First night of the UK tour, and where are Richmond Fontaine? Twenty minutes to door opening and Dan Eccles is on all fours screwing valves into his amp while Willy Vlautin is languidly stringing his guitar. It has somehow taken them six and a half hours to do the one-hour journey from London but they are charmingly laid back and blissfully unaware of their media profile and the fact that there is a capacity crowd outside baying to get in. “Gig of the Week in the Independent? Gee, man, that’s awesome!”
And awesome is the performance; it takes more than a minor detour to faze this decade-old Portland, Oregon quartet, which is just beginning to grab the UK public’s attention. Vlautin is in his element, telling tales both in song and word, and exchanging good-natured banter with the audience. Dan is headbanging like a true punk rocker but the tracks from “Winnemucca” and, more particularly, the hugely admired “Post To Wire” are performed with the intensity they deserve. Opener “The Longer You Wait” recalls the best of American Music Club”, while “Allison Johnson” wouled’t be out of place in a Nick Cave set. The sequencing is a tad bitty, but that’s half the fun, as they take the opportunity in this tiny venue to bed in a programme which will later in the tour slay audiences in much bigger halls. The audience, feeling truly privileged, stayed behind en masse way after closing time.
I wake up a worried man. I’m worrying about everything, but about one thing more than others, namely: Will the venue be too full and will the customers complain? No, hang on, there’s a bigger worry than that: What if the Soft Boys don’t turn up? There’s no reason even to consider this eventuality, but people are travelling from all over the UK for this “secret” warm-up show and won’t like it if they’re disappointed.
Now, have I thought of everything? That thing with the bass amp last night was extraordinary. My friend Phil has agreed to lend us his amp, which previously belonged to the Joe Jackson Band. We have to load it onto a straw-covered trailer in the pouring rain in the car park of Fleming Park Leisure Centre. Why? No idea. The speaker is the size of the Empire State Building, housed in a flight case so gigantic that it barely scrapes through the Railway’s door.
The Soft Boys haven’t played in Winchester since 1978 and I’m so excited. They’ve re-formed and have made a great new album. Prior to their American tour, they need a warm-up show and somehow or other I’ve booked them for this tiny venue. The interest is high but the organisation is demanding. We normally put on much “smaller” bands and it’s all done on a handshake, but here there is a contract involved and I have to be conscientious and responsible.
This is my first experience of purchasing a “rider” and it entails spending over two hours in Sainsburys. It’s surprising how confusing your local supermarket becomes when you’re buying unfamiliar things. There’s a whopping great list of items such as soya milk, honey, olives and pitta bread, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, all specific brands. At one stage, I’m fretting about whether I’ll get into trouble for substituting Sainsbury’s own-brand vodka for the specified Smirnoff. Like I say, I’m a worrier.
The contract is full of all sorts of specific demands that we can’t possibly fulfil. I have penned an addendum and made the agent promise to pass on all the details to the band, so they know what to expect. I’ve also Emailed a reminder with a request to pass it on to the band members. Principal among these is the vital information that there is no dressing room.
So Robyn Hitchcock arrives and his very first words are, “Hello, where’s the dressing room?” He looks genuinely hunted when I say there isn’t one. “I have to have somewhere to hide away. If I stay in the pub I’ll be hassled.” It’s true that he has a disturbingly large number of obsessive fans, some of whom (inexplicably, really) are actually quite unruly. So I have a brainwave and ask my friend Hector, who lives just down the road, if they can use his house as a dressing room. “I’ll have to tidy up first”, he replies. What a hero.
They sound check for ever (part of the point of a warm-up show). Ben, the engineer at the Railway, displays the patience of Job as he assists the meticulously professional sound man the Soft Boys have brought with them. And then, would you believe it, apart from the drummer, they don’t use the dressing room at all. Instead, they watch football in the front bar while Robyn disappears into town. He spent his teens in Winchester and wants to explore (not to mention being tempted by the Gurkha Chef).
Support artist Mark Andrews is performing solo for the first time in his life and is absolutely terrified. The audience receives his set of carefully-chosen covers warmly, but before long I’m worrying again. I’ve impressed on the Soft Boys that they MUST be on stage at 9.30, but Robyn has disappeared. It appears that he’s managed to get himself lost and the rest of the band, while mildly concerned, can do no more than shrug their shoulders as if to say, yup, that’s Robyn. As the clock ticks ever onward and the crowd starts to become restless, I’m almost on the verge of panic. It’s nearly ten when I run down to Hector’s house, where Robyn has somehow gained admission and is sitting in the kitchen. “Sorry, I haven’t got a watch”, he says.
Still, I’ve had a beer by now and have decided that at least it’s another good Hitchcock story. A lifelong ambition is fulfilled as I push my way through the crowd, making way for the star. He towers above me, which rather spoils the effect.
All the effort has been worthwhile. The sound is perfect, the band performs sublimely, but still it’s impossible to relax. There are a couple of annoying talkers in the audience, one of whom has sneaked in without paying. I have to tell them to shut up, and you never know how people are going to react. Worse, at the back of the hall is a group of extremely drunk blokes. Who knows why they follow Robyn Hitchcock, merely to shout out inappropriate remarks and stagger around, but they do. No wonder he’s desperate to have a dressing room. I am nice to these guys, who are actually harmless music-lovers with a strange way of showing it. My magnificent wife, who has been acting as bouncer, charms them and keeps them relatively quiet. “I love you, door lady”, announces one. “Is that your wife? Bloody hell”, gasps another.
The gig is over. I’ve had to interrupt the band in mid-flow because there’s a strict 11 pm curfew. Immediately, Robyn is at my shoulder. “I need protection, get me out of here.” I’m beginning to enjoy my new-found “minder” role, so it’s all back to Hector’s house. It’s all worked out, but one thing has been missing: enjoying the show. So, the next evening, I travel up to London to enjoy the Soft Boys as an untroubled audience member. There they are, playing to a large audience in a big venue. I like to think that the warm-up show has helped them. But, on the train back, I’m still worrying:
What the hell are we going to do with that whopping great bass amp, still cluttering up the Railway’s back room?