Motorway phobia

I can’t wait for self-driven cars to become a reality. Sadly, I fear I won’t live long enough to see the day when they will be safe enough to be unleashed on the roads, but even if I do, we can assume they will be priced to be accessible only to the super rich.

I have a reason for this dream. One day, I’d like to drive on a motorway again. The last time I did that was in 1976.

If you don’t drive at all, no one thinks you are weird. But if you do drive but can’t drive on motorways, you are considered to be very odd indeed. That’s me.

It crops up in conversation a lot, because everyone knows I have this affliction. “I know”, people say, “I hate motorways too”. But that isn’t the point. I don’t just hate them, I live in such terror of them that I’m finding it painful just writing these sentences. My phobia is total. If a terrible emergency were to crop up tomorrow which made it vital for me to get onto the M3, for example to reach an airport because a relative was dying, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Describe how you feel”, people say. Well, I can tell you how it started. I used to drive on the Autobahn in Germany. I remember those huge trucks with trailers that would swing around in the inside lane. My wheezy old Beetle would struggle to overtake them. Sometimes it would take a minute or two of inching alongside them before the blessed relief of pulling in, and during that time, there would be angry BMW drivers in the mirror flashing their lights at me. But there was nowhere to go. Cars to the left of you, lorries to the right, stuck in the middle lane. It was claustrophobia in its most extreme form, but back then, I was able to cope with it. Most people wouldn’t even think of it as an issue.

Those suffering from conventional claustrophobia are compelled to get out of their situations and normally, with a little embarrassment, they can. An elevator will normally stop eventually, a theatre will have an exit, even a cable car will reach the top of the mountain, but if you are driving on a motorway, there’s no escape.

“What does it feel like?” people ask. In a kind way, they try to empathize. But they can’t imagine what this phobia is like. I was first struck by it in 1976, on the way home from seeing the Rolling Stones at Knebworth. Surrounded by headlights at speed, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by confusion. Were the lights in front of me, behind me or in the mirror? How far away were they? I literally froze, having no control over my body or mind. I lost all understanding of how to drive the car. I had to stop, get away, but it was impossible. My head span, I felt sick, I couldn’t see properly and my limbs were out of control.

It was a miracle I didn’t crash and die there and then, but the next day, assuming it must have been some weird one-off, I tried again. And it happened again, this time in daylight. And then again. There is a strong element of OCD in this. I don’t believe that I won’t plough into the nearest lorry, or that its driver won’t have a heart attack and veer across the motorway. It could happen, and that is enough to convince my troubled mind that it will.

Already my mind had taken over control of my intentions, learning the wrong responses, but I was determined not to be beaten by such nonsense. When I realised that something had to be done, I took medical advice, but before that, my dear wife offered to take me out on practice drives on dual carriageways. It was hopeless and we would always end up stranded at the first layby and she would have to drive me home as I shivered and sobbed.

Had my GP heard of this strange driving affliction? No, but he was sure it was merely stress and anxiety. He prescribed two sorts of pill, one of which I stopped almost immediately after I discovered it was an enormously strong and highly addictive anti-depressant. The others were standard tranquillisers, to be taken before attempting to drive. Bafflingly, the label said that one should avoid driving after taking the pills. That was helpful. And significantly, the doctor asked me if I felt I could drive better after having consumed alcohol? I did. But it obviously wasn’t a solution that it made sense to pursue.

I consulted a series of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The first person I went to just made things worse. Despite his opulent house, his leather chaise-longue and the long series of letters after his name, he showed no sign of being able to relate to the condition. He also lived in a place only accessible via a busy road, so that didn’t exactly help. Another one tried really hard to help me by coming out in the car with me, the idea being to overcome the phobia by confronting it. In theory, it was a sound approach, but after a couple of sessions, he was so shit-scared that he told me he did’n’t dare continue. I didn’’t blame him.

Yet another psychotherapist thought that group therapy might help. Unfortunately, the other participants had quite different phobias, of bats, mice and snakes. They didn’’t empathise with my problem and I didn’’t empathise with theirs. Homeopathy wasn’’t any better. The white-coated expert was obviously a charlatan and sold me some pills which I knew were made of sugar.

The most helpful person was a local acupuncturist, although it was a bit awkward. Her daughter kept walking in to find me spreadeagled on the couch, looking like a pincushion. The acupuncturist also treated several of my friends and would regale me with information about their personal problems. I could only assume that she was also telling them all about mine. What she did do, however, was teach me good relaxation techniques, which I have found useful in a variety of situations ever since.

Finally, annoyed at my GP’s insistence that there was nothing for it but to “keep taking the tablets”, I changed to another doctor. He immediately said I should stop taking the tablets and also stop driving. “Stop driving?” “Why not? Millions of people don’’t drive. What’s the big deal?” He was right. I was reassured to look up several of my heroes (such as Liam Gallagher and Ricky Gervais) and find that they had never driven and didn’’t care. Although I guess they can afford chauffeurs.

I had long since accepted that I was a non motorway driver for ever when I was approached by the BBC, wanting to film a documentary item about my affliction. They already had an agenda in place. They would film me being treated by a hypnotist, an extraordinary lady I christened Mystic Meg. She would carry out a miracle cure, they would film me bowling along the M3 and they would have their programme. Of course it was a failure (although I really tried, as keen as anyone for a miracle cure) and they doctored some footage of me on a short piece of dual carriageway to make it seem like a success.

I now know that the only way to have conquered it was to have been forced, again and again, to confront it, but the unique nature of this problem made that impossible. I would never have been able to do it on my own, and no one else would ever have had the courage to accompany me. In my mind, I would certainly lose control and kill myself, my companion and numerous other drivers. That was too much of a risk to take.

So why am dragging all this up now? Well, partly because I want to know if I am the only person in the world who has this problem. When the programme went out, no one contacted the BBC saying they recognised the symptoms. I have met plenty of people who don’t like driving on motorways but none who simply can’t. Plus, last week, by an awful set of circumstances, I suddenly briefly found myself on a stretch of dual carriageway in Southampton. Was this the confrontation I needed? Was I cured? Nope, it was just as bad as the first time. I completely freaked and it is only the fact that there was practically no traffic that allows me to still be here and able to write this. No happy ending there, then.

I can drive short distances on small roads and luckily, my wife is an excellent driver who enjoys nothing better than blasting along motorways. The tranquillisers went down the toilet long ago and in my retirement, I plan to research and write a volume entitled How To Drive From Land’s End To John O’’Groats Without Encountering A Dual Carriageway. It’s bound to be a best-seller.

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A Tribute To Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan

The tributes to Ian McLagan that are flooding into the press and the internet mainly take two forms. There are the factual obituaries that set out his musical achievements, the stars he worked with and the hits he played on. And there are the others, which try, in a personal way, to explain why he was so loved. If you’’ll forgive me, this one fits firmly into the second category.

My most memorable Mac moment took place in late 1967. Of all things, an attempt on the Guinness World see-sawing record was talking place at the University of East Anglia. As the world record was approached, the DJ put on a song I’’d never heard before, a new single from the Small Faces. Those opening Wurlitzer chords hit me so hard that I can remember every detail of the moment to this day. Mac’’s riff, then Steve Marriott’’s coruscating vocals, PP Arnold’’s soulful backing singing and finally, the striking afterthought of Kenney Jones’’ drum roll at the end, which emphasizes the attitude that, while the song may be a recording, this was a LIVE band. Whenever that old chestnut crops up and I’’m asked to name my favourite single, it is “Tin Soldier”. Always was, always will be. Ian Mclagan’’s playing on that record established him as an intuitive genius.

Apart from modelling my hairstyle on his (even today), my relationship with Mac merely took the form of loving his contributions to the Small Faces, the Faces and The Stones. The Hammond + Leslie swish, as exemplified by Jimmy Smith, is my favourite sound, so I enjoyed, in tandem with my admiration for Mac, a love for the sounds of Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group. But that was a musical thing; they would never have the style of the Small Faces. When I saw Mac playing with the Stones, it never crossed my mind that I’’d ever have anything to do with him personally. He seemed, then, to be operating in a rarified rock stratosphere to which mere mortals could never be admitted. How wrong can you be?

It was at the Womad Festival in 1999 that Mac reappeared on my personal radar. As a gig promoter, you never rest, and on that particular occasion we had a show coming up with Robyn Hitchcock. Ticket weren’’t going too well, so we went to the festival especially to hand out flyers. I’’m embarrassed now, because most of them went straight on the floor, causing awful litter. But Billy Bragg and his new band The Blokes were also playing, and as I watched, I could hear an unexpected but unmistakeable sound: It was that Hammond/Leslie swell, and … surely that little white dot behind the dark brown cabinet couldn’’t be … … ? When Billy introduced the band and revealed that it was Ian McLagan, the drunk bloke next to me almost had a heart attack. “What? That’’s Ian McLagan? Ian Fucking McLagan? Oh my God?” He lost it so much that security had to ask him to calm down. Hardly any of the assembled world music fans were interested at all, but I was transfixed by the fact that this huge star was so comfortable to be just another member of someone’’s backing band, and was obviously having such fun doing it.

I’’d read in a biography of Keith Moon the story of how Mac had rescued Kim Moon from her husband’’s excesses by effectively doing a midnight flit with her and ending up in LA, but more than that I didn’’t know, so, if I’’d given it any thought, I’’d have assumed that Mac was living the Hollywood high life. But around this time, a mate of mine who ran a pub in Burton Bradstock, Dorset, told me that Mac was often to be found propping up his bar, sipping Guinness and nattering with the locals. The reason? Billy Bragg lived round the corner and Mac would often visit. It seemed highly unlikely but, confession time, I twice travelled to the Three Horseshoes in the specific hope that I would meet, or maybe just catch a glimpse of, the hero of my youth. It didn’’t happen, of course, but the locals all assured me that Adrian the landlord had been telling the truth.

