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So, Saturday…time for a little relaxation, and Mike, Jane and myself head off into Birmingham. After taking in the canals around Gas Street and Symphony Hall, we were walking along into town and I get a phone call...I’ve left a mic, stand and cables in the back of my car at home. My bass player needs them…and my kids cant find the spare car keys..so muttering “No rest for the wicked”, I run off, drive home in Jane’s car, sort the gear, back into town…and catch up with Mike and Jane in The Old Joint Stock, a grand Victorian palace of a pub (Birmingham’s Stock Exchange in former times) which looks out onto Birmingham cathedral. Lunch arrives - for Mike this is his first taste of a pint of bitter and fish and chips..and he finds the local cuisine pretty damn good! We drop by the Bull Ring and The Rag Market then head off home. I have the sad duty to inform Mike that we won’t be seeing many castles today...that’s one of his cherished fantasy visions of Olde England well and truly shattered. A takeaway dinner from the local Indian with some more English beer rounds off a relaxing day.
Sunday finds us on the road down to London…destined for our first date with Jukka and Andy from Finland. I’ve set the SatNav for Buck House, so we do Marble Arch, Park Lane…and Mike is thrilled to be driving round the back garden wall of the Queens’ gaff. We get a quick look at the front of the palace, then down to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. By now Mike has got the sunroof open and standing on the passenger seat snapping away with camera and iPad and we are in full-on tourist mode. We manage to hit loads of the sights...the London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, The Embankment, Tower of London…and thrill of thrills, we get to drive over Tower Bridge! Mike is knocked out about this, but perhaps no so knocked out when we reach our destination for the evening, The New Cross Inn. We give it a quick drive-by, return across Tower Bridge, check into the Travelodge (a good call I reckon – dorm rooms were available at the venue…but after seeing the outside, I was glad I’d decided not to save a few quid by staying there). After checking in we went to the venue to get loaded in…we pulled up, got out of the car to be greeted by a pair of crack heads having a “domestic” outside the pub. Well, I’ll gloss over the rest….it’s characterful if you get my drift…we got set up...the sound guy was pretty taciturn, but to be fair he did a good job throughout the evening. A quick stroll up the High Street revealed that the “cuisine du terroir” seemed to be greasy kebabs and halal fried chicken, but we did in fact find an excellent little bar / restaurant across the road and had a great pizza and a couple of beers. The pub was pretty quiet with a few youngsters playing pool, I opened and had quite a bit of banter with some of the regulars at the bar which was pretty cool. A young local girl did a nice acoustic set, then it was Mike, and then Blackriver Bluesman and Bad Mood Hudson - we all gave a good account of ourselves and nobody got stabbed…so that was good. Back to the hotel (the Finnish contingent stayed at the pub…I didn’t dare ask them what the rooms were like)...we went in search of a bar, but everything was closed...we took a stroll across Tower Bridge and had a couple of beers back at the hotel, me and Mike swapping quotes from our favorite movies…found out we both love Spinal Tap!!!
Monday and we drive south out of London…heading for Hastings, by way of Brighton. On arriving in Brighton we stroll round The Lanes, have coffee and a snack, then do a quick scout round for a busking spot. By the time we’ve dragged our gear to the favoured place, there’s someone else playing, so we set up on the nearest steet corner…only to be moved on by the steet wardens, not because we were obstructing the footpath, but simply because the owner of the shop next door was know as a perpetual complainer. They advised us to try another spot just across the street in the doorway of a disused spot..and it was perfect. We played for a couple of hours and raised enough cash to cover our parking and our dinner that evening. We drove out along the coast under glorious sunshine, France just visible on the horizon..past Roedean, The Seven Sisters, Newhaven, Eastbourne & Beachy Head...and took a quick detour to see the Wilmington Long man chalk carving. In Hastings I parked the car by the fishermen’s beach and we feasted on fresh mussels with white wine and cream, chips and pints of Czech lager at Lathams Brasserie in the Old Town. Off to The Brass Monkey to load in, and greeted my genial mine host Simon…met up with Jukka and Andy once more and local CBG player and all-round good guy Jez for another quick set-up and sound check...and as we were being put up by at the venue, a couple of drinks were in order. During conversations in the courtyard, it transpired that Jukka and Andy’s favorite drink was Fernet Branca, and Italian bitters digestif…but as it’s not easy to find...they settled for Jaegermeister (a bit sweet for their tastes)…so we all ended up trying a round of shots. After that, I opened the evening…so I was free to take a few drinks and thinks got a little blurry – Jez played next, then Mike, with Jukka and Andy finishing off the evening. We stayed in the band room over the venue, which was fine, although the seagulls and local drunks were pretty noisy…it’s the very room that inspired the Hollowbelly song “Long Road”…and I think I may have had that selfsame mattress the he describes in his anecdotes.
