Sunsets on Empire, Raingods With Zippos, Fellini Days and Field of Crows are now available in the Fish Shop!
Outside my bedroom window I heard familiar voices. Dave Barras and Scott Mackay, the director and writers of “Electric Man” were unloading a similarly familiar vehicle, the pick up truck I’d driven as “Uncle Jimmy” in the movie and which belonged to Scott. It was a wreck then and hadn’t improved with age. An exchange of haranguing and “witty banter” resulted in Scott having me unknowingly pose for his camera at the window, clad only in a towel, above a sign for the hotel restaurant which read “The Fat Knight” and suitably posted the photo on his Facebook pages immediately thereafter! Touché! They were both knackered after a long drive South and were unloading the new “Electric Man” DVDs and T-shirts just as a beleaguered Foss stalked purposefully past in a style I recognised from the Fishheads Club tour. The forward leaning slouch indicating he was late for sound check and that the previous evening had not been an early one as betrayed by a grey pallor and slightly misplaced hair. Yatta had told me to take my time getting down to the venue as the check was going slow.
A smuggled coffee and then a taxi with Dave and Scott landed us at the backstage door. The downstairs dressing room was a hive of activity like the bowels of a ship at the end of a voyage as boxes of merchandise were stacked and shifted upstairs to the venue, people clambering up the stairs and into the elevator to the main room where musicians readied their gear and tables were groaning with T-shirts being folded, counted and piled while Shaun rang out the PA . Steve Vantsis had arrived and was distinctly nervous. Doors were scheduled for midday and it was already 11 with no stage sounds of note taking shape. I sallied round the hall greeting members of the old guard. Sandy and Judith Fearfull, Hutch, Lou, Elspeth, Gregor all helping out with the merch stalls, haberdashers for the event and who would be joined by others over the weekend as a frenzy developed especially around the bargains table as we jettisoned reams of old shirts at knockdown prices. Chris had come to terms with the lighting desk and Shaun was tweaking merrily, grunting away, focused on the dwindling time. Yatta had his serious look about him and I decided after consulting with my main man that perhaps it was better for me to go in search of breakfast and strong coffee. I wasn’t needed as yet.
Across the road from the backstage door the “Jug and Jester” was already jumping as Simone and I crept into a nearby cafe for a couple of takeaway bacon and egg baps. I bumped into a few people I knew and friendly welcomes and small talk in passing started to create the vibe I remembered. As we waited on our breakfast rolls we got into conversation with a couple of brothers up from the deep South West and questions over the set lists were ducked with a wry smile! Taking on water and Costa coffee at the supermarket across the road it was then a retiral to the sanctuary of the dressing room and the last few moments of relative tranquillity before the assault began.
Mickey and Sarah Simmonds had arrived wearing beaming smiles and it was great to see them both again. Mickey and I talked through the set list for that afternoon’s acoustic and I prepared my small library of lyric books for the day. Sounds were emanating from the stage and it was time to ascend the stairs that I would come to know well in the next 2 days. Gavin Griffiths had driven his own car down from Haddington and I had only see him briefly since he arrived. He was now stressed out behind the kit as the band came to terms with the monitor mixes and Gavin struggled to balance his in ear feeds. I called for later doors as we needed more time. The band ran through “1470” and dipped into a couple of other segments of tunes with Gavin Dickie on bass before Steve took the stage and we tentatively began working with the new material, starting off with “Crucifix Corner”. Foss had done his homework earlier on stage on headphones so his confidence helped us relax a bit. The sound on stage was not helping us. Nothing to do with monitor mixes rather the bass traps that existed in certain areas created problems for us all to hear separated keyboards and guitars. It was a mush not helped by an empty venue. We managed to get a version of “Corner” past muster and then muddled through “All Loved Up”. There was not time for “Arc of the Curve”. I watched the people in the hall for reactions as a small scattered crowd had sat at the chairs now laid out taking in the new material for the first time. There were no grimaces. We were loose but as no one outside the band had heard the material before there was nothing to compare it to and the songs would pass by so fast it would be a general impression rather than a detailed critique. I did however totally immerse myself in the rendition of “Crucifix Corner” at soundcheck and was taken aback at the emotion it brought out in me. Far different a performance from the one a few weeks in the studio. I think it took a few people out in the hall by surprise too. I was also glad that my voice was totally on song despite it being just past midday. Normally a croaky time for any singer!