Round about then, also, I started going to Austin, Texas on a regular basis. You can’’t help but make friends there, and all of them said the same. Mac and Kim had moved there and Mac had rapidly become a local mascot, unpretentiously playing all the local bars on a regular basis with his Bump Band. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. By now, I’’d started to put Americana shows on in Winchester and one of our earliest bands was The Resentments, featuring Austin guitarist “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, who I knew was also in the Bump Band. Would it ever be possible to get them to play for us, I asked? Scrappy looked around the classic UK boozer he’’d just played in and replied, “I think he’’d love it here”.

I didn’’t give it a further thought, as the whole idea was ridiculous, but lo and behold, in mid-2008 I received an email from one of my most trusted agents: Would you like to book the Bump Band? Well, they were a lot more expensive than any band I’’d booked before and I’’d been spooked by a Mac solo show I’’d attended at the Brook in Southampton some years before, where there were very few people. What if I was wrong, and no one else shared my excitement? But it was impossible to refuse, and so the Bump Band was booked for the tiny Railway.

I got off to a terrible start with Mac. I knew that the Bump Band had a residency at the Saxon Pub in Austin and I had an idea to make him feel welcome and at home. I ordered a banner saying Saxon Pub and went in early to hang it up as a stage backdrop. When he arrived, his first words were, “I ain’’t going on till that banner comes down. I fuckin’’ hate that place”.” Mortified, and cringing with embarrassment, I took down the banner. Shit, I thought. I must have been wrong about Mac. He’’s obviously a diva. But I set about helping him, the band and the crew to address a more pressing problem: the Hammond B3 wouldn’’t fit though the stage door. In the end, the door had to come off its hinges and the instrument slid in with a millimetre to spare, the entire operation being supervised, hands-on, with great good humour, by Mac himself. It was okay, this was no diva.

I’’d always thought of the Railway as being like a Texas roadhouse, so as the Bump Band rocked out to a sold-out crowd, I was in seventh heaven, still in disbelief that this was actually happening. A fan letter and autograph request arrived from the deputy director general of the BBC, for goodness sake! And after the show, far from slipping off to their hotel, the band made a bee-line for the front bar, where Mac hitched up a stool and spent a good hour quaffing Guinness and chewing the fat with the landlord, Fred Eynon, sadly also no longer with us. It was a pattern to be repeated every time he came. “”I love this place”, “ he would beam. ““It’’s a proper boozer, not a bleedin’’ arts centre””. Meantime, most of the audience would stay behind, either to join in the conversation or watch in awe. There was no sense of a star “holding court”. Mac was simply a born communicator, someone who loved life and other humans. Needless to say, he was also incredibly funny, natural, humble and exploding with tales of an extraordinary life.

I’’m no amateur psychologist, but I have always assumed that Mac’’s dedication to gigging in the last few years must have been his way of dealing with the grief caused by the sudden and awful death of Kim in a car accident in Austin. Throwing yourself into work is a way of holding dark thoughts at bay, and no one from that generation of rock stars has toured so hard into their late sixties. That’’s why we were privileged to have Mac playing twice more for us, the last time being just a few months ago, in July. In each case, it was touring in a really hard way, driving around the UK as a duo with the wonderful Mr Jon Notarthomas, who not many people may realise was Mac’’s “rock”, quietly acting as his tour manager, minder, protector and bassist. The pair of them caused hearts to flutter as they shared breakfast in Twyford’’s village café in August 2011, trying to procrastinate before their trip to the next gig in Bristol. It was the summer of the riots and they were spooked with anxiety. Burning cities were the antithesis of the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of Austin, Texas.

Everyone knows how badly the Small Faces were ripped off as a band, and that the Faces will have spent much of their income on having fun, but it’’s still shocking that a man who has contributed to the music of Springsteen, Dylan and the Stones (the riff on “Miss You” for goodness’ sake) was clearly strapped for cash. These tours were done on a shoestring, with Jon and Mac driving themselves and staying in Travelodges. On July 7, the morning after the last Railway show, they came over to our place for breakfast and, as I cooked their fry-up, Mac’’s preoccupation was that they hadn’’t sold as much merch as they’’d hoped (merch, as any band will tell you, subsidises such tours). Had the table been set up in the wrong place? How could they do better next time? But one thing, above all, was troubling Mac more, and it just sums up the man.

As support, I had booked an artist from Sunderland called Antonio Lulic. I had done this because Antonio has a very moving song about Austin, and I thought it would be appropriate. Now Mac was worried because Antonio had had to slip off to catch a train and Mac hadn’’t managed to include a shout-out for him because, quite understandably, he’’d forgotten his name. But now Mac was wracked with guilt, fearing that Antonio would think he hadn’’t been appreciated. It is so typical that Mac’’s only concern was to encourage and acknowledge a young musician.

At that same show, a friend of mine was trying to pluck up courage to ask Mac for an autograph and a chat. In her youth in the sixties, she’’d been a massive Small Faces fan. “Come on, I’’ll introduce you”, I offered, but she was too shy. “I’’ll do it next time he comes,” she said. Now there won’’t be a next time. I close my eyes and try to remember his mannerisms, his tone of voice, the lightness and frailty you felt when doing a Texan bear hug with him. I don’’t envy obituary writers; no matter how you try, you can’t put a feeling into words.

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Summer of Festivals

At the tender age of 66, this summer has seen me going to more music festivals than ever before. It just worked out like that. The first trip was to deepest Suffolk, where the Maverick Festival was taking place on a rather sweet petting farm. I wasn’’t actually there for the festival but rather for the annual conference of the UK Americana Music Association, which was tagged on to the festival. It was a beautiful sunny day and the expedition involved a delightful train journey via Ipswich and getting off at a station that doubled as a boatyard – – just sweet. A meticulously polite taxi driver took me to Easton Park Farm, where I found the conference rather intimidating. I expected a load of scruffy oiks like me boozing and nattering about music (which was actually true) but the formality of the occasion, complete with a programme of keynote speeches, seminars and workshops was giving me panic attacks as it reminded me so much of the horrors of Inset days. Anyway, I had a couple of beers and before I knew it was joining in and heckling with alacrity, although I was rather offended not to be approached by more people in the “speed dating” section. I stood in a corner feeling embarrassed and the only people who spoke to me were aspiring artists keen to press their latest CD on anyone who would take one. Truth to tell, it was a fun day and I was able to stay long enough to catch the first few acts of the festival, which looked to be gearing up to be an excellent event. I’’d always shied away from Maverick on the basis that it was too “straight country” for me, but it seems to be in a state of transition and I may well give it a go next year.

But time waits for no one (truth to tell, I was too stingey to book a B and B, so had to go home), and anyway, the very next day was Blissfields. It was like stepping into a different world. At Maverick, I felt completely at home, whereas at Blissfields, I was a good three times the age of almost everyone else. Set deep in the Hampshire countryside, this is a very successful enterprise which has been going for a number of years now, building up a strong following. It’’s true to say that I am deeply jealous of them, because my little festival in September has stubbornly refused to attract more than a hundred punters, while theirs has risen steadily to several thousand, despite having, – in my opinion, of course, – a weaker line-up. The answer is to position yourself as an ideal place for students to celebrate the beginning of their summer holidays, and to provide loads of non-musical things to do, such as sit in a jacuzzi. I was surprised to see some tribute bands playing here, and also disappointed to find that Chloë Howl, who I expected to be edgy, was bland and backed by session musos. There were more drunk people in evidence here than at any of the other festivals I went to this year. But it was worth it for the gorgeous drive through the charming picture postcard villages of Hampshire.

The following weekend was the best of the summer. It wasn’’t really a festival; but I had an incredible feast of music in Hyde Park, where I went not so much particularly for Neil Young but more for the underbill of Phosphorescent, Caitlin Rose and Midlake, all favourites of mine, and all playing on the second stage, which was a sort of Spiegeltent affair. We set up camp there and stayed for the afternoon, this niftily avoiding the likes of Tom Odell and Lucy Rose. And missing the rain. We emerged blinking into the sunlight in time for a classic Neil Young set which was so good I was able to overlook the extraordinary segregated auditorium and the £25 T-shirts. The plebs’’ section was far from sold out, so we enjoyed the show in conditions of spacious comfort.

Next up was Truck. I was at the famous one a couple of years back where it went all Americana and also went bust. I know a few musicians who didn’’t get paid that time but somehow Truck has resurrected itself and I thought I’’d give it another try. A convoluted bus journey took me there to find that its fortunes have really been revived; it had a sold-out feel to it. The bill was full of people I really like such as Steven Adams, Chris T-T and Co-Pilgrim. There was a fantastic atmosphere throughout the site, particularly at a den of iniquity called The Saloon. Luckily, I was able to get the last bus back to Oxford and thus avoid any late-night carousing that would undoubtedly have taken place. And the next day, I got picked up and taken home by my daughter, very rock and roll.

In stark contrast to Blissfields, at Wickham Festival I felt almost like one of the younger audience members. The number of punters struggling through the mud on zimmer frames was shocking. – I kid you not, – but fair play to them for getting out and about. I’’ve always said I’’d do the same. Birgit and I went one night and came home after one band because the line-up was so shocking, but the next day we had the privilege of seeing Steve Earle at his best, and were also unexpectedly impressed by Hazel O’’Connor. Wickham has a very confused musical identity (it’’s basically a folk festival but one headliner was James Blunt). On the other hand, it is well organised and extremely popular.

End Of The Road was a total blast. I took the shuttle bus there (like everything else at EOTR, it is super efficient and excellent value). My friend Phil The Thatcher was doing a craft demonstration near the Tipi Tent, which allowed me to use it as a HQ and also to camp in the relatively luxurious crew field. It was also dangerously near the cider bus but I managed to resist its attractions on the grounds that you feel like shit the next day. The music was out of this world, so many highlights such as Deer Tick, the Felice Brothers, Sean Lennon, Jenny Lewis and,– oh god, the Flaming Lips being simply exquisite. It was a musical paradise.

