Thursday, 3 May 2018

The March About Tour

Meet Doug: 20 years old, half a million miles on the clock, with a tug to the left that needs constant attention. The front seat is in a state of permanent lift off and needs strapping down with bungees. The accelerator peddle has snapped off leaving a sharp spike that gnaws away at the soles of your shoes. The turbo and power steering only work after a strategic pull-over on the hard shoulder, where by you switch off the engine for a minute and then pull away revving hard. These little pick-me-up party lines give you about 45 miles of normal speed before he crashes back into tractor mode, humming like a giant bee as he hovers around the 50 mark, and less on the hills. The smashed wing mirror has been replaced by plastic glass that distorts cars like a funfair and the bouncy suspension feels like your riding on a trampoline. The dashboard lights don't work, neither does the horn. The slow puncture needs pumping at every pit stop and the temperamental tail light needs daily tweaking or you run the risk of being pulled. When stationary and without power steering turning him round is a three man job; one on the ground and two heaving on the wheel like a tug-of-war. Swapped for a jar of marmalade and with more than enough room for a touring band, he has however been a wonderful companion and despite his ailments we wouldn't change him for the world. Would we boys?

Meet the band: spread across Europe like a fog. Piano player in Portugal.

Bass player in Berlin. The accordion player's on holiday somewhere in Spain, and the drummer's off climbing windmills. And then there's me; down in Cornwall trying to call them all together like a matron with a bell. We arrive, dis'band'ed and disorganised, and bundle our belongings into Doug's vast chambers. Instruments, bedding, merchandise, all thrown together, yet to learn their places, there's no time for Tetris as we heave the steering wheel round the tight Cornish bends and roar into Mousehole like a lorry.

Mousehole is a nice opening gig; well attended and we sit just above the acoustic level which is always our favourite sound. CD sales are down, probably because we forget to bring them, but we shift 8 t-shirts and make some much needed dollar in order to leave the county. Spirits are high, Doug's rather heavy to manoeuvre but we're all feeling strong. The drive north is slow until we discover the tactical turbo pit-stops and then he screams up to Bristol like a tank on steroids. We have a rehearsal space booked in an old warehouse that looks like the sort of place people are taken to be murdered. A giant garage door opens electronically, sounding like a 100 fingernails on a blackboard. There is no heating and we shiver through some new songs and try and cement the old ones. I sleep in the van as there isn't enough space in the house. It's freezing and I put on so many clothes that I can barely move.

We arrive into Stroud
 and the sun's out, spirits are trying to be high but we're all a little directionless without the steady hand of Sam Brookes. There's biting and backstabbing and a lot of fussing over nothing. Funnily enough the guitar player does turn up as if by magic but his surprise inclusion has an unsettling effect on the music. The gig offers a little bit of everything, including mistakes. Lovely pin drop moments and tight harmonies ruined by the wrong chord or some random unintelligible chat. Our founding member is a little out of place, squeezed onto the stage like an upright soldier scared to move, standing through new song's he doesn't yet know because he physically can't get out. The gig is enjoyed by the audience more than us, and perhaps that's the way it should be, but heads are down. It's badly paid too and we leave three coats in the venue.

Bristol is a better gig; better attended and better paid, largely due to the huge generosity of our new number one fan. She will of course remain nameless in part due to her philanthropic gesture. Other friends were there too, cheering us on, buying us drinks, but none saw fit to slip us £100 for a t-shirt "and keep the change!" It really was a massive act of kindness and it won't go unnoticed.

Doug starts on the 4th attempt, pulls out of the city in a cloud of black smoke like a moving garden fire. The drummer's driving, already he's complaining about "Doug's tug" which is so bad it can take a left corner without steering. We get lost in Tunbridge Wells and drive around hopelessly trying to follow the sat nav which continuously tells us to drive across a golf course. Eventually we find Steve and Lynn's house which also happens to be our next venue. What follows is perhaps one of the nicest evenings in the history of this band. We set up in a large spacious living room and then nip downstairs for some beef stew and a couple of bottles of red. When we return the room is full of people; 40 of them on sofas and armchairs and sitting on the floor. Friends of the owners,

responding to invitation but coming on trust. We play through our repertoire and tell our stories and both fall out of us with truth. "This is the future of music" I announce on more than one occasion. "We could do a tour called 'Live in your front room!' " I declare eagerly. "If only someone filmed it!" They did. Steve points to a chap in the far corner stood behind a tri-pod. Later on while counting the spoils I feel almost guilty that we take all donations when we've been so looked after by Steve and Lynn. They've opened up their house, provided food and drink not just to us but all the guests and now's there five little beds made up. "We do it because we love music and we love hosting" says Steve as he clears away the chairs. "Breakfast's at 8am" 

