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Well...as the words to a Hollowbelly song go, we knew it would be a "Long Long Road". It was all planned out in a very short time, so our itinerary was a bit random, but we were up for it. A couple of days before the off, my car had to go to the garage to be repaired as the ignition lock barrel had broken...so I had to nervously wait for the "dealer only" parts to arrive, and I got it back in the nick of time on Wednesday night, ready for an early start on Thursday.
A steady drive down to the Hollowhaus in Devon, a quick load up and after realising my amp wouldn't fit in, we decided to run with just HBs trusty Roland Cube, the car was packed to capacity and we were off. We arrived a few hours later at one of our favorite venues, The Chambers in Folkestone, just to say hello, have a quick beer and catch some groovy live music from Funke and The Two Tone Baby. Our evening off ended in true glamourous rock 'n' roll style as we took all our stuff out the car and dragged a nasty quarter of a ton of gear up four hateful flights of stairs to our digs for the night.
Duly rested and aching from head to toe, we were off at the proverbial crack of sparrow's wotsit for the Dover ferry. Two and a bit hours and a nice smooth crossing later we were on the road heading for our first destination, Bremen in northern Germany. A long drive was enlived by some moody music, with a CD courtesy of Lorraine Lucas, the lady who had so kindly let us have her flat for the previous evening....and the weather contributed to the grooviness as we drove in and out of dark, lowering blizzards, which kept blasting flurries of snow across the autobahn...this really did feel like the start of a proper Northern European road trip.
We were staying with Andreas and Danni, the promotor of our first event and good friend of Hollowbelly. En-route, Hollowbelly had told me that in addition to German TV being at the guitar making workshop, there would be a live studio broadcast of him performing a couple of numbers, so it was going to be a mega day all round. Me and HB had talked in the car about how the first event was going to be “the big one”…and that once we’d got over it the rest of the tour should be a little less daunting. The workshop was the biggest I’d ever done, with 32 people booked in, my first overseas workshop, a foreign language and a TV crew in attendance…plus the logistics of having to get HB to the TV studios 3 hours ahead of time for a live performance, leaving me to hold the fort back at the club then get everything ready for the evening gig…we both knew tomorrow was going to be tough.
Saturday dawned, with clear, skies and snow on the roofs, and other early start. After loading up the gear, a short drive saw us in the centre of town, with snow and broken glass in the cobbled gutters of the Fehrfeld...while all night boozers were staggering ashen faced from the Heartbreak Hotel next door at 10.00am. There was expectant crowd already waiting outside the venue, and they looked like a pretty "left of field" bunch. It wasn’t what I’d expected: alcoholics, graffiti and broken glass…and Hollowbelly said my face was a picture when we rolled up, as I thought it might have been a bit more upmarket. In any case, it looked like a good day was in the offing...the TV unit arrived, so did the owner and then it was all hands to the pump as we got the gear inside and set up the workbenches and tools while the TV crew got their lights and cameras readied. Much to my relief, everyone was really up for it, and my fears that the Germans might need a little "warming up" were ill-founded.
All progressed well, the guitar necks were done and fixed into the boxes by 1.00pm, so we stopped for a short break – an excellent veggie lunch, all included in the ticket price, then it was back to work getting the guitars wired for sound and strung-up. We managed to get this done before Hollowbelly was whisked off to the studio by Andreas, so the film crew got everyone together to film the first group playing session. A quick “Ein , zwei, drei, vier” and we were off..with 32 new cigar box makers playing for the very first time on German TV…how cool was that…a job done, and done well!!
Hard at work making guitars...on the bar.
There were lots of happy people, lots of laughter and fun that afternoon, so everyone was fired-up for a great evening. Once everyone had gone home to take a little break, I got the workshop gear back in the car, back to Andy and Danni’s gaff, and after single handedly moving all the gear up only 2 flights of stairs this time, had a sit down with my feet up and a cup of coffee.