Unlike last year, my own sc4m Festival was relatively uneventful. I say relatively. One band was ill and had to be replaced, oh, and we didn’’t actually know whether the venue was still going to be open or, if it was, whether there would be any beer. But supplies were brought in and lasted for most of the day. The whole thing went like clockwork and was appreciated, I think, by all present. But, even though I was convinced I had put together a great bill, we only sold the hundredth ticket at midnight on the eve of the festival. That was a tense experience, since I had budgeted on selling a hundred tickets to break even. The reason for the lack of popularity? I guess we’’re just not cool, because virtually none of the media that I spent many hours informing about it chose to give us a mention, and a good number of people who I expected to support the event, based on the type of music they like, simply didn’’t. Was it a thankless task? Not at all, because I was surrounded and helped by my beautiful family, the artists were all uniformly wonderful (it would be wrong to single out individual acts). They played their hearts out and the warm-hearted music lovers present loved every minute. Will I do another one? Not sure actually.

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sxsw 2014

No one else will let me drone on for pages about the ups and downs of sxsw, but this is my blog and no one can stop me. …

It started well, because the new direct flight to Austin means you can arrive not exhausted and head straight out on the Tuesday (each year it seems to start earlier). We caught Kelley Stoltz at Bar 96 (it had been less than a week since we saw him in the UK). By the time we’’d sorted out the badges, it was time for bed, in an attempt to be fresh in the morning. This was foiled by the hotel turning out to be next to a liquor store.

By the way, references to “”we”” in this mean me and my friend Paul, who lives in Oklahoma and comes over to Austin once a year to meet up and enjoy music.

Daylight revealed that on the other side of the hotel was a Mexican breakfast joint, so you can take it for granted that every morning consisted of a long lie-in followed by a blow-out of omelettes and such. I won’’t mention food again.

A bus into town (you can ride the buses all day for two dollars, now there’’s a public transport system) took us to one of Austin’’s more quaint venues, Mellow Johnny’’s Bike Shop, where I promptly bought a branded hat (it actually is Lance Armstrong’s bike shop). Hurray For The Riff Raff were playing here. I was interested to see the effect of their signing to the Alabama Shakes’ label ATO.  Well, there are no musical changes but an almost complete line-up change, with only Alynda Lee Segarra and Yosi Pearlstein remaining. Then it was on to the lovely suntrap that is the Ginger Man Pub for The Autumn Defense, sounding less like Wilco and more like Crowded House, which was just fine. It then took a while to find Capital Cruises, the take-off point for a riverboat ride starring, again, the Kelley Stoltz Band. It’s been said before, these guys really know how to have fun. They duly warmed the cockles (it was bloody freezing) and we managed to drink the boat dry. By the end, all they had left was vodka and water. Staggering into nearby Threadgills, we briefly encountered Austin stalwart James McMurtry and friends.

Paul then inexplicably wanted to see Spandau Ballet (apparently they were great) so I nipped into the ever-intimate Cedar Street Courtyard for the Felice Brothers. They can occasionally be a bit flaky, but not today. They tore the place up. It’’s easy to nip round the side and bag the front row, too. But now the infuriating side of sxsw kicked in. I wanted to see young UK singer Chloë Howl at Latitude. This rather unpleasant venue becomes the headquarters of “British Music” for the week, i.e. it is packed with UK music biz types (anyone ever read “Kill Your Friends”?). The bands think the Texans love them, but actually no Texans are there. Anyway, I’’d heard a rumour that Chloë had failed to get a work permit but thought I’’d risk it anyway. What a disaster. She was replaced by one of the most ghastly pretentious loads of tosh it has ever been my misfortune to experience. High As A Kite, they were called. Droning and warbling and groaning under the weight of their mountains of expensive equipment, their stodgy music made me almost lose the will to live. I was in a bad mood, I can tell you, and it soon got worse as I fought my way through the crowds of Sixth Street and headed for Stubbs, where St Vincent was similarly pompous and embarrassingly over the top. She used to be quite good, now she’s a poor person’’s Lady Gaga. Oh well, better hang on for Damon Albarn. No chance. After forty minutes of watching roadies set up and check gear, I had to head off to the Flamingo Cantina where Angelo Moore was due to play (members of Chuck Prophet’’s band were in there, so it could have been interesting). But they, too, were running very late. There were loads of people (too many) in the band, plus a bloody theramin (hate those things). As the clock ticked towards an hour after they were due to start, I gave up. That made over ninety minutes of listening to sound checks. It was a shit end to the first day.

You’’d think I’’d learn, but I never seem to. For months, I have been desperate to see London Grammar, since a friend of mine told me about them last Autumn. I was slightly put off them on learning that they are managed by Jazz Summers, whose terrible (obviously dictated) autobiography I had just finished, but still, … Filter magazine organizes superb showcases at the Cedar Street Courtyard, a perfect place to see them, as they were one of this year’’s buzz bands and playing much bigger venues. I’’d gone through an advance rigmarole of RSVPing for this showcase and guess what? When I arrived, all the posters had been changed and London Grammar were nowhere to be seen. Sub-strokes Skaters, from New York, and nondescript waif-like songstress Nina Nesbitt were not adequate substitutes. If the Strypes don’’t turn up, I’’m catching the next plane home, I thought. Oh me of little faith. Those nippers blew the place apart, their music like a mash-up of the Who and Dr Feelgood. My heart melted and I was transported back to my teens. Music ain’’t dead after all. They later proceeded to triumph at a series of bigger showcases and entrance the likes of David Fricke. Don’’t mess up, guys.

Because I cover the festival for the Hampshire Chronicle, I need to find Hampshire bands. No problem there, as Southampton’’s Band Of Skulls were kicking off a high-profile US tour and had promotional posters on every Austin lamppost. So off I trekked (a really major one this, probably a couple of miles) to Bar 96, where I’’d again got onto the guest list for yet another Filter showcase. And bloody hell, yet again the posters had been changed and they weren’’t there. It is so infuriating when you make such detailed plans, merely to be thwarted for what I can only assume must be business reasons. Still, I did get to see Deap Vally, two Courtney Love-style scantily-clad rock chicks with spelling issues.

Thank goodness Public Service Broadcasting actually did appear in their scheduled slot at Latitude. They are a lorra fun –- my only worry is that there’’s potential for them to be a one trick pony. If you see them a few times, the amusement wears off.

I really fancied the idea of seeing Gary Numan, so it was important to get to Brazos Hall (a new venue) early. Once again, this was a mistake, as the opening act (I don’’t know their name and I don’’t want to) was sub-operatic nonsense played at such ludicrous volume that people were literally running for the exits clutching their ears. I nearly had a fight with the sound engineer when I pointed out what was happening. He said I was too old to understand.

Luckily, Gary Numan was on top form, debuting strong new material (of course in the old style) and generally being a super-cool rock star. And after that, Blondie blasted out their greatest hits and some nice new songs too. Clem Burke is an absolutely incredible drummer. On the way home, we caught John Doe of X at the Continental, pretty much a Blondie contemporary, I guess. So that was what you might call a day of mixed fortunes.

One thing that’’s always nice to do is head to the day stage at Waterloo Records. It’s a fabulous shop and great bands play there. I found myself absolutely loving Turin Brakes, of whom I knew nothing. They managed to produce the guitar solo of the week, and there’’s some pretty hot competition for that, I can tell you. Afterwards, Cate Le Bon charmed too, in quite a different way. But it was soon time to hit the annual Bloodshot Records party at the Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress. Ha Ha Tonka were just giving way to Lydia Loveless, who was excellent, like a punked-up Kathleen Edwards. It was a ridiculously crowded, wild and beer-soaked event, culminating in a soul/rock tour de force by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, featuring a massive mosh pit and some failed crowd surfing (the bloke just fell flat on his back onto the concrete floor – ouch). Remember there was hardly a person there under fifty.

I planned to spend the entire evening at the Lou Reed tribute concert at the Paramount Theatre, but something wasn’’t quite right about it. It was extremely well-meant but somehow it didn’’t seem to be working. A really poor version of Perfect Day made the decision for us. Yes, one more attempt at seeing London Grammar, this time at Stubbs. And it worked. They are rather sweet, very English and natural, in a slightly Portisheady kind of way. Their longevity will depend on how much more material they can come up with.

Saturday was going to be real Austin, a country rock day and nothing was going to stop me. No more chasing buzz acts. No entering of lotteries to see Coldplay, Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. It was off to the outskirts for the real thing. And what a treat at the Broken Spoke. Singer-songwriter John Fullbright, performing to an attentive and packed front room, was my pick for the best solo performer of the week, with his beautiful songs and friendly wit. It’’s so nice when someone can spring a surprise like that.

The back room at the Broken Spoke belongs to its regular clintèle of western swing dancers, and they aren’’t about to let sxsw or Twangfest get in their way, determinedly dancing along to whatever gets thrown at them. Thus we witnessed local superstar Hayes Carll performing a gorgeously touching acoustic homage to his young son, called “The Magic Boy” –- and yes, they danced along to it. Probably more to the dancers’’ taste was new Loose signing Sturgill Simpson, a bit straight country for my personal taste, but with a hot band and really good.

I’’m never going to miss Alejandro Escovedo’’s annual Saturday party at Maria’’s Taco Express, where the beer is cool, the salsa is hot and the margaritas are lethal. But even by his own standards, he excelled himself with this bill. The Mastersons (effectively Steve Earle’’s backing band) have really tightened into a storming outfit with fine songs, while Garland Jefferies indulged his pleasure of marching into the crowd and barking into people’’s faces. It’’s more fun than it sounds. I absolutely adored the amazingly resilient BP Fallon, intoning poems rather than singing and backed by an amazing Austin electric duo called The Ghost Wolves. Things like this you do not experience every day, and it feels such a privilege.

Okay, I love Jesse Malin. He seems to have been a bit quiet lately but I think that’’s about to change. Certainly, his electrifying set at Maria’’s, complete with a hot band and a bunch of very affecting new songs, indicated that a major comeback is on the cards. You could almost touch the excitement (so much so that I actually went back for more of him and BP Fallon the next evening at the Continental, after sxsw was theoretically over).

And so to the journey home. A lovely, smooth and punctual flight. A seamless transfer to the National Express coach. Onto the 69 bus to Twyford and …it broke down. Back to reality with a bump. Bed time.

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What now?

Thinking of writing a novel? Read this first.

What now?