We retired to the dressing rooms feeling a lot more confident than we did earlier in the morning. Even Steve Vantsis seemed to breath more easily. A few direct positive comments on the new material helped add to the vibe which was lightening up as we were now launched and there was no turning back. The crowd were gathering upstairs and I could hear the Fishheads acoustic DVD playing over the PA. The backstage area was filling up with bodies as friends wandered in to say hi. It was very chilled out but I personally knew my time was coming and had only a few more minutes before taking the stage for the first of my appearances.
The backstage area is a magpies lair for the owner who has collected all sorts of weird and wonderful bric a brac over the years. Commandeering the eye line is a 1950’s American Streamline caravan that used to belong to US country singer Tammi Wynette. Upholstered in pink leather with the traditional Streamline gleaming aluminium it makes for a great alternative lounge although the ceiling is a bit low for the likes of me. A Dalek lurks in the corner of the room together with an Egyptian sarcophagus, a dodgem car, a board with a vast collection of US hotel room key fobs and other items that all add to the surreal aspect of the zone.
There was another synchronous omen on the stairway between the stage and the dressing room. Bolted to a landing above the steps was a Vickers machine gun on its tripod from the World War 1 era of the type my grandfather William Paterson had operated when he served at the High Wood with the 254th machine gun company attached to the 8th Royal Scots in 1916. With the debut of “Crucifix Corner” the second of the songs that make up “The High Wood” suite it seemed suitably portentous to be placed exactly where it was. I knew someone somewhere was smiling on me.
I’d asked Yatta to introduce me and to wear the Grendel mask as it seemed appropriate! 🙂 Trooper as he is he duly accepted and we both climbed the stairs to side of stage. There was a comical moment as he tried to put the helmet on while wearing his glasses and the ensuing near blindness that occurred when ascending up the short flight of steps and crossing stage to the mike had me corpsing. I walked out to a friendly and welcoming roar.
As with nearly all of the stage appearances my contributions became a bit of a blur as adrenalin kicked in and I took to the balls of my feet.
I talked about the delays in the writings and recording of the new album “Feast of Consequences” and the importance of getting it right after such a long wait. I explained that although the idea of playing the entire album at the weekend has seemed a likelihood months previously that I had been overtaken by events and that my original plans had been rather premature. There were enough questions from the floor for me to answer and expand on and interject some humour into. The running joke was the use of the word “curve” in my dialogue, the first utterance being very much tongue in cheek on my behalf and raised a suitable howl of laughter! 🙂 It had been a conscious effort on my part to avoid the word over the weekend from the start after I’d been playfully derided on my posts on the web site and on Facebook! 🙂
Most of the bases I wanted to cover and explain including acting career, hopes and aspirations, the missing book, US touring, why Grendel now? were touched and it was easy to relax into the on-stage interview. It was really enjoyable and I never felt at any time under duress. The conversation, as it became, just flowed.
I was talking for over an hour when Yatta started to heckle giving me the sign it was time to draw the intro to a close.” Enough yakking we’ve a show to put on!” usually does the trick every time! 🙂
The acoustic DVD came on again and it was at this point I noticed that the sound and picture were out of synch and worse was it was in black and white!! The projector was up in the truss and so couldn’t be reached without lowering it and going for a major time consuming repair. It appeared that there was a problem with one of the cables and on top of that the player wasn’t set to deliver the region the Acoustic DVD was produced in. The set up for screening that morning had been made with a PAL DVD and the Acoustic DVD was NTSC region 0!!! Luckily Dave Barras had brought down a Blu-Ray player to show the “Electric Man” movie on Sunday that could cope with our films but it couldn’t be resolved until next morning. It would be one of the few tech problems we would have over the weekend but it was a major disappointment.
