BOXSTOCK, THE UK CIGAR BOX GUITAR FESTIVAL - A BRIEF HISTORY 0
It all started a long time ago. Back in 2009 I’d been making cigar box guitars for a few years, having made my first one in 2005. At that time, the main point of contact of most people in the UK was the American based website www.cigarboxnation.com. There was (and still is) a UK group on there, and I’d also seen a few people on YouTube playing cigar box guitar. At that time I was running a weekly blues club in Birmingham, called “The Crossroads Blues Club” at The Tower Of Song, a small music bar. I played there regularly with my band Chickenbone Blues, and used my cigar box guitar during our set.
There was obviously some interest in cigar box guitars, as by then I’d made and sold over a hundred of them, and somebody on CBN said it would be nice if we could have a UK festival, as they seemed to be able to run them in America. I said that I had a venue which might work, and before I knew it I was organising the first UK Cigar Box Guitar Festival. I’d seen this guy “Hollowbelly” on YouTube, and so I invited him to play (little did I know it, but he'd bought his first cigar box guitar from me on eBay).
I also tracked down a young firebrand performing under the stage name of “Bluesbeaten Redshaw” and “Tinqui8” from France’s Basque Country. I decided to run it as an all day event with a sort of meet and greet, demos, stalls and talks, rounded off with an evening gig. A few of us met up on the Friday night and went for a curry, which was a great opportunity to put some real names and faces to the people that we only really knew by their internet “handles”. It all panned out pretty well, we had a busy day, and the place was packed for the evening gig. The only disappointment was that Tinqui8 couldn’t make it as the guy who was arranging a lift for him had let him down - he’d made it all the way from the Basque Country to Calais only to be left stranded. All in all it was a success, there were some great performances, everyone seemed to have good time, and I didn’t loose any money.
Throughout the years that I’ve run Boxstock, my aim has been to run it as a fun get-together for the cigar box guitar community and to spread the word, rather than as a commercial venture, so my philosophy has been to try and give people a good event and to try and break even.
Here’s a quick summary of the past editions of Boxstock.
2009 Tower of Song, Birmingham
Hollowbelly, Bluesbeaten Redshaw, ChickenboneJohn
2010 The Public, West Bromwich
Hollowbelly, Tinqui8, Bluesbeaten Redshaw, ChickenboneJohn
2011 The Public, West Bromwich
Ben Prestage (USA), Hollowbelly, Tinqui8, (France), Andy Bole and the Khalghani Dance Troup
2012 Band on The Wall, Manchester
Dave Acari, Babajack, Blackriver Bluesman and Bad Mood Hudson (Finland), Mike Snowden (USA)
2013 The Musician, Leicester
Vinylhed, King Size Slim, Lewis Floyd Henry
2014-2016 No festival
2017 The Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton
Hollowbelly, Dusk Brothers, Chickenbone Blues, Cap’n Catfish (Germany)
2018 The Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton
Blackriver Bluesman & Bad Mood Hudson (Finland), Dusk Brothers, Bemuzic, Chickenbone John & Dave Smith
2019 No festival
2020 Postponed due to Covid
I‘ve tried a few different things for the festival - a couple of times we’ve run an informal Friday night open mic. gig, and this year we are again reinstating the Friday night gig. On several occasions we’ve had international artists from the USA, Finland, Germany and France. It is not an easy task to run these events, and indeed after the 2013 edition I felt I needed some time out from it. I did try to run the event in 2016 and had got things all arranged but unfortunately the venue closed and we had to cancel. Determined to revive the event, I contacted the Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton and struck a deal with them. It worked well for the event, and so we ran it there again in 2018, which had the extra bonus of having Virginia Heath and her film crew there, which resulted in the UK cigar box guitar scene getting national TV exposure on BBC 1 and BBC 4 in the film "Cigar Box Blues - The Makers Of A Revolution".
I let another year pass without organising the event, as we were very busy developing the business, having a busy summer season of festivals, shows and overseas touring, but managed to get everything in place to run Boxstock again in the spring of 2020 - and of course Covid 19 put paid to that.
So, here we are with another edition of Boxstock lined up - at a new venue, The Lighthouse, Wolverhampton, Friday night 15th October with Hollowbelly and Philbilly One Man Band, Saturday 16th October all-dayer with workshops, demos, film show, trade stalls etc, and an evening gig with Kevin Brown and The Dusk Brothers. I’ve still got plenty of other goodies up my sleeve which I am in process of finalising, so watch out for more news!!!
- John Wormald
5 string banjo refurb 0
I don't get involved with banjos that often , but I've made a few, replaced torn skins and restored an Appalachian style mountain banjo that belonged to Neil Young, so I know my way round the basics.
Here's one that came in last week - it's an old English "zither" banjo - why on earth they call them that I don't know, as it's got nothing to do with any zither that I've seen. Anyhow, it had been picked up cheap, it's probably around 100 years old, the skin was torn and it was unplayable. The plus point was that it had all of it's hardware, and it had the stamp "John Alvey Turner - London". I Googled it, and surprise surprise, the company is still in existence!