You know that old cliché about everyone believing they have a novel in them? Well, I’’m a writer of educational resources but I’’d always wanted to have a go at a novel.  Faced with a very daunting birthday, I suddenly realised I’’d better get on with it before it was too late. But how do you write a novel? I had no ideas for plot, genre or style.

Luckily, I have a friend who is a successful author. “Write about something you know about”, he advised. This was problematic. Would a novel set in the world of French teaching be likely to take off? But I do have a hobby, which is live music promotion. Maybe I could set it in the environment of small-time gigs. But how do you start? Should you have a plot in mind or just start writing? “Just start and see what happens”, advised my friend.

The first idea was to do a completely fictional rock biography (a bit like a serious Spinal Tap), but after a while, I realised that readers buy biographies of people they are interested in. Why would they buy a biography of someone who’’d never existed? It would, therefore, have to be incorporated in some kind of page-turning plot.

So off I went to Eastleigh library (to rid myself of any home distractions) and, as advised, just started writing. Each day I would scribble twenty or so pages of longhand and then, in the evenings, read it aloud into one of those clever computer programmes that convert voice into print. It was a lazy approach, but necessary in order to fit the project into the small available window.

What emerged was a strange book, commercially unattractive because it was neither a thriller, a love story or a travelogue, but a bit of each. Actually, I was quite pleased with it. My author friend, who has no reason to patronise me, said he liked it and would recommend it to his (big) publisher. I showed a dummy to a few friends, and they seemed to like it too. I had initially only contemplated self-publishing, or not publishing at all (merely having done it being sufficient), but now I was wondering about sending it to publishers.

Well, my friend’’s publisher never replied to any of my communications, and another expert I approached told me it was essential to go through an agent. Someone who works for an educational publisher I write for was very enthusiastic, saying she’’d pass it on to some bigwigs in the fiction department, but nothing happened there, or indeed, with any of the agents I approached. Maybe it was because of their tradition of only accepting the “first three chapters”. My murder inconveniently takes place at the beginning of chapter 4. Self-publishing  it would have to be, then.

It couldn’’t have been simpler, really. The son of a friend designed a lovely cover and another friend converted it into a print-friendly format, and within a couple of weeks, a few hundred books arrived at my house. I had a distributor who put it on Amazon and made it theoretically available in bookshops. Yet another friend published it in a Kindle version, and several five-star reviews promptly appeared. As to whether they were all written by friends and family, I couldn’’t possibly comment.

A launch party at Waterstones (“local author”) went very well, and the local paper did a big article (“local author” again), but then … a void. People kept saying, “”It’’s great, it’’s bound to sell loads””. But how do you make people aware of its existence? It needs reviews, but I couldn’’t find anyone, not even the music press, willing to review it. All emails remained unanswered and already, it seems, the tiny “buzz” has disappeared.

I was aware that it would be a vanity project anyway. After the huge cut taken by everyone en route to a sale, and the high cost of producing a small print run, I’’m definitely operating at a loss, even if I do sell some. But just to have done it is enough, and a certain sense of achievement has been attained. To those many people who have asked, “”When’’s the next one?””, the answer is, no way. I have to get back to earning a living.

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The final sxsc Festival

The 2013 sxsc Festival was to be the last under that name, following a surreal series of email exchanges with lawyers representing the South By South West Festival in Texas. I tried to respond with levity but was always flat-batted back with stern, unresponsive legalese, so in the end gave in. From now, we’’ll be known as SC4M – South Central For Music, chosen largely because of its availability as a domain name.

We planned to go out with a bang, because as well as being the last festival, it also marked my 65th birthday and ten years of putting on shows as sxsc.  For that reason, I set out to try and put together a bill containing artists that mean a great deal to us. It was a lot of hard work, because my friend and promoting partner Richard had moved to Spain and wasn’’t available to help. So I set out to call in some favours from old friends. The first thing to slip into place was a headliner: John Murry had played a storming show at the Railway earlier in the year and promised to return for the festival. I trusted him entirely and so it proved. John made himself unpopular with booking agents by his insistence that he would play this show no matter what other, more lucrative offers he might have to turn down.

Encouraged by this kindness, I then set about chasing Andy Burrows, Winchester’’s most successful musical export ever and another true friend. Again, music business politics were in play, as he was just changing agents and similarly had to arrange this rare solo appearance as a private agreement between the two of us. With those two main artists in place, I was confident of a quick sell-out (the capacity of the Railway is only 110) without the nail-biting agony of previous festivals, most of which struggled with ticket sales. Budgeting for a break-even point of selling all the tickets (our aim is to pay all the artists properly and not make a profit), I felt able to relax.

As it turned out, this was premature. Every artist on the bill has a following and most of them sell out far bigger venues, but tickets stubbornly failed to start selling at anything like the rate they needed to. The reason, I had to accept, was my lack of a marketing budget. I was confident that press and radio would be amazed by the “”big artists in a little venue”” story and get on board; otherwise, how else would anyone find out about it? We tweeted and Facebooked like crazy but it wasn’’t enough; we needed press support and we didn’’t get it. I personally emailed, phoned and sent handwritten letters to all the presenters and producers on Radios 2 and 6, and I did the same with the main listings agencies and the music writers of all the national newspapers and music magazines. The result? Despite the line-up being one of the most impressive and credible of the entire summer offering, not one single mention, apart from in our much-loved local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle. Even Uncut magazine, which had been supportive of us in the past, did’n’t help and transferred its allegiance to the much bigger End Of The Road Festival.

With a week to go, we managed to get hold of tickets to End Of The Road and stood around at the end of John Murry’’s set there, handing out flyers. That did the trick, as the performance was so sensational, and the last tickets went with two days to spare.

So then it was down to making the final preparations. We gave much thought to every aspect, so that all would run smoothly and in the best interests of both artists and audience. We were confident (when I say we, I mean me and my wife Birgit, the sole organisers) that we had thought of everything. At one stage, I found myself walking cagily along Eastleigh High Street with £2500 in cash in my inside pocket.  On that day I found out, too, that the beautifully designed booklets a kind friend had donated had been printed with the pages in the wrong order, and it was too late to do anything about it. On the eve of the festival, I was hoping for some relaxation, following my wild and inebriated birthday party the night before, when I got a message from Chris T-T, explaining that he wouldn’’t be able to perform with his band for some personal reasons to do with band members. This panicked me. In itself, it wasn’’t a big problem, but I feared for what other unexpected developments might occur.

Sunday dawned with a sense of anticipation but also nervousness. At 9.30, for some reason, I decided to check my emails. There it was, an email from someone whose name I wasn’’t sure I recognised. It was a message from the festival caterer: Sorry, I’’ve hurt my back and we’’re not coming. My heart leapt into my mouth. What? Why had he emailed and not rung? It was only by chance that I’’d looked at my emails. We could have been waiting there all day for him and been humiliated. So what could we do?

I rang a series of other caterers, none of whom were available. At one stage, I entered negotiations with Domino’’s Pizza for a series of staged deliveries. But then, someone had an idea. The hotplates from my birthday party had’n’t yet been returned to the restaurant. There was nothing for it: – we’’d have to improvise and do the catering ourselves. My daughter Annabel and her boyfriend Gaz would be in charge, so off we went to Sainsburys, dropping off Gaz to buy baguettes and the ingredients for vegetable chilli, while I took the hotplates in to the Railway and tried to set them up. I have to tell you, as I haplessly attempted to get those hotplates working, plugged into a socket that was clearly dead, as torrential rain teemed around me and the clock ticked ever onwards towards opening time, my head was filled with the mantra of every gig promoter: “Why the hell do I do this to myself?”

Well, the reason is the music, and that was what made the day, eventually, everything we could have dreamed of and more. In a strange sort of synergy with Chris T-T, Ryan O’Reilly, whom I had booked solo, turned up with a band, much to the horror of sound engineer Ben, who had to reconfigure the tiny stage in the acoustic room with his usual consummate professionalism. On their way to Paris, Ryan and band got things off to a lovely start, before Chris T-T gave a performance that couldn’’t possibly have been topped had he had his band with him. As he debuted a new song about a dolphin, the rapt audience was sniffling with moist eyes, which, for me, turned into full-scale tears as Annabel jumped up to sing a special birthday song.

Back up in the Attic, I entered a day-long battle with chairs. It was clear all the chairs would have to be folded up and put aside if everyone was to cram into the room, but every time I did that and went away for five minutes, some naughty audience members simply got them out and sat back down. Meanwhile, others were queuing down the stairs, unable to get in for Ben Folke-Thomas giving one of his finest-ever performances.

In the Barn, it was the turn of Peter Bruntnell, a matter of great importance for us, since Pete played our first ever show in 2003. He and his band delivered in the way only they can, pulling the largest crowd of the day. My detailed preparation had failed to throw up the fact that Dave Little, from Peter’’s band, would also be playing with Small Town Jones ten minutes later in the Attic, and would need to schlep all his equipment upstairs and set it up in a matter of moments. Meanwhile, downstairs, John Parish’’s drummer declared that he needed to use his own kit, which entailed removing the onstage kit and replacing it in time to sound check. Engineer Joe Marsh dealt with this with his usual aplomb and helped attain a magnificent sound for the atmospheric film music, while Emily Barker (who’’d already sold out the much bigger Winchester Discovery Centre for November) performed in the Attic.

Then it was time for Andy Burrows, and the emotion was tangible as the rammed Attic came to terms with sharing a tiny room with a major star. Members of Andy’’s family were present too and the whole event had a real “Winchester “ feel to it.

And so to the headliners. I knew John Murry would never let us down, and he and his trio almost blew the roof off the Barn in a lengthy and bruising set culminating in his masterpiece “Little Colored Balloons” and an encore with Dave Little on guitar that would have had Neil Young and Crazy Horse shaking in their boots. The feeling all around was of supreme happiness, as most people hung around after the end for a few more drinks and to chat with the stars. The Railway is unique in the whole UK in its atmosphere and its perfect layout for an event like this; please, please may it never die.