There's no drama as we cross the channel and Europe's road's are largely empty. We arrive in Antwerp in good time and then loose it all trying to get to the venue. Every road is either one-way or closed for building works. It's another tug-of-war trying to weave Doug around the cobbled streets, through the hustle and bustle and hundreds of bikes. We slide up beside the famous old venue, our third time back at the Café Den Hopsack, quickly unload and then wolf down some beef stew. We begin soundchecking but already the place is filling up and old friends are distracting us so we kind of give up and leave it all to chance. The audience enjoy it more than us, it's another one of those. Perhaps we're too high up on this big stage, we're missing the intimacy of the living room. Post show we sit with our friends and enjoy the wonderful beers that makes this place so special. Ever more intriguing names; Gulden Draak, Old Bruin, Delirium, stronger and stronger until we wobble to the door. We sleep at our friend's Jan and Lieve's, but not before beef stew number 3, the best of the bunch. Sat sipping round the table, swapping tales with old friends, this is a happy time despite the nagging presence of dawn. There's no rest for the wicked.

Up and off early after not enough sleep. This is the life is real rockstars. I try to catch up in Doug's big bed but it's like sleeping on a bouncy castle and more than a little nauseating. We approach Amersfoort clutching a dossier on the perils of finding the venue, but actually locate it rather easily. The town is beautiful, like a walled city surrounded by a medieval moat, and our venue is packed full of bikers in thick black leather, who seem to have chosen it as a refreshing pitstop. We meet Joroen, a tall gangly man like a velociraptor who runs the place and does the sound. We start later than planned partly because they aren't at all prepared for our amount of instruments. We concede a few and buzz through the set as best we can but fatigue is evident and as we sit waiting for dinner we resemble a table of zombies, as tired as tombstones. Our host for the evening is an old friend called Auke who sits co-pilot as I steer Doug out of the moat. A little way down the road we are pulled by the police for having a faulty tail light and fined €200 because we don't have the correct papers. At one point it's looking like the van will be impounded. It's all a little uneasy; 3 cars and 6 policeman make it look more like a drugs bust as they snoop around the van checking to see if we have any "Romanians" in the back. 

Down into Germany and we climb into the hills, weaving past large swathes of birch forests and tall pines. We arrive into the village of Nümbrecht, or rather the area of Nümbrecht, which makes it even more vague, especially as fans in Cologne have expressed interest in coming. But this is a remote one; a large farm spilling out of a hill with a dozen chickens pecking at the gate. It's another house concert, hosted by a tall German man called Rolf who has a collection of 32 guitars and his own recording studio. We're shown into a large living room which rather resembles a church hall, with it's exposed beams and decorative windows. We set up and soundcheck and then eat the best soup I've ever had and play the best gig we've ever done. I'm pretty sure about both the soup and the gig and can't work out which one I like better. The soup is a creamy leak and meat soup; a desert island disc contender, if given a choice of eating one thing for the rest of your life. And the gig; hovering just above that acoustic level and sitting with a room full of lovely people, telling our stories with truth and humour, letting our songs float out of us as though we'd just written them. It was a perfect evening; even when the piano player, still believing us to be in Holland, announced how much we loved the Dutch people! Well that one bought the house down.

Doug on the autobahn!
It's a day off but we're on the road early, heading east to the capital; the big B. We take a wrong turn, hit roadworks, then smash the passenger wing mirror off. The autobahn is relentless, sending a conveyor belt of cars like angry wasps. No speed limit. No hardshoulder. Doug is as slow as pondwater; keeping pace with the lorries. With light failing and us hardly making a dent in the distance we pull over on a slip-road in order to utilise the turbo and then lurch forwards like a ship in a storm. Skidding through the rain. Spurred on by the excitement of a night out in Berlin. In hindsight we should have used the day off as a day off and got our heads down, but your only young twice and we skip out to a couple of classy bars and knock back Negroni's like the folk stars that we are.

In the morning our plans for a spa day are shelved when the drummer notices Doug has a flat tyre. I pretend not to hear him, like he's a bad dream that will dissolve if you turn away. But he's not going away and I know it's something we can't ignore. We borrow a cycle pump and inflate it as best we can then drive around Kreuzberg in the snow looking for a garage. Finding none and with the weather worsening we decide to use the spare tyre for now and deal with the problem another day. Except the wheel spanner snaps and we're left with with very few options other than call the breakdown people. We decide to order lunch on the band account and sit watching the blizzard outside. Later on in a packed Kallasch bar we bow to healthy applause and despite another very solid gig we're a little deflated, partly because our expectation of this place is sky high and it would take a miracle to top. But also, because we're absolutely knackered. This is the 8th consecutive night we've been drinking ales and telling tales, with hardly anytime to repair as we drive our broken home across the continent in a state of Groundhog Day.

