Thursday, 5 January 2017

Oh what a wonderful year (2016)

The year began... not with delicious low sunlight that broke through the trees, nor an orange glow sweeping across the bay. There was no light. Just grey light. It was raining. It rained all day. There was no joy. I really think we shouldn't have drunk quite so much! My band-mates and I, strewn across the land like empty bottles from the night before. It is hard to find optimism on these such days. New Year's Eve should be a summer affair really, the whole year is set up wrong. It's hard to find enthusiasm when faced with the worst two months of weather. Surely it would be kinder if January the 1st was on June the 1st. I think I'll write to them.

JANUARY arrived with it's usual resolutions, mostly from the piano player, his optimism outstripped us all. "Perhaps this year we'll get to America?" and "Shall we make another album?". More questions than resolutions I know, but one that does stick out is: "This year I am not going to loose my piano leeds!". All I can say to that is; read on! And anyway, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "good resolutions are simply cheques that we draw in a bank where we have no account.” I used to always make resolutions, eagerly I would scribble them down in a mad flash of clarity and then watch them dissolve slowly by the following month; indeed, mid-February is the place where January's resolutions go to die. Enough of all this; we're not here to talk about promises of self improvement or something slightly nice, we here to talk about the band. But nothing happened, we barely spoke, the online calendar looked unusually empty with only Don't Wake The Fish and Sea, Salts and Sail booked in, both of which we've done to death. There were a couple of wedding offers; Mr and Mrs Panbottom were tying the knot and of course Shambala may well book us for the third year running. But nothing new and exciting was happening, it seemed a little stagnant, a little apathetic, almost a little safe and boring and so, perhaps in defiance as much as anything, I decided to book a 9 day, 2600 mile tour to East Germany and concluded that a 30 year old motorhome with a host of problems was the perfect vehicle in which to travel.

FEBRUARY was the month in which I booked the tour. Endless hours trawling the internet to find suitable venues, then back and forth emails with the owners to find the right deal. And of course you've picked the route already so you are limited to where you can play on what days. It's a tireless process. You've got to book accommodation too with money you don't yet have, and of course nobody can afford to do the tour so the band has to pay but the band's only got £107 in the bank. You call in the debts, collect some CD sales from The Painted Bird, that's another £51. Surely we'd sold more than that? Oh well, better book a gig in London to start the tour, get a bit of money in, only to realise much later that the motorhome you borrowed from your cousin can't even drive into the capital because of the emissions charge. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, more importantly the guitar player says he can't do the tour! You sweet-talk him, wine and dine him, offer him things on a whim, a free week of work, that'll do the trick. Meanwhile, the van won't start and your cousin is away in Spain or ignoring your calls I can't remember which. Then, in the midst of important negotiations you and the bass player fly to Sweden on a whim and spend a week living in a Elkman's hut on the snowy tundra with no electricity let alone wifi!

MARCH has got to be the biggest month in the history of this band, and the best. The most exhilarating. The most foolhardy. The biggest adventure we'd ever had. And unless we manage to organise another one, perhaps ever will. I think we would all agree; those 8 days on the road were all we could have dreamed of. Beginning at The Magic Garden in Battersea for some much needed cash, the following night we topped up the coffers yet further at The Gladstone. Following our footsteps from the last tour, we returned to Cafe Den Hopsack in the Belgium city of Antwerp. Much needed record CD sales of 28 gave us the money we desperately needed after the guitar player realised he'd left his wallet with all band finances back in London. The following day we played The Phoenix in Arnhem and the piano player lost his voice and refused to sing. More CD sales, a quick rendezvous with music producer Stephen who found fame in our last movie, The Right Way Round, and we were away to Berlin. With a couple of days off we explored the city, got drunk and the motorhome broke down en route to Kallasch& Moabiter Barprojekt. Needless to say we made it on time and played what we considered to be our finest performance to date. It was short lived as the following night we played at The Hole which was an even better atmosphere and one we were completely in control of. Returning home with a profit, having not spent a penny was a huge achievement, but the biggest triumph was that we came to Germany on a whim, not knowing a soul, and returned with 100's of new fans. It was a huge risk to travel to a place that our music had not yet reached. And as I said before, I hope it gives other small bands the confidence to follow their dreams. You don't need an agent or big bossy manager picking and choosing your gigs. Just find a venue that suits your style and fix it up yourself. Find a bus, plan your route and go out and play for your supper; you'll come home a richer man, in more ways than one. If you thought that was enough in March think again, perhaps spurred on by the success of touring Europe, we organised a mini tour of the Isles of Scilly at the month's end. Beginning with a homecoming gig at The Ritz in Penzance, we all sailed out to the Cornish archipelago for gigs at The New Inn, then the next day at The New Inn II, and then again after getting stranded due to bad weather we hosted an impromptu open mic at The New Inn III

"APRIL comes like an idiot, babbling and stewing flowers". And in this idiotic month, we did sweet nothing. We'd earned it, March's 10 gigs had broken our record that had should since the May Day Tour of 2014. 

MAY was almost as empty, bar of course Don't Wake The Fish where we returned for the 5th year running and performed to a capacity crowd of 600. It is always a favourite of ours, one we can let our wilder side out, get dolled up and prance around a bit, drink ales on stage, that kinda thing. The month's end saw the drummer hand in his notice and call time on his 3 years with the band.