Back at home, it was a late and fuzzy night, with fifteen people staying over. In the morning, I awoke with a feeling of calm contentment and the sense of a job well done. But it didn’’t last. When Dave Little returned to the Railway, he was distressed to find that a valuable effects pedal had been stolen overnight. Even now, we haven’’t been able to work out how this could have happened and who might have done it, but it took the shine off the day. Never mind, I thought, I’’ll go on the internet and see what people are saying about the event which, after all, had gone spectacularly well. And guess what, my blood ran cold as the only comment I could find on Facebook was a COMPLAINT. I was speechless.

It was from a person who was complaining about something I was completely unaware of and still don’’t really understand. According to the correspondent, Peter Bruntnell and Jim Jones had been horsing around at the back of the room during John Murry’’s set, allegedly spoiling it. She said it was unprofessional of them.  I immediately consulted Birgit, as no one else had said a word. She puts up with nonsense from no one, and said they’’d just been a bit exuberant. But I don’’t like anyone to be less than satisfied, and my first instinct was to reply, apologising for what the complainant said had happened.

But then I thought about it properly. Those guys had just played their hearts out for very little money, as they have consistently done for us for years. The audience had loved both of them.   They are good friends with John Murry and there’’s a mutual admiration society going on there. Their best mate Dave was on stage with John Murry and thrilling the audience with his virtuosity. They were excited and proud and they have a tradition of joshing with each other in a light-hearted manner. Everyone had been as good as gold all day and this was the climax. No one was going to spoil it for me now.

“”I know whose side I’’m on””, I thought. And I deleted the message.

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Looking After Mr Baker

It was because of my extreme age that I was selected to be the genial host for Ginger Baker’’s show at the tiny Railway in Winchester. All the other guys at the venue are in their twenties and were, frankly, intimidated by the thought of the great man about to grace the back room of the pub. It certainly seemed surreal; Ginger is a superstar, a legend, surely the biggest star ever to have played the Railway. And the people there quite rightly wanted everything to run smoothly. They needed someone to meet, greet and keep an eye open.

Well, I’’d seen and loved Cream, kept abreast of his famously dissolute lifestyle, worshipped his drumming and read the autobiography. It was going to be a doddle, a privilege, and fun.

But that was before “Beware Of Mr Baker”, the documentary about Ginger which appeared, with uncanny accuracy, just before the start of the tour, of which the Railway was the very first date. All of a sudden, my friends were taking the piss in a major way. It didn’t help that I’d just completed a novel centred around an innocent person being murdered in a music pub, and that apparently the film starts with Mr Baker using his walking stick to break the nose of the director, who had had the temerity to mention Jack Bruce. Facebook positively lit up with comments speculating on my chances of survival. Someone even sent me an anonymous threatening postcard purporting to come from Ginger.

Was I worried? Actually, no. If he turned out to be as big a bastard as the reviews were saying, at least I wouldn’’t be surprised. I had no intention of saying anything to inflame his ire, and a friend who had seen him recently said he was completely harmless. I suspected, and still suspect, that many of the articles in the papers were re-hashed press releases designed to sensationalise the film and put bums on seats.

I was more worried about the audience than about Ginger. Many of them would be decrepit, and the small size of the room meant that we didn’’t have room for more than a few chairs. Others, towards the back, would be unlikely even to catch a glimpse of their hero, and might complain. Recently, we’’ve had trouble with irritating people talking loudly during shows (they nearly ruined an appearance by Terry Reid) and I might have to shut them up. My greatest fear was that some idiot might call out for Cream numbers, in which case the shit really would have hit the fan.

Jim, the Railway’’s booker, had prepared well. He’’d bought every last item on the rider, prepared the dressing room, printed out running orders, “”Quiet Please”” signs and a full page of instructions for me. My job was to get to the Railway at 4 pm, when the band would allegedly arrive, and generally attend to their every wish. But in fact, the only person there at four was tour manager Doug, an implausibly young but very friendly individual, whose job was to do pretty much everything. He explained that Ginger himself would simply be collected from his hotel at 8.15 and walk straight onstage without sound checking. This sounded like a recipe for disaster to me, but I had reckoned without the super-efficiency of Doug, who took two meticulous hours to set up Ginger’’s enormous drum kit and its numerous attendant percussion nick-nacks, before sound checking comprehensively on his behalf. Blimey, I thought, Ginger’’s going to have to go some to be better than his drum tech.

The other band members gradually arrived. There was the very affable Alec Dankworth, an absolute dead ringer for his famous dad. Normal sax player Pee Wee Ellis was absent, being replaced, just for one show, by another impossibly youthful musician called Josh Arcoleo (whose name Ginger later amusingly forgot). “This is never going to work”, I thought, but the moment he played his first note, it was clear he was a virtuoso and completely unfazed by the potentially intimidating situation. Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo was full of joie de vivre and obviously very concerned about Ginger’’s welfare. All of them exuded concern that nothing should happen which could upset him.

A potential problem came up straight away, and that was how to handle the interval between the two sets. The dressing room was up two flights of stairs, and Ginger doesn’’t really do stairs. An alternative would be to come into the front bar, but Ginger certainly doesn’’t do mingling with the fans. Or he could hang around outside, but it was freezing cold, windy and pouring with rain. No one liked the idea of coming off stage all sweaty and potentially catching a cold at the beginning of a lengthy tour. In the end, a compromise was agreed whereby he would sit in the upstairs bar, which was almost empty.

By way of preparing the young saxist, a very lengthy sound check then took place, so lengthy that, by the time the rest of the band went to a local restaurant for dinner, it was clear that the start time was going to be missed. The audience didn’’t seem bothered or even to notice, but I was getting twitchy as the inevitable happened: Doug arrived with Ginger in his car and was about to enter the stage door when the band wasn’t even in the building. As he stepped out, wearing a beige cardigan and a woolly hat, he looked dangerously frail. I ran up and, with no introductions taking place, guided him slowly to the upstairs bar to wait. The downstairs bar was full of fans, who were transfixed to see their hero ambling past the pool table and up the stairs. “Shall I try to engage him in conversation?” I wondered, instead deciding to go in search of the band.

Eventually all were convened and I pushed through the audience to open the side door and let them in. It was instantly obvious that all was going to go well. The room was warm and packed, and the affection that greeted Ginger as he entered was quite moving. He was smoking a cigarette, which caused a great laugh. Still a rebel! He stubbed it out in the ashtray which forms part of his kit. He looked a completely different person, back straight upright, and as soon as he started to play, he lost twenty or thirty years in a flash. Has he still got it? He sure has.

I’’d forgotten that jazz shows are peppered with audience applause for every solo. And boy, were there solos. Each number started with a sax riff, proceeded to some improvisation, a bass solo, a percussion solo, more improvisation, a drum solo and finally back to the riff. The quality of the playing from all four members was quite astonishing. What’’s more, all of them, including Ginger, were smiling at each other. ““That’’s a good sign”,” said Doug, standing like a coiled spring, ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of a problem. “”They don’’t always smile.””

After 40 minutes, it was time for the interval, so out we came again, down the side alley and into the upstairs bar again. Would they like a beer? No, but a coffee would be nice. I went and made a couple of Nescafés, and that was when I had my conversation with Ginger Baker. I could only carry two cups, and as I placed them on the table, he looked up at me dolefully.

“”Milk!”” he said gruffly.

“”Of course.”” I turned round to go and get it.

“”Sugar!:” he called out after me. I nodded, returning shortly later with both.

““Spoon!”” Damn, I’’d forgotten the spoon.

Then it happened, as I came back with the spoon. “”Fank yew”,” he said, and smiled. Now according to Ginger’’s reputation, he should at the very least have nutted me for my forgetfulness, but not at all. Ginger Baker was thanking me. It’s been a good night, I thought, and it was only going to get better. The second set was even more exciting, with the audience reaching fever pitch.

What I only found out later was that Ginger had had a barney with the security guy, who had told him off for smoking in the building. But he seemed to get over it very quickly, and Doug made a point of going to the security man and apologising. The second set started with a typically abrupt introduction from Ginger: “”The smoking laws in this country are absurd. So we don’’t get cancer, they make us smoke outside, so we all catch pneumonia.”” And then, before the last number, noticeably out of breath (a man half his age would have been): “”This will have to be the last number, that is unless you want to watch me die onstage.”” This drew a bitter-sweet round of applause.

There was no encore, of course. Ginger was into the car and off into the night in a flash. The others hung around for a while, saying how much they’’d enjoyed it. Doug, stuffing the remains of the rider into his bag, even said, “”See you next time”.”

So there might be a next time? Yes please.

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Burnt Offerings, 1982

Extraordinarily, someone has asked me to write my memories of Burnt Offerings, a cassette compilation I released in 1982. Apart from making me realise how little my life has changed (still permanently involved in hopeless musical projects), the memories it brought back are mainly happy ones!

Why didn’’t I take “Burnt Offerings” straight to Stick It In Your Ear? Scratching around in what remains of my brain cells, I do remember that I feared it wasn’’t cool enough for them. They regularly had their cassettes and their fanzine positively reviewed in Sounds, Melody Maker and the NME. Their bands tended to be quite serious and post-punk. And the main (i.e. best-known) band on Burnt Offerings was Thieves Like Us, the band I had fruitlessly been managing for several years. That band was popular but wasn’’t viewed by the music intelligentsia as cool at all. I believe I feared that Geoff and Phil might reject the tape, and I have endured a lifetime of not being able to cope with rejection.

The other matter was that the quality was dodgy. The home-made cassettes were spliced together from demo tapes and live recordings and had a lot of hissing and clicking going on. I feared that it was below the standards of sound quality that SIIYE would have expected.

The thinking behind it was to try and emulate the compilations coming from cities like Bristol and Manchester, even Southampton (the City Walls compilation). My job/hobby as music journalist took me all round the Hampshire area and I was constantly frustrated at seeing great live bands who had failed to break though nationally, or even properly into London. This seemed quite unfair, and there was another, greater frustration eating away at me.