First job was to take it apart so that I could get the skin off and replace it. I cleaned up the pot, the rim and fixing brackets, and fitted a new head. It's not that hard - these old banjos don't have pre-formed skin mounted on a ring, you have to soak the skin in water and wrap it round a metal hoop, mount it onto the flange and tension ring and let it dry overnight. At all looked OK, although it needed a little fettling to replace a missing pearl dot, re-mount the machineheads (which are non-original), plug holes and replace missing and mis-matching screws, trim the fret ends, polish the frets and condition the fretboard. It was obvious that the instrument had been fixed-up and tinkered with several times.
When I put it together it was obvious that the action was totally unplayable, and I'd need to re-set the neck angle, which required quite bit of work to the dowel stick and neck heel to put a bit of angle onto the neck. This was very time consuming, as I had to put it together and take it part about ten times, before determining that it was about right. A fresh set of d'Addario strings and deepening the nut slots got it playable, so here it is.
These old English made banjos can make a decent starter instrument - they are often for sale cheap online or at car boot sales, but there are a few eccentricities and points to watch out for. There are usually fairly well made, but each maker seemed to do things their own way, so don't expect modern banjo hardware to fit. It's therefore import to make sure that there are no vital parts missing, particularly the rim tension brackets and fittings, as replacements are sometimes impossible to find. It's almost inevitable that it will need a new vellum (calfskin head), but they are readily available and it's not that difficult to learn how to fit one. Machineheads are a bit of a lottery - this one originally had sets of 3 on a plate, but had newer individual ones fitted. The post holes were on a different spacing to modern ones, so I couldn't fit a replacement set of modern 3 on a plate, and had to re-use the ones that came with it, drilling out a broken fixing screw and plugging the original screw holes. Talking of machineheads, take a look at the photo - 6 machineheads, it's a six string, right? No, wrong.
It's a 5 string and they just left one of the tuners unused - this was a very common approach amongst English makers. Also look how the 5th drone G string is mounted - there's no peg at the 5th fret, but the string is tunnelled under the fretboard through a little brass tube, and emerges at the headstock. This was a typical English way of doing it, so watch out for this if you are scouting round for one.
So there you go, a 100 year old instrument back in action, after a bit of care and attention.
- John Wormald
Glastonbury 2019 - it doesnt get any easier! 1
Glastonbury had a "fallow" year in 2018 to allow the land to recover, so we had a year off (we did WOMAD instead...but we'll not talk about that...). So, we submitted our application to trade in October last year, and heard late February 2019 that we'd been accepted. That was the starting gun for our preparation. My daughter Anne Zilpha made an analysis of the previous two years sales figures and we drew up a schedule of the stuff we had to make and buy-in. The daunting prospect was that we reckoned that we needed to to take 100 guitars and 50 amps with us to be confident that we could meet the demand.
A couple of weeks to go, and here are 50 fretless guitars ready.
It was a really tough couple of months making so many guitars and amps, but we managed it it in time. We'd already lined up Hollowbelly to help out, but felt we needed to up our game in terms of presentation, so that involved making a full plywood floor for the marquee, overhauling the guitar hanging racks inside the marquee, arranging a proper electrical installation inside the marquee, with new lighting and 16 high-level power outlets, a cotton muslin lining for the marquee, new signage and making some new display racks for outside, with roofs over them to keep off the worst of the weather.
Preparation for an event like this is very serious - we have to be ready for 8 days on site, totally self contained and ready for any weather conditions, rain or shine. With one very wet and one very hot Glastonbury behind us, we were confident that we could cope and that we knew how to deal with it. Little tweaks such as a groundsheet under the timber floor of the marquee, a tarpaulin awning fixed to the side of the van for rain protection and/or shade can make all the difference. As we had so many more guitars and lots of new product lines, we needed to pack down really tight, so we made sure our guitars were neatly packed in cartons in batches of 20 rather than individual boxes in order to make the most of the available space in the van, and even then it meant that we'd be carrying 96 guitar kits and 40 amps on the roof, together with various display racks.
New display racks and the all-important travelling cocktail cabinet being prepared.
We ordered in a fair bit of new stuff, such as shakers, harmonicas, tee shirts etc so that was quite a serious financial commitment on top of the other stuff such as site fee and electrical supply. There's also a lot of documentation to get ready - public liability insurance, employers insurance, PAT electrical certificates, health and safety assessment, sustainability statement, so if you are thinking of doing this sort of thing, be warned, you need to be on top of all this sort of stuff.
We'd been watching the weather forecast for 2 or 3 weeks, and we were worried that it might be a wet one, as there was lot of rain for a couple of weeks beforehand, and Glastonbury is notorious for not coping well with rain, but as time drew on, it looked like we might have a couple of days of rain during the set-up and decent weather for the event itself.
