August 2012

THE LOWNESS OF SWINDON

August 14, 2012 · 0 comments

Every tour must have a low point. There are scientific and linguistic/logical principles that insist upon this. And so, Swindon. For fans of the ”The Office” (the real one — not the gutted, unwatchable U.S. imitation) Swindon is the nearby rival to Ricky Gervais’s Slough paper products branch office. In the real Swindon, a ten story gray 70’s office building with most of its windows shattered rises as a sort of town centerpiece. It was built to replace a handsome old brick college building, but the modern experiment failed.

As low points go, this one is higher than most. Perched atop the town’s steepest hill, stands a cool little pub, The Beehive. As we wind through tightly parked cars up the narrow residential road, it begins to look familiar. Two story row houses packed together with bay windows and garages below. You’d think it was Potrero Hill if you didn’t know better. Six years have fogged our already foggy memories.  As we walk in Paul wonders, was it kind of a bummer playing here last time? Maybe. Rob remembers the little dramatic video we shot here entitled “Exeunt Pub.” That was fun, right? Maybe the Beehive has changed. Or maybe we have. Perhaps our expectations have risen a bit for the places we expect to play. And that’s a good thing.

But we’re country rock soldiers, people. A funky pub is not going to get us down. We know how to deal with this. Paul and Marc get to work setting up the sad P.A. and backline. We all swallow hard as we discover the meager money deal. The accommodations are stinky sofas scattered in the flat above the bar. Now, we’ll sleep just about anywhere, and have, but this is beyond our funk limit, mostly because of the cigarette butts filling the large ashtrays scattered about. Rob and Victoria hit the streets and luckily find a cheap and very cool B&B a short walk away. Whew.

Brightened by the newfound digs, the band takes position and digs into the first set. The gig is okay, could have been worse. Paul overcomes his recurring sullen fit about the backline amp, tonight a giant Traynor with the tone of a, well, Traynor. There’s a group of bearded hippie types gathered near the front. Thank god, the Deadheads have arrived! There’s even a tapir. An Irishman in the front row seems to be singing along. We’ll later learn he skipped work to be at this show, a fan made six years ago on a night not unlike this one. These gigs are the ones that turn you into a band. While some of the crowd would obviously prefer Stevie Ray Vaughn tunes, we find our most innovative and free rock sound of the tour. Victoria plays a rock solid train beat that fits perfectly with all our two beats. But in her drummer’s heart of hearts she’s a groovy melodic indie rock drummer. We turn each song into a jam, Paul turns his overdrive to 11 to disengage Traynor tone. We rock, stretching songs way out. The crowd responds. They’ve been waiting for some action and the action has arrived. The night ends well, the kind owner flowing us a generous bar tab. So it’s a wash, not bad for a low point. Good night, Swindon!

We amble down the road to The Swan B&B. We hang in the Doten-Waller suite watching British game shows, drinking tea, and smoking our first joint of the tour out the window. Finally, someone has hooked up the band–thank you, intriguing mysterious cowboy in Leicester. And it’s actually not bad stuff, even for these spoiled California stoners. We set our alarms for the early free breakfast. That’s the trick of the B&B. You’ve got to be able to get up for that breakfast no matter what. Marc rises first. Then Rob. They knock on the slumbering couple’s door. Shocked and dismayed, they too muster. Bacon. Orange juice. Tea. Cereal. The morning is gray. We are in England. The end of our tour is here, a tour which has, as we suspected it would, passed in a flash. Prepared as we were, we’re a little bewildered and hurt. It’s over? We’re not ready for it to be over. But the end is nigh. Flashes of harsh desert air, desiccating chapparal, billboards and reckless driving on vast freeways intrude into the soft green vistas before us as we motor east toward London, windshield wipers clicking hypnotically.