Thieves Like Us had been signed to the Earlobe label, an imprint owned by a New Yorker called Larry Uttal, renowned for having discovered Blondie and founding the chart-busting Bell label (most famous artist -– ahem – – Gary Glitter). Hardly was the ink dry on the contract before it all went horribly wrong. He wanted to turn the band into a poptastic chart act, while they had gone all serious and wanted artistic integrity. Personnel problems raised their ugly heads and the recordings gradually being made in various studios at Earlobe’’s expense featured varying line-ups. By the time Burnt Offerings came up, the band had effectively split, the label had effectively dropped them and the rights of the recordings rested with Larry, who had no intention of releasing them. Of course, we couldn’’t release them either, and could never have afforded to buy them back. Angry at all this, I was determined that at least some of their music should see the light of day, so started to put together some live recordings. Tommy Winstone, our long-suffering sound engineer (who went on to become one of the UK’’s top tour managers) had been recording shows at places like the Pinecliff in Bournemouth, Jumpers Tavern in Christchurch and the Greyhound in London, so I started sifting through them. It soon became clear that there wasn’t enough material for a live album, but I did rescue three tracks which represented the band’’s new arty, non-commercial direction: Golden Handshake, One Man’’s Beat and Trampoline.

It must have been then that the two ideas – – a Thieves live album and a local combination – – gelled into one and the idea of Burnt Offerings was born. I had recently bought, from Comet in Southampton, an extraordinary Sharp hi-fi system which had twin cassette decks. I only bought it because it was in a sale, but the possibilities presented by the twin decks soon became clear: I could duplicate cassettes. It wasn’’t exactly sophisticated and was very time-consuming and painstaking (it all had to happen in real time), but it worked. I started thinking of what bands to invite. As a local radio broadcaster, I was forever deluged with demo tapes, and as a live reviewer, I had several special favourites.

In Winchester, a jobbing pub band called Zip Code had changed into an image-conscious art-rock band called Four People I Have Known, modelled, image-wise, on the band Japan. Thinking about it now, for the first time in over thirty years, I realise that there was quite a lot of politics involved. Four People I Have Known’’s drummer was Paul Bringloe, who’’d split amid much bad feeling from Thieves Like Us a year or so previously. Leader of Four People I Have Known was a rather scary guy called Jack Burnaby, and I visited him in Andover Road to get a copy of their tape. He couldn’’t have made it clearer that he assumed I was planning to rip them off, but he did part with the demo, which consisted of Blood On Your Hands, Be My Animal and Walking To The Centre Of The Earth, three rather similar sounding tracks featuring heavily flanged guitar from Rick Aplin, who I am pleased to say I still see at gigs to this day. The tracks represented them well and I had high hopes that their followers would buy a few tapes.

By coincidence, another band was doing the same as Thieves Like Us and changing from a great novelty band to a more serious type of outfit. The Time, a lively four-piece from Gosport, had recently issued their own cleverly packaged tape but it disappointed their fans, who were hoping for the funny songs in their repertoire, such as Stephanie And Peter and Roughies And Toughies. Both of these I included on Burnt Offerings, together with a newer track called This Fever. The Time, too, were effectively in the process of splitting up, but  felt I was doing some kind of public duty in letting these tracks see the light of day.

Yet another ex-Thieves Like Us drummer, John Parish, had retreated to Yeovil and formed a new trio called The Headless Horsemen. Their tracks were the slow, obscure Hopeless, a ditty called Wet Lunch Hour and a cover of the Beatles Drive My Car, which was seen as a work of genius or an absolute disgrace, depending on how you viewed the Fabs. The Headless Horsemen later evolved into Automatic Dlamini and eventually into the PJ Harvey Band. John is now a renowned producer and solo artist. If you add in Kevin Robinson of The Time, a comedian whom has risen to the heights of Game Of Thrones” under the name of Kevin Eldon, Burnt Offerings contained a couple of pretty famous people. Not that we knew it at the time.

So there we had it. Twelve tracks, all of which I thought were good, and representative of the Hampshire / Dorset “scene”. I found a shop which sold TDK C45 tapes, which were the ideal length. I attached a label to each side, typewritten and stuck on with Pritt. Then I asked Jenny Rosser, the partner of my neighbour Tony Hill of Sarsen Press in Winchester, if she could design me a cover. I have absolutely no recollection of why we called it Burnt Offerings, so it can’’t have been of any particular significance. Jenny came up with a cassette sleeve depicting a burnt chicken being removed from an oven, and listing the tracks in her beautiful handwriting. Tony then printed them on some lurid orange paper which he had left over and wanted to get rid of. Everything was in place, and everything fitted neatly into the DIY ethos of the times.

The system I had dreamed up worked like this: I bought the tapes for 80p each and sold them to the bands for £1. The sale price we set was £1.50, so if the bands sold them at gigs, they would be making 50p a time. Of course, I had given no thought to the publicity, advertising or shipping, so ended up making a substantial loss. But everything I have ever done in music has made a loss, so nothing new there. We sold them at the record shop in Stockbridge Road, Winchester Wax, and gave their address in publicity, as it seemed more professional than a private address. I placed a series of small ads in the NME, and it immediately produced results. Anorak tape collectors from all over the UK and even abroad started sending their cheques and I spent untold hours duplicating those damn cassettes and packaging them up. The bands dutifully flogged them at their gigs and the greatest success came in the PR department. All the bands were photogenic, so I sent the local press and the national music papers some good black and white photos and a detailed and user-friendly press release, which many of them duly used. The tape got plugged and reviewed all over the place, but there was never any radio play, since radio stations weren’’t geared up for cassettes.

Looking back though the paperwork now, I reckon we must have sold several hundred in the end, which was quite a result. Sadly, a search of the shed and the attic has failed to turn up an actual copy of the tape. If you’’ve got one, don’’t bother to send it. I don’’t have anything to play it on.

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sxsw 2013

South By South West Festival 2013

This is going to read like a “Dear Diary” piece, but I can’t think of any other approach. This is what we did, and this is what we saw.

Wednesday kicked off with new Loose signing Johnny Fritz at a far-flung venue called Weather Up, getting to which started work on the blisters which would characterize the week. Fritz was slightly upstaged by an extraordinary off-the-wall performance from John McCauley, looking wasted but sounding sublime, as, alone with an electric guitar, he gave us enticing previews of what is clearly shaping up to be a fantastic new Deer Tick album.

At the plushy Convention Centre (ideal respite from the charming but frankly unhygienic dumps which make up most of Austin’’s venues), a Swiss girl band called, – yes, – Boy were doing a passable First Aid Kit impression. I was all set to dislike Jake Bugg, especially as he looks as if he is yet to sit his GCSEs, but actually he was unaffected by the environment, making no attempt to ingratiate himself other than with his good voice and nifty songs. A good guy, who could teach Frank Turner a thing or two.

Back to Weather Up for a beautiful set from the Milk Carton Kids, gossamer-light harmonies and self-deprecating humour abounding. You’’d never think they hailed from Los Angeles, but they do, as do the magnificent Dawes, who followed. This was just the third of their twelve -– count ’’em -– sxsw performances, but they sounded sublime, playing to a hundred or so sun-drenched souls and presenting a load of new songs which bear their trade mark of being instantly accessible.

Now it was time to prepare for being unable to get in to Stubbs for Nick Cave, but no, the queue moved swiftly and I was able to get in the front row, ready to get my head blown off and be bollocked by security for my inability to switch off the flash on my camera. A Nick Cave show is more a triumph of theatricality than a traditional rock show but deeply affecting nonetheless, swaggering with confidence. After that, it was a bit of a comedown to be confronted with the sub-Eltonisms of Tom Odell, including a horrifically misjudged attempt at “Honky Tonk Women”. The evening finished at the comfortable Stephen F’’s Bar, not really designed for music but a nice place for Welsh roots artist Christopher Rees. After that, it was tempting to go and see Dawes again at the Moody Theater, but that would have felt like stalking, and tiredness triumphed.

Thursday would be a long haul, but worth it. At the excellent Ginger Man venue, the Waterboys’’ Mike Scott was kicking the day off with some traditional folk. At the Paste stage, Hurray For The Riff Raff were entertaining a big crowd, but I was on a mission to find the Allah-Las, which entailed walking agonizing miles to an amiable dump called the Scoot Inn, situated in a wasteland and doubling as the venue for a diverting skateboard competition. Squeezed in among various unidentified metal bands, the dapper Allah-Las took me back to my teens. Their vocals and stage moves were pure Herman’’s Hermits. Twee, sure, but I loved every moment.

Back in the Convention Center, Hiss Golden Messenger was flu-ridden and fresh off a plane, so it would be unfair to judge him on his allotted twenty minutes. It was off to the Chuggin’’ Monkey, a typical Sixth Street dive, for Peter Bruntnell and band, on sparkling form presenting their new “Retrospective” compilation.  Then it was on to Mellow Johnny’’s Bike Shop (one of the more inimitable sxsw venues) for the much-anticipated reunion of the True Believers, with Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham. They rocked out with aplomb but the volume was so ludicrously excessive that I was lured by the siren call of some shrimp fajitas. Well, you gotta eat some time.

A short queuing process allowed access to Austin’’s famous blues cavern, Antones, for a typically well-judged half-hour of Richard Thompson and his hot electric band, opening with a blistering “Tear Stained Letter” which was one of the week’s highlights. Sadly, it was followed by a very low lowlight. A high-risk queuing strategy surprisingly allowed us admission to the small-scale Flaming Lips show at the Belmont (they would do the full production extravaganza the next night at Auditorium Shores). Things were running very late, which meant that we were exposed to the bland horror of an entire set by Alt-J. Insipid, soulless and generally useless, they nearly sent everyone to sleep with their warbles and bleeps. Considering Depeche Mode were in town, they should have hung their heads in shame.

Even the Flaming Lips were a let-down, and I never thought I’d say that. They’’d decided to forsake all their visuals and perform the whole of “Yoshimi vs The Pink Robots”, but it didn’’t really work. The augmented band was strangely hesitant and disjointed, and with little to catch the attention, it sort of fizzled out.