On Monday morning before the weekend we were loading up, and en-route we dropped by our printers to pick up some new tee shirts, then we were on our way to Portishead just outside Bristol where we'd arranged to pick up Hollowbelly at a midway point. I drove very steadily, as with a full load on the roof rack and the back of the van absolutely packed to the roof I didn't want to take any risks at all.
We had an uneventful journey, although fitting in Hollowbelly's gear was bit tricky, and we ended up having to spread his sleeping bag across the seats in the van, and ride with his merch box in the footwell of the cab.
After a couple of Glastonburys, checking in and finding out pitch was fairly routine for us, so by around 7.00pm on Monday evening we were at our pitch and ready to set up our tent and our trading marquee.
During Monday night we had a bit of rain, but Tuesday was dry enough, so we managed to get completely set-up. It took us quite a bit longer than we expected, as we had a lot of new stuff to set up. We were all totally exhausted by the evening, and were looking forward to a good night's sleep before having to face the public on Wednesday morning.
After a leisurely breakfast, me and Hollowbelly took a brief walk round the neighbourhood of the Silver Hayes area and the Gulley Blues, watching thousands of visitors dragging their possessions with them to try and grab a prime camping spot.
One of the advantages of trading, is that you get a decent spot to pitch your tent, and your own toilets and water supply - hardly luxury, but much more civilised than fighting it out with 200 000 other people.
All set up and ready for business.
So, the actual business of Glastonbury itself, well, we traded from Wednesday morning to Sunday night, working about 14-15 hours a day, as we were open from around 10am until midnight most days. This year, none of us saw any acts at all, as we were just so busy, and too tired after shutting up shop to do anything other than have a beer and go to bed. This year it seemed much quieter than previous years, and none of us had any difficulty sleeping. It's all relative, as there was a continuous powerful bass from various dance venues that was more of a physical force rather than an audible sound.
Anne Zilpha looking pensive and proprietorial
My daughter kept a very accurate sales ledger, and it was apparent that on Thursday and Friday sales figures were well down on what we had hoped, so that was tough one to deal with, but we soldiered on, and had decent enough trade on Saturday. Saturday was particularly hot, so Hollowbelly and myself had to take it in shifts to do the demonstrating out front in the unrelenting heat, and Anne did her best to clean off the dust off everything that was constantly kicked up by tens of thousands of tramping feet.
Open all hours..playing music for 15 hours a day!
We'd had a few musicians who were playing at the festival drop by, DJs Acido Pantera from Colombia, and a band from Taiwan, who came back the following day and bought two of our best guitars!. We spotted a few celebs, including Fat Boy Slim and Martin Roberts from Homes Under The Hammer, who'd bought a guitar from us at the last festival. We also met a lot of previous customers, and a few old friends such as Chris, the owner of one of our favorite venues, The Chambers in Folkestone. I also gave a short interview for Radio Shepton - in my experience it's almost inevitable that I'll end up giving at least one interview at a festival like Glastonbury.
Hollowbelly...illustrating an article on Music Radar about the 13 best guitar acts at Glastonbury!
Sunday, our last day of trading was going to be a busy one, we knew that, but it exceeded all our expectations, and more than made up for a couple of relatively quietish (by Glastonbury standards) days. The people looking after security to our service area were on their last shift, so I offered them a glass of Jack Daniels and Coke, as we were also indulging and feeling a bit "demob happy" by late afternoon. After closing up I headed over to the John Peel Stage backstage crew lounge for an hour or so, but I was too tired to stay and play onstage, so I headed back to camp and slept the sleep of the just.
Monday was simply a day for breaking all the gear down in an orderly manner and getting it into the van and onto the roofrack. We were all very tired, so we didn't rush things and tried to be as methodical as we could. We offer a service where customers can leave their purchases with us and collect at the end of the event, so we had a few customers arrive to collect their purchases, but by mid-morning all that was finished, and we steadily broke the gear down and packed it away. At least we had a lot less to take back with us, so that made things a bit easier, and by 6.00pm we were off and away - nothing left on our pitch, and just a few empty cardboard boxes for the recycling. It took about 50 minutes to get off site,and then a steady drive back to Bristol to drop John off at a friends where he picked up his van and made his way home. For me and Anne we had a couple of hours steady drive, and we took a leisurely stop at Gloucester services (the best coffee I've had at any motorway services...probably because its a family run business not a chain or franchise) before arriving home at about 11.pm.
We even took our own stage - an 8 x 4 sheet of plywood!
After the event we found that images and videos had started to crop up on the internet, including the official Glastonbury website photo gallery, which is quite flattering.
Taiwanese band members making their purchase at the counter
So will we do it again? Maybe - it is profitable, but it is hugely demanding in terms of time and energy, particularly in the pre-event organisation and preparation. We are still recovering, so we'll see how it goes, but I'm sure the date for us having to apply again will soon roll round...and we'll have to make a decision.
Saturday, bringing in the customers - it was a long day, and a long week!