ONWARD TO ENGLAND

August 3, 2012 · 0 comments

It’s Tuesday, July 10th. We’ve been away just under two weeks but due to the relentless schedule of this tour we’ve had not a moment to chronicle our journey. Dear Reader, we apologize. We’ll try to catch up. At the moment, we’re speeding towards Bristol on the M6. We have a radio show at 3 pm at the BBC. Will we make it? Torrential rains are in the forecast once again. When we ask natives how long the drive is between Liverpool and Bristol we get answers varying from 2 to 7 hours. Google (like Obama), takes the middle road and says three and a half hours. We shall see.

Last night we played a house concert in the lovely two story brick row house of Peter and Gabrielle Davies, aka The Good Intentions. They won Best Americana act at the British Country Music Awards this year, and we’re excited about finally getting to play with them. The GIs live just down the street from Paul McCartney’s boyhood home. After a terrific dinner of fish risotto by Gabi, wow, did we need that!, with Peter leading we walked the half mile through quiet two story flats and trees to the quaint Council House of this McCartney musical mountain. Quite a feeling to be there. A tour guide guides two tourists in front of the building. Liverpool does feel Beatlesque, leafy neighborhoods and roundabouts. We’re not going to get a chance to see the port and its historic docks.

We walked back to the Davies house properly humbled. Evening. The audience, music aficionados and good friends all, filtered in to drink and mingle. The Good Intentions did a short but sweet acoustic duo set, no microphones in this most excellent small living room concert room. We did the same, just acoustic guitars, bass in small amp, Victoria with broomsticks on a CD box. We got a great balance, did our best acoustic show of the tour so far. The audience got very enthusiastic, their polite British nature giving way to genuine joy. It’s a good feeling. We did a short first set and took a break, the room grown hot and faces glistening. We stepped out into the damp and cool Liverpool night. Back inside for one more set, the sets they just keep coming on this tour. But it was a good one. We chatted for a long time with our new friends and fans. These people know music. We hung with the Davies, drinking whiskey on the couches, their very cool children and friends hanging too. A delightful and civilized evening.

Ah, but now it’s raining, we’ve missed our motorway exit, of course, and Rob is using precious roaming iPhone minutes to get nervous driver Paul back on course. We’ve gone 20 minutes eastward from Liverpool, so we backtrack, finally head southward, Bristol bound. The drive turns enchanting, even on the brisk motorway, dark rain and brilliant sunlight alternating in great waves over the fields and towns racing past.

We make Bristol with an hour to spare, cruise the high (main) street, note the ornamental patterns set into otherwise pragmatic brick row houses. Bristol was clearly a prosperous big town for a long time. We will learn from various chats with locals that this was the center of the slave trade triangle: trinkets and goods to Africa in the big wooden ships, slaves from Africa to America, cotton from America back to Bristol. Nasty and efficient. Bristol 2012 looks tidy, upbeat, and prosperous, with mysterious means of income, like most of western civilization.

BBC Bristol is a model of BBC effiency, genteel officiousness, and intelligence. We maneuver through the security checkpoints, are guided by a nervous greeter to the coffee lounge, and then play a live acoustic set with a super cool, smart, and informed DJ Alex. She’s listened to our material, has great questions, has fun. We’re getting good use out of the CD box, Victoria’s second show in a row on the percussion instrument. Thank you, BBC. Long may you rule, and may American radio follow your example, especially the interest in Americana bands from America.

With our car safely in the high security zone of BBC parking, we wander up the high street, check out the cool Silverlake period of gentrification shops. Cool hang with wi fi at a cafe, Rob chats with the family, whom he misses palpably at this point. Rob and Victoria hit the high end organic cosmetics shop, Marc and Paul amble downhill and fetch the car, we’re off to the St. Bonaventure Social Club up a few grades and through roundabouts eastward. What a beautiful town, all graceful old flats and generous parks, big old trees. The brooding clouds are our constant companion. A nurturing climate. The crew at St. Bonaventure’s are super cool, efficient, have great gear and drum kit for us, including a 1970s Fender Twin Reverb that sounds great, overcoming Paul’s historic aversion to Twins and their sinister cousins, the Mesa Boogie family. We do a full rocking sound check, take a long downhill walk to the street of shops, grab dinner, and walk back up.