Working with Mickey is always fun as he is a hilarious guy on stage when on form. And on Saturday afternoon he was very much on form and proved quite a handful to deal with! 🙂
Before the acoustic set we were both a little squeaky as we hadn’t played together since the one off in the bank in Germany during the Summer when Foss had other commitments and I had a contracted show that had been forgotten about. That had been a great laugh and I should have remembered his tactics from then. We had no chance of any rehearsals for this show so it was going to be on a wing and a prayer blessed with mutual wealth of experience. The song keys had slightly changed since then, dropped by a semitone, so Mickey’s notes from the bank job were out of kilter with Frank’s tunings. I take my hat off to the Mickster as he used it beautifully to his advantage. He arrived on stage to a rapturous welcome as you would expect from a legend from my past band line ups. I’d deliberately chosen songs he’d been involved with writing and knew reasonably well.
From the moment he took the mike at the keyboard I knew I was in for a set of curveballs (Doesn’t count 🙂 ) that were going to make this set out of the ordinary. Mickey questioned Frank , who was soon going to become a smiling bystander, about keys and tunings and despite my interjections I started to realise Mickey was going to be playing more than keyboards up on stage. We finally got “State of Mind” jump started and the music took over. It was a fine version and with a different keyboard player came a different approach to the solo. I just let him go and he was in his element. He dipped and feinted on the rises I expected to lead us back into the chorus until there came a point I had to take the lead. He followed wonderfully and the song came to a dynamic conclusion to the rapturous response of the audience.
After that I can’t really remember that much. Mickey and I played off each other trading jokes and wind ups, comic insults and witty digs. I wasn’t winning them all and he was fast and funny. Bizarre comedy moment was when his mobile went off before a number and it turned out to be Bobby Davro, a British TV comic best known in the 80’s and a mate of Mickey’s. The Mickster took over the central mike and I became a bystander at my own gig! 🙂 He had Bobby talk into the mike and the crowd were in hysterics. The hair jokes came a plenty and we both reminisced about our history together, yours truly bearing most of the brunt of the humour. He had me at my own game if the truth be known and after the show there were a lot of suggestions we should take the double act out on the road! 🙂
As far as the songs went. “Family Business” was powerful and poignant, the eventual rendering of “Just Good Friends” had Frankie shining, “Brother 52” came off nicely and we ended the set with “Sugar Mice”, drawn slightly shorter as the banter had captured most of our allotted time. We missed out “The Company” and “Punch and Judy” which were on the designated set list. I don’t think anyone minded as it was an hilarious performance thanks in the main to Mickey sparkling!
He’d complained about the lack of wine on stage and the 52 solo gave me an opportunity to run down to the dressing room and procure some, by that time, much needed liquid sustenance which I’d been trying to avoid thus far. By the time we’d finished the acoustic set there was a less than half full bottle of wine at the singers feet. Frankie had also slipped into red wine mode and had more time than us to kick back and relax on stage thanks to all the patter flying around. It was a massive success and I was glad of a small respite backstage which by now was full of smiles, big man hugs and backslaps.
I’d been relieved to see Will Smith and his friend Willie downstairs as I was worried he wouldn’t make it in time for the next section we’d planned. “Planned” is probably the wrong word as nothing had been worked out. The original idea was to repeat the “Never Mind the Fishheads” quiz but Will’s TV commitments meant it was impossible to prepare anything so structured. We’d agreed to just go on stage and jam some comedy around the theme of James Bond movies and Grendel. I’d recruited Scott Mackay, also a comedy writer and the Fairy Tale Creature who’s shown during nights at the studio watching the 007 channel on SKY that he had more than a layman’s knowledge of the minutiae pertaining to Bond movies. Gavin Griffiths and I had sat open mouthed at some of his meandering thought processes after rehearsals in the kitchen as he pointed out minor actors and actresses and what befell them in the films. He was obvious for what I needed and didn’t disappoint! Will is a recognised genius with regard to film knowledge so he was given the lead mike.
