Entries from my acoustic tour diary, performing in UK houses with Felix Hagan…
This tour shouldn’t really work. The little Nissan is already stuffed with a PA system, guitars, merch, a fortnight’s worth of underwear and a multipack of cheese puffs – no way is there room for the swollen egos of two attention-seeking frontmen. But we both grew up in Britain’s quietly frustrated South; we know how to behave when we’re not in a spotlight, we can curb the exuberance, lower our voices and keep to the speed limit.
Felix and I are friends but don’t hang out much. When we do there tends to be a task in hand, we’ve not done a great deal of time-killing chitchat before. On the drive down from Manchester we discuss our bands, how fun they are but how difficult it is when members live in different cities, the fear of losing momentum, the need to keep going forwards but inevitably only at the speed of the least interested participant. We talk about how and why we started in this business, on which things we are prepared to compromise on and which ones we definitely aren’t; we talk about the musical he wrote and the one I’m currently writing (both involve the deaths of pretty much every single character – what has made us both so morbid?). The subject of ambition is raised and this is the point on which we differ most – Felix is aiming for the full Freddie Mercury but I don’t think I could stomach that, not anymore anyway, I just don’t like other people enough to have them all knocking on my door (I’m opting for the Ivor Cutler approach: a sizzle of notoriety and the bemused esteem of my peers followed by an obituary published ten years after everyone decided I was already dead).
Our first show is in Southampton. Portsmouth-born people like me rarely venture into this place due to an ancient feud that I won’t go into here, but in the fourteen years since I moved North I’ve done my best to eschew all geographical prejudices. It’s a sunny day and the house sits in a pleasantly leafy suburb. A respectable part of the country – strange place for students to live. The father of the host opens the door and the penny drops: second year students out of term-time tend to live with their parents. I wipe my feet and hastily abandon all thoughts of trapezing off the light-fittings later. As we enter I make a joke about someone ordering a kiss-o-gram, no one laughs. I decide to leave the rest of the niceties to Felix. This is his crowd not mine, I get the impression most of the people present think I’m his caddy. That’s fine, I don’t have to be anything until later and I prefer it that way, I can just slouch about eating garlic bread until gig time, Felix can be the glamorous one.
Things loosen up as more people arrive and the drink starts to flow. Larry is the name of the host, I remember he wore a parrot outfit at a video shoot the label did with Felix’s band a while back (this outfit makes a comeback later in the evening). I mostly chat to his mother in the kitchen. I like her very much. We talk about gigs we’ve been to and I go on a little bit too long about The Blockheads as usual.
I’m the only one who’s been given a glass rather than a plastic party cup. I’m not sure if this is a mark of respect or a verdict that I’m unlikely to do anything too rash because I have flecks of grey in my beard and somewhat professory eyebrows. Maybe they’re right.
I perform first and gently terrorise the assembly but don’t go for full-on mayhem as I’m a little worried about the carpet. They’re a lovely audience. Once finished I think my work is over but Felix needs someone to lead the audience participation for his set. A jester’s work is never done.
I’ve not seen him play without the band before. The songs work very well and he’s charmingly self-deprecating about the absent solos. The man’s a natural entertainer. I’m relieved that he’s good as two weeks of politely suffering him each night would’ve been a bit of a drain. Let’s just hope he can suffer me.
All in all an excellent start to the tour. Lovely warm-hearted people. Well done Southampton, the best Monday night I’ve had for ages.
Brighton’s show was for a house of game enthusiasts. This was very much part of the menu from the start and we’d barely set foot through the door before being dealt into a round of cards. I have something of an irrational fear of games. As a child I preferred to draw or read rather than engage in bouts of more sociable fun. I think it might have something to do with not wanting to be trapped inside a potentially awkward rule-bound confrontation. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a natural born grump. To this day the only card game I know how to play is Solitaire (over the years I’ve attempted others but the rules just don’t stick in my head – though I went through a brief period at university of being quite good at poker, simply because I never had a clue what my cards meant so had the most unreadable expression).
After the games (which I grudgingly admit to rather enjoying) it was declared that Felix and I would decide on the running order by battling each other in a round of Song Star, a video game in which players sing along to a karaoke arrangement of pop tunes and are then judged by the computer on things like pitch. To say this is very much not my world would be a gross understatement. We sang Mama Mia. The whole damn thing. I lost rather spectacularly owing in part to the fact that I opted for an Alan Partridge rendition (as anyone of my generation is bound to do when confronted with ABBA).
So I went first. Shouting and stamping and doing lots of other things computers wouldn’t understand. The eyes of our host Nardia started flicking back and forth between me and the open window. I wondered for a moment if she was considering throwing herself out. I realised she was more worried about the reaction of neighbours and innocent passers by. So we closed the windows and continued, the room gradually filling up with various kinds of smoke.
I can’t pinpoint the day when my life stopped smelling of cigarettes. In my twenties I was forever in smoky rooms. The house I used to share in Withington with members of the Bedlam Six was in a constant near-impenetrable fog. I remember taking the posters down after two years and uncovering bright white rectangles surrounded by a previously unnoticed nicotine brown wash. All my early gigs were in smoky bars, then when the ban came in it coincided with my first tours of Spain and then Mexico so the fog continued. I guess it was when my smoking friends all started having babies that the mists began to clear.
