We (The Chicago Blues Brothers and their band) were due for another three-gigs-in-a-row this weekend but the second of the shows, at The Broadway Theatre in Peterborough, has been postponed until later in the year due to fire damage after an arson attack. (Typical! It's always the one in the middle that gets cancelled! Then again it did give me rather a lot of chances to do the old gag about how there's 'a lot of arson about'...) Still we've been gigging regularly recently so perhaps one shouldn't be greedy, and anyway, these two were eventful enough...
When I was a lad reading the music press of the 1970's (or to be more accurate, mostly reading other people's copies of New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds magazines- me and my music-loving mates used to take it in turns to buy them as our dinner money only went so far!) it seemed that anybody who was anybody played at The Fairfield Halls in Croydon, which made it a place of almost mythical significance to your (young) humble narrator. When I first heard that we were due to be playing in Croydon I did allow myself a split-second of dreaming- would I be standing on the same stage as the long-haired 'n' flared rock gods of the '60's and '70's and in doing so would I hammer the last punky nail into prog rock's Stonehenge-shaped coffin?
Well, no, I wouldn't- but I nearly did, since we were playing at The Ashcroft Theatre which is part of the same building. When myself and the long-suffering Shirley arrived I said something like 'back to the seventies then' as everything about the building and it's immediate surrounding area seemed to me to be from another time. They were even advertising an upcoming gig by Steeleye Span! Arriving backstage the signs directing you to the stage and dressing rooms were written in the kind of lettering that I remember seeing in T.V. shows like 'That's Life!' when they did the 'behind the scenes' items- you know, those raised-up, white-on-grey slanted capital letters- and the labyrinth of steps and corridors leading to the dressing rooms were found behind the kind of double doors that I remember from school days. I accidentally went through the wrong set of doors and ended up in a Fairfield Halls backstage corridor which was covered in autographed photos of the likes of Bob Monkhouse, Roger Whittaker and, rather incongruously, Smokey Robinson; more amusingly a pillar at the side of the theatre stage that had been signed by Uri Geller also featured the words 'I bet he can't bend a .56 gauge E string - Jet Harris'. Excellent.
It's an A-team gig with Pete on hand to direct operations and his wife Jayne on costume control; her son Arnold ends up with Shirley behind the merchandise table, and since Pete's come up with some setlist changes soundcheck is more of a rehearsal than it has been of late. Sound guru Ian Bond is using a different microphone on my amplifier (since you've asked, a Sennheiser E609 rather than the usual Shure SM57) and judging by the sound coming back at me through the monitors he's made a wise choice- then again, he usually does. With everything checked and ready to go it's off to the box office to leave 2 tickets on the door for Dave Ruffy who's coming along to see the show with his mate Buster, and to fight our way through literally hundreds of people (sadly not all there to see us, there was an event on next door!) to get to the cafe for some pre-gig calories.
The show itself was a bit of an odd one- we were playing well to an audience response that's probably best described as 'muted', by the end of the first set there's a bit more of a reaction but it still feels like hard work. Bondy comes backstage during the interval, when I ask him how it's going out front he replies 'it's a London audience- once you get inside of the M25 everything turns to shit.' He might well have a point- there's often a 'seen it all before' thing about big city audiences whereas if you're a bit out of town people seem more responsive, sometimes even grateful for the fact that you've taken the trouble to come and play for them. Still things got going a bit more in the second half and it's a case of 'all's well that ends well' in the end, although a mad moment occurred on the last chord of 'Green Onions' when Marc knocked his cymbal and stand over and off the drum riser- you don't see that happen too often (thank God!) although a similar incident lay in store for another instrument at our next show, as we shall see... and Mr. Ruffy told me that he loved it- I was first in a room with him almost exactly 30 years ago (it was a very big room, and he was on the stage and I was in the audience, but that's not the point!) and it means a lot to me that he enjoyed it. Mind you if he'd have hated it I wouldn't have mentioned that he was there at all! Hurrah!
Guitar stands must be one of the shop's best selling items; I'd go so far as to say they're probably the most popular present for the relative or friend that plays, and many people buy one as a matter of course when they get a new guitar. I'm often asked which is the 'best' type to get- there are various different designs available- and I always try to find out where and when it's likely to be used, as well as saying something like 'bear in mind that as soon as you put a guitar on a stand it becomes vulnerable'.
I really should listen to my own advice sometimes...
The Floral Hall at The Winter Garden in Eastbourne is a great venue; we played there almost exactly a year ago and it was a good gig 'though my memory of it is somewhat coloured by the fact that my cousin Gary died that weekend. This year we've got a support band- very rare for us- and with the sun shining it's a good day to be beside the seaside. Ian's on sax in place of Richard, but it's the same line up as the previous gig apart from that; Bondy's bought Graham along for his first gig behind the mixing desk with us, and with two bands to get sorted out our soundcheck is more of a linecheck (i.e. check everything works!) than anything else. The support band- Sticks 'n' Stones- are setting their gear up in front of ours so I move my guitars towards the back of the stage out of harm's way (ha!) then go back to the dressing room to sort my stage clothes out. After a few minutes I can hear the other band playing and decide to go out front and have a listen.