St. Bonaventure’s is indeed a multipurpose community center room somehow connected to another deconsecrated church, with an impressive calendar of touring country, roots, and folk bands. Alejandro Escovedo, whose UK paths we are crossing several times, is here a few nights later. The seats in the big concert room are almost full, to our delight, and we do a set that builds to our closing rockers. It’s been interesting building sets with this first time ever lineup, with a batch of mellow songs from our new CD that we’re translating into acoustic and electric shows. We’ve got it down by now, and the crowd digs our thumping conclusion. The Fender Twin has tired tubes, gets quieter and quieter, Paul turns it up and up, and by our last “Good And Foolish Times” encore it sounds like a transistor amp through a fuzz pedal. Nobody but Paul and Marc seem to notice, and we exit the stage feeling loved and appreciated. We do the hang, sign CDs, and our kind hosts for the evening,

Tony and Guilly Jones, lead us in caravan through dark Bristol and down a six mile winding dark country lane to their B&B in the village of Pensford. We have a drink, a nice chat, and to bed in comfy rooms upstairs.

Morning reveals we are in a stunning 19th century bakery turned sprawling B&B. Guilly makes us a fine breakfast, and we loiter long in the terraced yard that sprawls steeply down to the black and fast flowing Chew River, with fields beyond. Guilly takes us on a dreamlike walk through the old village with ancient carving in church wall and domed single room stone gaol, and out of town along the beautiful Chew sheltered by elms and other big trees. We walk the path under a massive Victorian arched railway bridge, into the hedges and fields with cattle and lonely wealthy farmer’s stone houses. The air is balmy and soft blue, barley bends with the breeze, cattle and sheep graze, and we wander in a big loop and back into town.

A fond farewell to Guilly and we’re off for Towersey, 50 miles northwest of London. On the map it looks like a piece of cake, so we take small roads out of Pensford, avoiding Bristol, and our wandering is rewarded with stunning vistas of Somerset farmland, unspoiled, timeless, and bursting with life from the very heavy spring and summer rains. We stop at a roadside pub for fish and chips and local strong beer, drive off well lubricated and mellow, veer somehow into the ancient town of Bath, drive narrow old streets become canyons by a burst of 18th century Palladium style building by architects John Wood The Elder And Son. The yellowish Bathstone (a local limestone) buildings form massive and long planned boulevards and circuses that resemble Paris in boldness and farsightedness. Dazzled, we meander the streets until a lane spills us out onto a roundabout that takes us to the M4 eastward.

Now we’re running late, in classic Hawks style. Eastward, then north through the outskirts of Oxford, under beautiful blackening and lightening skies and bursts of rain, then eastward, we’re lost, we’re found, we’re lost, down a series of flat farm lanes, and sometime after sunset we reach the venerable Three Horseshoes Tavern in ancient village Towersey, east Oxfordshire, official home of the Towersey Morris Men

As the guidebook says: “Towersey is a small rural parish just inside the East Oxfordshire border. The origins of its name can be found back as far as the Saxon times. The village can be found in the Doomsday Book under it’s original name of Eye. The name Towersey is actually derived from Richard de Tours. The Tours family were owners of the land and area. Therefore, they became know as the Tours of Eye which led to usages such as Toureye, Towerseye and finally Towersey.” By the 14th century the Abbot of the Church of Thame had taken the land.

In that same century, the 14th, yes, the 1300s, young Americans, the barn in which we are to perform was built. Sturdy and whitewashed, the barn has what look like and locals agree are arrow shooting slits. As we pull into the rain soaked parking lot our anxious host Mark Wallace greets us. We’re pretty late, but we do a quick but efficient sound check, two big condensor mics and an upright bass, yeah!, have time to grab a pint at the Three Horseshoes across the yard. The doorway is low, the ceilings almost too low for Rob to stand upright, the floor is ancient planks. We’re drenched in history.