I have vivid memories of nearly passing out whilst performing the Tell-Tale Hound in a smoky Spanish club back in 2009. The song is basically three minutes of hyperventilating and there simply wasn’t enough oxygen in the room to fuel me through it. The audience started to blur and I almost fell off the stage. So I opted to omit that song from the set here. I figured it’d really detract from Felix’s performance if an ambulance turned up to cart me away.
As it happened Felix’s set was to be disturbed in completely different circumstances as word had somehow got out that in his peculiar brain exists the chords and lyrics to all manner of pop covers. So out came the drunken requests, like some kind of relentless cheesy hail storm. Somewhere someone was sticking pop pins in a bubblegum voodoo doll of Felix. Like a man possessed he reeled off hits by everyone from S Club Seven to Craig David. I watched like some paralysed insect being devoured alive by explosive brain-rotting spores, powerless to help or even deliver a mercy killing.
We shared a room that night. Felix on the bed, me on the floor. I curled up by the door like some ancient twitching guard dog, the kind kept on out of a vague sense of tradition and pity rather than actual practical use.
In slumber my tour-mate emits the sound of a contented bear, the kind Phil Harris used to voice in Disney films.
Contrary to the sentiments of Enobarbus at the end of Anthony & Cleopatra, I do not believe age is the thing that withers us, I think it’s the choices we make (though I’m with him on customs, staleness and infinite variety). Crammed into tonight’s front room were representatives of four or five decades, from teenage upwards. When people congregate like this for a bare-bones acoustic evening on a Wednesday night – and in such numbers – you know you’ve found a special little scene.
There’s a certain subtle difference between playing student houses and those of more weathered occupants. But I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“Bloody hell!” said Felix after the show, “Someone’s put a bloody fifty pound note in the hat! Don’t think I’ve ever even seen one of those before!”
Ah, now I’ve put my finger on it.
We are in Surrey. It is a Surrey state of affairs.
These guys are real pros at the house concert thing, they’ve been doing it a while now and have built up an enthusiastic regular audience. The room has a large bay window that forms a natural performance space, the curtains creating the illusion of a proscenium arch. Very nice.
I’m not doing well with trousers on this tour. One pair split at the first show and now my Fred Astaire dancing slacks have fallen victim to a rogue slice of avocado tumbling from the pre-show meal (did I mention we’re in Surrey?). To quote Mitch Hedberg: “they are dry clean only… which means they are dirty.”
We spend the day catching up on bits of work. Felix in one room putting the finishing touches to a medical infomercial soundtrack and me in another doing label admin and haggling over festival fees. Later he emerges wearing a pair of green tweed plus-fours (you know, the kind of garment people play golf and shoot pheasants in – or is it peasants?). With bare feet he looks surprisingly hobbit-like for such a tall man. Fool of a Took.
I was on first again. It works better that way I think. I sing a bunch of songs about compromised morals and tragic inevitability then Felix cheers everyone up with romantic tales of unsnuffable optimism.
I have a lyric meltdown at one point and start lambasting a noisy chaffinch chirruping on the windowsill. Then I attempt to reel it back in with a slightly misfiring metaphor about David Hasselhoff on the Berlin Wall. The man sitting cross legged in the front row looks like he’s changed his mind about which are the best seats. But there’s no escape now… for any of us. The sun on my back and the lights on my face are creating a sort sweaty sprinkler effect. I’m not sure if this is the kind of immersive experience people came for.
In the break a guy comes up and says “Do you know who you remind me of?”
I brace myself for the sort of annoying comparison I hate and get my flattered-stoicism face ready (the comparison is typically with singers I find really annoying).
OK I admit I wasn’t expecting it to be Queen Victoria’s second born. Oh why not, I’ll take that. After all, he managed to seduce the actress Lillie Langtry, she was rather lovely.
I watched most of Felix’s set from behind the door at the back of the room, occasionally flicking the Vs at him. It’s a great set, tonight was his best yet; he’s developing a brilliant routine of schizophrenic backchat with invisible soloists that I enjoy very much. Or that could just be the first stages of a malignant brain fever. We shall see.
I ran out of red wine but luckily found a bottle of emergency champagne from somewhere. It helped wash down the raspberries and meringue (when will these torments end?). Our host Katie entertained us with stories from her time working in Downing Street. I’m not sure if I can share any of them here. One involves weed killer and a potential poisoning. The two of us sat up chatting for a couple of hours after everyone else had retired. Felix was chasing rabbits in his sleep when I finally joined him in our room. There was a cat on my mat that refused to move. I firmly gripped the sleeping bag and attempted one of those old vaudeville restaurant manoeuvres where one whips off the tablecloth without disturbing the plates. The cat was going nowhere. So I did my best to contort myself round it for the night, trusting the animal would curb any inclination to claw out my eyes.
Well that avocado stain ain’t coming out. Surrey has certainly left its mark on me.
When touring with the Bedlam Six day four is typically the one where I start getting grumpy (well… grumpier). My body tends to be riddled with aches and I haven’t yet adapted to the weird rhythm of all-day sitting followed by ninety minutes of intense activity (by day five/six I’ve usually found a working balance and by day ten I feel like I could do it happily forever).
But these house gigs are a comparatively leisurely business. There’s very little room to run around, there are no stages to leap off (and thus no stages to clamber back onto) and the set lengths don’t stretch beyond forty five minutes. So the last thing I need really is a day off.
Today is a day off.
The great thing about house gigs is how flexible everything is. But that can also be a downside. People’s lives take an unexpected turn, plans change, schedules are rejigged. This day was at one point a possible Colchester, a possible Cambridge, a possible Somerset. Now it’s an impossible everything.
