July 2012

After more heroic-jet-lagged-wrong-side-late-night-driving by PL we make it back to the farmhouse from Belfast. We light a coal fire, turn on the water heater and settle in with some whiskey and chat.  One by one we fall away to sleep.  Morning again comes very early as we struggle to make sense of time and space. A short walk down the lane to Andy and Jenny’s house is a bit grounding, rabbits and sheep following our progress.  Quick visit to our hosts, an exchange of armed witticisms with Andy, and we’re loaded up and off for the West of Ireland.

As we make our way through a gauntlet of roundabouts and lanes westward the countryside becomes more wild.  Close to our destination of Balla town, County Mayo, we spot a Round Tower off in the distance and head for it.  We’ve got time.  A narrow road and a few false turns, and we find the spot.  Dating to around 930 a.d., the Meelick Round Tower is exactly that, a round stone tower about 80 feet high, one of about 120 built throughout Ireland. Their purpose is not fully understood but one hypothesis has them as places of refuge from attacking Vikings. When Vikings were spotted from the tower, the clerics and townspeople would climb a ladder to the high window then pull the ladder in.  Hopefully, the Vikings would not figure out how to overcome the ten foot climb (although they did manage to sail treacherous seas from Norway), eventually get hungry, wet, and tired and head back to their ships? Maybe so.  Maybe not.  A beautiful decaying cemetery lies at this tower’s base. Ancient headstones tumble and fall in different directions. There’s even a horse walking among them. Dreamy. We eventually break away and head on in afternoon sun and clouds to Balla, a small town of sturdy old two story stone houses filling the roadsides, no gap between the walls.

Mannion’s is a classic Irish pub, dark wood, stools and booths, fiddles painted on the wall. When we arrive, a group of South Africans are having a birthday party and singalong with the locals.   They invite us to share in the food they have set out, stewed chicken and rice. We’re hungry and appreciate the welcoming vibe. Proprietor Chris brews us a pot of strong tea and joins us to eat. He was born upstairs in the quaint and immaculate rooms we’ll be staying in. We finish up the chicken feast and he takes us up for a tour. There appears to be a crucifix in every room. There’s a tea kettle and mugs on the table in the hall, plenty of beds and we each get our own room. We give Marc the en-suite bath–it’s his birthday, after all.

Marc Doten is a bold adventurer who has been on many musical and otherwise journeys with us over the years, playing bass and organ on many Hawks recordings, and recorded our new acoustic CD in his studio.  He knows the music well, and has diligently learned volumes of lyrics for background harmonies.  He jumped on board early for the adventure of it, and now we’re hoping there’s a financial payoff as well.  Indeed, for all of us adventurers.

We come back down and the Africans are singing and dancing. The South African women break into the three part township harmonies their region is famous for.  Beautiful.  Folks are coming in and the energy is up. The gig starts out loud. In fact, Chris hands us a note that says “Too Loud!” OK, cool, we got it. We turn down a bit and ease into the scene. We play a few sets, the Guinness is flowing, and the dancing intensifies. This is locals (and Africans) only.  These folks don’t know our music at all.  It’s a meeting of two very distant cultures, enabled by copious imbibing by all.  We bust out Waylon’s “Just Because You Asked Me To” and the place is hopping. It’s a grand time and perhaps best of all we just need to stumble upstairs to bed once they last note has been played.

The alarms go off early. We have a noon downbeat and short drive down the road to the Westport Bluegrass Fest. It’s not far but we’ve never been there and anything can happen on the Irish roads. Chris has woken early and made us the Full Irish Breakfast: fried eggs, tea and toast, beans, sausage, black and white pudding. Damn, it’s a feast. We make our way through most of it and hide little bits of the blood pudding in our napkins.   Chris, a saintly man if ever there was one, is off to Sunday mass, and we in our van westward to Westport.

Westport is a bustling market turned tourist town, its hills filled with old houses and stone mercantile buildings along a river winding through town, with roads feeding into the center downhill from all directions.  We get directions to the Clew Bay Hotel from a Polish waitress, whose English is a distinctly Irish Polish accent.  At the Hotel the promotor/soundman Urey, from Israel, has an Irish Hebrew accent.  The timeless tradition of Ireland absorbing its invaders and turning them into Irish continues.