- John Wormald
Summer of '18- On The Road 0
So...summer's well on, and it's been an amazingly warm one...and for me an exhausting one. I know people think that being a professional musician is one long round of cool gigs, adulation, alcohol and drugs...but there's more...and less to it than that. Finding the cash for many tanks of diesel, worrying about whether there's a parking place near the gig, figuring out the logistics of loading out 500kg of gear every night and keeping it safe, and not getting busted by the German Autobahn Polizei on the road. Having the right paperwork, earning some cash, a lot of heavy lifting and clean living are essential to make a success of it.
Early on in the year I was very pleased to be asked to do a cigar building workshop as a pre-amble to a gig supporting Brooks Williams at the Old Courts in Wigan. Brooks is a top notch American player, and after my daughter Anne and myself had finished the "make and play" workshop in the afternoon, Brooks very kindly did a "how to play" session for the participants.
Anne taking charge of soldering the pickups at our Wigan workshop
Brooks always promotes my guitars, and uses them in his live performances, so it's great to have made the connection with him a few years back.
Brooks Williams at Wigan with one of his ChickenboneJohn guitars
On a much lower level in terms of profile and numbers, a week later I did a workshop and gig in North Devon with Hollowbelly...at a very rural location and all very low key, but an enjoyable event nonetheless for us and the participants. We treated it as a warm up for a the big event of the season, the Aldstadt Fest in Saarbruecken, Germany.
Me and Hollowbelly had been invited by Faban Fahr, the organiser of the German CBG Festival to take part, on the back of our previous appearances at the Pleutersbach CBG Festival. We knew it was going to be a pretty big deal...around 15 street gigs for the both of us over 3 days, and some big names on the main stages, with Thomas Blug and Friedel Geratsch fronting Garage 3, a cigar box guitar led band. Freidel was in the German hit parade with his band Geiersturtzflug back in the 70's, and Thomas Blug is an international bona fide guitar hero - this was serious company, so we knew we had to be on point for the whole weekend. On our way over there, we stopped over at the Ibis Hotel at the Calais Eurotunnel terminal...what a strange experience that was. I have never seen so many policemen in one place - it was obviously the base for the CRS (commonly referred to as the French riot police) operations for protecting the tunnel terminal - the car park was full of police motorcycles, cars, paddy wagons, trucks and vans. It really brings home what a huge problem dealing with the current immigrant situation is, to need so many people and resources on an ongoing daily basis. At least we thought the van should be pretty safe, but nevertheless we took all of our vital and expensive gear out of the van and up to the hotel room.
Kaltenbach, a laid back street venue.
In front of the cathedral, pulling a crowd as usual.
Street corner cafe "Kartoffel", at night this was a real hotspot gig!
As usual, the real pressure with city centre events is the stress of finding the venues, sorting the hotel, finding a place to park the van, where to unload, how to get the gear to the venues and so on, and with a very busy schedule we had to have all this sorted so that we could do our job of delivering around 15 performances each. After the non-stop pressure of Saarbrucken, we had a long journey south for a couple of gigs arranged by our good friend Susi, in the beautiful Danube valley, just over the border from Switzerland. So on Monday morning we were on our way south, and ready for a couple of relatively quiet days.
At Hausen im Tal we were doing a private concert in a former 4 x 4 vehicle workshop, which we thought would be a small family and friends event, but turned out to be a pretty lively affair. We slept on the concrete floor of the workshop after the gig, but it's a great relaxing place to be for a few days - the Danube valley is so beautiful.
View from the balcony of Susi's house..over the hill is Switzerland
Relaxing on the deck at Susi's
Albstadt cafe "Juwel" was curious event...a very cool first floor room, pretty large and a combination of cafe bar and antique shop... with a mobile cafe truck in the courtyard. They called themselves "the biggest living room in Albstadt", which felt about right.
The curious and groovy "Juwel" cafe in Albstadt
I opened for Hollowbelly as usual, but it felt like a really tough crowd, they weren't hostile, just a bit quiet and reserved. I really sweated to warm the room , but felt it was an uphill struggle, exchanged a few works with Hollowbelly in the break about it, and he went on, a proper trooper as per normal. It all went down fine, enlivened by the house "interpretive dance troupe", a couple of good-natured stoners, but the proof of the pudding was in what we earned. This was a no fee guaranteed gig, so we were relying on what people put in the hat. Despite our misgivings, for a Wednesday night gig we were very well rewarded financially (and I sold two guitars!), so we figured they must have enjoyed it. The following day we headed north on a long long drive to Belgium for Muddy Roots Europe.
We got settled in on Thursday night and on Friday morning set up my marquee for trading. We had a quick visit to Brugges as it's only 15 minutes away, and Hollowbelly hadn't seen the city before. We had a walk round the impossibly scenic old town centre and had a bit of lunch. Afterwards we dropped in to the amazing Basilica of the Holy Blood. To our surprise, we arrived just as there was to be short service of veneration, where a glass vial containing the blood of Christ is brought out and the congregation has the opportunity to go up to the altar to place their hands over the sacred relic...and we duly joined the queue and did the religious observance bit... all very interesting and moving, whatever your view on these things is.
