Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,
It's close to the end game for this year now! I have never so desperately wanted to get away on a break than now.
I woke up on Thursday to what only can be described as a noise similar to a First World War artillery barrage. I'd been told just before I left for the now regular flight to Birmingham to pick up the bus for Oldenburg that three faces out of four of the studio roof needed replacing. It turned out that the original roof created in 91 had been constructed using second hand slates. What was supposed to have been a tidying up and replacing of a few broken slates was now a major repair. The contractor discovered he couldn't replace the broken slates without damaging surrounding tiles in the process. The slates were too brittle. Just what I needed as I headed out on tour.
I had a couple of days grace on my return from the third leg before they began to dismantle the roof.
I had gone to see Porcupine Tree at the Glasgow Academy the night before. It was the first time I'd see them with Wes in the line up. I'd met up with Steve Wilson at the Classic Rock awards for the first in a very long time and I mentioned I would try and make the show in Scotland. Passes were set up with Wes and I drove through with Tara and two of her friends the day after I got back. It was a big night through the west as Rangers were playing Lyon at home in a deciding match for the Champion's League group stages. As with our show, when Scotland played France numbers had taken a hit and Steve's question to the audience of "are their any Rangers fans here tonight?" was met with minimal response. "I didn't think so!" I had driven through late to avoid footy traffic and recorded the game on my Sky+. I only had to avoid the result and I could catch the excitement when I got back.
Big hugs and smiles from Wes when he met us at the back stage door. I hadn't seen him for far too long. He looked great. Road weary and with only two gigs before he hit the high road home to Florida, he had the look of a marathon runner close to the tape.
We caught up before he headed for the dressing room to prepare for the gig.
I went out for a cigarette and a fan came up to me and said "Lyon are one nil up". Doh! It was going to be tough.
Throughout the night I had to stop people in their tracks as soon as football was mentioned. "I don't want to know, I'm recording it!"
The only thing in my favour was that when smiling faces approached I didn't know whether they were happy 'Gers fans or gloating Celtic fans.
Watching a gig when you have just come off tour is a strange affair. You recognise all the machinery of a show but you have no part in the proceedings. The body clock whirrs in gig mode and the adrenalin rises. It must be the same feeling as a redundant worker visiting his old factory. The gig went well. I wasn't overly familiar with a lot of the material but the performance was impressive. As Wes pointed out after show, it's a highly demanding set. Intricate and requiring a lot of concentration. The lights and the projections were spectacular, the film clips around the "Blank Planet" material had obviously been meticulously shot and edited and I admit to being highly envious of the resources available.
It all worked together so well. I was genuinely pleased for them with what they had achieved with this album and the seemingly endless tour. They were now at just over 100 dates. We will be hitting that by next Autumn on this album. I was only half way there! I remember talking to Steve Wilson back in '96 when he declared that he intended to be more of a studio artist rather than a live performer and that he wasn't interested in spending months on the road. How things have changed for us all. The road seems to suit him well. He looks great and has a completely different aura that is more self assured, confident, warm and friendly than the one I remember from the "Sunsets" sessions. Not that I didn't enjoy his company back then, it's just that the years have changed us both and now we strike a fuller chord than we once did.
I genuinely like the man.
One very funny moment for me personally was when some wag shouted out "Grendel" during the show. No response from stage. I hope it went unnoticed. I took it as being for my benefit as my presence was noted. Porkies playing Grendel - an interesting cover! :-D
I caught Steve, Wes and Richard B later and we had a happy reunion. The photo was regulatory. The first time that the co writers of "Sunsets" and "Fellini Days" had got together. Tara had been too young to remember the "Sunsets" recording and was surprised to find out later that Steve had written "Perception" with me. Wes was blown away by her, the first time for over 7 years since he had seen her. Family snapshots were obligatory. A memorable night and we all promised to meet up next year, hopefully in Germany.
I got home around 1, uncorked the wine and sat down to watch the match. Three nil Lyon and Rangers were condemned to the UEFA cup.