We stumbled around for a bit with Will holding it together with some great insights including the shocking statement that he thought Roger Moore the best Bond very much against the panel’s preference for Sir Sean! With 2 Scots and a Welshman that was always on the cards! We were blown away by the “best gadget ever” offering and again he silenced the floor by opening up with the submarine car dismissing the Aston Martin 5 and my gyrocopter! Scott started to dazzle with some well constructed observations and I personally was impressed at his eloquence and substance of his arguments. That was short lived backstage however when he admitted later he’d say up for hours the previous night writing them out and memorising his answers! When we stalled Will brought up the challenge to me of Grendel lyrics and I honestly amazed myself by not faltering and delivering the follow up lines to a T!! It bode well for later! It was a funny and informative section and the crowd lapped it up as we dribbled with topics and put them in the back of the net. The FTC was fabulous and we all agreed he should be in a Bond movie if not as a villain but as an off the wall 007 himself! The first Welsh Rasta Bond! Genius! Yatta again called it to a close just as we were running out of steam and ideas! It had worked well and again mutual hugs and backslapping downstairs. We had tanned some wine on stage and my familiar on my shoulder was ticking me off!
I gathered myself but was getting a wee bit fuzzy round the edges. I still had another segment before I got a real break and some much needed food. A smoke outside. A return to a bad habit in the last 2 months as the album was moved and various other factors came into play in my personal and professional life that had turned the crank on the stress machine. This wasn’t the time to kick away crutches and I ratified in my own head that at least they were slightly better than a cigar habit that my monkey had been lighting for way too long! The stage called again and this time it was for “Grumpy old Musos” with Dave Barras, Will and Mickey.
We kicked off with air travel and I let the others take the leads, car insurance was touched but it wasn’t until we took suggestions from the floor and someone mentioned “X Factor” that I picked up the ball and went the full ten yards! A full blown diatribe followed and I went for the jugular. It was all captured on film and I will probably be embarrassed when I see the footage. It was no holds barred and the others jumped in. Simon Cowell took a kicking and the music industry some heavy collateral damage. It was a serious grump of grumps and it appeared I was not alone in my feelings as the audience applauded the views.
To be honest I was starting to fade and was becoming very aware that I had a full blown show to prepare for and execute in just over 3 hours time. The afternoon was drawing to a close and we left the stage to an uplifting round of applause. We had rolled over on time and the Polish documentary was suffering from the technical malaise. It had been a fun bunch of sessions and the immediate reviews were great!
I had remembered that at the last Leamington convention I’d ended up wolfing Nandos chicken backstage and didn’t really get a break from it all. This time I headed out to a nearby Chinese restaurant with Simone, Will, Willie and John Reid who had been putting in a fine shift with the competition and all the IT work behind the scenes. Just to escape the demands and the constant drain for an hour was the best thing I could have done. My voice was holding up and the company round the table sparkled and smiled. Everyone was more than happy at the result so far.
“It Bites” were now soundchecking .We headed back to the venue just as they came on stage.
I have always admired this band and since John Mitchell took over lead vocal they have had a new lease of life. Simone and I watched over half of the set from behind the mixing desk until news got out I was there and my stage time required preparation. It was interesting to see the audience reaction as when they came on there were a few die hards at the front but by the time they finished the hands in the air reaction had moved well back into the hall. They played a fine set, were well on form and I was glad they got the result they deserved. I always want guest acts to make us work and they definitely fired up the night for us.
My nerves were slightly jangling as I went through warm ups, took my ibuprofen gargled my difflam, prepared the lyric book and grabbed another couple of glasses of wine outside while the clock ticked down.
I’d decided to take the bull by the horns and go for the 83 approach, opening with the track that next to the new material was most anticipated. I figured the call for Grendel would be there from the off so why not deliver the goods full barrel. I’d already decided that despite the helmet being worn in various photos before the weekend that I wasn’t going to emulate the original approach and wear it on stage. I didn’t want it to become pantomime and wanted to perform the song “properly”. This wasn’t about recapturing that era it was about a performance in 2012 and I wanted it bare and exposed and to stand on it’s own merits.
The band were jumpy and the traditional hugs were delivered to everyone including Steve who was in the nervy position of coming on later for the new material. The set was planned and I didn’t want to get yappy on stage in order to get through the songs. To be honest I wasn’t really sure how long the planned set would last as so many numbers had crowd “vibe” endings that we didn’t cover in rehearsals.