Lunch in "Little Venice", Brugges. Mussels, chips and a good Belgian beer.
Hollowbelly had a Saturday afternoon performance, so I was on hand just to take care of the gear, and deal with any emergencies. He broke a string, so I had to rush onto the stage, take his guitar, go back to the stall, put a new string on it, tune it and get it back. As I was running out of the tent I heard him say "No pressure, you've got two and a half minutes to fix it while I do the next song! "Being next to the main tent at Muddy Roots meant that we could hear, if not see most of the acts, but the one act we did make sure that we saw was Reverend Beatman's band "The Monsters"on Saturday night. I did a pretty good trade selling cigar box guitars, and it was good to catch up with old friends, but the one notable absence was Sunny, the bass player with Mack Drietens, who had died suddenly a couple of months back. He was an irrepressibly good natured guy, and was at pretty much every gig in Germany that me and Hollowbelly had played over the past 2 or 3 years. On Sunday morning, the "Gospel Hour" was dedicated to him, and it was a strange and touching occasion...I brought out bottles of Kahlua and vodka, someone else found some milk and paper cups, and we shared a round of White Russians, Sunny's favorite cocktail, which I'd tried for the first time at Muddy Roots a few years back.
Sunday morning Gospel Hour. Here's to Sunny ..."'l'll Fly Away, Oh Glory..."
The journey back turned into a bit of a nightmare - it's not far, but on arrival at the tunnel terminal (after trying to negotiate the streets of a Calais suburb which had road diversions due to a local cycle race), it was obvious that there were some very serious problems at the EuroTunnel terminal.
On the way to the terminal were the now usual grim warnings on the illuminated motorway gantry signs "Pedestrians in the roadway", meaning that you should anticipate the possibility of being ambushed by desperate illegal immigrants. I mused on whether I'd have the nerve to keep my foot on the gas if faced with this sort of trouble, and think on reflection I'd have to keep the hammer down. It's my livelihood, in the van are all my working tools and the takings for two weeks work, nobody is going to take that off me. It's a brutal approach, but the accepted wisdom is that people will jump out of the way rather than being run down by three tons of van moving at 130kph, no matter how desperate they are.
We couldn't get near the check-ins, and all traffic was being diverted to temporary holding pens. We'd arrived quite early, it was scorchingly hot (and there's no air-con in my van) and the prospect of a very long and agonising wait looked on the cards. Apparently there had been some power malfunction and there was no information to be had about what would happen and when it might be sorted. We both got a really bad feeling about this, so a couple of phone calls home, a bit of internet searching and we decided to bail out and try and get a ferry crossing, despite the added cost and inconvenience. We reckoned we might be stuck at the tunnel for hours or even a full day, so we negotiated our way out of the thousands of vehicles which were stacking up and shot across to the ferry terminal. It was all very friendly and not too costly considering, although it did seem to take ages to get onboard. It was a stressy way to end a hard tour.
Back in the UK it was time for Birmingham Jazz Festival, and a tough one for me as I had to do it solo, as my usual harmonica player Dave Smith was at another festival, so I was faced with the prospect of 4 solo gigs over 2 days, all double sets of 3/4 of an hour each. I had a mixed bag of venues - a trendy lunchtime cafe, a local library (absolutely packed out!), a shopping mall busking session and a noisy city centre bar to round things off with a swing.
First gig at the Birmingham Jazz Festival, at The Boston Tea Party.