As a Scot I was disappointed that they were out but as a Hibby I was glad they wouldn't be raking in another 20 million pounds and buying up more of our players! I wish every football match had that kind of yin and yang!
I was in bed at three and woken at four by the salvo of hammers and falling slates directly above my bedroom. Luckily it's a studio and I ended up huddled in my duvet on the Chesterfield in the sound-proofed control room.
The hammering was incessant all day and I had to conduct a couple of interviews locked away in the kitchen. By 6 I was shell shocked.
I don't know whether the roofers felt sorry for me but they didn't show on Friday. I had appointments. Pick up my malaria tablets and get into Edinburgh to buy a backpack and various other items I'd need in Vietnam. The itinerary was coming together and my visas had arrived. It was just over a week before I'd be flying to Bangkok and then on to Hanoi, arriving Christmas day. I am nervous but excited by the prospect of my first solo holiday in a far flung country. I know I am going to miss Tara badly but after this last year the one place I don't want to be this Christmas and New Year is Haddington and sitting in the studio on my own. I have a strong feeling that this is a very important journey for me on all levels. If Life imitates art then this is my break away and break out from the "Circle Line".
During the week home I spent a lot of time setting up the projects for next year. It's all positive and the feedback on the album promises a busy year. The UK tour is in place and with the South American tour moving to September I have found a window in April and May to continue to exploit the gains we made this year. Italy and France are now very much in the picture and discussions when we were there a few weeks ago look like providing a lot of possibilities for touring this coming Summer.
Yesterday was catching up with friends I hadn't seen for a while and enduring a hellish one one draw with Falkirk at Easter Road. Another reason I am glad to be getting away. I'm finding watching Hibs deconstruct this season depressing and frustrating. Watching former players in International action with other clubs and in Scotland colours and with the prospect of losing more players in January reminds me of the lack of loyalty and amounts of money flying around in football that makes genuine supporters lose faith in their clubs. Alex McLeish's move from Scottish to Birmingham City manager may have made Steve V happy but I felt let down and the move summed up the real values of the modern game. I miss the old version. Jumpers for goalposts! :-D
Today is dinner with Tara at my parents' house. My last before leaving. Tomorrow is a photo shoot for the single cover and the press pictures for the album release. Tony Marsh is putting it together and it involves standing holding a bunch of burning dried roses. Fire extinguishers will be on hand! :-D
Feeling fit and good to gig. Now down to a 36 waist for the first time since the early '80s I've been inspired and plan to continue a regime that'll keep me that way. I was extremely surprised to get an email from a worried fan who thought that I was too thin! Never in my life would I have expected that! :-D
It's all down to Poland, 5 shows a week on average and 2 hours of exercise a night, a white wine diet and eating less crap. The stress of the year did add to the burn and as I said I am looking forward to exorcising some bad spirits in the hills of Vietnam. There'll be enough trekking, diving and cycling there to keep me on form.
Tuesday is preparation day and organising for the flight on Christmas Eve. Domestic arrangements need to be put in place. My ex wife is now living in East Lothian and Tara is spending the holidays with her Mum. The presence of my ex in Scotland this holiday time is yet another reason to not be here. The women need time to be together and to be honest I wasn't looking forward to bumping into my ex in Tesco or the pub. Not this year.
The last Dutch gig at the Boederij in Zoetermeer was totally Fellini. We had arrived in the venue to be met in the foyer by a huge poster for the upcoming Mostly Autumn show sporting as always a photo of my ex fiancee. I'd played here nearly a year ago to the day soon after I had split with her for the first time and just as I was embarking on the "road to Damascus" that ended up leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of hell. Back then I was pining and the photos on the crew room wall had a completely different effect than they had these days. Chris would be playing with them here in the coming week or so on their mini tour which included their usual two gigs on mainland Europe. We had also played the other venue they would be playing, The Spirit of 66 in Verviers. As at the Spirit and other gigs we played, we got to work stickering the dressing room mirrors, doors, toilets and fridges, something to take a few minutes away from the eternal boredom backstage. The 13th Star stickers were everywhere and looked quite surreal. Hopefully enticing enough for musos and roadies to surf the site, hear the music and ideally spread the vibe. They had proved an effective tool already. These two gigs in particular got special attention. "We wos here!"
