Sunday, July 05, 2009

Suss of the Swiss

Time for the first weekend of Chicago Blues Brothers gigs for a while and it includes a gig that has been eagerly anticipated for quite some time- a return to Switzerland for a show at The Fribourg Jazz Festival.

Friday started early- the long suffering Shirley dropped me at West Ruislip Underground station well before 6 a.m. where I boarded the first Central Line train in to London. I would have gone from Uxbridge but our check-in was at 7.15 and this was the only way that I could get there in time! Somewhat regretting the decision to go for a few beers with East the night before (well- it helps you to sleep doesn't it?!?) I stumbled onto the train with a Fender Telecaster in a recently-repaired case (damaged by those lovable funsters at Ryan Air a couple of months ago) in one hand and a clothes bag over the other shoulder, all the while musing on just how many people are up and about at this unearthly time of the day; that said when I changed trains at Bond Street I was conscious of the fact that most people on the Jubilee Line train were asleep. To keep me company I've got a copy of 'An Unlikely Fooligan' by Pete Haynes- this came out earlier this year and is a travelogue of Pete's times in Japan a few years ago, I got it a month or so ago and had been saving it for this trip which may have been a mistake as the first line makes reference to the the fact that it takes 12 hours to fly to Japan 'if the plane doesn't crash of course' which is not necessarily the best thing to read when you're half asleep and on your way to an airport.
Just after 7 o'clock Squirrel called to see how I was getting on- I was at Canning Town station waiting for a DLR train to take me to London City Airport; 10 minutes later I met Mike at the airport entrance who gave me my e-ticket (that's how it's done these days!) and in no time at all my guitar had disappeared into a hatch in Zone A and I was meeting up with the rest of the band in the departure lounge. Pete's joining Mike in the hat and glasses (he's already out in Switzerland with his wife Jayne) and bandwise it's the A-team with Tracy on vocals, Richard and Dave on sax and trumpet, Squirrel and Marc on bass and drums, Ian on keyboards and yours truly on the afore-mentioned electric guitar. We're due to take off at 8.25 but we don't leave until just after 9 o'clock, the flight's a bit bumpy here and there especially as we start our descent into Zurich Airport where we land at 11.35- the flight's an hour-and-a-half and they're an hour ahead of us. As we come into land I see what I first thought to be a crop circle but soon realise is a Swiss Army knife shaped 'crop circle' with the words 'Victorinox 125 years' next to it, presumably to celebrate the 125th anniversary on the Victorinox company? After collecting our luggage (guitar and case still in one piece- hurrah!) we meet Ronnie the promoter and Marcel the driver and set off to our hotel to check in. I'm sharing room 123 with Marc 'though when we get there we discover it to be a double rather than twin room- we're just about to go down to reception to see what can be done about it when a chambermaid comes in apologising profusely and asking if we'd mind swapping with our friend next door- Squirrel emerges with the words 'I was just getting into The Commitments' as well', a slightly baffling comment until we go in we find that was one of the CD's supplied in the room. There's an hour or so before we're due to leave so there's time for a coffee or two before we set out for Fribourg- Tracy, Dave and Marc are in Ronnie's car and the rest of us are in the minibus with Marcel. The air conditioning's on, there's Freak Power on the stereo and the mood is good, if somewhat bleary from my point of view- as Richard remarks that it's raining on the other side of the road and dry on ours I decide that reading a travelogue while travelling is rather a surreal thing to do. Suddenly there's a loud banging on the roof and everyone is very awake indeed, Richard hangs perilously out of the passenger door window in an effort to see what's happened, the rubber seal around the top of the windscreen has come loose so we pull off the motorway and he and Marcel push it back into place. a couple of miles on it comes loose again so we pull over onto the hard shoulder and remove it.
