It's 5 o'clock on Tuesday morning and myself and the long-suffering Shirley are on the road again. We arrive at Richard's in the dark; by the time he and me pull into Area G of the Long Stay Car Park at Stansted Airport it's not long after 6 o'clock and beginning to get light. We would have been in Birchanger Services on the M11 if Dave had called Richard 30 seconds earlier than he did to tell him that he and Mike were in there having a coffee- as it was we were just passing the exit for the services as the phone rang. By 6.30-something we're all in the car park and have met up by the magic of the mobile phone; it's the A-team (minus Tracy who was away working elsewhere) and we're off to Ireland for 2 CBB shows in Belfast and Armagh. Originally more gigs were planned but as so often happens with this sort of thing only these shows have survived which is a real shame as speaking personally I've always really enjoyed playing in Ireland. The first time I went there was in the summer of 2001 when I'd just started playing for Neck (remind me to tell you about coming out of a club at 6 a.m. to be confronted by a tank) and have made quite a few visits there since with various bands.
With everybody present and correct and various bits and pieces redistributed in various bags and holdalls we take the shuttle bus to the airport itself; the mood is good if somewhat bleary (it's early!) and extra jollity comes with the fact that it's Pete's birthday although said jollity is suddenly in short supply when we get the news that there's rather the best part of £80 to pay to get Squirrel's bass and my guitar onto the aircraft. It would have been cheaper to buy tickets for them! Pete is adamant that he's already paid, the check-in staff say he hasn't so he pays and vows to query it later when he can get on a computer. That aside check-in goes pretty smoothly (I'm wondering if the guy a few places away from us in the queue is Specials singer Terry Hall- surely it can't be? Then again, why not?!?) as does the flight during which I read the first few pages of the 'Mojo' magazine 1978 edition and chat with Squirrel about his time on Stiff Records with Lew Lewis.
We arrive at Belfast City Airport (a.k.a. George Best Airport) around twenty past nine. As we were waiting to disembark I look out of the window to see our instruments being unloaded with all the care and attention that you'd expect from airport baggage handlers i.e. none whatsoever. How annoying is that, especially after being obliged to pay for the privilege of bringing them with us?
Well since you ask, it's really annoying- 'though nowhere near as annoying as finding out that the carrying handle on my guitar case had been broken off. After uttering the customary oaths and curses Pete and myself register a complaint at the appropriate desk and get the relevant paperwork and the 'you'll have to take this up with Ryanair' speech from the lady behind the counter. I suppose I should look on the bright side and say that at least my Telecaster is still in one piece- but having stumbled around with it for the last couple of days I can tell you that a guitar case without a carrying handle is a very cumbersome thing...
We meet Darren the minibus driver/merchandise man outside the airport and head off to The Stormont Hotel, our base throughout our stay. We're early enough for breakfast (!) which goes down very well with all concerned; I'm sharing room 243 with Marc and since we're not leaving for the venue until half past one there's plenty of time to catch up on some sleep before meeting everyone down in the lobby for a quick pancake (it's Shrove Tuesday!) and the short drive to The Waterfront for the evening's show. It's a great venue- we're playing in the Studio as opposed to the much larger Auditorium- and using a backline supplied by Dougie the P.A. man. Squirrel's got an impressive looking Ampeg stack, Marc's got an unimpressive looking Yamaha drumkit and Ian's playing a Roland keyboard; I've got a one of the noisiest, punkiest amplifiers ever produced by Fender, a combo called The Twin (an 'updating' of the classic Fender Twin Reverb combo) which incidentally is a favourite of Neck mainman Leeson O'Keeffe (cue the theme from 'The Twilight Zone'.) By running it on half power and having most of the volume and distortion controls set low I manage to get something approaching an appropriate sound 'though it's still too loud for Marc ('All I can hear is guitar!') so rather than placing it in it's usual position on the drum riser I end up with it on the floor in front of the riser but tilted upwards so that I can still hear it. Soundcheck includes a version of that well-known Blues Brothers number 'Suspicious Minds' which suggests that we should make a good job of the Elvis songs next week in Zurich.
After some noodles at the Teppanyaki Japanese Restaurant across from the venue (set meals started at 50 quid! We just had a couple of starters...) Pete and myself went back to the venue to meet up with Sam Davidson, guitarist in the reformed version of Rory Gallagher's old band Taste. He's a mate of Pete's and he's joining us for the last couple of songs in the show- we run through 'Sweet Home Chicago' with me and him on guitars and Pete on bass and he sounds great 'though he's have to be to fill the mighty Mr. Gallagher's shoes.