At the Spirit the steps on the dressing room stairs were done and after I went out for half an hour I came back to find that Taz, the crew and others had gone to town. The venue was plastered. McK had taken exception to Angela's name being last on the list of band members written in sharpie in a position as high up the wall as they could reach above the other declarations, greetings and bragging graffiti splattered on the walls and which provided some childish entertainment to passing musos and crews. He had found a brush and was placing stickers as high and as far out of reach as he could. All innocent fun! :-D
The stickers ended up secondary to a fantastic gig and the best reception we had had from an audience there. The gig had been moved to the club after ticket sales in the original venue had drawn concern from the promoter. Money was short, Christmas was near, too many bands were on tour and the area was in a depression. The 150 or so advance tickets had concerned us but we nearly doubled the numbers in the walk up on the night. It surprised us all. A gig I had been dreading walked into the top 20 of the tour. It was hot, so damn hot. I must have squeezed over a pint of fluid from my stage shirt. The crowd were totally with us from the start and we definitely left an impression.
I had walked into the venue that afternoon to be greeted by Francois the promoter... "Congratulations on your marriage!" A delicate silence broken by my laughter, a rough explanation, and his embarrassment was quickly dispelled. Taz gave him a copy of the album and begged him to play it on the night they performed. He was laughing. Rule one - don't screw with family! :-D
I left a couple of copies of "13th Star" for Frank Clauwers, the ex Company Belgium organiser and now tour manager for Sarah Bettens, ex singer with one of Belgium's biggest ever acts, "K's Choice" with whom I'd sung "Just Good Friends" on stage in that country a number of years ago. They were playing a warm up next day before a major tour. I would have loved to have caught her show as I have been a great admirer of her music since Frank introduced me to her in the mid '90s.
At the Boederij Taz was in a particularly ebullient mood and went sticker crazy along with other members of the team. Cash machines, cigarette machines, telephones, the usual back stage scenarios and my contribution, a host of stars on the painted cloudy wall leading down from the dressing room. Taz crowned it with a star sticker smack bang over the poster in the foyer. I cringed a bit but the local crew were in stitches. One of the Boederij crew who had recently divorced came up to me and she said "I like her already!" Let's just say there's no love lost between my daughter and my ex.
The Boederij was our last gig before home and we couldn't have gone out with a better result. If the Spirit had been a 9.8/10 the Boederij was a 9.9. We had sold more than the 750 capacity and delivered a stunning set including "Arc of the Curve" which had debuted at Marseille 5 nights before. At sound check in Marseille the first performance of the number had us all smiling at each other. It sounded like a hit single. Now it was coming into its own. The reception to the song took us all aback. My friend Henk filmed the entire set and we will be adding some numbers to YouTube in the run up to the album and single launch on the 12th February.
I had a wee bit of a lump in my throat in Marseille first time around but as with my return to the Boederij feelings had distinctly changed. There was no heartbreak or bitterness, more a sense of relief that I hadn't made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I'm still badly scarred and shaken by all that happened but I've come to terms with the reality. The feelings this time around seeing her face on posters in the venue were very different. I just felt lucky I'd avoided a certain disaster of a marriage with someone who was definitely not the right person for me.
Love is most certainly blind!
Again, to leave an impression as we did on a terrific audience was a calling card that would be read and talked about for a long time.
The local crew loved the show, fantastic and friendly people it is one of my favourite venues in Europe. Banter with the crowd was well happening especially with the recent World Cup draw. "See this shirt (my Scottish top), be afraid, be very afraid!"
The Led Zep concert was on in London that night and after 4 numbers I did the good news/bad news story. "Good news - I just heard I won tickets to the O2, bad news - my helicopter is waiting outside, thank you very much and good night!"