Back to the barn, and it sounds good. We’ve got a medium sized enthusiastic crowd, and we do two sets and an encore, as rain falls outside. Martin and his wife Georgia, very cool folks, lead us back to their row house in the village of Princes Risborough. We take to our rooms and crash. It’s been a long day.

Next morning Martin suggests we walk the mile into town center, which we do, have a cheery English breakfast, heavy on the sausage, in a corner shop, then wander the farmers market. We buy cheeses from a bewhiskered gray gentleman in tweed who rolls a cigarette with tobacco from a tin emblazoned with a marijuana leaf, who fills us in on local lore. A french woman presides over a cart with phenomenal olives and pickled vegetables, and another cart is overflowing with enticing plump bread loaves of a variety we can only wish on Whole Foods. We buy wander, just miss a boys choir in an ancient chapel in ancient cemetery. As we walk out of town center, two gawky raptors fly overhead, circle. Are those kites? The fabled birds we looked for in vain in the hills over Wellinghan, County Down? Yes, they are! They seem to follow us, and back at Martin and Georgia’s house they circle overhead. It looks like their nesting tree is at the edge of our hosts’ long and productive vegetable row garden.

We hit the road, iGuide Rob calling out directions, north for Leicester through Aylesbury, Bicester, Bloxham, Banbury, Byfield, Graydon, just missing Stratford-upon-Avon, past Coventry, Bedworth, Nuneaton, Wigston, roundabouts and hedges, some new suburbs but nothing alarming, into Leicester. A functional town.

It’s raining. We’re hungry. We park, load in and do a quick sound check at The Musician, at the end of a factory road. All is gray except for the bright yellow Musician entrance. The soundman is excellent, cheery, and we cheer up, it sounds great, we’re going acoustic again. Victoria almost slices her finger off with an ancient and cruel drum stool, but it’s only a flesh wound, and Victoria toughs it out. We find the street

with food, grab mediocre Indian fare, come back, and to our pleasant surprise, we’ve got a reasonable sized audience again. And we put on a great show, in Paul’s humble opinion the best of the tour. The grooves groove, the vocals are dialed in from the previous nineteen shows and the monitors are great, Rob’s sounding gigantic, Victoria’s a train beat metronome, we rock. The crowd goes quietly wild, we do a long encore, hang out and sign CDs. A night we were concerned about couldn’t have turned out better.

A friend of the club, Tony, has cheap rooms for us in his row house a few miles from town. We hang out with the other roomers and some musician buddies who turn out to have a great sounding folk band, watch a bit of Orson Welles’s “Touch Of Evil.” In the middle of the famous opening shot, Marc observes, isn’t that Venice Beach? By jove, it’s got to be. Suddenly the Mexican border town is good old L.A. But judge for your self, dear reader.

We hang. We crash. It’s raining.

After three nights in the institutional comforts of the Ulster American Folk Park it’s good to wake up in our quaint and familiar farmhouse. Here we are free to linger in the common rooms in our underwear with whiskey or Guinness or both. We can pee in the grass by the roadside (at least the guys can), we can make our own toast just the way we like it. The Folk Park was fine, and there’s even some part of you that adapts quickly to the rhythms of institutional life: the strict meal times, the brief showers, the motivating sense of shame that gets you down to do your laundry right when they open it up.

But now we’re home. We probably got to sleep around 3 a.m. from our late night flight from Magherafelt, and are more than a little fatigued. PL has woken early and whipped up a lovely breakfast of eggs, toast, scones, jam, juice and tea. There’s even a few chocolate-dipped macaroons. This hippie guitar player can really set a table, folks. The Irish Catholic energy is welling up inside him, making for an Old World breakfast for us all. Marc and RW stumble downstairs from their bachelor attic dwelling and Victoria eventually emerges from the bathroom. The faux British/Celtish accents emerge. The travel hardened band dines together in the calm pleasure of not having a gig until 8 pm, and it’s close by, too.