This year, Glastonbury was on a "fallow" year, so WOMAD, World Music And Dance was the obvious choice for us to have a go at. It wasn't an easy choice, as there was Lunar Fest on our doorstep which we'd been invited to, Deershed in Yorkshire (they asked me 3 times!!!), and a few other viable alternatives such as Cambridge Folk Festival. Anyway, we decided to go for WOMAD, and what a rotten decision that turned out to be. It was very expensive, 60% more than Glastonbury as a trader, for around 1/6th of the audience, but we reckoned it would be "our crowd", the demographic would be just right..after all, being The Guardian's favorite festival, it looked like a good choice. Well, how wrong we were...we were allocated one of the worst pitches on site, a little dead end spot with no foot traffic, and the punters...they were the most self-centred, tight-fisted miserable shower of sh*te that we've ever had the misfortune to encounter. Don't get me wrong, there were some lovely folks out there who came to see us, shoot the breeze with us and buy stuff, but in the main, nobody wanted to spend money, they wanted free entertainment and no personal engagement. There were lots of people wearing "Bollocks to Brexit" stickers, but seemingly nobody understanding that the traders such as us are part of the backbone of small businesses who pay our income tax and VAT to help keep our country afloat. I had to try and keep my cool as one customer was asking for a 20% discount after I'd already thrown in a free slide and guitar lead in the deal..this sort of thing is demoralising, and as a neighbouring trader said, she felt "devalued" as a business and an artist having to put up with this sort of treatment. Very few people were willing to spend even a couple of quid with us. I felt for the people running the Henna art stall next to us, they were very experienced festival traders, and had tried five times before getting a spot at WOMAD. Their basic charge was £10 for henna tattooing..and people were coming up and asking "What can I get for £3?" - this was typical of the appalling attitude of so many of the public. I tried drumming up trade by playing my heart out in front of the marquee, pulling a crowd and entertaining them for a few songs, and then they would all just gaze at their shoes and slip away without even a thank you. If this is representative of modern UK, no wonder the country is f*cked. I felt so incensed that I made that very point over the mic when I was playing. The neighbouring African drum shop caught this and said to me that I had to tell it like it was. To make matters worse, I was asked to stop demoing my guitars, as it was disturbing the participants at an "egg shaker" percussion workshop. This was a free workshop that they were running for the punters, and I'd paid a lot of money to be there, had my sound gear approved by the event....yet I had to be quiet. I had this again, and had knock it on the head for a Palestinian singer who was doing some sort of presentation to a handful of people in one of the adjoining tents. The whole event had a depressing self-righteous air to it, everything was so worthy and right-on that it seemed to be almost a caricature of itself. I'd obviously mis-calculated or mis-read the potential customers, but we were served up with a lousy spot to work from which was unforgivable...such a contrast to Glastonbury where on both occasions we had a great trading spot, and were even featured in the official progamme as No. 4 on "37 things to see and do at Glasto".
WOMAD...absolutely packed out with potential customers
After a day of zero action on Thursday, Hollowbelly phoned me to say he'd got something important on his plate that meant it looked like he couldn't make it to do his bit front of house pitching to the crowds, but I told him not to worry, as it was going to be a quiet one, and that me and Anne would be able to manage. He obviously felt very awkward about this, but I told him business is business, and if there's something in prospect, he had to go for it. It's always best to be straight with people, and we know oneanother well enough for this to be OK. As it turned out, that was a good thing, as sales were particularly poor and I would have struggled to pay him a proper wage. I'm sure plenty of businesses would have been delighted with our trading figures, but we are hard-nosed about things - exposure is all well and good but breaking even is not an option, we need to be able to pay ourselves a wage and turn an honest profit.
WOMAD wasn't all bad, but it was really hard work
We managed, contending with almost no foot traffic and very changeable weather, and toughed it out until the final Sunday night. By then my daughter and me had drunk all the beer (as opposed to Glastonbury last year when we'd got loads left even with 3 of us), so we were well p*ssed off and ready to just get away from the damned place. We put our money where our mouth was, went for a final stroll around the place and spent a good chunk of money with a great jewellery stall down by the main arena, and treated ourselves to pulled pork and dirty fries with gravy, putting a bit of money back where it belonged, in the hands of a few other hardworking people. On Monday morning we took down the stall, got loaded and away from there and were home by early afternoon.
So that was my summer season. Looking back it's hard to believe I actually managed to do all that stuff, a lot of hard miles and a lot of gigs. It's not an easy way to make a living, but it's the only one I've got.
- John Wormald
BACK ON THE ROAD - EUROPE AUTUMN 2017 0
It had been a while, but it was time for me and Hollowbelly to go back on he road again…the Van Thom Weekender and the German Cigar Box Guitar Festival were happening on two consecutive weekends, so that was the cue to arrange a little tour. We had a contact from a new promoter offering a midweek date between the two weekends, and I managed to arrange some more dates on the way out and back, so we had a viable tour organised. Getting gigs is one thing, but getting shows that pay and work well in terms of the travelling is another, so these things take quite bit of time and effort to pull together.
We met-up at Gordano services near Bristol, as it’s around midway between our respective houses in the midlands and Devon, and headed off to our first engagement in Folkestone. The Chambers is a cool cellar bar, we arrived in good time to get set up, get a drink and something to eat before the show. Chris, the owner at The Chambers had sorted out a hotel for us, so we moved the van, checked in and put the remainder of our gear in the room.
It's a real pain, but a really important think to make sure you don’t leave anything in your van that you can’t do without…just in case it gets broken into. We’ve seen too many appeals for help on Facebook as time after time musicians have their car broken into and their gear stolen. It’s my observation that an empty van doesn't get broken into. It was a great start to the tour…a convenient break, good audience and money in our pockets.
Balcony view over the channel from the hotel.
After the show it was more hard slog as we broke down the backline, found somewhere to park near the hotel and loaded ALL our guitars and amps into the room..we were taking no risks of anything going missing.
Friday morning was a very short drive to the tunnel terminal, but there was an hour delay to our crossing, so we already on the back foot timing wise. There was the usual dreadful journey round the Antwerp ring road, but we’ve had worse, and arrived at our friend and promoter Ozzy van der Loo’s place in Asten with enough time to have something to eat before heading off to Eindhoven. Half an hour down the motorway , we were heading for the amusingly titled “Balls Cafe”, a pool hall cafe.