The close overhanging balcony and the wide spread of the stage makes for a front man's dream. It's big but intimate. We all had a great time and the promise of home made it special. Everyone in the band gave it all.
I had been concerned in the morning when I found out that Evil and Foss had been playing UEFA on the Playstation till 8am and that Steve V had gone to sleep in the Rammstein lounge pissed off with the cigarette smoke and the noise. His bunk was in the rear of "Das Boot". With more than half of the Trathens submarine smokers "Dusters" was crowded. As it was upstairs with the non smokers downstairs if the bus wasn't moving the fug drifted into the bunk corridor. It didn't go down well and the smokers were harangued on a regular basis. It's tough and I appreciate the discomfort but it's either that or stop for regular smoke breaks which would screw up the drivers travelling hours. Hawkeye smoked as well and the prospect of taking turns squeezing through to the other seat up front in the drivers space was too complicated.
That morning Steve had a strop on. We needed to get back home.
Pre gig was tense. Chris J was very aware that he would only have 3 days off before my last 3 shows of the year. He had the 1000 yard stare and I wondered how he would cope with going out with his other band who had been twiddling thumbs for months while he was learning the art of the road warrior. Wee Fluffy Bunny had a new attitude now. He had become Were Rabbit! The 6 shows he had signed on to do with MA in December were going to be tough. It was going to be very different from the operation and band he had been working with and he knew it. He has gone from being the "cherry" in the band to becoming an integral part of the unit. All my original concerns were long gone. His playing was appreciated by band and fans alike and, on a personal note, we got on great. The "jumping" on "Last Straw" and the "tigger" bouncing on "Incommunicado", his interaction with Frank and general sense of onstage and backstage humour endeared him to us all. He had gone from being an "outsider" at rehearsals in July to becoming "one of us". It's amazing what nearly 60 shows together on the road on a bus can do to a group of people. We were now family.
There's a fantastic set of photos at www.askew.nl/music.aspx#10122007 where you can see a brilliant shot of Chris and I mid air during "Last Straw".
Frank has been playing some of the finest guitar ever on this tour and at the Boederij he excelled. I am forever astounded at just how good he is and why he is not drawing more accolades astounds me. I rate him up there with the Jeff Beck, as does John Martyn. His passion and soul, the feel and technique are exemplary. The applause he has been drawing on this tour has been more than well deserved and I would love to see him recognised for what he is, one of the best lead rock guitarists currently working in the UK. I sincerely hope that "13th Star" provides him with the recognition he truly deserves.
Gavin had contracted pleurisy after the second leg. I put it down to Poland myself! He had recovered well but like me entered the third leg behind the weather. I had a horrific flu bug to sort out and when we hit stage in Oldenburg I wasn't totally recovered. It would take me over ten shows to get back to full fitness. Thankfully we had the breaks as the gigs were broken in the run to allow days to recover.
Oldenburg Staatstheater (Wednesday 14th November) was totally sold out. A gig blown on the "Scattering Crows" tour when the local promoter went down it had given me a welcome day off after a gruelling Dutch section and a chance to recharge. This time around it was our first sold out show in Germany. A breathtaking 19th century triple tiered theatre with a fully modern section built on in recent years it was a perfect introduction to one of my main territories.
A live interview with Ralf Koch at the local radio station had been set up pre show and I ended up having a great time on air before rushing to the gig for extended vocal warm ups and a show that set the bench mark for the German section of the tour. The album was going down well. Artur Silber was doing a fantastic job with promotion and all reviews were exceedingly positive.
I decided to drop "Vigil" from the set. The flu big was hanging about and I was worried that I might oversing and damage my voice. We were still playing nearly two hours of material. It wasn't missed. I had to be careful. Only "Perception" and the "living on the planet" lines were tough. The new stuff was well in hitting range.
My problem is that I "feel" too much and when on stage "go for it" rather than be sensible and "duck" the high melodies to take care of the voice. It can result in strained chords and putting myself in a position where I am always climbing with broken legs. It may not be obvious "out front" but I know what it should be and I get incredibly frustrated and more insistent in hitting the notes despite physical failings. That has resulted in getting the reputation from some detractors of "not the singer he once was!" I learned and the Manchester incident in September qualifies my decisions and new approach. Retreat, recover, regroup and rethink.