We’ve been here over a week now, the jet lag has faded, our heads are clearing. Though the ache of missing the family back home is perhaps even a bit sharper, it’s also grown familiar. After breakfast, RW heads upstairs to charge his dying laptop. BOOM! What was that? The 6’4” singer has cracked his head sharply on one of the low-hanging two hundred year old beams. Uh oh. “What’s 12 + 15, Rob?” PL asks. “17,” Rob answers confidently. “Try again. What’s 12 + 15?” RW thinks for a minute, tries his best. “32.” Good God, Rob, that knock on the head has turned you into a musician! PL grabs the computer and heads down the road to Andy Peter’s wifi to check for concussion symptoms, sitting on the front steps with a jacket over his head like an old fashioned photographer. Looks like RW has about half of the symptoms, a mild concussion. Nothing an afternoon of rest and a bit of ice can’t fix. Luckily, the Hawks have not yet adopted the new NFL rules for such injuries. We take a rambling walk among the fields and stone cottages, as Rob recuperates. As the sun gives evidence, behind dark clouds, of heading towards the horizon, Andy and Jenny welcome us into their home for a cozy pre-gig dinner: lasagna, mango chicken, a piece of well-prepared fish for Vicky. Andy uncorks some fine Spanish wines and we start to really relax. The six of us can really get to yakking, the gift of gab on steroids. Uh oh! Time to go. We’ve got a gig, folks.

Returning to the Bronte is a mystical experience. Four years ago (or was it six?) we had our first gig off the plane at the Bronte Center. This deconsecrated church, originally built in 1760, was once presided over by Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s father Patrick “Brunty” Bronte. A graveyard surrounds the church that includes the often exhumed grave of notorious satanist Squire Hawkins. The valley below is many shades of bright green under black brooding clouds and the mist softened Mourne Mountains in the distance. Sweet ancient sadness and ghosts mingle with the raindrops. The history runs deep here.

With solid stone walls and a granite center aisle, the acoustics inside the Bronte are indeed holy, recording-worthy. We set up for a two-set acoustic performance and the crowd begins to fill in the pews. We spot Neve from the BBC and her fiance. Shelagh, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, also takes a seat. The wind is blowing strongly outside and there are bursts of rain. We play the first set and light is still glowing, first through the clouds and then the windows even though the sun’s been down for hours. We take a break, say hello to friends and sign some CDs. Even as we take the stage again around 10 pm it’s not yet dark outside. Northern Ireland is indeed North, sharing latitude with Denmark and Canada. Our second set is loose and strong. The band has really found its sound. All those sets at the Folk Park have really paid off. Back through the rain to Cavan Cottage but not before taking Andy up on his offer of whiskey and TV. We settle in to a BBC4 documentary on Black Sabbath and truly relax. Seventies Brit metal memoria make us mellow and melancholy.

Morning comes too early once again. We’ve got to load up the van and head over to Letterkenny for the Earagail Arts Fest. Luckily, Andy will be driving us on this one. Jenny is coming too. Big noisy fun, every seat in the Volkswagon stepvan is occupied: three in front, three in back. This is old school road tripping at its most Irish. Andy once again pilots the van with the keen sense of an overly-cautious school teacher, bless his heart. He and Paul banter sharply about the optimal speeds for shifting gears of the cumbersome beast. We make our way through winding roads to the eastern edge of County Donegal. We all have our own rooms in euro-style tonight at the pseudo-plush Station Inn, downtown Letterkenny. My own TV! I feel like I’m back in the USA. The hotel is crawling with musicians from the fest as well as an alarmingly high number of Hen and Stag party attendees. Young ladies walk the halls wearing veils and carrying blow up sex dolls. Drunk guys sit crying in the lobby. What will happen when night falls?