There was no intro tape. Yatta moved upstairs. We followed and took our places at the side of stage. The anticipation was immense on both sides of the fourth wall.
The roar that greeted our arrival in positions could only but rally huge smiles from the band. It was a tremendous surge of energy that hit the stage. I can’t remember what I said but when Frankie played the opening riff the place erupted and we launched in full attack mode. As always the focus on stage is far more powerful than in rehearsals and the projection, shot up with a major boost of adrenalin, is tangible. I couldn’t remember the song being so heavy as we moved through the dynamics of the first sections, every transition met with heightening applause and cheering. The “silken membranes” quiet before the storm and the lift into the “Lurker” section had the hairs on my neck rising and that skeletal picking on the guitar before the kit rolled like thunder into the final outro I’ll not forget for a long time.
When we hit the finale all cannon were firing as one and the sense of sheer power on stage was awesome. It was a fantastic high as band and crowd came together in mutual celebration, bouncing in the rhythm and surging in the energies of it all. When Frankie pinged the lead into the end guitar solo everything was peaking. He played an absolute blinder; flawless, composed and sailing high on melodic waves, it was pure exhilaration and a sense of total release. I stood back and watched him rack it up, the band in full brilliant flow and totally at ease in a song most of them had only heard for the first time 4 weeks ago.
The reaction at the end was indescribable on both sides of the participation. We were grinning and shaking hands after the delivery while the crowd quite plainly drowned everything else out in a wall of applause and cheering. I can’t remember a song getting a reception like that ever in my life except perhaps in 83 at Reading. For that moment alone the convention was worth all the effort.
But we had only just begun!
I called “Credo” just as the waves of applause left their high mark on stage and the battery of drums surged forwards to take their place and launch a new assault. The chorus at the end was deafening and just as we thought we couldn’t get higher “Assassing” followed through and raised the roof on the venue. It was incredible seeing the hands raised and clapping in unison right to the back of the hall. The band were firing point blank for effect. The 2 songs work so well together and I remember John Arnison the Marillion manager saying way back in 91 that “Credo” should have been a Marillion number. He maybe had a point:-)
I’d decided to throw in “Jungle Ride” as it seemed to have a natural position after “Assassing” with it’s strong rhythmic guitar driven backbone. We had some problems with this in rehearsals but on the night it all clipped together and the dynamic grooved and shifted to it’s dramatic conclusion. It’s strange that I hardly ever need lyric sheets to clock on this despite it being a huge challenge and a bucket and a half of words. I love the gathering intensity and the brooding mystery of the last section that climbs into the release and chorus to outro. The crowd enjoyed the ride:-)
“Vigil” , a stalwart in the Fishheads Club set, took it’s place on the curve (;-0) and I decided to put the radio mike to good use. Normally I’d return to stage before Frankie picked out the second section but on the spot I decided to stay out for the remainder as it seemed appropriate on the occasion to be in the crowd for the duration of the number. The sense of communion was palpable and sharing smiles and handshakes, winks of recognition and occasional hugs as I walked this way and that, threading through the audience performing the song fitted perfectly with the vibe. The feeling of being one with the crowd and singing the choruses at the top of our voices was an incredibly uplifting feeling. The climb back onto the stage wasn’t graceful but I don’t think anyone cared including me as the response was fantastic! The first act was over!
We’d arrived at out next major challenge and Gavin Dickie was handed a much deserved wine break and I introduced Steve Vantsis on stage. I dropped into my first major monologue of the night and as Steve readied himself I talked about my recent visit to York Minster and the books of Remembrance that covered the history of the Yorkshire Light Infantry from WW1 right up to the fresh hand written entries for the fallen in Afghanistan. I talked about my Grandad with a flashback to the Vickers machine gun on the stairwell. I introduced the High Wood. It was a long introduction, probably the longest of the weekend. The crowd went quiet and respectful and I eased into the opening scene setting vocal of “Crucifix Corner”.