It's tough. I genuinely feel on stage and it is so tough to hold back. The shouting section on "Square go" is extremely dangerous as it is so easy to blow your voice out in a matter of two minutes and screw you behind the 8 ball for the rest of the gig.
I have to find a balance. The drama within the songs on this tour is very demanding particularly numbers like "Square Go" where I have to go from full on primal scream to total control on the outro "My blood is ice..." section. The breathing is difficult. The emotions have to be garnered and focused. The actor has to reign. Calum Malcolm taught me a lot.
Despite the vocal hindrances the show went down a treat. A solid 9.8 thanks to an uplifting audience. Gavin was tremendous. He has had a few petty detractors on the forum but I know my drummers well and I rate him as one of the best I have played with and he is getting better all the time. It is one of the most difficult and demanding positions in the band as there are so many styles and interpretations required. Gavin does the material more than justice and is establishing himself in what I consider one of the classic solo line ups.
Taz was glad to be out again. We'd gone shopping with Yatta in the afternoon and I was ecstatic to discover I was now a 36 waist. Down from 44 in May I found myself trying on trousers and shirts I could only once dream of!
A mini shopping spree had us trailing back to the venue that afternoon with the scent of burning plastic!
Thursday 15th November, day off, Erfurt
More than welcome. A great hotel, wireless and all the trimmings. Showers and a cab to town to meet with the others in "Fellini's", a restaurant we'd found on the last tour in the "fish market". The Italian game was coming at us in two days and the wind ups were going down between us and the waiters. Most of the band and crew were there and much wine was quaffed. Taz dived off early to the hotel while I wandered the old town. Erfurt is one of the most beautiful towns in Germany and to meander around the streets and squares on a day off is a buzz. The river that threads through the medieval sections is mesmerising. I love this place and have fantasised about living in one of the ancient houses that perch on the banks and straddle the currents. It is a truly magical environment and I wandered for hours discovering amazing shops and inspiring buildings, losing myself willingly in the alleys and byways.
I picked up salt and pepper grinders and a severe carving knife, to replace the one missing from the "album launch" party, in a WMF sale. The kitchen utensil phase never ends! Bratwurst and gluhwein from a stall by the old mill. A pair of warm heavy duty boots to replace the now redundant desert variety and an endless stroll taking in a film set shooting in a square, ancient, recently discovered Jewish tombs, renovated mill houses. Pure eye candy! Bliss!
I caught up with some of the guys later and hit the curve of the night. Steve V took a photo of me in a Hollywood themed bar sitting on a movie set styled chair with "Will Smith" printed on the canvas. Guess who that was sent to? We ended up in an Irish bar before hitting the hotel and a relatively early night. I slept deeply and soundly.
Friday 16th November, Gewerkschafthaus, Erfurt
The last time we had played this town my mike stand had gone missing on load out. I was glad to discover it wasn't the same gig. It was cold. A walk round town again before sound check and the intolerable wait on show time. Yatta wasn't well, he was having one of his bad days. He barely made dinner in the nearby museum cafe. I was concerned. He maintains a brave face but I can see he is in a lot of pain. It hurts us all to see him like that.
The show was another success. The audience tough but we broke them down. Poland had spoiled us a bit. As a front man I had to take a different approach and work a bit harder to get the crowds on our side. My German was improving by the day and the fans were appreciative of the efforts. We rolled out at a 9.7/10. It was interesting to note the demographics of the audience. An older age group in the main they generally tended to sit back and listen rather than groove. As I said before, give me the radio plays and the exposure and the audience will revitalise and grow. The people that witnessed and experienced the gig loved it.
Saturday 17th November, Colo Salle, Aschaffenburg
Italy at Hampden, the decider. The Jocks were totally stressed out. I was confident we could do it. The day dragged. The venue in the old part of town meant that we had to drop the gear and move the bus away and out of the narrow streets. Another extremely friendly venue, they had arranged a TV backstage so we could see the game. Everything was in place.