Fortunately we have the run of the Surrey house for a few hours so I wash some clothes and hang them out to dry in the sunshine while Felix paces up and down on the phone to his publisher. I attempt to sew up the trouser crotch holes formed at the Southampton show but the fabric is so worn there’s barely any cloth left to sew together. Maybe what’s left of this pair is destined to become the patches on my disintegrating jacket. Looking at my fraying collection of clothes I start to wonder if maybe some distant Ariadne figure is gripping a length of twine with me on the other end – every step I take I unravel a little more. Indeed I’m beginning to resemble a cartoon hobo; I should really trade in my wheeley case for a brindle stick.
After lunch I spend a couple of hours going through the demos sent to Fresh On The Net. I’m one of the moderators for that (excellent) resource and I’d assumed I’d have to skive off this week. Felix listens to some of the tracks with me and is appalled by how merciless I am with the bands who submit stuff. If a person opens with a lazy cliche it’s an instant skip (particularly if it’s at the summit of some huge but ultimately directionless instrumental build-up). My only criteria is that the songs have to move me in some way and for that to happen the songwriter has to have something to say – too many are sonically impeccable but overly scientific – I’m so often left cold by these academically crafted assemblages Frankensteined together by cultural magpies who are all head and no heart.
My number one pick of the bunch is a wonderfully skewed modern jazz piece by the Peter Newman Clarinet Project. On a different week I could’ve chosen any number of others.
After polishing off the remaining meringues and strawberries we head to London. Felix is off to Notting Hill to see his brother. He drops me off in Tooting Bec and I hop on the tube. Why do we say ON the tube, not IN the tube? I guess it’d be too close to the horrors we all convince ourselves to ignore about the process. I see a little shivering whippet trotting along beside its owner. Fragile little creatures like that look so out of place underground. There’s a woman shouting “how do I get out?!” (it’s all getting a bit Terry Gilliam).
I’m staying in Peckham with my old friend Alabaster dePlume. You may have heard of him, he’s on Debt Records. His album The Jester is one of my favourite LPs of recent times. He’s recently moved from Manchester to the South, trying his hand at life in the capital. Last time I spoke to him he was of no fixed abode, now he is living with the poet/artist Liz Greenfield – two dazzlingly creative people in one room, it’s a wonder the place doesn’t catch fire.
We meet at a spoken word event in Homerton, an evening of poetry, stories and short films run by Belleville Park Pages, a little fortnightly periodical that Liz sometimes writes for. It’s the kind of event where a person can say the words “I attended a queer Marxist symposium this afternoon” and not get any funny looks.
I ask my friend what it’s like living in London.
“It’s like everyone’s climbing but no one can pause in the climb or else they’d get sucked down to the bottom… You just have to keep dancing your way through, never staying still for fear of falling.”
“Like crossing a river by hopping on the heads of crocodiles?” I suggest.
“Yes exactly!” A shadow then falls across his face, “You spend all your time trying to earn enough money to live in London but then trying to also do all the things that you’re in London to do because if you didn’t do those things there’d be no point in paying all that money to be in London. Cycling across town is like eating your way through a cake made of angry dust.” He pauses. “I’m thinking of going to Paris to train as a clown.”
“I hear that’s one of the hardest psychological ordeals a human can go through” I say, “I hear it breaks people, they’re in tears on the first day.”
“I know. I’ve heard that too. I think it’ll be really GOOD.”
I had about eight hours to kill in London so embarked on what felt like a movie montage of the capital’s cultural landmarks. Nothing much was open when I began my meanderings at around seven thirty so I wandered along the South Bank, bought a croissant in Borough Market and watched a metal detectorist leave a trail of hopeful little holes in the sand near the BFI. When the doors finally opened at the Tate Modern I refamiliarised myself with their Picassos and Miros then enthused over some wonderfully grim prints by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin that I hadn’t encountered before. Later I happened upon a free lunchtime concert at Royal Festival Hall then walked across the bridge to Trafalgar Square and half listened to an open rehearsal for West End Live (a medley of hit musical numbers – looks pretty dire). Nice to see even the big budget productions suffer monitoring problems, I thought that was an issue peculiar to the toilet circuit.
I rounded off my touristing with the National Gallery before getting the tube to Fulham to meet a very bored Felix Hagan.
My tour-mate has clearly not had enough sleep. Either that or someone’s just stuck a knife in the decaying portrait he keeps in his attic.
We dragged our feet along the Kings Road (Felix’s old stomping ground from his bad old days in the Chelsea Massive), drank an overpriced coffee and then snoozed on a bench outside the Saatchi Gallery before injecting ourselves with some much needed enthusiasm and devouring a couple of ice creams.
And so to Twickenham. We had no idea what to expect from this one. So far all the houses/flats have been full of Hagan devotees (Haganites? Haganimals?) but this apartment contains an old school friend of mine, Max, who stepped in at the eleventh hour when our original booking was cancelled. We parked up at the address and I bounded through the door, only to be met with the wearily suspicious gaze of twenty old men in matching outfits. I freeze on the threshold and start to edge out backwards.
Felix is getting the stuff out of the car. “Found the entrance?”
“Er… yes and no. I don’t think this is the place. We seem to be at a Masonic lodge.”
I check my messages. There’s one from Max: “Make sure you go to the right Cole Court, one’s a Freemason place. Our building is next door.”
That could’ve been a very different kind of gig.