Tuesday was always going to be long day, as we headed up north once more to Harrogate, while Jukka and Andy went back to London for The Blues Kitchen and then on to Leicester for the Musician. As it turned out the drive was easy…a quick fill-up with diesel on the outskirts of Hastings..then we stopped for a break just outside Doncaster. As we were making good time, I decided that we could manage a quick visit to York before our gig, so we dropped the car just inside the city walls and walked into the centre of historic York. By chance I picked a great itinerary...as we walked down the road, York Minster hove into view, we got glimpses of the walls, then we were right into The Shambles and the narrow ancient streets around the Minster.
We had a quick look inside, then found the walls, climbed up and walked round for a quarter mile or so...acting out the defence of the city in days of yore by pretending to shoot crossbows at passing Japanese tourists and took on the task of staunchly guarding the model railway shop that was under the Monk Gate. Strolling back to the car we visited a tiny ancient church tucked away behind some shops just as it was about to close it’s doors for the day…then I suggest we take a swift half in a local pub. We’d passed by loads of them, but went into a little place called The Blue Bell…a nice old frontage with ruby red glazed tiles, a tiny front bar and backroom snug,,.and a range of real local beers. While pondering our choices, a local who was sat at the table with his pals suggested we tried “Polar Bear”…although the landlady told is it was very bitter..so proffered us a sample…we tried another sample and settled on the Rooster bitter. This seemed to cause great offence to our beer expert, shunning his recommendation…but after establishing that I was also indeed a Yorkshireman, we had a bit of abrasive but cheerful banter, tho’ he was still insistent we’d made a grievously wrong choice of beer. I had told Mike a little expression about Yorkshire folk, and said to Mike, ”Remember what they say about Yorkshiremen?” As it turned out, Mike did remember, and he came out with it ,”You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much”, which pretty well seemed to sum this chap up…I swear he was employed by the tourist board to sit there day in day out in the bar and play the friendly curmudgeon. A short drive and we were in Harrogate…we spotted the venue, nicely situated overlooking a rolling green, went in and were instantly greeted by Simon and some of the regulars, who insisted we take a drink and join them at the table. It was mid afternoon and pretty lively, so things augured well for the evening. In conversation it came out that we were intending to drive back to South Yorkshire that evening…so Simon picked up the phone and sorted accommodation at another of his pubs in nearby Leeds, then said if we wanted to have something to eat, to go upstairs and they would fix us a meal..as long as we liked falafels. It turned out there was an Egyptian restaurant above the bar, called The Blue Nile, run by a great guy from Cairo called Hanni. We had a splendid meal in very pleasant surroundings, then went downstairs to set up.
Eeeh, luxury....The Blue Nile Restaurant above The Blues Cafe in Harrogate...top notch Egyptian food served up by Cairo native Hanni..a great bloke. It's fricking hard being on the road, and sometimes you've just got to have a bit of peace and quiet and being spoiled a bit to restore your equilibrium.
We were all sorted out pretty quickly and ready for the off...but as time passed and the hour approached, the place seemed awfully quiet and it looked like we were in for another small but appreciate audience. I thought I’d better get things rolling..so I went onto the stage, which is actually right in the big shopfront window..and spotted a few people drifting in. As I played, the tables near the front filled up, people were stood at the bar...and the place started buzzing with regulars and tourists..and by the end of my set it was pretty full. Mike took to the stage with the room properly “warmed up” and played to a very appreciative crowd. He asked me up to finish the evening to jam with him and we went down a storm…a really great gig. As I walked off stage to the back of the bar, I was stopped by a gentleman with an accent I couldn’t quite place…until he said “You guys are f*cking amazing – Amsterdam needs you!!!” Turns out he runs a blues club in Holland, so I chatted with him and his wife and we exchanged cards, and a few words of my very poor Dutch…so here’s hoping that might be the first step of the European adventure! Another quick pack, and a short drive over to Leeds, where we are met by Andy, a very genial guy who runs the Duck and Drake. We are put up in a shabby but perfectly acceptable room over the pub and have the luxury of a lie-in in the morning.
We take a stroll into the city...the market is only a couple of hundred yards away, and end up in the splendid Victorian market hall. We decide to have breakfast at one of the cafes, so sit at a counter and have the Full English… a great plateful of bacon, sausage, egg, beans, tomatoes, fried bread, with a plate of buttered toast and mug of Yorkshire tea..all for £4.35. A quick stroll round the city centre and its splendid Victorian cast iron arcades, but were are too tired to go busking, so we drop in to say thanks and goodbye to Andy, and we are back on the road heading for Birmingham and a couple of non-gigging days. We take the scenic route back, via the Peak District, taking Castleton, the amazing 20% gradient Winnats Pass and the spa town of Buxton. Thursday is a day off, but I need to get everything ready for Boxstock, and I’ve still to finish the cajon kits and put all the parts together for the guitar kits, and I’ve also got to visit the bank to get cash to pay performers. Mike helps me out in the workshop, drilling fixing blocks and fronts for the cahons while I bandsaw the blocks. We are busy all day, all the gear is stacked up in the hallway ready to go, and I’m now getting seriously nervous about the weekend...so much work to do…will anyone turn up? will we have enough money to cover everything? will we manage the cajon making?…so much to think about. We’ve got through the first week, earned a bit of money for Mike...but the weekend all looks like a massive risk...and I’m thinking “Why did I ever take this on?”