Cafe Balls, the reflection in the window shows the van parked directly opposite..just how we like it.
It’s only a small place, so we were providing our own PA, and it's a pretty heavy job unloading and rigging the PA, especially with my new (and very heavy) Mackie speakers.
On stage at Cafe Balls, Eindhoven
Our next appointment was in Bremen, north Germany, so we had to be up and doing as we had to get to the Van Thom Weekender that evening. Usually it’s a real drag to get to Bremen, as often we drive from the UK directly their, but this trip it was a lot easier, starting from quite near the Dutch-German border. Apart from a few brief hold-ups on the Autobahn it was an easy drive, but we didn’t have too much time after arriving there before we had to load out our gear into our promotor’s car and head off for a half hour trip from the rural village of Ganderkesee into central Bremen.
Rebels Club in Bremen
Merch table set up..a vital part of any tour.
Mack Drietens..superb acoustic old timey Americana
Authentic rockbilly from the Stringtone Slingers
Hollowbelly headlining the evening.SUNDAY
An early start to the day to get down to the venue in Bremen for a guitar making workshop. All very civilised, a nice steady paced day, then off to a nearby Turkish kebab house for lunch.
Another happy customer!
A day off! We went for a stroll with Andy’s enormous dog, Mofo, a Broholmer-Ridgeback cross..think Scooby Doo and you’ll get the idea!
Camo jackets and Mofo dog
Back to Asten to catch up with Ozzy. Another steady drive and plenty of time to chill out.
At Ozzy's...HB checking out the Pignose amp with my Airline Stratotone.
Day off..a walk in the nearby National Park with a stop for coffee. Takeaway pizza for dinner then we watched the match on TV - Ozzy’s team Feyenoord got hammered 4-0 by Man City, so it was off to t'Spektakel bar afterwards to drown his sorrows! Plenty of Belgian beers on offer.
Off to the middle of Germany for a show…a new town, a new promotor and a new venue. It wasn't far to travel, so there was no rush , with a pretty easy drive down the Autobahn to Mettmann, near Dusseldorf. We rocked up at the hotel, and it turns out to be a 4 Star gaff! We loaded in our gear into the lounge bar (and yes, it did have grand piano) got set up, and as we had some to me to kill, we took a hike into town, but it was pretty nondescript and we couldn't find anywhere decent to eat, although it was still late afternoon, hardly the ideal time, so we trudged wearily back the hotel. By the time we got back the sound engineer, PA and promoter had arrived. Once the PA was set up it didn't take long to sound check, so we drifted into the restaurant and ordered dinner. Bread rolls arrived, with the usual butter, herb butter...and something else to spread on the bread.. we were in Germany, so it was pork dripping with extra ham..delicious! An excellent Weiner Schitzel for me and a good solid veggie hotpot for HB, and we were all set for the show. I tried asking for the bill, as I didn't want to load-up the promoter with any unnecessary expense, but that was all taken care of. The weather took a real turn for the worse and there was absolutely torrential rain, so we were a bit concerned if we’d get an audience..but they started drifting in, and our friends from Wuppertal had made the trip over to support the event, which was great. We had a very receptive audience, and despite Hollowbelly being a bit concerned about connecting with what could have been a reserved audience, he needn’t have worried..it went great. The management and staff were very helpful…we ordered a few drinks, and it was all on the house, all sorted. After the gig I sold a guitar to one of the staff, which was nice bonus, and we got a very decent pay packet - as we’d done this at risk, for accommodation and a door split I was prepared for this to be a low paying gig, but far from it, and we both shifted some merchandise. Huge thanks to Benjamin and his mother for organising the gig.
Posh venue..it's got carpet and a grand piano...and 4 stars!
After a good breakfast we were back on the road under clear sunny skies en route for the German Cigar Box Guitar Festival in Pleutersbach near Heidelberg. I needed to get some more guitar strings, so as we had plenty of time in hand, we stopped off in Heidelberg and got some lunch.
Schnitzel & noodles for lunch in Heidelberg.
Our accommodation was as per last year, in the barn next to the hay loft above the stage, and there were a number of familiar faces, both from Bremen and from last year, with a significant contingent having travelled down all the way from the Netherlands. All very efficiently, we were given the keys to the village hall and we got set-up ready for Saturday's guitar making workshop.
Supper was a campfire barbeque in the orchard, very laid back and relaxed. (photo Julian Kohler)
After a successful first festival last year, we were looking forward to another great event, and we we not to be disappointed. Visitors and performers had come from Belgium, Holland, Italy, UK and from all over Germany. Fabian "Capt'n Catfish" Fahr and his team had done a great job, setting up the stage and the PA, organising workshops , there was good food and good beer a plenty, and generally a great atmosphere of "gemuetlichkeit". We were up early to get the workshop going, we were able to get wrapped up mid afternoon so that everyone could get back down into the village for the rest of the festivities.
View from the workshop
Learning to play after making their own guitars
"O'zapft is!" the official opening of the festival, signified by the tapping of the first barrel.