I’ve not seen Max for fourteen years. We were in drama class together. I always ended up playing twitching psychos while he specialised in silent looming types. He looks exactly the same. Am I the only one from my school set who’s ageing? For me every shifting season seems to bring with it a more frenzied migration of hair southwards.
We almost forget to play the show, it feels more like a pleasant evening of food and drink at a mate’s house than a concert. We get on with it around 10pm and have a lot of fun. The fourth wall is broken almost instantly with questions from the floor (well, the sofa) between songs, little chats and tangents and refills of wine. It’s the most informal yet. I really like how each event is so different. Different spaces, numbers, backgrounds. There’s an inevitable uniformity to traditional venues – whatever the set up – but house concerts are more about the people who host them than the visiting performers; they are products of relationships and life-choices, of the workdays that preceded them and the years stacked up behind.
Every singer-songwriter should do this.
Know thine audience.
Touring with a band and spending the nights in hotels is often the standard framework for tales of excess and mayhem. But my experience of this circuit, so far in about a dozen different countries, is a comparatively gentle affair. There are varying degrees of hospitality of course (continental Europe is top of the pile for generous catering and accommodation) but free alcohol is rarely in short supply. There is, however, no compunction to drink the stuff, after all one is hanging out with the same bunch of guys every night and sometimes the most tempting thing is to just go to bed with a book. I’ve spent most of the Bedlam Six tours sober, only really letting myself go wild on the last night.
House concerts are different though. Every single one is a party and every person present becomes a friend. They might seem a lot milder as a concept: people sitting in someone’s living room listening to folk music with unostentatious little bowls of nuts, crisps and carrot batons distributed at sensible distances (the most volatile moment that springs to mind was when we got into a moderately heated debate about why Stephen Sondheim was overrated). But manners and mezze platters aside we’re basically doing a tour of parties and it’s easy to let the booze consumption creep up when you’re not really paying attention to how often someone is refilling your wine glass.
I woke up on Saturday morning feeling like a very sad pangolin was traipsing back and forth inside my head, the space getting ever smaller, its scaly hide and trailing claws scraping the walls of my skull. I was also rather inept at the simplest of activities. I managed to soil three clean gig shirts in the car on the road to Norwich, spilling soup, pizza and chocolate ice cream down them severally as we sped along the motorway to a soundtrack of Killer Mike rapping about prison breaks.
We arrived early and sat in a pub (me drinking tea, Felix on coke). There was no one at the house when we eventually turned up so we drove around Norwich for a while trying to resist the temptation to discuss the pedestrianisation of the town centre in an Alan Partridge accent.
I’m very fond of Norwich. I hadn’t been there until relatively recently. One of my favourite school teachers lives here now and we recently renewed our friendship (coinciding happily with a smattering of gig bookings with Bedlam Six and Snowapple). It’s a curious place, very beautiful in parts and quite chavvy in others (a trait common to many English coastal towns) but one I can imagine living in if I ever get tired of being connected to the rest of the country by straight forward rail and road links.
When we arrived at George and Abbie’s party I attempted the “anyone order a kissogram” joke again and got a slightly warmer response than Southsmpton but still not the belly laugh I was hoping for. I have higher hopes for the North.
Abbie works at the Harry Potter studio tour and has a wealth of insider knowledge on the subject. Apparently Richard Harris thought the animatronic phoenix in Dumbledore’s office was a real bird. Quite dismayed to learn that Robbie Coltrane loathed making the films so much that most of his scenes were filmed away from the rest of the cast with moments of interaction being achieved with doubles, dubbing and a fake head.
No one present had ever heard my stuff before (apart from that little cameo on Felix’s “My Little Lusitania”) and I took great pleasure in stalking about the room and snarling my way through a collection of my least savoury numbers. There were two doors to their living room so I took gleeful advantage of the architecture, running endlessly in and out and round and round. I gave them one break from the relentless silliness by playing “All That’s In Between” towards the end, to prove I’m not all bad. It’s my favourite of all my songs, one of the few without a cynical filter or ironic safety net, but I don’t play it that regularly, it’s relatively long and there aren’t many laughs. But it went down well and I think I convinced them I might have one or two sympathetic characteristics beneath the unpleasantness.
Felix abandoned his usual set list and opened up the show to requests. He was tested but victorious, dredging up from his memory rarely-performed numbers and even a song from his old band Rocketeer. He snapped a string halfway through and I henceforth became roadie/guitar-tech, hastily retuning the guitar we keep in dropped D while he finished the song and then replacing the broken string and restoring the other guitar to its former condition in time for the relevant point in the set.
It’s nice to be useful.
We were rewarded for our evening’s efforts by not one but two actual beds in not one but two separate bedrooms. If this luxury continues I might turn into one of those insufferable primadonnas that won’t go onstage unless the dressing room contains live doves and a miniature woodland scene. My people will be in touch.
Did you know there’s a place in Norfolk called Little Snoring? Bet that’s a sleepy town. There’s also a village called Nowhere.
All amusement quickly evaporated when we discovered the main road out of the county was closed and all the Northbound East Anglian Sunday traffic was being funnelled along a series of endless crawling diversions.
The hours sleepwalked by as the car groaned along in first gear past signs for Stragglethorpe, Fishtoft, Pode Hole and Tongue End. Such English place names. We began chatting about blues music and what it would’ve been like if the genre had been invented in this part of the world rather than the USA, coming up with potential practitioner names like Eczema Jeff and Cleethorpes Roger.