Ilka trying out the Romeo y Julieta at Römer
Off again back to the club and I got everything sorted with the sound man, ready for Hollowbelly arriving back after his live broadcast. He got back with Andy as the place was beginning to fill-up, and it seemed like all had gone well…super-pro studios, the camera crew had loved his stuff, and Mr HB felt he had given of his best and had enjoyed the experience…but we didn’t have much time to chew it over, as we had to get HB’s kit out of the car, onto the stage, rigged and sound checked. Hollowbelly is always easy to get sorted out on stage, he knows what he’s doing and has a simple road-tested set-up, so that was quickly sorted with the assistance of a sound engineer who was helpful and on the case.
We had time for a little rest before getting rolling with the evening show, but by 9.00pm the place was getting pretty packed with the good people of Bremen, and a little later I was on stage to get the room warmed up for the main event of the weekend. When I went on stage, I had to squeeze through the packed bar and walk across an empty dance floor…after the first number the dance floor was packed and a lively crowd were howling their approval….bloody hell, this was freakin’ awesome!!!
I did my opening set, got off stage and we got Hollowbelly up for the main spot….and man, he played up a storm. It was the fit culmination of a brilliant day...a dynamic show, great skill in communicating with the crowd and a fiery set, newly extended with numbers from the latest album, went down wonderfully. Afterwards, HB said how Bremeners were special people, and they really showed it in their unrestrained and loudly expressed approval of a great evening’s music from the main man. Merchandise was then duly snapped up by fans new and old, and I started breaking down the stage gear to try and let Hollowbelly have a relatively quiet ½ hour. We managed to pack all the gear and 3 of us into the car (we had to get Andy back to the flat with us, as Danni is 7 months pregnant and understandably had to head off home a bit earlier), then motor through the frozen streets of Bremen, unload again..and afterwards it was time for a well-earned sit down and celebratory drink. Andy summed it up, as he punched the air and said “We did it, guys!!!”…he was damned right, we had done it, it was seen to be done (by 100 000 people on the box as well) and it was done well. We fired up the laptop and found the podcast of the live broadcast TV show…I was gobsmacked…the production values were amazing…loads of huge feck-off uplighter cans, chucking out a hellish light and heat, about 4 or 5 cameras, live studio audience, slick presenter…jasus, Andreas was right, we had friggin’ done it! Top marks to Andreas for scoring the live show, and to Hollowbelly who seemed to take to TV like a duck to water, totally at ease, but delivering a full-on powerful performance. Andy did say he had to drink a lot of hazelnut schnapps with the TV people during negotiations get HB on the show, but man he can talk the talk AND walk the walk…and the proof is in the footage. Once we’d seen the other clip from the show, I was delighted so see how well they had captured the whole ethos and fun of the workshop. Our gut feeling that this was going to be the big one were right, but Andy and HBs performance for Bremen Radio TV had ramped up the impact and importance of the day immeasurably.
Sunday morning arrived late…and so did we, blinking weakly and wearily into a new day that drifted into an old worn-out afternoon of lethargy…minds and bodies simultaneously fired up with adrenaline but washed out with physical and mental exertion…buoyed up by Andreas repeatedly proclaiming “I hate to say it again, but We Did It, guys!!!”. Andy was after cigar box guitar as a present for Danni, and he’d picked out a nice Bolivar guitar…I wouldn’t take any money for it, it was the least I could do as a token of appreciation for all they had done for us. Andy was already putting together some ideas for the next event…he’s got so much energy we have to run to keep up with him..but I’m sure whatever he gets us involved in will be another riproaring success
We were all totally out of the game on Sunday, but by Monday, we were able face the prospect of another day on the road..so another load out and pack, and some fond yet sad farewells to Andy and Danni. We had a quiet drive across Germany on some rural roads..with my Garmin satnav constantly throwing us curveballs as it repeatedly gave me some really ambiguous directions at seemingly every road junction…still, as always, we allowed ourselves plenty of time to get to our next destination, which was Oegstgeest, near The Hague in Holland. As we crossed the border into the Netherlands I started feeling more and more comfortable...we were headed to stay with my cousin Ron and his wife, and HB said he could see the tension of the last couple of days draining out of me as my shoulders dropped when we arrived. A warm welcome from Ron and Annalet was swiftly followed by settling down in front of the woodburning stove with a couple of excellent Trappist beers. We had a wonderful supper of pasta with mushrooms and a feta salad, all freshly prepared by Ron…rounded off in fine style with a nice Islay malt…then I moved onto the “Oud Genever”, an aged Dutch gin, and I broke out a couple of fine Montecristo Cuban cigars (well..that’s the benefit of knowing some nice people in the cigar business).