I get to the back of the hall just in time to see Bondy carrying my guitars offstage, something I've not seen him do before. I forget about watching the band and go back to the dressing room to see what's happened, arriving just in time to see Bondy holding my Baja Telecaster up to the light ( rarely a good sign!) whilst saying something like 'if I was Leigh I'd wrap it around their heads' (definitely not a good sign!!) before seeing me and looking somewhat shocked- then again maybe I did too?
He hands me my guitar- there's what can best be described as a bloody great dent between the second and third frets near the top E string; I run my hand along the neck and can feel the jagged edges that weren't there last time I'd played it as Ian tells me that one of the support band knocked it over then put it back on it's stand, and that if he hadn't have seen it then they probably wouldn't have told me that it had happened...
Suddenly they've stopped being a not-particularly-good covers band and become a bunch of talentless hippie inbreds who should have been smothered at birth; then again I'm not stupid (honest!) and that means that I realise that, yes, accidents do happen, and that's one of the reasons that I use relatively inexpensive instruments for gigging with. But was Ian right? Would they have tried to get away without telling me? Imagine what that would make them... in the background I can hear that their soundcheck's finished; I try to lighten the mood by attempting a joke about my annual good mood being ruined (not that far from the truth!) as Bondy leads the way back to the stage to find out what happened.
Details are sketchy- a curtain was moved and suddenly my guitar was on the floor. One of them is wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt; none of them apologise. Somebody (the promoter I think) had told me that the lead singer/guitarist is really good, has played gigs in front of thousands of people- as he said it I really hoped that they'd all hated him then as much as I hated him and his band now... there's a million things that can happen to you that are worse than your guitar neck getting damaged, even though it didn't feel like it at that particular moment, but since I can't turn the clock back ('though I'm working on it!) there wasn't much else for me to do than to walk away shaking my head in despair. So that was what I did...
Back in the dressing room I look again at the damage- maybe it's not that bad after all? Then again that's not the point is it? My annual good mood (such that it was!) is now definitely a thing of the very recent past, Shirley tries to help but I'm getting sadder and sadder, not a good way to be before a show. She suggests we go for a walk down to the seafront, it's a lovely evening and the sea looks calm and, considering the way I felt at that moment, almost inviting.
Back at the venue it's time to get the merchandise table set up; Shirley's on duty with Ian's wife Nadia, and they're doing a roaring trade from the moment the doors open. There are expectations of over 400 people through the doors, and pretty soon it becomes evident that we've got nowhere near enough stuff with us. At 7.30 Sticks 'n' Stones take to the stage- they start with 'All Right Now' which is so unutterably appalling to my ears that I don't actually recognise it until the chorus, and 'Sweet Home Alabama' sounds just as bad- I realise that I've got to stop listening to them or I'll go mad. Somehow I shut them out of my ears as Mike/Elwood's dad comes over and asks me what I think of them, I restrict myself to saying that their guitar sounds aren't very good, too distorted in my opinion, bands like this always use too much distortion don't you think? Shirl asks me if I'm ok, gives me a hug as I say yes, of course I am, it's only a guitar, there are worse things to worry about... they finish by wringing the life out of a soulless, gutless 'Brown Sugar' and I thank God that it's all over at last; they go down quite well and all look pleased with the audience response, it's better than the pub gigs that they're no doubt used to, now they're a big fish in a small pond and can't wait to tell their workmates about it on Monday morning.
(I'm sure that they weren't actually that bad, in fact might even have been quite good- now there's a begrudging compliment! I think they call that 'damning with faint praise' don't they?- but they were all but unlistenable to my jaundiced, embittered ears.)
Meanwhile I'm in the dressing room with my workmates- Dave says something like 'sorry to hear about your hooter Leigh' as I pick it up to take it back onstage, I give him a smile and say something about working with amateurs. On stage the guitarist is putting his gear away, comes over and says that he's doesn't know if anyone had said sorry to me but he knows how he'd feel if one of his guitars had been damaged and he's sorry on the band's behalf, he seems like a nice guy and I say thanks to him for taking the trouble to say something, suddenly I feel a bit better and stop hoping that they all drown in the small pond.
Halfway through our first set and the dancefloor's full; it makes me think of the dancehall scene in 'Quadrophenia' where Jimmy jumps off the balcony, I think back to earlier when I looked out to sea and felt so lonely even with Shirley holding my hand, now they're all dancing and everything's alright, I turn around towards Marc as the song ends and catch sight of my Baja Telecaster on the stand that it couldn't stay on earlier- the mark on the neck looks enormous, big enough to be seen from another planet never mind from where I'm standing a couple of yards away... the song ends and the audience are going wild, they're having a great time and that's what we're there for, to make them smile, to give them a chance to dance all over their problems and to leave the real world behind for a few hours. If Thursday had been hard work then Saturday almost couldn't have been easier, it's a great show and I'm annoyed with myself for getting upset about something as trivial as a bit of damage to my guitar. I look at it again and it's only a tiny little mark, hardly visable- what was I thinking?
I'm helping Shirl put what's left of the merchandise away (it doesn't take long, they'd nearly sold the lot!) when the bass player of Sticks 'n' Stones comes over, he hovers a bit then comes up to me, looks awkward, embarrassed even, says that he's sorry, really sorry about what happened, I ask him what his band are up too, he tells me that they play locally a lot, he's also in a Pink Floyd tribute band, seems like quite a nice fellow and I almost feel bad for wishing that I'd had a flamethrower that I could have used on them during their set, although the word 'almost' is very important in this sentence.
It's a funny old life sometimes isn't it?