By the time we pull off the motorway at the sign for Fribourg I've drifted in and out of sleep so many times that I'm not really sure if I'm awake or not- the first thing we encounter looks like a giant building site (probably because it is!) but it soon gives way to attractive cobbled streets and tramways. The jazz festival is an annual event held in the town centre, in what I think is the market square- when we got out at the site I realised how good the air conditioning in the minibus has been as it's very hot and humid. We're there in time for a soundcheck- backline is supplied by the The Swiss Cheese & Chocolate Company (a great name for a great company) who have provided me with a reissue blackface Fender Twin Reverb combo (it's another language isn't it?!?) that sounds excellent from the moment that I plug it in. We soundcheck without too many problems although I for one am struck by how quiet it all seems- there's a decibel meter facing us that doesn't go over 100 decibels throughout the whole soundcheck (it does during the show but mostly because the crowd were making so much noise!) We're then given food and drink tokens but the places that we can use them in aren't open until 6 o'clock and it's been a very long time since breakfast so most of us go to a nearby pizza restaurant where I'm served what is probably the biggest pizza I'll ever see- it must have been the size of a dustbin lid! I was so hungry that I ate the lot!
We're headlining and due on until 11 p.m. so there's plenty of time to catch up on phone calls (yeah I know it's expensive but people worry if you don't let them know that you're ok- in fact I worry if I don't let them know that I'm ok!) and to have a walk around town. It's an excellent place, with buildings that look exactly like uncultured Brits like myself think that they're going to look, and with friendly people who speak English better than I do. Pretty soon there's music in The New Orleans Cafe- I watch Merrie Hot Melodies for a while with Richard and Dave, the former marvelling at their bass saxophone ('very rare') and the latter observing '5 clarinet players- welcome to hell' on more than one occasion.
Meanwhile on the main stage it's time for the first band- Five Blind Boys From The Parish. One could argue that there's questionable humour at work here (they're not blind, and there's only 3 of them) but they were certainly excellent musicians who also offered a simultaneous translation of their stage announcements (first in English with an exaggerated American accent, then in somewhat calmer French) and a particularly fine version of the Robert Johnson classic 'Stop Breaking Down'. The guitarist said that it was great to be back in Zurich and then introduced the band including a harmonica player and a keyboard player, neither if which existed- see what I mean about the humour? Next up it's The Charlie Morris Blues Band who offered up an hour and a half of tasteful laid back blues which might have all been a bit too tasteful and laid back for me if he hadn't have swapped his Stratocaster for an open tuned Les Paul and delivered a great slide guitar-driven version of the Muddy Waters song 'I just Can't Be Satisfied' (most if not all slide players use a variety of different tunings.) I miss their last few numbers as I go backstage to get changed, when I go on stage to set my gear up I'm amazed at the sight that greets me- the moon has come up, the buildings around the market square are all lit up and there's what looks like thousands of people waiting to hear us. We've not played for the best part of a month but it's a great gig from the word go although the audience takes a little while to get going which if anything helps push us to new heights as the show progresses. A gang of young girls near the front join in with Pete at the start of 'Do You Love Me?' so he gets them up on stage with us for that and 'Shake your Tail Feather'- I wonder how many of them noticed that Mike split his trousers during the latter number? Perhaps it's time for a P.J. Proby tribute act? Our set ends to near hysteria, pandemonium ensues during the encore and with the backstage bar- yes, backstage bar!- was still open after the show we're told that we're rebooked for next year's festival- great stuff all round.
After packing our gear away and a drink or two it was time to leave for our hotel; as Marcel goes to collect the minibus I walk over to The New Orleans Cafe where The Big Four Quintet were playing and festivities were in full swing. I looked around- there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people about, eating, drinking, enjoying the music and the atmosphere. Squirrel and myself mused on the situation- why don't we have events like this back home? 'People will moan' we said, what with all the noise (not that noisy actually) and the mess (not that messy actually) on the streets...