With the venue rapidly filling up it's time to retire backstage to prepare for action. Dave's got Pete a birthday card which we've all signed- he lures him into the darkened dressing room 2 where he's put a large candle into a fairy cake, and much singing and cheering ensues as Pete comes through the door. He's also bought the wrong trousers with him- they're several sizes too big and he can't find a belt that will fit through the belt loops so he gaffa tapes himself into them. (I'm not making this up, honest! Actually while we're on the subject, what was he doing with a pair of enormous trousers? Answers on a postcard please, usual address...) He also spends rather a lot of time wearing the wig that Pete (or whoever is playing Jake that night) uses during the gospel section of the show, much to everyone's amusement.
The show's a sell out (hurrah!) and the crowd are up for it from the word go although judging by the number of people with their fingers in their ears my amp wasn't the only thing that was too loud... there was more than one 'Happy Birthday' moment during the horn solos, someone threw an empty Tic Tac box onto the stage during 'New Orleans' (no, I don't know either) and with Sam playing brilliantly during his guest appearance it's a great show all round with talk of returning next year for a show in the Auditorium. Oh and Dave wore the wig for the encores. Excellent!
As I opted not to set an alarm Wednesday got off to a late-ish (10.15) start- I made it down in time for breakfast just as they were packing everything away. With several band members opting to go for a spa and sauna at the nearby Culloden Hotel (it's in the same chain as The Stormont, Pete Mike and Tracy did several playback shows in them just before last Christmas) myself and Marc decide to walk up the hill to The Stormont Parliament Building as it's such a nice morning. It's an extraordinary building that looks almost impressive from a distance as it does close up 'though the number of security guards and cameras are reminders of some of the other things the area has been well known for... back at our hotel it's time for some food in the La Scala bistro (excellent!) before a bit of time spent catching up on a few phone calls and attempting to unravel one of the great mysteries of modern life- just how do you register a complaint on a company's website? In this case it's a broken item of baggage with Ryanair but, let's face it, you can e-mail anybody about virtually anything these days and yet to complain about something you have to do so in writing within 7 days of the incident taking place- tricky in a case like this if you're away from home for a week don't you think?- and proof of posting is not proof of receiving, and, and, and...
Anyone would think that they were trying to make it difficult for you, wouldn't they?
Everyone meets at the allotted time of 3 p.m. in the lobby for our journey to The Market Place Theatre in Armagh. We played here 2-and-a-bit years ago and it's a superb theatre; sadly not so many tickets sold this time (that was a Saturday and this, as Pete points out is Ash Wednesday- the beginning of Lent) but there's still enough people in to make it a good, if somewhat eventful, show...
Halfway through the first number 'Peter Gunn' Richard steps forward for his solo. He uses a radio microphone which allows him to walk around the stage while he's playing 'though he's been having a few problems with it lately; at first I thought it was cutting in and out as the notes were all a bit abrupt, but when I looked at him I saw that his face was bright red from trying not to laugh whilst playing. In the background the look on Dave's face could only mean one thing- Richard had broken wind before walking away and, without getting into too much unnecessary detail here, he's almost as good at that as he is at playing the saxophone... when he returns to the horn section riser Dave is cursing and Richard is still laughing. Boys will be boys eh?
Anyone who's seen our show will know that during the aforementioned gospel section Jake becomes the Rev. I.C. Delight, resplendent in church robes and wig whilst myself, Squirrel, Dave and Richard appear as a choir dressed in ill-advised outfits (see the photos on our website for the full gory story) to the general amusement of all and sundry; for this show Dave had kept the candle from the previous evening's birthday celebrations which he lit and carried out onto the stage, an act which I suspect would have given any passing health and safety officer a heart attack. We were just warming our hands around it when it went out; a couple of seconds later Richard's microphone decided to malfunction and send a loud bang through the P.A. and monitors- quick as flash Dave dropped to his knees pretending that he'd been shot (a rather risky attempt at humour in this part of the world if you think about it!) and in doing so his right knee landed on Richard's left foot. Squirrel and myself looked on incredulously as Richard hopped around with Dave on the ground next to him- it was a good job the candle had gone out... brass section eccentricity continued in the second set with the theme music from 'Starsky and Hutch' finding it's way into 'Funky Nassau', and with a somewhat subdued audience finally getting into it all's well that ends well and we all agree that these have been 2 of the most enjoyable shows we've done for ages.
Now the real work begins- time to write a letter to Ryanair. I'll let you know how I get on...
Check the Lew Lewis link above for a classic clip from 1980 with Squirrel on bass!