We Crossed Swineshead Bridge (what a revolting image that conjures – a festering pass cobbled together from oinking snouts) before Felix said “to hell with this” and turned the car down a little road out of the traffic jam. We found ourselves in a small square with a maypole. “Oh my god” I said, “I think this is where they filmed the scene where Jon Pertwee is tied up by possessed Morris Dancers in Doctor Who’s ‘The Daemons’ in 1973. Wow!!!”
(I continued in this state of revery for some miles but upon later googling discovered they filmed that episode in Wiltshire not Derbyshire… oh well, I was happy for a time).
Our detour gamble paid off and we navigated our way through A-roads and B-roads west and down and up and across, through Sherwood Forest and along cow strewn fields past drystone walls and windy hill roads. It felt like we were in some sort of UK tourist video; it was all we could do not to break into the opening strains of Blake’s Jerusalem. Instead we opted for the Rohan theme from Lord Of The Rings.
Its a good thing we had nothing booked tonight, we would have been very late. The two of us were supposed to be playing the same folk festival but the event had been rescheduled. So it’s another day off. We both have unfinished songs knocking about in our heads though so parted company in Manchester and headed to our respective empty houses for the night. I ended up writing about three lines before giving up and going to bed with a book.
Next stop: Leeds.
And so Felix and I were reunited on Monday afternoon following our respective songwriting sojourns. After my rather abortive attempt the night before I’d risen early to repeatedly bang my head against the metaphor tree in the hope of catching a few lyrical windfalls. By 3pm I had about two thirds of the new song finished. It’s to be sung by the villain in my musical. I’m hoping I may be able to premier the new tune on this tour if I get a chance to work out the remaining lines (and learn them). Felix tells me his new number is also progressing well. Who knows, there could be a double exclusive by the end of the week. Still, let’s not count any chickens just yet.
And so came the turn of Leeds. We were welcomed by tonight’s host Louise with delicious homemade chickpea curry and pakoras. These people don’t muck about where hospitality is concerned.
Felix was overjoyed to find the house had an upright piano (he harbors all sorts of secret Mrs Mills aspirations behind the eye-linered spandex-trousered gush-puppet persona we all know and tolerate). I was less enthused. To me it’s just another thing that I must be careful not to break. As I stepped up to the performance area the little ornaments on the mantle piece contemplated me with sad impotent suspicion, every one in danger of being slid off their perches with a single thoughtless guitar swipe.
But we all survived unscathed. Well, physically unscathed anyway.
Felix’s turn next, making full use of the piano (especially after he broke a guitar string – mere hours after we’d had the exchange “shall we restring the guitar?” “Nah, we’ll do it tomorrow, I’m sure it’ll survive until then”). We even attempted duetting My Little Lusitania which I utterly ruined by forgetting all the words.
After the performance Felix remained at the piano to play a few light jazz pieces for people to dance to. Then we sat down and took it in turns to tell stories from past tours. I mentioned the various events The Bedlam Six have done with The Hell’s Angels, like the time we played a biker wedding and a big guy grabbed me by the beard and whispered in my ear “If you don’t play well… I’ll shave you… every bit of you.”
This tour has been pleasantly threat-free so far. I shouldn’t speak too soon though, we’re playing Salford next.
P.S. Just before we left for Leeds I learned that Alfie the dog, my co-star in the music video for Living In The Aftermath, died a few days ago. He was such a wonderful little character, affectionate and mischievous in equal measures. He will be so very missed by everyone who knew him.
This was the first gig I’ve ever played where I had to interrupt a song half way through to remove a worm from the performance area. As stage invasions go the Animalia Eumetazoa sub-kingdom is among the least violent. I’m not sure if the poor creature was enjoying the show or not when I plucked it from the grass and deposited it in a safe location far away from my leggy flailings; I suppose it’s rather difficult to appreciate the nuances of song when you have no ears or eyes. Still, they say music is mostly about feel – I guess that’s what the prostomium (the tongue-like lobe above the worm’s mouth) is for. It probably felt the tremors of my footstamps through the soil.
Yes, Salford’s concert was in a garden. Good to get out in the open air at last, we’ve been sorely lacking in vitamin D for the most part of this tour. And what a beautiful sunny day for a barbeque. Greater Manchester was certainly doing its best to do away with all those rainy stereotypes. Did you know the name of Salford derives from the Old English word Sealhford, meaning a ford by the willow trees (referring to the sallows that used to grow along the banks of the pre-industrial River Irwell)?
I’d begun the day by meeting Peter Byrom-Smith, the arranger of the musical I’m currently working on. I played him a few of the numbers I’ve written so far, talked about the atmosphere I wanted to convey, before discussing various ideas for general orchestration, overture and running themes. At the moment we’re going with a stripped down ensemble featuring a string quartet and five piece jazz group with the addition of a bit of woodwind (probably flute and clarinet). It’s early days though, it might end up being bagpipe and bouzouki by the time we’ve finished.
And so to Ella and Kieren’s house.
I’ve known these two for a while. They run the peerless poetry night Evidently at The Eagle Inn (recently named Third Best Spoken Word Night in the country by Sabotage Magazine – but I think it’s the first best). Ella also produced the Bedlam Six’s I Want To Know More video. The cat I terrorize in the closing shots sadly passed away recently so I dedicated that number to her when I played it in the garden.