On Friday, there was the most ridiculously high quality showcase going on at Waterloo Records, with the likes of Frightened Rabbit, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris and (ulp) Alt-J, but I was desperate not to miss John Murry, so determinedly headed to the far-flung Hole In The Wall to experience him playing just four songs to a small but rapt audience. This led on (after some amiable psychedelia from the Besnard Lakes at Ginger Man) to one of those endearingly unique sxsw experiences, as John Murry agreed to spend the day with us. Surreal wasn’’t the word, as we found ourselves miles outside town in a fabulous, classic roadhouse called the Sahara Lounge. It was Happy Hour and the venue’’s speciality was an unspecified and evil concoction called Devil’’s Piss. Here, Peter Bruntnell and band were playing pool but no one else was present. If it hadn’’t been for me, John Murry and my companion, they would have been playing to their tour manager and the sound engineer. This, I hasten to say, did’n’t indicate any lack of popularity, simply that it was in the middle of nowhere and no one knew about it. The Bruntnell band (featuring Dave Little on storming guitar) cheerfully blasted through Pete’’s greatest hits, doubtless fuelled by the Devil’’s Piss.

Canada House this year was situated at Friends, in the full-on bedlam of Sixth Street. Here, Whitehorse (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland) proved themselves masters of the mountain of technology they’’ve acquired and now sound, as a duo, more like a six-piece band. The energy is breathtaking.

At Red River, a far from sold out Stubbs played host to Cold War Kids who were deservedly received with deafening silence, and to the Specials, who caused frantic skanking with an unashamedly hit-laden set. Going through the motions in  the most pleasant way, seemingly sponsored by Grecian 2000.

Saturday was the day in which you could have seen, in true crazily eclectic sxsw fashion, the Zombies, Eric Burdon, Charlotte Church or Prince (we didn’’t). Much more fun was the Yard Dog Gallery (it’’s a blistering suntrap), where the Minus Five featured both Scott McCaughey and the legendary Clem Burke. After that, Austin’’s lucky mascot, In McLagan, presented a bunch of new songs, plus of course “You’’re So Rude”.

Then it was on to the Broken Spoke, where line dancing is the norm. A disturbingly bland Laura Cantrell and the gimmicky Pokey Lafarge were both put firmly in the shade by the cheerful Caitlin Rose’ – small of stature but big of lung’ – and her hot band. Not far away, Alejandro Escovedo’’s day party was taking place at Maria’’s Taco Express. As we listened to the Mastersons, I drank a couple of exquisite Margaritas and proceeded to buy some shirts which I couldn’’t afford. Don’’t ask.

At Hotel San Jose, Dawes were concluding their (almost) final show. With immense courage, they first proved they can stretch out and improvise, then finished with a quiet, slow and brand new song, earning an encore, normally unheard of at sxsw. An hour later, they unexpectedly popped up yet again at the Moody Theater as guest backing band for one song with John Fogerty, whose super slick, over-frantic approach to the Creedence legacy is almost parodic in its overkill. He really didn’’t need the three extra rhythm guitarists to back him as he galloped round the stage like Benny Hill.

So, as we say very year, “It was the best sxsw ever!”

 