Tuesday we had a spot at CCMuzikCafe in Amsterdam, but rather than going up to the big city for the day, we chilled out (well it was about -2°), borrowed some bikes from Ron and a neighbour and cycled into Leiden.
It’s a beautiful old university town...and it was a classic Dutch experience…civilized cycle paths into town, dropping into a local market on the way, gliding past windmills and frozen canals and passing thousands upon thousands of bikes on multilevel racks at the railway station...they really have got their transport sorted in the Netherlands. We ambled around town on the bikes, cycling alongside the canals, over the Fish Market bridge and found a cozy café, not too smart or pretentious, but warm and with an excellent lunch of Camembert soup, Bitterballen (sort of savoury meatballs), crusty bread, chips and a couple of beers, we were ready to face the ride back. Dutchness abounds everywhere…,neat houses, immaculate gardens, tall blonde girls on bikes everywhere, more frozen canals, an outdoor speedskating rink, a street barrel organ playing corny old time marching band stuff, geese crossing the road holding up traffic on the main dual carriageway ..it’s like cycling through a Lego toytown, and it’s wonderful.
After a rest-up and a quick bite to eat, we are on our way to the big bad city of Amsterdam. The evening spot is no big deal, just opening the night for a few local bands. We get set up, and soon afterwards Ron and Edgar, another cousin turns up, some of HB’s Amsterdam buddies arrive, so it’s nice to shoot the breeze and relax. We each do a short set, and hang around to chat, catch another band, I talk to a Dutch cigar box guitar fan and his mate..it’s a pleasant way of spending the evening…but I am very aware of the fact that it’s not earning us any money. We have another day off ahead of us, and then it gets serious again.
Hollowbelly at CC MuziekCafe in Amsterdam
The following morning we have arranged to go into Annalet’s school for an hour, as native English speakers to talk a little and to play a bit of music. Annalet teaches teenagers with autism, so we are pleased to be able to give little bit back (it’s part of Hollowbelly’s ongoing programme of charity and community work ;-), but he doesn’t like to talk about it….).
It’s an interesting and enjoyable experience…we talk about the guitars, and play a bit acoustically…then one of the kids, Otto, asks if the students could try playing the guitar. He comes to the front of the class, and quickly gets the hang of it, and then it’s Jan Willem’s turn, and then Peter’s….then Otto asks if he can do a duet with Jan Willem..which is all pretty cool. He then asks if he can do a duet with another student, and I ask him if he’s taken over the class and is now holding an audition for his new band…it’s a new and rewarding experience for me, and just one of the joys of being on the road to find new experiences like this.
A quick load up and a phone call to arrange our accommodation at our next port of call..and it really is a port, we are staying on the “Togo”, moored in Scheveningen harbour, it’s owned by cousin Jos and her partner Rob. It’s a glorious crisply cold sunny day when we roll onto the quayside, and we haul all our gear onboard with much merriment and nautical phraseology…literally walking the gangplank, stowing the deck cargo, and HB hoping we won’t have to work our passage …ooh err missus.