Since this was a crowd mostly familiar with my work I decided only to play new songs (plus any requests people had – after all I’m not a complete monster), including one called “Welcome To The Upside Down” that I’d never yet performed live. It’s one of the grimmest things I’ve ever written and goes on and on getting grimmer. Amazingly I didn’t forget any of the words (maybe the fresh air helped).
I took gleeful advantage of the space afforded me, weaving and skipping between the people and attempting natural fade-outs by backing away beyond the washing line. At one point I exited the garden entirely and hopped out into the street, almost causing a small child to fall of his bicycle. You don’t get that at Wembley.
Felix’s set began indoors (where the hayfever brought on by freshly cut grass was less of a burden). Usually it’s my role to chivvy people into audience participation, conducting the Doo-De-Doos and Hey-Hey-Heys, but this crowd already knew all the queues. The gig practically played itself. He ended the set by Pied Pipering everyone back out into the garden before inciting a veritable riot of pogoing and waltzing. It’s not many audiences that work as hard as this one. Well done Salford.
The night also featured short sets from three brilliant performance poets: the aforementioned Kieren King (also compère), Rod Tame and Jack Dixon. Do check them out if you get the chance, they’re all exceptional.
Preston occupies a special place in my heart. It’s a town that really punches above its weight musically. I’ve been playing there for years. Actually I think it was the first show the Bedlam Six (then The Black Velvet Band) ever did outside Manchester. I wasn’t quite so fond of it in those days though, absolutely no one in the audience applauded. We played song after song to what seemed like a crowd of statues. At the time we all thought Preston just hadn’t been informed about the unspoken arrangement between artist and audience: tune, clap, tune, clap, repeat. But the truth is we probably just weren’t very good.
I’ve played there so many times since then and always been given a great welcome. Here’s a piece of trivia: the sound system at Blitz Club (now sadly demolished) was tested with a Bedlam Six recording – the one we made with the Hope & Social boys.
Usually I perform at The Ferret, one of the best little venues in the UK. It was there that Debt Records signed Snowapple. I remember going to the bar and saying “We need to celebrate, let’s have some champagne!” to which the bartender replied:
“This is the Ferret mate, how about sambuca?”
Indeed, tonight’s concert at Caroline and Mike’s house included a few members of the Ferret team so it felt like something of a family reunion. I would’ve thought they’d have been sick of me by now.
We were greeted with freshly cooked homemade curry and all sorts of side dishes. I said I tended not to eat much before a gig but then proceeded to stuff myself with everything on offer. Mike is something of an ale connoisseur, much to my delight. I was playing second this time though so had to curb my exuberance a little in that department (I tend to forget lyrics when I’ve had too many beers – actually I forget enough lyrics when I’m sober!).
It’s a lovely house, lots of rooms and levels and high ceilings. There’s a patio door behind the performance area and, yes, of course I take great pleasure in bursting through it during my set (and Felix’s for that matter). I found their record player and noticed Bedlam Six’s Youth and Memoir Noir casually scattered in prime position (a nice touch). What made me more excited, however, was their proximity to The Band‘s Music From Big Pink, a seminal album in my own musical journey.
Felix is up first. He does not shy away from audience participation, at one point even enlisting the skills of two drummers to accompany him in a song about demonic sex. For his finale he succeeds in reversing the usual backing vocalist gender stereotypes by getting all the men to sing falsetto and the women to growl the baritone. It works. It shouldn’t but it does.
My turn. I’ve had a request to play a song I haven’t played for about five years. It’s called When Matilda Came Of Age, on the Get Religion! EP (the one no one buys because we hardly ever perform those songs). It’s one of my wordier numbers. I remember struggling to fit all the lyrics on a single page of the CD’s inlay booklet. So, all in all, not the easiest song to coax out of the neglected crannies of my longterm memory. But coax it I did. Almost gave myself a nosebleed with all that thinking. Preston sure knows how to work a performer.
What an evening. I’m really going to miss this house tour when we’re finished.
It’s so difficult finding things to grumble about.
There was an article in yesterday’s Guardian about the “dark side of touring”. I’ll paraphrase: “Life on the road isn’t full of unicorns and pixie dust and when I get home no one treats me like a king and that makes me sad.”
It is precisely this assumption that artists are somehow different from “normal” people and shouldn’t be subjected to any of the difficulties or mundanities of “normal” jobs that made Felix and me want to do this house tour in the first place. It’s so good to do away with all the tedious nonsense of dividing up a room into special people and non-special people. At these gigs we arrive, have a few cups of tea, get to know the hosts and their friends then play some songs. There are no barriers or VIP areas. The only walls at a house concert are the ones keeping the roof up.
Of course I absolutely love playing big loud events with bright lights and high stages, there are few experiences in this world that beat it (I remember when Bedlam Six played to ten thousand people in Nuremberg and we all had a “so how the hell do we top this?” moment afterwards) but performers who think their job as an entertainer is any more important than the various jobs of the people making up their audience are severely deluded. Sure gigging musicians should be entitled to all the same securities and benefits that come with any occupation but listening to them talk about the loneliness of hotel rooms is like listening to a child complain about having to eat broccoli. For god’s sake just deal with it.
Warrington’s gig was more of a house festival than a house concert, the garden having been transformed into a miniature Worthy Farm. There was a little gazebo with a sign saying “Woodland Stage” and all sorts of decorations. They’d even made wristbands! In keeping with the grandeur we set up our little PA system for the first time this tour.
I half expected someone to shout “Judas!” as we went electric.