Urey is super cool, sets us up in a corner of the hotel’s big front room.  We’re part of the Westport Bluegrass Festival, and we do our oldtimey acoustic best with PL on electric guitar.  Victoria rocks the house on snare and crash cymbal, and the band is finding its groove.  The crowd digs it, buys lots of CDs.  But our fun is haunted by a page in our printed itinerary from Andy:  please note that the Westport show ends at 2 p.m., and you have a 7 p.m. show back in County Down.  It’s a five hour drive.  The ink informs us that it’s impossible for us to make the evening show on time.   We pack up and race away, Paul L desperately trying to make the impossible deadline, which proves impossible.

We arrive a bit stressed and damp in Castlewellan, but Andy brings us into a huge pub, a pub empire, assures us all is good, they’ve switched us to last on the festival bill.  Whew.  And curse you, Andy.  And bless you, Andy.  We feast, drink, make our way down to the festival hall, do an electric set for a late but enthusiastic house.  At the end we jam with the other bands on an extended “The Weight” by The Band.  It sounds pretty damned good, the Canadian Irish American 20 piece band trading vocals and solos, a big sloshing groove.  And off into the wet night, the sky still glowing with lingering day at half eleven (that’s 11:30 p.m.).  We beg off Andy’s pub crawl, limp back to the never more welcoming farmhouse down blackened farm lanes, crawl into bed.  We are truly beat.  Jetlag can’t distinguish itself from our general weariness.

Next morning, after fitful sleep, we face the facts–we’re deep in jet lag. There’s no free lunch, and there are consequences for hurtling your body through space for 11 hours, plunging earthward on an island it should take you months to reach honestly. The devil is getting his due. A hearty breakfast from kindly Jimmy Rafferty and family perks us up considerably: robust tea, eggs, brown bread, and four varieties of meat, including black and white pudding. We innocently ask the kind couple in a neighboring booth, “What’s in black and white pudding?” The lovely Irishwoman tries her best to summon a smile:  “I’m not quite sure. But it’s lovely, try it.” Suspicious. But Marc and Rob go for it, with mixed results. It does involve, blood, after all.  We get a call from Andy–can we do a photo shoot with some folks in Castlewellan, just down the road from Rathfriland in County Down? And Andy’s confirmed a BBC Belfast live performance for tonight.  Our only day off has turned busy.

We bid our farewells to Jimmy and hit the road north, a flurry of map consulting getting us onto the M1. We retrace the country lanes of County Down to the charming town of Castlewellan, meet Adam and Shelagh, who are helping introduce the red kite raptor back into Ireland. Killed off in Ireland 200 years ago by poisoning and shooting when farmers thought (mistakenly) it was a threat to their livestock, the beautiful five foot wingspan raptor survived in Wales and has been reintroduced and protected by law in Ireland. We follow Adam and Shelagh up a steep winding lane past forest stands and idyllic farms with old cottages, to a point called Play Point, so named because it remains a trysting spot for young couples. And romantic it is, the top of a peak with rock outcroppings and a spectacular view of a u-shaped valley and mountains, hedge bounded farms and grazing land climbing up the distant slope. Shelagh and Adam, an archaeologist by training and a deep font of lore, fill us in on local history and geography, and we keep our eyes to the brooding skies for signs of the red kite, whose nests are in nearby trees and down below. No kites, but Adam finds a buzzard in his powerful telescope, hovering as a black silhouette in the far distance above the valley. The Irish buzzard is actually a quite beautiful and large hawk, and it has survived through the centuries. Greetings, Irish Hawk.

We take some photos with Shelagh and Adam, now fast friends we hope we’ll see again, and we motor down the lanes and onto the highway north to Belfast. This is beautiful country, little rivers everywhere, endless green, and the black and gray clouds are our constant traveling companions. We reach the suburbs of Belfast and the driving turns aggressive and competitive. There are two lanes in each direction, packed with drivers in a hurry, and no divide between the directions. Kinda scary. Our lanes merge suddenly into one, and Paul L tries to get over. A Jaguar is just behind in the desired lane, not yielding. Are we far enough ahead? Paul nudges the van over, and the Jaguar driver goes berserk, honking madly. Apparently we weren’t far enough ahead. The Jaguar races into the bus lane, pulls in front of us, and stops, blocking traffic. An enraged shaved head pokes out of the window, a Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel looking murderous maniac, screaming at us. Paul yells out the window, sorry! But it’s not good enough for our Belfast thug. He takes off, then pulls alongside of us down the road and starts screaming again. Rob rolls down his window and he and Paul simultaneously yell at the guy: We’re Americans! We’re Americans! Apparently they mean to say, we are not acclimated to the driving ways of your land, but whatever the intent, it stymies the Jaguar driver. He gazes bewildered at us for a moment, then races off into traffic. Violent international incident averted.