Deck cargo on the Togo
Once all our gear is below, we walk along the habourside for a stand-up lunch at a café right next to the water….freshly cooked Kibbeling (chunks of fish), chips and of course lashings of frittesaus mayonnaise, then hop onto the tram for a swift look round Den Haag. I need to get some photocopying done, as some of the graphics packages for the boxes have got trashed in Germany, so we get that done next door to where Jos works, at the local government offices..it’s a huge building, all glass and white painted steel, known locally as the “Ice Palace”..pretty impressive.
En route back to the ship, we are cold and footsore, so Jos arranges for us to be picked up by Rob as he’s just finished work. All very cool - a big black Audi arrives, wafts us away and drops us off at the supermarket so I can get some of those hard to find Dutch goodies which my family love (err..and a few Dutch and Belgian beers of course)…then back to the Togo.
We spent a very pleasant evening, dinner cooked by Jos, and relaxed with a few beers and more malt whisky & genever in the company of Jos and Rob in the Togo’s cosy teak-lined saloon. I think Mr HB was drinking some fancy French liqueur, but discretion forbids me to reveal exactly what it was.
I must go down to the seas again...
We get loaded up, but already the car is covered by a crust of sheet ice and we’ve got a drive through Holland to the Belgian border ahead of us, so a keen eye, a firm hand on the tiller and steady as she goes are the orders of the day. It’s all pretty uneventful, we don’t push the driving as we’ve allowed plenty of time to get there. Driving through Belgium it’s apparent that the gig is in the middle of frigging nowhere...we pass through sleepy villages and towns where it looks like there’s never anyone at home behind the net curtains and pulled down shutters…HB assures me it will be OK, he knows Belgium, these are the good gigs, you could do an entire tour in these little places…right, yeah, it’s like a bad freaking Flemish apocalypse zombie movie…where is everybody? The nearest thing to human life is a little illuminated kiosk that I spot at the side of the road…”BroodAutomat” it says…. an automatic bread-dispensing machine…put a Euro in the slot and get a baguette…well, at least the zombies round here eat regular food rather than human flesh.
We arrive at Westerlo at about 3 in the afternoon. It’s a neat, sleepy little town, with a 2 bars, a town square, a few shops, a church and a mini supermarket..it’s stopped snowing but it’s still sub-zero…the car still has a crust of ice on it despite the fact it’s actually been raining for hours, and there’s 5mm of solid ice and icicles on the top box.
I decide to get a snack, as I’m not sure when the bar owner will turn up, so off to the supermarket on the town square. I’m dead chuffed that my lousy Flemish seemed to go down so well, and the guy on the till didn’t break into English when I responded to his question of whether I’d got the right change. I return to the car with some crisps for Hollowbelly, and a packet of gingerbread biscuits in the shape of saints and a bottle of beer called “Morte Subite” for me…that means “Sudden Death”...we fucking love Belgium!!! Are they tripped out or what?
A bottle of "Sudden Death" beer, perched on a gospel CD by the Blind Boys of Alabama, and a packet of "Sint Speculaas" ginger biscuits...it must be Belgium.
Anyway, we are sitting there in the car, eating crisps and gingerbread saints, just like you do, when this bloke crosses the street and asks in English (the numberplates are a giveaway) if we are playing at the bar that night. He tells us Hans, the gaffer at the Café Pallieter has just got back from a funeral, but he’s in the bar right now. We head over, offer our condolences and get to work unloading the gear and setting up. A beer truck arrives bringing in fresh supplies, so I help to heft in a few cases and exchange pleasantries with the draymen, and they wish us all the best for the gig. A big black hearse cruises past the bar… me and Hollowbelly exchange knowing glances...we reckon it must be from the funeral Hans was at…it keeps things a bit real. Hans asks us if we want a drink, but I decline until we’ve got set up and soundchecked. It’s the first time out for my new little touring PA system, but it all goes together fine, we get a decent sound, and then we are shown to our accommodation. We are staying upstairs at the bar, which is certainly good news for me, as I’ll be able to take a drink – I’m very strict with myself when I’m touring and driving – this is work, not a holiday, so safe driving and a clean licence are paramount…not very rock ‘n’ roll, but welcome to my world. Hans has ordered in a nice dinner from a restaurant down the street, so we sit down, me, HB, Hans and the lady who seems to keep everything ticking over at the place.