In the end, however, I opted to do without amplification. I’ve enjoyed embracing simplicity this tour. The drawbacks of diminished volume are countered by greater freedom of movement. I don’t like feeling tethered by guitar leads and always end up getting tangled up in them. Also it seemed a shame to be in a garden and not run around a bit.
Inevitably I got into another battle with a cheeping bird. A blackbird this time I think. I wouldn’t mind the interruptions if they’d been in the right key. I am occasionally partial to a bit of experimental jazz but the dissonant harmonies and counter-rhythms attempted by the little creature were simply not appropriate.
Felix was up next.
He heroically snuffled and sneezed his way through a storming set. Hay-fever is no respecter of art or glamour.
“Oh god!” he yelped, “I’m allergic to the venue!”
By the closing number he’d got everyone on their feet, dancing and twirling around the garden.
We had a lot of fun in Warrington. Excellent hosts, enthusiastic audience and good cheer.
No worms this time though.
Unless you count ear-worms.
Today was a day off from House Concerts, but not a day off from performing. The Bedlam Six and I boarded Bessie the Bedlam van and headed over to Grassington in Yorkshire to support the mighty Bellowhead at the first stop on their farewell tour.
It was strange to be plugged in again and playing to a crowd of strangers rather than a living room full of new friends. And if I thought keeping a six piece band together was difficult that’s nothing compared to the eleven-headed beast that is Britain’s most popular folk outfit. They’re like a small army. I think I met all of them but it’s hard to keep track. They don’t tour so much as swarm.
And the gear they’ve got… that is an ensemble that does not travel light. It was a pretty big stage but they could barely squeeze onto it amongst all the brass and wood and pedals and percussion. During soundcheck I was terrified of breaking something. Anyone who’s seen us perform will know I like to jump about a fair bit, well here I was in severe danger of smashing something precious with every leg kick and foot stamp, nestled as we were between a sousaphone, a bouzouki, violins, more accordions/concertinas/melodeons than I’ve seen outside of a music shop plus all sorts of paraphernalia.
Backstage there was a lovely spread. Grassington really looks after its performers. No grumpy sound engineers or tutting stage managers, everyone was an absolute delight. Even the security guards were friendly. My only gripe was the event was as popular with midges as it was with folk fans. I could feel them all over me, nesting in my beard and crawling up my sleeves. The midges too.
We emerged onstage to the applause of a full room (that somehow got more full as the show progressed). The most a support act can usually hope for is the polite indulgence of a few people who are only there to get a good spot for the headliner. But no, this audience were all facing the right way and smiling their approval throughout. Many were even singing along. Usually I would’ve thrown myself out into them but the front of the stage was so packed with Bellowhead’s monitors I doubted my ability to clamber back on again without wrecking something. So I behaved myself and twirled around on the spot and ran laps of my little rectangle of space in a suggestion of exuberance, still managing to drench myself in perspiration over the course of the set.
At the merch stand afterwards I met a steady stream of people all saying lovely things. Over the past fortnight I’ve been so used to meeting every single person in the room so it was nice to get a chance to chat to some of this crowd, if only a tiny fraction.
Bellowhead’s set was entirely deserving of the hype and awards they’ve received over the last decade. A masterclass in musical coordination by a big band without an ounce of flab.
It was a real blow when, after two weeks on the road together, Felix had to bow out of our house tour. He’s had some distressing news from abroad and, though the crisis is now over (mercifully with all concerned completely recovered), he understandably wants to be where he is needed most.
We’ve had a lot of laughs on our travels around England, becoming a sort of Meriadoc and Pippin double-act, regularly shouting “I don’t think he knows about second breakfast” at the satnav whenever it instructs us to take the second exit (in-jokes never translate well do they?). All road-trips around the British Isles inevitably take on a slightly Lord Of The Rings quality, it’s just what happens.
So I am playing the last two shows without my fool of a Took.
I still have his bloody songs stuck in my head though.
I got in touch with long-serving comrade in cynicism Richard Barry, explaining the project and asking whether he’d like to join me for one or both remaining gigs.
“So… we go to people’s houses and sing to them?”
“Sounds a bit weird.”
“It is sometimes.”
“Isn’t it a bit awkward?”
“It is sometimes.”
“What if they don’t let us leave?”
“Then we fight our way out.”
“Righto, count me in. I’ll do Wrexham but I’m hosting the Sandbar pub quiz on Sunday so Bury’s a no no I’m afraid.”
“Fine. I’ll pick you up at five.”
I’ve known Richard ever since I first started playing the Manchester circuit. He’s now one of my very best friends. We once did a three week stint at the Edinburgh Fringe performing a piece we’d devised with Alabaster dePlume about whiling away eternity in Musicians’ Hell. His character was called Teddy Mangetout (sometimes pronounced Man Get Out, sometimes not). One night he stripped naked and stood in the wings while I was on stage, just to see if I’d corpse. He doesn’t gig a lot these days, owing to problems with his hands that make long sets very painful. He’s also a recent father so the priorities have shifted somewhat. To this day I’ve seldom witnessed anything as amusing as watching this enormous looming man struggling to affix tiny booties to a flailing infant. Just imagine Hagrid putting socks on a Borrower whilst swearing prolifically and you’re half way there.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Wrexham that I realised the host was someone I know. Hayley Jones has been to loads of Bedlam Six gigs over the years, indeed she and her friend Lisa Clarke have become something of a reassuring fixture at the band’s North West dates. They are both very good company, really enthusiastic, exactly the sort of people you want in an audience. We spent a couple of hours swapping stories and jokes with three generations of her family (her amazing grandmother used to be a biker – always a good sign) before getting the guitars out.