We spy the brick, glass, and steel modest sized buildings of downtown Belfast, poke ahead through rush hour traffic. We’ve been here before, and it’s looking familiar. There! No, there. We find it: British Broadcasting Corporation Belfast.

On our first visit to BBC Belfast six years ago we were confused when they wouldn’t let us plug in our own amps. What’s this all about? This time, we realize they’re looking for bombs with the strange little electronic device they use to scan our equipment before we’re allowed to plug it in. Of course, how could we have missed it? BBC Belfast is, in fact, a fortress. A historical plaque on the wall outside explains that it was built in 1936 with a steel frame and reinforced concrete floors, walls, and roof. There’s guards stationed at all the entrances and you need to be buzzed through big, solid doors to reach the inside. After decades of enduring The Troubles, the BBC still takes no chances as this potent and symbolic outpost of the British Empire.

Ralph McLean has been hosting a two hour American Roots music show on BBC Belfast for many years. He’s interviewed lots of the big ones: Emmylou, Loretta, Tammy, Merle. So we’re damn glad to be ensconced again in this gleaming, smart, highest tech building.  Ralph’s assistant Neve helps us get set up and bang, away we go. Ralph moves quickly and precisely between the live performances and the interview, smart and informed questions, piecing it all together in Protools in real time as we talk. It’s really something to see.

After the interview, Neve recommends an nearby Indian restaurant. We gather together our gear, load the van and keep it in the well-guarded BBC lot, and head out into Belfast. Lots of folks are out on the streets and there seems to be many well armed police around. As we settle in to our top notch Saag Paneer and Cobra beers we hear the drums coming down the street. Orange-clad marching bands with huge banners of ancient saints fill the street right outside the window. What is this? Turns out it’s start of the July 12 Battle of the Boyne celebration (even though it’s still June). Back in 1690 the Protestants defeated the Catholics (with a little help from Pope, curiously) and they’re still celebrating.

Where to begin, where to begin? It’s Saturday, June 30 in County Down, Northern Ireland. Today is bass player Marc Doten’s birthday. We flew out of LAX on Tuesday night, June 26th. Just a few short days ago but somehow it seems like an eternity. We’ve just made a critical decision to abandon four pages of directions involving scores of roundabouts and towns between here and Balla, County Mayo. Instead we’ll take the M1 south to Dublin to eventually go west on the M4 to our third gig all the way across this green land. The local roads are just too stressful and the double carriage way of the M1 feels much more like our familiar I-5. We need a break from driving our wide diesel van down the narrow narrow lanes stuffed with tractors going slow and big trucks and buses going terrifyingly fast. We’ll take the extra kilometers.

We’ve been staying in a hundred year old farm house on the outskirts of the little town of Rathfriland in between Belfast and Dublin. It’s a lovely place. Thick walls, flower wallpaper, comfy chairs and a coal fireplace. The owners are a sweet and charming blue eyed older farming couple who tend to their cattle in the surrounding barns and green lush pastures bounded by hedge rows. The husband was born in the room upstairs, a tale common to his generation. We’re reminded that Ireland, for all the glitter of the Celtic Tiger, is an agricultural nation, and a thriving one. The only real problem is the hot water. There’s hardly a drop. But we’ll soon learn that cold showers are typical in Ireland.

