I was standing in line in a tiny guitar shop in Islington when I realized my bag was talking.
“You have reached your destination” said Tim, our GPS man with the crisp Continental diction. I’d forgotten tucking Tim into my bag for guidance as I’d set off on foot to find a music store.
Eric is convinced Tim’s a camp out of work thespian picking up pocket money on the side. Not totally British, his accent hints at all sorts of seedy possibilities. We have such a close relationship with him, I felt a sense of shame exposing him in public like that. I almost blushed remembering how just that afternoon we’d fallen about the van laughing as Eric and Tim did one of their familiar routines:
Tim: Exit ahead. Then take the motorway.
Eric (hurriedly): Tim, how can we make the chateau less damp?
Tim: Take the exit.
Eric: (insistently) But the chateau, Tim, the castle! How can we make it less damp?
Tim: Take the motorway.
I had been rushing to buy extra strings for a big show at Union Chapel in London. It’s one of those places you notice people playing at and think “now that’s a gig.” And here we were about two hours away from playing to a sellout crowd.
Two nights before we’d been at the New Orleans Jazz Club in Louth, playing under a flourescent strip light with a picture of the queen and a Confederate flag behind us. From the ridiculous to the sublime with a live session on the Mark Riley radio show, in the gleaming new spaceship headquarters of the BBC Manchester, in between as launching ramp in our rise to stardom.
Not our stardom, really. Eric and I were special guests of Adrian Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds, who we’d loved at the Rhythm Festival 2 years ago and who cover Whole Wide World along with a well-chosen selection of other punk era songs, played in a spirited folk style. That doesn’t do the experience justice, and please forgive the use of the word “spirited” – I’m no music critic.
But there’s always that feeling of possibility with a big show like this, born from watching too many movies, that you’ll walk out on the altar a mere artist and working musician and go back into the vestry a star. “Chapel” had me imagining a humble, chaste and dignified rectangle but Union Chapel is a soaring octagonal domed space. It lends an air of gravity and importance to whatever happens there, I guess, but trying to do our set was a challenge because of sound restrictions decreed by the local council. “Let the room do the work” the soundman said, as if through divine intervention our musical intent would flow out if we just stood on the stage, limp chalices to be emptied of our offerings through supplication.
I remembered why I stopped going to church years ago.
Ade and his band were really sweet backstage in the communal “meeting room” but it was a bit like arriving at a party when people are finishing the last bottles of beer and starting to eye half-drunk ones, cause this was the last show of a long tour for them. That weary, punchy, near-hysteria had set in so the only place to find a moment’s peace was in the non-locking toilets, where at least four different touring party members burst in to find me and Eric in varying stages of undress. Not playful conjugal rights in the toilet-type action but two shabby showfolk stuffing themselves into hastily mended and ironed stage clothes and trying to sort out a setlist that wouldn’t trigger the volume meter.
Had tuning troubles to start, and I flubbed the end of a song. We played okay and got a few laughs and warm applause from an audience stiffly sitting on pews in their coats. Then there was that awkward time afterwards at the merch table, with people coming up asking for Bad Shepherds t-shirts, and the occasional happy fan. We snuck out for fish and chips with friends because our rider of hot meal had never materialized and caught some of the show’s finale – again, the acoustics were creating too much “atmosphere” and not enough focused sound but the rhythmic energy of the group came through.
The next night was an old working men’s club in Hebden Bridge, an interestingly artsy town outside Manchester. I felt kind of low after Union Chapel. Just wished it had been – more…what? Special, fun, something. It seemed like it should’ve been, with the massive dome and the big crowd and arches of stone and dramatic lighting. I checked the GPS to see how long the drive would take. Tim did the calculations: London to Hebden Bridge – 63 hours. WHA- oh, right, I still had him set for walking to the guitar shop.
The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge was an unexpectedly great place to play. Maybe because I hadn’t wanted so badly for it to be great. It took three hours to drive there, and no time at all to get somewhere on stage.