We soak up the solitude of our own rooms for a while and then it’s time to head off to the fest. It’s not too far, just up a series of hills at an old Irish Army military base/Stewart family mansion that seems like it’s been in every WWII movie since 1950. You’d recognize it if you saw it. It’s the place where the Allies have set out the big map in front of the fire place to show how the final D-Day attack will occur. The festival organizers have a tent set up outside on the grand lawn overlooking the grand fields below, green and perfect, and it appears we are in for some fine dining tonight. Also, turns out we’re early. We have a bit of a stink-eye contest with the other band to see who goes on first. They are a (very) cool duo called Hat Fitz and Cara. They have seriously hip retro outfits. At least one of them is from Australia. They seem perfectly engineered for the summer Euro festival circuit. It’s not looking good. Yet somehow we win (lose) and will play second. More time to kill. We wander the grounds. There’s some huge Luminarium that we wish was open. We find an abandoned Military Police shed, get out the cameras, and start improvising a film (clips to follow). We get fed a delicious meal of crab cakes and salad with a choice of lovely Spanish wines. Uh oh, we have a gig. And Hat Fitz and Cara have killed it, a unique blend of perfectly executed Irish fiddle and wind instruments, sweet vocals, and the heavily masculine tremeloed out blues guitar–beauty and the gentle beast. The crowd adores them, and we begrudgingly admit they’re kick ass and a tough act to follow. We finally get re-plugged in on the waterlogged and woozy stage as dessert is being served. We seem to have missed the peak of the night but we still rock it as the more rugged diners dance in the aisles. The crowd is excited to see two female drummers in a row, and rocking it. Back to the hotel, we dodge Hen parties, have a few drinks at the bar with Andy and Jenny, and make our way up to TVs and beds. Thank you, generous Earagail hosts.

It’s now gray morning July 8th and suddenly it’s our last full day in Ireland. The excess of good food and wine slows our exit from Letterkenny, Andy scolding the late rising slow breakfasting band. Of course if Andy managed to hit 60 mph on the motorways east, we wouldn’t be sweating arriving for our last gig on the Emerald Isle. We have a gig at a place called the Comber Recreation Center, in a kind of low lying delta area next to a huge bay on the east coast of Northern Ireland. Interesting. We arrive a bit late and make our way past the lovely green football pitch. It really is a soccer club of some kind. Inside it all starts to make sense. It’s a pub! A sports pub! A blues club! Locals only! And that rocking energy that only locals generate, counting only on themselves, not TV of the big city, is the craic. The Legendary Craic, we’ve found it! There’s a solid all-Irish bluegrass band on stage, the Down And Out Bluegrass Band  with a banjo player that could tour with Del McCoury, he’s that good, and the low ceiling room is packed with families, kids, grandparents. It’s a scene. We meet up with the promoters, nice folks who run a night called the Enler Delta Blues Club. They take over the pub on Sundays for their shows and they’re glad to have us. Irish Johnny is back! He’s taken the bus up from his village, the sweetheart. Radio host George Jones shows up too with bass in tow. Our set goes over great but the real fun comes afterwards when a spontaneous bluegrass jam develops. We Hawks are in bluegrass heaven. We lead the Irish boys through what turns out to be a fairly complex tune, our own “Golden Girl,” but they blast through it.  The pints flow and flow and everyone is singing along. Some stocky toughs on the bench behind burst into a harmonized parallel song in the middle of an instrumental verse. This is a very musical land. A real highlight to end the Irish leg of the tour.

The six of us hit the road, band, Andy and Jenny, somewhat southward, sad and satisfied. Our Ireland farewell looms, and where did the time go? This is Jenny’s turf, and she guides Andy down twisting back roads, dales and vales, with gentle but barbed instructions. No one can bicker like the Irish. Pure entertainment. This is lovely and mysterious country, layered in ancient tales and modern strife and peace. In a tiny town we stop for Indian food. The Hawks are a bit skeptical, for this would be like stopping in Beaumont or Rialto for dining. But the glassed in restaurant serves one of the best Indian meals we’ve ever had. The mysteries are endless.

FROM DUBLIN TO OMAGH TO MAGHERAFELT

August 2, 2012

Monday on the farm, Rathfriland adjacent, green rolling County Down. We’ve settled in quite comfortably to our cozy old stone house, with the cattle lowing in the yard adjacent and flowers and fields and hedges bursting with life from the heaviest rains in Irish history. Rob and Marc are upstairs in rooms with ceilings too […]

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