So- why don't we have events like this here? In 'An Unlikely Fooligan' Pete contrasts British and Japanese society, often referring to 'geezers' (click here and see definition no. 9!) or rather, the lack of them in Japan- well I don't think he'd have found too many of them in Fribourg either. He'd have found lots of people who know how to talk politely, how to use a waste bin, how to drink for several hours without turning into something out of a horror movie... I was amazed by the youth and relatively small size of many of the security staff, until I realised that there was a very low likelihood of any trouble breaking out. Sad to say that I fear that a similar event in Britain would see the genial European atmosphere replaced by an altogether tenser, darker feel to proceedings, with the threat of 'Clockwork Orange'- style violence on every street corner and with innocent blood mixing with tons of rubbish as a depressing aftermath.

Meanwhile back in the real world The Big Four Quintet begin another tune as the dancers dance and the young man at the bar tries just one more time to catch the eye of the barmaid as he orders another round of drinks for him and his friends. It seems that the night is young- but sadly I'm not, or I certainly didn't feel it. It was time to return to our hotel for a few hours rest before the next adventure...

...which began with my alarm going off less than 5 hours after I'd got to sleep. After a shower I staggered downstairs for some breakfast. The receptionist asked if I was with the group- when I said I was she directed me to a smallish room away from the main dining area. I sat there for a minute or so- no sign of anyone else so I guess I just help myself? I walked through to the buffet area and got some coffee and cereal; when I'd finished that I went back to get another drink and saw most of the band sitting in the main dining area enjoying their food- I of course got my coffee and went back to where I'd eaten my cereal to find that someone had taken my seat. A confusing start to the day.
9.15 and it's time to leave for the airport. Pete's driving himself and Jayne and the rest of us are in our by-now familiar places with Ronnie and Marcel; as we pull away we see Ronnie's hatchback door fly open, Marcel sounds his car horn to alert them and Tracy gets out to close it. We're only 10 minutes or so from the airport, when we get their we say our goodbye's to Ronnie and Marcel and thank them for their help and hospitality, it's strange to think that we're only been there for one day as so much has happened in such a short space of time. We check in- Squirrel and myself hand over our guitars to the man in the pink vest (the same one as last time! The same one as every time!) before we go through to the shopping area to while away a half an hour or so before we need to got through security to the departure area. Squirrel and I compare tickets (like you do in these odd times) and he sees that I've got seat 6F- we reason that it must be a window seat which he prefers so I swap seats with him and we go through to the departure area. After a short wait it's time to go to gate B28 which leads out onto the tarmac where our bus is waiting to take us to the aircraft; once we're on the bus things take an odd turn- Tracy is sitting in the back corner seat making what might politely be called 'suggestive' noises, she then starts pole dancing to the delight of several lads on board ('I think I might have sleep deprivation' was her rather sheepish comment later) not to mention the rest of the band. When we get on the plane I go to seat 7B; across the aisle a row in front of me a bemused Squirrel observes that there are only 5 seats in a row and so they 'only go up to E'- he gets a seat anyway 'though I can't for the life of me work out how... the flight gives me chance to finish Pete's book (it's excellent, and I'm not just saying that because he's my mate, honest!) and get a few vague minutes of sleep.
After landing it's time to see what damage has been done to my guitar this time (none thankfully) before myself and Squirrel join Pete and Jayne in their car for the journey to Clandon Park near Guildford where we're playing at a wedding- it's all go this group lark isn't it? It would normally take an hour or so but today it takes us 3 times that- the M25 is a series of traffic jams and go-slows so we end up taking various detours- and by the time we get to the venue we're all tired and hungry. However there's no time to anything other than get ready as quickly as possible as myself and Dave are doing what Pete refers to as a 'jazz set' with him and Mike out on the lawn near the marquee where the evening's festivities are taking place. We last attempted this at our first show of this year in Birmingham, since then I've told myself over and over that I really must practice some jazz songs or at the very least get more familiar with the type of chord sequences that I'm likely to encounter- anybody unfortunate enough to here my attempts at playing along with some of the backing tracks would have to be tone deaf not to realise that I hadn't done anywhere near enough work.
Clandon Park is another one of those amazing houses that we have dotted around The British Isles, a National Trust property that has probably appeared in countless costume dramas over the years. It also has among other things a Maori meeting house, a room called Tom Tit's Stable, a folly (excellent!) and a museum devoted to The Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment- oddly enough the latter was given over to us to use as a dressing room. I must say that I doubt that I'll get changed next to a Victoria Cross very often in my (ahem) illustrious career... the band has changed a bit from last night's show with Roger on keyboards, Steve on drums and Bev on sax, and Ian Bond has returned behind the sound desk. As always with these things it's a hurry-up-and-wait gig 'though there's plenty of food and drink to go round which contributes to a good atmosphere in the band, with Roger telling joke-after-unrepeatable-joke and much marvelling at the museum exhibits from everybody. We're all ready for an 8.30 start but eventually go on the best part of an hour later. I didn't have much contact with the guests or indeed the happy couple (Dorian and Jo) which might have been just as well as I've done more than enough ranting about the British class system (click here for the Wikipedia definition- behold the first sentence!- and click here for a rather more irreverent take on things) in these hallowed pages in the past and you can only ask questions like 'why these things are allowed to happen?' so many times before you start to go around in circles; suffice to say that the ones that I did encounter didn't let me down... still we play a good show (although the broken glass on the dancefloor was a sure sign that we were back in Blighty) with the deps all doing a fine job, and everybody goes home happy which is another reason for me to cheer up and stop moaning. So I will! In fact I have! But I'm very tired now- it's been great to be back playing again, but it was a l-o-n-g couple of days...

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