Summer of '18- On The Road

Summer of '18-  On The Road

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 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.

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  • John Wormald
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