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sxsw 2012

sxsw 2012
I’’m going to try to give an idea of what it’’s really like coping with sxsw. You’’ll probably find the detail wearisome and you’’ll probably be disgusted by some of the music. I have very Catholic tastes. But when I am too old and knackered to do it any more, maybe I’’ll read this back and wallow in the memories.
Getting up a 4 am to catch the 5 o’’clock coach to Heathrow was challenging, but actually there was something rather relaxing about being in town at that quiet time of day. Everybody on the coach was asleep apart from a couple at the back who had a blazing row which lasted the entire journey. What kind of energy must you have to fight at 5 am?
I’’ve never had such a lovely flight. Following the merger of Continental and United, there is over-capacity on transatlantic routes and the plane was less than a quarter full. I lay down across three seats and, after a lovely veggie lunch, used the three blankets and three pillows to create a bed and slept like a lamb for the entire flight.
Actually, I hadn’’t booked this route at all (via Newark). I’’d booked via Houston but received a casual email saying the route had been changed. This meant a very short connection in Newark, so I was hoping for a smooth immigration process. Inevitably, I chose the only queue with an over-zealous officer and a series of people with apparent problems. As the other queues were waved by with a smile, mine stubbornly refused to move. Then came security. The queue I chose was hijacked by a series of people in wheelchairs. In my panic, my natural inclination to give them the consideration they merited was almost overcome with a desire to shout “”Get out of the bloody way, can’’t you see I’’m in a hurry?”, – but not quite, of course. I literally ran all the way to the gate, huffing and puffing in at the last moment. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice Dutch agent. Unfortunately he had a streaming cough and cold and I had to try to face away from him while still maintaining a conversation. Buggered if I was going to let my sxsw be ruined by a cold.
My friend Paul was waiting at the airport and we headed straight for the Convention Centre to get my badge. As I’’d slept so well, there were no jet lag symptoms at all. I was desperate for a shrimp enchilada and luckily such an emporium was just opposite. The waitress tried to convince us that the obviously chain establishment was owned by her father.
We headed straight for the “British Embassy” at a club called Latitude just off Sixth Street. This is where, each year, a succession of usually mediocre and never to be heard of again UK bands play apparently at our expense. It certainly seems from the brochure as if many of them are funded by local councils. I wonder how many council taxpayers are aware of their cash being used for these guys to have a full scale jolly and try to further their careers in the States? In effect, all the bands just play to each other, as there is a distinct lack of local accents. “Thank you Austin,” they all chant as they announce their long-awaited final numbers. Among those playing this year were Charlie from Busted (honestly) and the ghastly Frank Turner.
One of the quirks of my annual visit is that I have to write about bands from my area for the local paper. Frank Turner is the only “famous” rocker ever to have come from Winchester (apart from Mike Batt but he does’’t count). I really am not impressed by Frank Turner. It’’s not so much that he’’s an old Etonian pretending to be a man of the people, it’’s more that the songs are so poor and the performance so full of bluster. But I had to get a photo of him, so in we went. It turned out to be a good move, because we caught a great band from Wales called Future Of The Left, who were highly political and roared like buffaloes on heat. After that, Frank Turner announced he was going to play his “hits”. I wasn’’t aware he had any.
After a nice sleep in the Homestead Suite which was home for the week, it was time to make some of the awful decisions that have to be made every few minutes at sxsw. At any given time, there are probably at least twenty bands you’’d like to see, all playing miles away from each other. Plus there are loads you never get to find out about. The daytime “fringe”, mainly situated round the South Congress area, is now at least as big as the festival itself. Daytime activities on the Day Stage of the Convention Centre have become much more exciting than they used to be, and here you can catch many of the “buzz bands” in the almost plushy comfort of this large seated venue, complete with huge, dreamy bean bags. Thus it was that we were able to see three acts in just over an hour: Michael Kiwanuka (I think it may have been his US debut) being very pleasantly soulful, the lovely Whitehorse, (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland demonstrating their new-found technological expertise in the adjacent Brush Square) and then back to the Day Stage for the rightly much-anticipated Alabama Shakes. They fit the bill for the Adele audience perfectly and it’s not unrealistic to imagine similar success for them.
Now here’’s an odd thing. As well as the clashes, there are moments when there’’s nothing to do. Such was the case next, so we wandered over to the South Congress area. This is where all the cool art galleries and eateries are, plus the yards where band after band can be found playing, so there’s always some music to catch. After another round of shrimp fajitas (I could have them for breakfast, lunch and tea for the rest of my life), plus some happy hour beers (Dos Equis, two dollars a bottle), we hung around for some great music featuring Scrappy Judd Newcombe and an unidentified vocalist who looked as if he were about to die but sang like an angel. Then, via the already burgeoning mayhem of Sixth, we caught Jeff Klein’’s My Jerusalem at Trinity Hall.
Emo’s has been re-named The Main, which caused a bit of confusion. We got there early for Jimmy Cliff, whom I’’d never seen. It was an acoustic set, which was unexpected, and took forever to set up. And then, how do I put this? The lovely “Many Rivers To Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “The Harder They Come” etc. were rather spoiled by the fact that Jimmy’’s flies were gaping open throughout the entire set. Well, I’’m sorry, but it ruined the vibe, because everyone was talking about it and pointing at it but no one liked to say anything. Shame.
I’’d heard of Dry The River (or maybe it was one of the many other bands which have river in their name), so off we went to the Red Eyed Fly. Well, I hadn’’t done my research, because they weren’’t American but British. They were weird, but not in a good way. There was something disconcerting about the giant tattooed bassist leaping on and off the drum riser and then introducing the next song in a fey Home Counties accent entirely at odds with the image. I’’d expected something authentic, which this certainly wasn’’t.
It’’s always worth paying a visit to the 18th Floor of the Hilton, a tranquil oasis away from the mayhem. Freedy Johnson was lovely there at midnight, playing “Cruel To Be Kind” on a ukelele. One of the highlights of the week actually, and how nice to relax on a comfy seat.
That day’’s final madness was the misguided idea Paul had that a band featuring Wayne Coyne’’s nephew from Oklahoma must signal a secret show from the Flaming Lips. It didn’’t, but they were fun nonetheless. Not enough fun to prevent us from heading for the hotel though.
Thursday was going to be Springsteen day. Attendance at his show was to be decided by lottery. So far so good, but the winners were to be notified by email. My phone wasn’’t so technically adept, so I was reduced to asking people if I could borrow their iPhones to check. I never heard anything, but soon was cursing my stupidity.
No one knew where the concert was to take place, but I should have spotted it. I’’d noted down Low Anthem, one of my favourite bands, as a show to go to at the Moody Theater. Straight after was Alejandro Escovedo, followed by nothing. As Alejandro and Springsteen share a manager, it was bloody obvious what was going to happen – and I failed to realize. Pathetic. Anyway, first we had something else to see: Luke Doucet and a huge array of guitarists at Trinity Hall, accompanied, I’’m pleased to say, by delicious breakfast tacos courtesy of Six Shooter Records. Yum.
But time waits for no one, and particularly when it’’s a question of getting into the Cedar Street Courtyard. This is arguably my favourite sxsw venue, a small open-air quadrangle with a stage at one end, capacity about 200 I guess. The showcase I had spotted showed an afternoon sequence, in this order, of Band Of Skulls, Kaiser Chiefs and Keane. Few things are as thrilling as being very close to a huge band, even if they aren’’t necessarily your favourites. Last year it was the Bangles (bliss) and the year before it was Primal Scream (brain-scrambling). This year it was essential to be in the front row for Band Of Skulls because, guess what, they’’re from Hampshire. But to achieve all this, you have to go several hours early and tolerate the innumerable supports, because obviously a show such as this will be ridiculously over-subscribed.
Well, it’’s very annoying for someone like me, who prefers things to be as they should. Admission to this showcase was supposed to be only for those who have RSVPd in advance and received an acknowledgement, a procedure which I had dutifully followed weeks before. In the event, what actually happens is that they simply randomly let everyone in regardless until it’’s full. Luckily I knew this, which was why we arrived two hours in advance. Imagine how furious you’’d be if you arrived, having carried out all the application procedure, and couldn’’t get in because of the place being full of uninviteds? Basically, they shouldn’’t even bother with the rigmarole in the first place.
Duly installed dangerously in front of the speakers, we settled down for the afternoon surrounded by lots of affable and mildly intoxicated new friends. The first band were awful Simple Minds clones, the second were certifiably insane and the third was Band Of Skulls. They have deservedly gone mega in the States and I genuinely felt proud to come from (near) Southampton. Plus they are all very photogenic, by which I mean that photos come out showing them as they actually are, rather than gurning. Next up: Kaiser Chiefs, loads of fun, swaggeringly confident and essentially going through the motions, but still a thrill greater than you’’d get from seeing them in a stadium. Keane were quite unable to follow them. I’’m sorry, but you don’’t come to Austin without a guitar.
It goes without saying that any spaces between acts are always filled by lengthy walks, interspersed with sticking your head into venues (almost every building is a venue) and catching a moment or two of random unidentified bands. I wanted to see Portland’’s Laura Gibson but got the time wrong (just the first in series of blunders). This meant tolerating a succession of no-hopers at the Red Eyed Fly. Happily, Laura and her band brought a blessed element of subtlety and relief.
I’’d been recommended The War On Drugs, so after sitting on the kerb eating a huge lukewarm chunk of pizza, I headed to the Mohawk Patio early, fearful of crowds. I ended up crushed against the front of the stage, far too close to the speakers. In fact, my ears are still ringing a week later. It meant that the sound was so distorted that I couldn’’t work out whether I actually liked them or not. I’’ll have to give them another go.
What followed was an unexpected highlight. Billed at the Hilton (ground floor) was “”Special Guest (Framingham, UK)”. All the acts are listed together with their provenance. This could, of course, only mean Ed Sheeran, so I got there early, assuming it would be rammed, with queues round the block. Ed was doing several other shows during the week, all in much bigger venues. But that was without reckoning on the difference of tastes between the UK and the US, nor the way that careers develop at different rates in different countries. Basically, the place was half empty, and it was only a small hotel conference room anyway, laid out, cabaret style, with tables, chairs and candles. At first I blundered straight into Ed’’s dressing room and had to beat a hasty retreat. Then (I’’d had a couple of drinks), I marched straight to the front and sat down at a table by the stage. This gave a good vantage point, firstly for the excellent Marcus Foster, then for Ed himself.
Bloody hell, he’’s good. I am instinctively prejudiced against anything commercially successful, particularly if bound up with Brit Awards and the like. Also, the “solo bloke with acoustic guitar and loop pedals” concept is so hackneyed. Well, not this time. He’’s ridiculously talented as a songwriter, uses the gizmos brilliantly and brought the house down with his rapping. At the end (he always does this but I’’d forgotten), he clambered on top of my very table and did a couple of unamplified songs. He was wearing very baggy shorts and it was tempting to point my camera up them. I resisted.
By the end of the long walk home, I was knackered enough to cancel morning appointments and opt to sleep instead. Just as well, since it would be another long day. It started with the beginning of a ridiculous but magical Chuck Prophet odyssey. He was playing at the excellent Ginger Man Pub, not even listed as a venue, but centrally placed and with a great patio and stage. Here I found a nest of UK promoters, all discussing the Springsteen show. Apparently it had been possible just to walk in there unchallenged. There’’d even been empty seats. People were saying it hadn’’t been anything special – – phew. In fact, a couple of songs into Chuck’’s set, all the talk was about Chuck being significantly more exciting. Basically, you’’ve never seen a better rock band. His band is astounding and the new songs from “Temple Beautiful” uniformly appealing. And Chuck’s guitar shredding is beyond belief. So when Peter Buck stepped up and joined in the “You Did” finale, it was more that anyone could ever have hoped for on a Friday lunchtime.
Time for a bit of comfort at the Day Stage. The target was Blitzen Trapper but I arrived in time for the end of Ben Kweller’’s set. This guy was being hyped all over the place, on billboards, buses and taxis, but it was hard to see why. Blitzen Trapper were much more interesting.
Next was a long trek to a venue called Lustre Pearl. On the way, we saw a bleeding guy who’’d been knocked off his bike. More of this later. The show was organized by the same magazine as the previous day’’s Cedar Street showcase, so needless to say the same chaotic admission procedure reigned and my RSVP was cheerfully ignored, indeed laughed at. Eventually we saw snatches of Deerhof (good) and The Drums (Strokes clones) but the call of hunger was irresistible and a visit to a nearby chain burger joint reinforced what we really already knew: avoid chain burger joints.
Then I did something silly. Keen to see M. Ward, I set off for a small venue called Frank. Wandering past a quarter mile queue (they call them “lines” over there), I vaguely wondered who was causing it, until I got to the venue and realized it was the front of the queue. Bloody stupid, of course I should have realized M. Ward was far too big for a little venue and that I should have gone along hours early. Nevertheless, I joined the line but it didn’’t move at all and eventually we were informed that it was “one out, one in”. So that’’ll mean getting in some time next week then.
But there was an alternative. Over at Joe’’s on South Congress, Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra was about to start playing. But it was a hell of a long walk, so the time had come to try out the ubiquitous bike rickshaws. I was a little surprised that a clutch of them declined to take me when I said where I wanted to go. “”No thanks man, that’’s up a hill”,” was the response. Eventually one agreed to do it for twenty dollars. It was actually a bit hair-raising. Austin prides itself on its eco-friendliness, but it hasn’’t really got its act properly together. Taxis are not to be found in the centre during sxsw because gridlock reigns and they’’d never get anywhere. The status of the rickshaws seems vague. As we trundled along the road, motorists charged dangerously by, honking at us to get out of the way. So then we took to the sidewalk, whereupon we were quite rightly shouted at by angry pedestrians. On a couple of occasions I had to dismount because we couldn’’t get through gaps left by parked cars. Anyway, we eventually got to Joe’’s, where a huge crowd was being entertained by the orchestra. There were no “special guests” but a great version of “Rock The Casbah”.
It was back to the mayhem of Sixth for a moment, where I was tapped on the shoulder and turned to find the son of a friend of mine from Cornwall. That’’s crazy! As was Grant Hart, who I was interested to see because Bob Mould was in town performing “Copper Blue” but I couldn’’t work out where. Hart was shambling alone in front of a sparse audience and appeared to have no teeth. I lasted thirty seconds.
Shearwater was strange too. They’’ve suddenly turned into a rock band, losing two of their most important members (drummer Thor and bassist Kim Burke). They were good but had lost much of their original appeal and I wonder whether audiences on their forthcoming Euro tour will feel short-changed? I was cheered up by bumping into my friend Al James from Dolorean but shocked to find the beers at Red Seven cost 6 dollars each. Cheek!
Saturday started with something very pleasant, a secret show from Laura Gibson and band in her hotel room, complete with delicious breakfast courtesy of her record company. Things like that are so special . But the rest of the day was to be Chuck Day. Paul had decided he wanted to follow Chuck round Austin because he was so bloody good. Paul had a car, I was feeling less inclined to rush around checking out other artists and basically, the idea was irresistible. So there we were at Jovita’s, drinking beer at 1 pm (it feels deliciously decadent) and having our brains blown out by the storming Mission Express. Someone videoed lots of this show, try putting Chuck Prophet, Jovitas into You Tube. The ear to ear grins sported by the entire band tell you everything.
After a few minutes of the Waco Brothers it was off to the wonderful Yard Dog Gallery courtyard for the next Chuck instalment. This was enlivened by two power cuts, which hardly seemed to matter, because the audience just kept on singing until it was sorted out. Noticing that Ian Mclagan would be playing at the Yard Dog later, we zipped over to Maria’’s Taco Express, where the impeccably dapper Alejandro Escovedo was presiding over his annual taco party and a huge array of bands of wildly differing style and quality. Plus gorgeous food and margaritas. Back at Yard Dog, the Mekons’’ Jon Langford and the indefatigable Ian McLagan were finishing off the day in style. Austin residents and expat Brits both, they sum up the joy of being a musician in this particular town. Mac observed that he had now lived in the US as long as he had lived in London. He also invited everyone to visit Austin outside of sxsw, when there is still masses of music to choose from.
Getting towards the end now, I had a hankering to check out hotly-tipped new Scottish band Django Django, and it was worth it. Despite being at the oddly-shaped and very uncomfortable Latitude club, they impressed with their stoned synths and raging percussion. Plus their bassist was a dead ringer for Thomas Dolby (who was also in town somewhere). In fact, they were a pretty oddball bunch all round.
My plan was to finish off the week with a nice quiet dose of Hurray For The Riff Raff, but it turned out they had actually been on at 12. 30 lunchtime rather than midnight, so the trip had been fruitless. The only solution was another rickshaw (and another complaint about pedalling uphill) back to the Continental Club for a final helping of Chuck, preceded by a frighteningly loud Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnson, quite different from the acoustic version previously encountered. I don’’t know if it’’s true, but it’’s claimed that Elvis once played at the Continental, and it certainly feels as if the spirit of rock and roll is embedded in its walls.
And so to bed and a completely uneventful trip home. Next year i’s already booked.

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