On the road to Bremen we encounter no new problems, the spare tyre (fixed by the breakdown team outside the venue late last night) seems to hold up despite the extra weight of two passengers. That's the one thing that Doug's still got going for him, space, so we open our doors to a couple of friends. He chugs along today, no pitstop party lines, just the low growl of his engine as he wobbles along the autobahn like a plate of jelly. We enter the city, drive around in circles, find the venue, can't find a parking space, double park, unload all our gear onto the street and then pull away, can't find a parking space again so triple park and make contact with the host. Albert is a smily man who beckons us in and pours us all a Becks beer, "It's original, brewed here, no poison!" he says as he hands them round. The venue is called Litfass but I reckon a better name would be Smokey Joe's; the place is like a long thin ashtray getting more vaporous the further you venture from the large front windows. It seems that everyone is smoking, certainly the ban isn't being enforced in Bremen. We eat a bowl a spaghetti, neck a

couple more Becks and introduce our music to the ash-heads. And they seem to like it. Some in the front are dancing, some in the middle are table tapping, and those at the back, well I can't see through the smoke and i'm not even sure our sound can penetrate the fug; it's as thick as a thunderstorm. We thank the ash-heads, sign a few CD's and make a fairly swift exit to our digs on a friend's diary farm up in Teufelsmoor.

The morning breakfast is the best we've encountered, not just on tour, but possibly in life. The large family table is piled high with everything you could possible want to eat and more. It seems that our hosts are all trying to outdo each other; who can go out of their way the furthest to provide for a smelly band of Cornish boys who arrive late, eat all of their food, fart in their beds and drive off in a cloud of diesel smoke in the morning!? Our departure is delayed by Doug needing his nappy changed. This is the term affectionately coined for tweaking the tail lights, re-tying down the front seat, re-attached his distorted glass wing-mirror and pumping up the tyre. Doug starts on the 6th attempt and we pull out of the farm in a cloud of black smoke like the aftermath of a bomb. We're on time arriving into Raamsdonksveer but Jo, who runs the Swamp Studio, is still tut-tutting and looking at his watch. The place is as pristine as we left it, the equipment as first rate as ever. This is like playing in the foyer of a 5 star hotel. The whole setup is immaculate and then 5 grubby boys stroll in, sleep deprived, with a 10 day hangover and set upon the stage with their 50 instruments demanding to have a little more of this and a little less of that. We really aren't an easy bunch to soundcheck, and hat's must go off to our bass player who, being a sound-designer in his spare time, is often lumped with the task of mixing us in. The gig is good, we play as well as you'd expect on the last night, there are no mistakes, we're tight, but there isn't perhaps the same energy as in earlier showings.

And then just like that it's over. I remember packing down the gear and lining all the cases up next to each other. All black and uniform, as neat as a postman's knock. Professional. Never thought I'd say it, but we were. Never late. Never lary. We played our little hearts out and told our tall tales. We engaged with our fans and raised them a glass. Raised them an ale. We loved and we learnt. We shared. 3000 km across northern Europe with not a penny to our name. We built this tour from scratch. Left Cornwall with bag of loose change and the rest was left to chance. And of course we are indebted to the hospitality of our hosts and the generosity of our fans, without each we'd never of made it past Stroud. So here's to the house concerts and bustling bars, to Bristol and Belgium and Bremen. Here's to beers and beef stew and broken tail lights, farms and favours and friendships. Here's to the songs, each of them like our offspring, some older, some with confidence, others like little hachlings running the gauntlet. Here's to luck, cause you need it. And faith, that you can do it. It still amazes me that a scruffy bunch of musos from the far west with no 'industry helping hand' can book a 10 day tour, with all expenses paid and come home with a weekly wage. And it's down to you. The fans. Whether you are long suffering friends or brand new playmates, you have all backed us and believed in us and we are able to do this because of you. And it wasn't all plane sailing. It can't be. The amount of work that goes into doing one gig let alone 10. And the stress of pulling off another 'miracle' is huge. We bickered a little. We weren't as true to each other as we were to you, but you can't win them all, and you're the ones who deserve it. And i'll drink to that.

But what of Doug? Our trusty steed. Our mobile home. The rock on which we lean. He made it back, if not in one piece, then a couple. And thanks must go to his owner, who swapped him for a jar of marmalade, not because he needed it, but because he believed in us too. And I'll drink to that. 


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