After a costly and cramped pair of flights from Los Angeles to London Heathrow to Dublin (which we’ll spare you the details of–suffice it to say that all flying is unpleasant and humiliating, unless you are on the other side of the first class divide), we were picked up at the airport by our kind host and tour booker Andy Peters for the drive north to County Down. We pulled into the farmhouse gravel yard around midnight on Wednesday; crushed with jet lag we stumbled through darkness to our beds. We awoke to the sound of cows mooing, a green and gray light streaming through the windows. Oh my, we’re really in Irish countryside. What time is it–11 a.m.? No, it’s not yet 7 a.m. Our internal clocks are confused but our spirits are beginning to soar. This is what we’ve been looking forward to for all these months. Our hosts have left the necessary staples for breakfast: tea, brown bread, milk. We make a strong pot and gather our wits. Then it’s time for a walk. We amble down the Cavan Road and take in the greenness. Heavy gray clouds drop small showers in brief bursts but it’s not really raining. Moss seems to grow on everything: slate roofs, stone fences, trees. Small fields alternate with cows and sheep grazing lazily. One field is home to a donkey, a horse, and a shetland pony. Perhaps the set up for Hawks Original Joke #7? Stay tuned for that.

After our early morning walk and breakfast we do our best to catch a little more sleep. We’ve got a drive ahead of us down to Skerries, an old touristy beach town a bit north of Dublin. In Joyce’s story “A Mother” from Dubliners, the ambitious mother brags to her friends about the trips her husband takes the family on there. After our naps, we inspect the gear, rehearse a bit, and load the truck. PL gathers his courage and takes the wheel. He’s the only Hawk insured to drive the vehicle and he’s volunteered to shoulder the heavy, stressful, and often blood chilling burden of driving us around the Emerald Isle. Rob W struggles to make sense of the directions while Marc Doten scans the map. Getting around is a three man job at this point. Will this get any easier? After a few missteps we find the M1 and head south. We pass through into the Republic without any sign or border post. Thankfully, the scars of the Troubles are healing and vanishing.

As we approach Skerries we can smell the sea and see the gulls. Apparently, a skerry is a rocky out cropping in the sea. There they are on the shore’s horizon, framed by gray clouds. Jagged gray and black limestone emerges from the sea, coated in green and yellow moss. It’s lovely. We’re looking for a place called Raff’s On The Corner. It’s a pub, a restaurant, a venue, a sports bar. Proprietor Jimmy Rafferty welcomes us in and shows us around. He picked up the place for a song after the Tiger’s crash and he’s trying out a number of angles on the property. A musician and singer himself, he shows us a video of him singing Irish songs in a bar in Washington D.C. last year while Obama sips a pint in the audience. Curiously, Obama and Raff are never in the frame at the same time. Is this for real? We decide it is. Raff takes us to our apartment upstairs. It’s grand, real rooms and beds for one and all. He feeds us well too. So far, so good Ireland. The jet lag is still with us, coming in waves. One minute you feel normal, the next you think you might fall over, and putting together a sentence seems impossible. We try to rest for a bit before showtime.

The show starts up around 10 pm but it’s still plenty light out. We’re far north and it’s eight days past the solstice. Tourists reminiscent of Joyce’s mother gather to hear the Americans. Then there are the tattooed guys in Thrasher shirts and a few drunken soccer hooligans. Everyone is so friendly it’s alarming. We of cold L.A. need to adjust to this potent welcoming kindness. We hold the jet lag at bay and get through our first set efficiently. At our short break people discuss the lyrics they’ve just heard. This is the land of word and song, after all. We hit the stage again. Jimmy Rafferty has advised us to salt our set with classic country covers, which we do with our typical reluctance. But we are rewarded with the sight of Marc Doten, who hates the Eagles with a passion reserved for Foreigner and drum machines, singing along to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Yes, Silverlakers and Echo Parkians, you heard it here first. Marc Doten is singing an Eagles song.

Jimmy Rafferty joins us, plugs in his guitar and sings solid versions of “Folsom Prison,” grabbing the lead guitar line, and Hag’s “Mama Tried.” He knows his classic country hits. He grabs his friend Billy to come up too. Uh oh. RW generously loans Billy his guitar, or perhaps he’s just glad to get to sit down for a few to rest his weary legs. Billy is a curly haired, elfin Irishman with a gold hoop earring. He straps on the guitar and it’s at his ankles. He cranks up the strap and RW cringes. It’ll take a month to get it back to that sweet spot. Damn. Billy launches into a ragged version of “I Shall Be Released,” but when will we be? RW eventually regains his guitar and mic. A few more Hawks tunes and our first gig is complete. Ready to crash, we thankfully just need to make it up the stairs. Sleep comes fast and hard.