I passed the day wandering the streets picking up a happening parka in a skate boarder's shop nearby the venue run by a guy whose Mum was English and father German. He had a weird accent that fluctuated between Yorkshire and German. A cool dude he came along later to the gig totally unaware of what we did and walked away a serious fan!
The gig was close to sell out. it was going to be hot. Artur Silber's band, Central Park, was supporting us again. We were only concerned with the game and retired to the dressing room. It was awful. In two minutes Italy scored and I dreaded the worst while praying for the fantasy that we could qualify for the finals of the European Championship from a "group of death" that contained both the World cup finalists and one of the semi finalists. We had got to the point where a win would see us qualify and a draw would see us through if France were beaten in their last game. And it was typical Scotland. Two minutes in and we created a mountain to climb. The queues were forming outside and they heard us roar as what we thought was a certain goal was cleared off the line just as the first half came to a close. I really had to watch my alcohol consumption. Adrenalin was running so high that I wasn't feeling the effects of the wine.
We had a stonewall penalty denied and Italy had a righteous goal chalked off. When Ferguson scored we erupted. It was offside but we didn't care. The dream was on! A sweeping move saw a cross ball to an unmarked McCann, the goal scoring hero, the man you wanted to see on that sort of cross. The clock moved sideways. He missed. It was the moment. It was lost. Minutes later an extremely wrong decision from the Spanish referee who had been inept from his first whistle and who misread a linesman's flag resulted in a free kick and an Italian winner in added on time. It was a bullet in the head. At one-one we still had that typically dramatic chance of Ukraine beating France but now it was over. I was devastated. Yes the decision to award the free kick was wrong but Fletcher, in central defence, tired and out of position didn't jump, left it for the guy behind him who happened to be Italian. I don't blame him for the goal. We were on our last legs. The referee's decision was atrocious and we vented our spleen on him rather than the fact that our downfall had been of our own making. If we had won in Georgia this game would have had less consequence. We lost there because we didn't have experienced players to replace carded and injured first team members. Reason there are not those players? They have agents who get young, bright talent to sign for major clubs and sit on a bench, maybe playing in the reserves occasionally and who don't get the necessary experience to improve their game and shine as they should. Kenny Miller (ex Hibby) should have been on the International scene a long time ago but got lost on a bench in Glasgow for a couple of years. Derek Riordan (ex Hibby) languishing at Celtic should have been in the squad if he had the match experience. Chris Boyd, unable to get a place in the Rangers squad in the Champions League, should be on the edge of national greatness if he got the games. And so many more!
Our domestic game is dominated by foreign "talent" and our national game will always suffer while big clubs stifle the careers of emergent stars by offering attractive wage deals to emasculate the opposition while the others use international journeymen in favour of developing local youth. Anyway enough of that! I had a gig to do that night and the Scottish contingent were on a downer. We should have won.
It was our romantic right to qualify but we were denied - again!
The English kept very quiet and were sympathetic. They had Croatia in a week's time. We were out. They had a lifeline. I didn't care that night. The touring in Switzerland and Austria was now out the window. My Summer holidays were spoiled. And we were going to be in Italy in just over a week. Whoopee! :-|
We hit the stage with a vengeance and delivered a 9.9/10 to an audience that were totally with us. Of course the footy took centre stage. I turned the Coco Salle into a wee Hampden and converted them into the Tartan Army Aschaffenburg. They sang along to Scottish terracing anthems and we had a brilliant time together. A great end to a day that had begun with so much hope and promise and that had driven us to despair! I was proud though. We had been written off at the draw and had made everyone sit up and notice. It can only get better.
Despite all the football downers the gigs were great, the band was tight, I was on form, Taz was a revelation, the album getting rave reviews, and the cunning plan unfolding bit by bit!
I put my dripping Scotland strip into my bag and headed to the bus. At least I got a result that night!
(to be continued)