After dinner, Hans takes a last cigarette before the curtains are pulled back, chairs set out, some blues put on the house sound system and he’s open for business. We sit at the bar - all dark wood, bentwood chairs, heavy drapes, old-timey enamel signs…a nice cosy vibe, but it’s Thursday night, there’s snow on the ground, and this is the heart of Belgian zombie country…and the bar is empty. Well, give it time I think, trying to be optimistic, but I’ve been in too many bars like that before in the UK, when people just don’t turn up. Hans seems to be happy to push a couple of free beers at us..I ask him to recommend something I might not have had before..so he proffers me a glass of “Ne Fliererfluiter”. It’s a very nice drop of beer, dark and strong at 8.5% proof..and we are intrigued by it’s strange name, and the picture of a funny little man in top hat and breeches on the bottle. So we ask Hans what the name means…”Errr…how do you say, it’s a guy who, I don’t know, err, it’s a guy who doesn’t give a shit!”. We love Belgium...”I’ll have a bottle of “I don’t give a shit” please”..it just creases us up.
So, I’m getting a little worried about drinking all this good free beer and no punters in the joint, but the place starts filling up, I keep nodding to the regulars as they arrive, and mumble “Goeden avond” in my best broken Vlaamse. After a while place gets pretty well warmed up, it’s full of local colour…the off-duty bobby built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse, a guy who lost a finger so he plays guitar with a slide, a young lady from the UK who now lives in Belgium…so I decide it’s showtime. My set seems to go down pretty well, the room is definitely warmed up, and Hollowbelly managed to elicit an even warmer and louder reception. Everything he told me about Belgium is bang on the money…in a sleepy little town the joint is jumping, people come out for live music and love it, they like to take a drink but they’d never kick off with any aggro. Our man across the border in Holland, Ozzy van der Loo has set us up with a cracking start to the weekend, so we are feeling pretty groovy. Hollowbelly is on his adopted home turf here and it shows…he knows the Belgians are always up for a good time, and he delivers the goods in fine style.
Hollowbelly and The Pyronator rocking the Cafe Pallieter
Job done, I step outside for a breath of fresh air on the corner of the street, while the regulars have stepped outside for a smoke. A guy pulls on my sleeve...”Hey Johnny, someone is playing your guitar”…I glance inside, a guy has got my 6 string CBG plugged into the PA and is cranking out some solid 12 bar grooves..”Don’t worry, that’s good, it’s all cool with me” I tell him. I return to the warmth of the bar, pick up my 3 string and a slide and join in, wailing the blues...a good old-fashioned after hours jam session.
HB slopes off to bed at about 1.00am, but I decide to hang out and take a beer with the guys at the bar..after all, this is one of the few times I’ll be able to do that, as we are staying put for the night. Well..one beer turns into “Give me another, something I’ve not tried before”, which is a dangerous thing to say in Belgium seeing as they have a seemingly endless variety of beers, and Hans knows a LOT about beer. Several interesting and very strong beers later, and the odd glass of Belgian Jenever and a load of tall stories I head off to bed...how on earth did it suddenly become 3.45am?
A few hours later, we awake to a grey but dry morning, take breakfast in the bar and money changes hands (in the right direction). I mention to Hans that there are some cool metal signs that would make up into a nice guitar, so he gives me one, and I tell him I’ll make him one too, so he unscrews a sign off the wall and finds a wooden wine box that is an almost perfect for it, then presents me with 3 really nice wooden boxes that had big bottles of beer in them, great for making guitars…in fact two of them still have the bottles of the “Ne Flierefluiter”” beer that I so enjoyed the previous evening. Loaded down with my gifts, we pack the car and it’s off to Asten in the Netherlands for the start of what looks like a pretty heavy duty weekend.
To be continued….