JUNE saw us tour again, The World's Smallest Tour took us to a Dorset Festival in the afternoon and Under the edge Arts the very same evening. The latter was a particularly nice affair, a little under-attended and underpaid but a very attentive audience. Louis Gulliver King had now been drafted in to plug the hole caused by the guitar player's paternity leave. His use of accordion was particularly arresting and more than made up for losing the finger picking dexterity and sweet notes of our founding member. 

We were busy in JULY, sharing top bill at Sea, Salts and Sail Festival with the awesome Sandy Acre 7, who's infectious grooves saw the whole of
fans at Lafrowda
Mousehole up and dancing. After that we were so hot we took a midnight skinny dip. The following weekend we took the stage at Lafrowda Day in St. Just, this time as a trio, as Louis Gulliver King was away on business. Any pre-show apprehensions at how this lesser format would go down were blown away as a capacity crowd filled the town's historic square and danced and swayed in the sunshine. The following weekend saw us up at Womad Festival again as a trio. First up was a Radio 3 slot where we shared the billing King Creosote before taking to the stage that night at Coyote Moon to a tent so packed that people had to sit outside and listen in.

"AUGUST rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. This is an odd, uneven time." So says Sylvia Plath and it was a odd month I must admit. Myself and bass player cycled over to France and spent a wonderful week exploring Brittany only to return to the news that my partner's father had passed away, slipped his moorings, joined the choir invisible. We played one gig at The Knut, the room full to brimming, full of faces old and new. We raised a toast to John Voogd and in my heart I wept; a touching tribute to great, great man.

SEPTEMBER had been long billed as our Farewell month. With the departure of the drummer and the increasing absence of the guitar player we had decided to call time on a career stretching 6 years. Had it not been for the success of the quartet and trio formation, however. They had prompted a rethink. The success of Lafrowda and Womad Festival particularly had given us food for thought, something to chew on. And chew we did. It tasted good so we booked another weekend in the Scillies. This time flying out to the Tresco Island and playing at The Abbey. The following day we took to the stage at The Flying Boatclub and just as in March, bad weather meant we were stranded an extra day. The following weekend we played at Little Orchard Festival at BBC Introducing, then reunited with the guitar player and drummer we took to the stage at The Acorn for A Farewell to Arms, which saw us address a capacity crowd and inform them that we were no longer throwing the towel in. Indeed, we had new towels, new ways to combat the loss of key players. We were once again forced into a re-shuffle the next day at the Ale and Anchor Festival and, despite the hangover from the night before, it worked well enough.

On The Road Tour - poster by Mae Voogd

"OCTOBER has tremendous possibility. The summer's oppressive heat is a distant memory and the golden leaves promise a world full of adventures." And with that in mind we embarked on our second large adventure of the year. With the bass player's father owning a cottage in the Lake District and us keen to climb some of England's largest mountains, we booked a tour up North, a place we've never visited with this band, with a wealth of gigs spread across the southern belt of England, the furthest north we'd been was Matlock which is borderline. The On the Road Tour stretched 1200 miles from The Eden Project to a glorious intimate gig at Totnes's Acoustic Haven. Next we traveled to Bournemouth and played at a rowdy Firkin Shed before heading north into the wide open wilds of the land. The Wassdale Head, The Old Dungeon Ghyll and The Strands Inn were three lovely little alehouses nestled under green mountains in this glorious corner of the England. The days were spent scaling the heights, swimming in frozen emerald pools, drinking our weight in micro breweries and making Ray Mears spoof survival videos. To finish off we ducked into Bristol and played The Greenbank which was the first time we'd played in our home city for over a year.

NOVEMBER and DECEMBER were quiet months, time spent in real life, earning money doing day jobs and the like. So often it's easy to get swept up the game of being in a band, but after a busy autumn came a reality check. What goes up must come down. Life on the road is fun, fast, romantic, but it doesn't pay the bills. Us "coming home with profit" isn't enough to live on, it's just a nice bit of pocket money, like a birthday card from your grandmother! The bread and butter can never be earned from this ship. We had plans for Merry Folking Christmas to return but The Acorn demanded we use bouncers despite selling out many events there in the past and never having any trouble, so we shelved it. They later relented but by then the bass player had returned to Lake District for Christmas.

And so what a year that was hey? To sum it all up... It's funny, really, you spend the whole blog 'summing up' all the blogs from the past year, condensing them into one manageable helping, and then you find yourself 'summing up' what you've just written! Anyhow, a year in which we pushed the boundaries, traveled over 5000 miles to bring our music to 4 countries. We drove motorhomes, vans, cars, sailed ferry's, flew in airplanes, played mainstream festivals, prime time radio shows, saw record CD sales, made money, lost money, lost our drummer, re-signed him, had fist fights, skinny dips, had a baby, conceived another, organised a farewell concert only to inform people we weren't splitting up (that probably looked like a ego-boost!), climbed mountains, conqured the north, overplayed the south, lost piano leads (what did I tell you!), downsized to a quartet, then a trio, played 30 times, equalling our record set from 2014 and more than doubling last year's. And we did a lot of this without our founding member, the guitar player, the band elder, the head of finance, all decisions went through him, and so to loose to him was a huge setback. And of course, credit must go to Louis Gulliver King who deputised 14 times. He was more than a quick fix, more than a hole plugger, he added his own stamp, changed our sound, warmed it up, folked it up. Hat's off to him. Now officially part of the family.

Louis Gulliver King