Running order for Saturday (photo Reinhard Knippen)
Capt'n Catfish and Mrs Nikki opening the event.
Gypsy Rufina from Italy (photo Andy Muehlig)
Onstage at Pleutersbach (photo Freidel Geratsch)
Hollowbelly minding my back while I'm onstage...it's all part of the job
Gumbo & The Monk (photo Freidel Geratsch)
Garage 3 (photo Andy Muehlig)
The packed crowd (photo Andy Muehlig)
The BluesTones (photo Andy Muehlig)
The beer crew...on duty all the time (photo Peter Steiner)
Evening panorama (photo Julian Kohler)
Evening crowd (photo Peter Steiner)
Hollowbelly..onstage viewed from the hayloft
(photo Andy Muehlig)
Another red-hot set from Hollowbelly
Winding down the evening with Mississippi Blues Band jam
Another rest day, and we needed it! We were served breakfast from one of the impromptu street kitchens, caught the end of holy mass, celebrated by the local priest on the street with the church band, then drifted back to the stage and checking out the various guitar sellers stalls on the street on the way.
One of the several stalls selling CBGs (photo Blues Bones)
Hubi, the irrepressible one man band entertaining in the cow shed bier keller
We got lunch beirkeller style, chips and Bratwurst, sitting outside one of the cowbarns on long benches, shared companiably with the locals, and listening to the Musikkapelle Kleiner Odenwald..a traditional southern German brass band, all rigged out in traditional “Tracht” regional dress, and led by the splendid Dennis Nussbeutel.
HB, Dennis Nussbeutel and me, Pleutersbach
Our merchandise had been on sale on the communal info point and shop, so both Hollowbelly and me were handed some cash as they’d done a great good job of selling stuff - this really helps boost the income and helps make a tour like this properly viable.
Sunday afternoon jam (photo Andy Muellig)
We took it easy on the free beer, as we had the longest journey of our tour to make the next day, so we got all the gear packed away into the van, then early to bed and early to rise.
Breakfast around the farmhouse kitchen table with other visitors, and then away, managing to get through Heidelberg without too many hold-ups, and a steady day on the Autobahn. It was a remarkably stress free drive up to Herselt in Belgium, where we were meeting our old friend Hans, boss of the Pallieter Cafe.
My early days...
He’s moved location about 5 miles to a neighbouring town, but the reception and atmosphere was typically Belgian…laid back, comfortable and friendly. Belgian is one of our favorite places to visit - friendl people and great beer, so it was good to be back.
Opening the evening at Pallieter Cafe (photo Nathan van der Velde)
Hollowbelly at Pallieter Cafe (photo Nathan van der Velde)
Toasts all round...a late finish 2.30am on a weekday..only in Belgium...Gezellig! (photo Nathan van der Velde)
Yet another early start, as we need to get to the channel tunnel by lunchtime, and we have the prospect of Antwerp to get round/through or avoid. I tried setting the satnav to give us some waypoints to avoid Antwerp, but it was giving alarmingly late arrival times, so just set it to fastest journey time. We ended in in Antwerp, but strangely enough, we went direct to the very centre, passed above the ringroad in fairly slow moving but not gridlocked traffic, and drove out into a freely moving traffic on the ringroad out of the city…all in all not too bad. Yet again, the channel tunnel shuttle was running late, this time with no explanation or apology offerred..pretty dire customer service. I asked the lady on the information desk and it appeared that I’d disturbed her doing the soduku and keeping her manicure up to scratch, as she offered no explanation as to why we hadn’t been called to embark despite the following two trains seemed to have already loaded. The French can be so good at insulting foreign visitors with minimal effort, and she was absolutely top drawer material. It was no better after we’d gone through UK passport control and finally got in the queue…the young woman marshalling the queues was studiously avoiding coming anywhere near us for a good 20 minutes as she ushered line after line of cars towards the waiting trains. We’d got wind that there was a problem after I saw some camper vans and a bus coming back up the loading ramp 15 minutes after they’d gone down to the platform for loading. I had to resort to honking the horn and waving her over to ask for some sort of explanation as to why the they were boarding tickets C, D and E, whilst our ticket B seemed to have been forgotten. As if by magic the trafic lights turned green, the barrier lifted and we were away, an hour late and nicely on target for hitting the M25 at afternoon rush hour. I suspect that the carriages are getting past their best and minor technical failures are beginning to affect what had previously been a swift and efficient service. Traffic wasn’t too bad, and we were at Gordano services for about 6.30pm to meet Hollowbelly’s family, and then on our separate ways back home.
So 12 days on the road, 2000+ kilometres , and a pretty successful trip all round. We made plenty of new friends, met a lot of old ones too and came back with a decent pay packet. A huge thanks to everyone who made our tour a success - audiences, fans, friends, promoters and venues. Touring is no picnic, the money is hard won, the hours are long, but on some days it doesn’t seem like a bad job at all.
- John Wormald