a flat above it where they put up the musicians for the night. Tim, the owner, was a great guy who was fantastically accommodating, and who really loves what he does; he made the whole experience easy and enjoyable, and basically told me “you’ve got the run of the place; help yourself to whatever you need”. It was wonderful.
Up until about nine o’clock, it looked like this tour might end with a whimper instead of a bang. There were maybe three couples dining in the restaurant, and one dude at the bar. Then they started to pour in. By 9:30, the bar was full of locals, and I took the stage. They warmed up to me pretty quickly, and by the time I finished, I felt we’d bonded. They seemed to agree, because afterwards I got to do something I hadn’t been able to do the entire tour… have a few drinks with the audience. These people let me hang out with them like I’d known them for years, and we had a fine time. It was a great way to end things up, and though it’s far off the beaten path for foreign touring musicians, I definitely hope to make my way back to St. Agnes before too much time has passed.
My gigs behind me, the final two days of my UK stay were for tying up loose ends and hanging out with old friends. I woke up early, got on the road, and returned the PA system to the Ride Cafe in Plymouth. Then I headed back towards London, stopping outside Redding to give a bass lesson to one Mr. Travis Moore, who won the Street Team mission promoting this tour. After that I went around London and up, just outside Cambridge, to give another lesson, this one to Mr. Chris Gordon. Both these fellows are probably going to be making some big noise in the near future, and you can say you read their names here first… ;]
Then I went back to the little town of March where I’d spent my first evening in the UK, and met up again with Rob. We did what normal people do when it’s getting late and you want to grab a bite in Britain: we got Indian food. Good times.
The next day, after breakfast and good-byes, I drove back to the north end of London and returned my trusty Matiz to the Abbey Road Motorist Centre (I admit it: when nobody was looking, we hugged). Then, all my bags in tow, I took the tube across the city to the southern end of town to spend the afternoon with the infamous Rodney Branigan.
Of all the musician friends I have made over the years, my life has not moved in tandem with anyone else’s moreso than with Rodney’s. We met in LA back in 2002. By the end of that year, we were living on the road together for two and a half months, and we toured together again the next autumn as well. We brought each other to parts of America the other would never have gotten to on his own, and many of our fans crossed over to like the other guy, too. Then I got him to come to the NAMM show in 2006, and that year, each of us started making progress with our careers overseas. For the past two years, we’ve both gone to the Frankfurt Musikmesse as well. I know many musicians with whom my path crosses theirs maybe once a year if we’re lucky. Rodney and I manage to see each other at least twice a year without trying though, and it’s always great to catch up and see how life is changing for the other guy.
(For those that don’t know who Rodney is… did I mention he plays two guitars at the same time?)
For all the time he and I have spent touring together, it was ironic that he had just returned from a month-long tour of the US, and this was the first full day we had both been in the same country. We got lunch, caught up, and then he offered to drive me over to Steve Lawson’s, where I would again spend the evening. As Steve doesn’t live more than four miles from Rodney, this was going to be a quick drive. Rodney just entered Steve’s neighborhood into the car’s SatNav, and…
…and forty-five minutes later, we were in Central London, lost beyond hope. HysTERICAL! :) We still don’t know why the SatNav glitched like that, but hey; it gave us extra time to hang, and for Rodney to listen to me explain the way I’d been driving with shock and horror (“Dude, you’ve been breaking like, EVERY law…”).
We called Steve, got his actual postal code, entered that, and got to Chez Lawson in 15 more minutes.
It was a blissful reunion. Even though Rodney and Steve are friends, and though Rodney has lived in the UK for nearly 2 years now, and the whole time about 4 miles from Steve, this was the FIRST time they had seen each other on UK soil. That’s me, bringing the world together, two miscreant musicians at a time. It’s what I do. :]
Rodney had to take off, so we said our good-byes. I was taking off shortly as well; I had made plans with Steve and his flatmates to spend my last night in the UK renting a street car with them and travelling back up to Milton Keynes to see one of our favorite singer-songwriters: Jonatha Brooke.
We had fun on the drive up, and the show itself was spectacular (Jonatha is so good it’s scary, and her new album is stunning. You know where iTunes is. Do yourself a favor and check it out). Afterwards, Steve waited around for the autograph line to dwindle, and then he chatted with Jonatha for awhile… because they’re FRIENDS. I was intimidated like I haven’t been in a very long time. See… I think Jonatha is dreamy, and have had a mad fan-crush on her for like, over a decade. Just enough to make me a stuttering fool — a complete dweeb — once she was within ten feet of me. So I hung in the back while Lobelia and Cat and their other flatmate Tess laughed at my dweebishness, and when Steve introduced each of us, I managed to shake her hand and utter something totally lame. I think. I may have blacked out.
I certainly blacked out for a bit on the drive back to London. Then we all sat down and conducted the “Get Seth to Heathrow in the morning before the rest of us wake up”-summit. After a route was navigated and approved, we said good night and good bye, and I settled down for a wee nap.
I woke up a few hours later, dressed quietly, and walked across the street to the bus station. This took me to the tube station, from which the train took me to Heathrow. I checked in without incident… and then went to exchange currency.
Fuck. Suffice to say, I felt a little of the world’s pain when I saw the number on the little slip of paper the woman handed me. It was about 30% less than it would have been if I’d exchanged the currency just a few days sooner. I was awarded some karma points though as I boarded the plane, however…
Ladies and Gentlemen: I received my first-ever upgrade to international business class.
When I closed my eyes, I imagined that I’d paid for the upgrade with that 30% that had gone up in smoke. I very nearly convinced myself it was true.
I got so much trouble on my mind. I refuse to lose.
Tell ’em, Chuck.