Richard was up first. He’s not played publicly since last year but you’d never guess; he’s a natural entertainer. At one point he prefaces a song with reference to the vernal equinox and then gets into a hilariously furious exchange with one of the audience about whether or not he actually means solstice and whether it really matters. As heckles go it was certainly one of the more learned.
After a short break it’s my turn. Suddenly there’s a woman dressed as a Tudor wench in the room. I start to wonder if this is some sort of hallucinogenic reaction to a poisoned vol-au-vent. I try to ignore it and hope no one turns into a lizard. Ah, panic over, she conducts historic tours of Chester and has come straight from work. That makes more sense. I still hope no one turns into a lizard though.
The party is divided in two. Outside in the temporary gazebo there’s a tense game of giant jenga taking place. I predict that the teetering tower will collapse during the quietest part of my quietest song. Naturally I use the opportunity afforded by every instrumental section to go outside and run around the jenga stack, inspiring gasps of horror and desperate shoo-ing motions as if I’m a wasp at a christening. Well, if you play games during one of my gigs I will play games with you.
It is one of my more furious sets. At one point I nearly kick the light-fitting off the ceiling. Towards the end I decided to throw in a pretty number, a new one from the musical. It’s a gentle lullaby sung by the main character to her newborn son in the first act. A rare moment of tenderness in an otherwise violent world.
The jenga tower smashes to fragments amidst howls of triumph and defeat. Once again gravity is victorious. I knew that would happen.
We stuck around for a while after the show – Richard combining super-strength Polish lager with red wine, me on tea (it’s my first night as designated driver this tour – actually quite a relief after so much boozing). Many hugs and farewells later we’re back on the road, the sat-nav becoming hysterical as road works divert us into Chester town centre and I narrowly avoid colliding with the Saturday night club crowd. Richard is helpfully giving a nonstop commentary of my driving in a snooker pundit voice, occasionally singing the words “I’m going to kill everyone, Satan is good, Satan is our pal, la-la-la-la-la…” at the top of his voice. When we’re finally back to the relative sanity of the motorway we sing Monty Python’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred” and then descend into repeating the words “Two boys have been found rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant… The school cormorant is now OUT OF BOUNDS!”
The journey flies by.
I drop him in his quiet Cheadle suburb some time after midnight. We embrace and promise to do this again soon.
Maybe next time without the Polish super-strength lager though.
Satan is our pal.
I had such mixed feelings about the final house concert. On the one hand it was an exceptional evening full of hilarious warm-hearted people who were an absolute pleasure to spend time with; on the other I was finishing this tour without my traveling companion Felix, or indeed any musical colleague. As I was packing up my things it was like the end of The Untouchables where Eliot Ness has triumphantly brought down Al Capone after all manner of obstacles but has also lost his best friend Malone in the process. He clears his desk at the Chicago Prohibition Bureau and his eye lingers on one lonely photograph: Sean Connery looks out from the black and white print and Kevin Costner stares back whilst doing a lovely bit of acting commonly known in Hollywood A-List circles as “Sad Human 1”. It’s very moving. Miss you Felix, wherever you are.
But no quantity of absent friends could stop me enjoying the Bury concert. It was definitely the most surreal yet.
Host Caroline had asked if children were permitted. I said of course they were. After all, they’re the most honest audiences around, they can love you one second and be bored to tears the next. They’re a tough crowd but, as a consequence, definitely not one to avoid. This house gig series hinges on the notion of getting back to basics, of performing to all ages with no filters or barriers. I certainly wasn’t about to shy away from a few indifferent kids at the last event.
But I admit I didn’t expect there to be quite so many of them.
And they kept moving around.
I felt like I was being hunted by a pack of tiny velociraptors . One minute they’re all in front then one by one they slink away and turn up behind you, then to one side, then the other. It was like performing on the head of a giant octopus as it combs its hair.
When I arrive I survey the scene, instantly noticing the climbing frame and slide. I make a quick weight calculation and decide not to incorporate it into my act. Sorely tempted though I am.
As I’m tuning up the guitar Caroline’s daughter approaches me with a message:
“Beware the griffin.”
Now, I’m not that well-versed in modern child slang but I couldn’t help think this was a trifle more archaic than is common to nursery parlance.
“Oh, she means the statue on the patio” her mother told me, “it’s got a wobbly head.”
Right, so avoid flailing too close to the mythical beasts. Good to know.
“Also watch out for rabbit holes if you go in the garden.”
“Lest I find myself tumbling into Wonderland?” I ask.
“No, in case you break an ankle and we have to shoot you like some poor wounded horse.”
And off I go, beginning with a song about dying in a brothel. Well the children have to learn about these things some day, it might as well be from me. It’s not long before the parents and offspring have split into two distinct groups, facing each other like armies on opposing hilltops during the Napoleonic Wars, me in the middle to-ing and fro-ing like a lost serf. The children dash away when I hop too close but soon learn that, like an uppity spider, I’m actually more afraid of them than they are of me. Emboldened by their greater numbers they chase me around the garden like a pack of wolves encircling a bewildered sheep. I’ve been told they can smell fear, they are clearly thirsty for a kill. I bargain for my life with a song about an immortal dog. They show clemency and permit me to finish my set unharmed. For now.