Nerves were obvious and the sound on stage wasn’t the controlled environment of the rehearsal room at the studio. It was hard to hear the keys and guitar if I moved into the bass traps and the others were having the same problems. We held it together as we entered further into the song and I think the emotions and adrenalin carried us on. It was another powerful rendition and we galloped through in acceptable line considering this was the first ever live performance. Playing new songs for the first time is completely different from performing catalogue material and the focus and projection is more on stage than to the crowd. It’s a matter of confidence in yourself and the other band members combined with a fear of thinking you’ve been mining a creative seam the last few months and then discovering it was up your own backside! It’s a totally different form of concentration.
I remember fumbling a bit in the centre of the song but rallying and carrying it through to the end including a rough jammed vocal where the rough jammed vocal was supposed to be for now. It was strong and forthright and as I said there were a lot of emotions playing within the song that acted as a strong glue within the arrangement. We were taken aback at the overwhelming positive reaction from the crowd. More on stage smiles and nods of approval to everyone. A sterling sign!
“Arc of the Curve”, only played 3 weeks ago at the studio with Steve fell nicely into place and soared beautifully in the choruses. Not one of Frank’s favourites but you never would have known as he played effortlessly carrying off a song originally written and recorded for 2 guitars!
The second of the “Feast” songs was up next. “All Loved Up”, dashed through at soundcheck with lots of bemused faces trying to remember the map. It was raucous and bouncy enough to hold it’s own but the arrangement wasn’t as tight as it should be, over extended by about a minute. However it didn’t sound flabby and the tempo and delivery carried it off in our favour. I really like it and think it could be a future live favourite. Again a positive reaction buoyed us and even at this first outing there was enough audience participation to let us know we were writing in the right direction! It’s swing a long and sing a long and lyrically tongue in cheek enough and cynical enough to stand with the rest of the material on the new album.
Steve left the stage relieved and ready for a long tall glass of wine. Big hugs, mission accomplished!
Time was getting short and we ploughed into “Moving targets” and “Mr 1470” with Foss setting it up with his new solo piano intro. 1470 rattled the beams and was a nice return to the setlist. Frankie again shone with the funky outro. The 2 songs worked well together and were supposed to set up “Cliché” with “Forgotten Sons” closing the main set. Decisions had to be made quickly as there was a strict curfew at 11 and we were less than 15 mins away. I pulled up “Fugazi!” scheduled as first encore. It worked perfectly and the closing choruses were sung with searing gusto through outstretched hands clapping perfectly in time above the heads of an audience who like us were riding the big high!! A perfect end to a perfect set. The cymbals sizzled and the crescendo reached up to explode in a wall of noise as the set came to a conclusion everyone drained after a truly memorable 2 hours on stage. The crowd were ecstatic and it was wonderful to see so many happy faces before us and amongst us. What live music is all about!!
We hesitated on the stairs but Yatta signaled that it was over, both of us knowing we had to do it all over again the next day and night. There was no point in pushing over the edge tonight. The venue was still full of cheering as we painfully descended into the backstage. I would have liked to have delivered the other 2 songs as well as “Raw Meat” which we also had rehearsed and available but I didn’t miss them and I don’t think the audience did either. We were all drained from the concentration and the performance and I think there were a lot of people in the Assembly rooms feeling the same as us. It had been a tremendous first day!
I retired into a chilled bottle of Savvy Blanc and hugged my lady. A melee was forming in the backstage area but I wasn’t ready to embrace it and indulge in the party zone. My voice had held up really well considering I’d just sung for 3 hours and talked constantly nearly the entire day! I went into myself for a bit and let others feed the buzz. I’m a little older now and a bit more sensible. I sat in the corner with that strange out of this world / looking on / detached vibe you get after gigs when you are just regaining control of your reality again. There was contentment and relief mixed with shreds of adrenalin and a sense of achievement having delivered exactly what it said on the tin!
Familiar faces and voices flowed around me. Marek from Poland and Karsten from Denmark whose bottle of cognac would remain unopened that night. Jersey from Jersey, a smattering of Norwegians and Germans together with the crew and others who’d been part of the day. It was great to see Robin Boult, looking as distinguished and cool as ever, and Dave Squeaky Stewart who’d come along for the show. Old and new friends gathered.
I stood at the backstage door with the security chief, chilled wine and a guilty cigarette, waving farewells to fans heading for vehicles as the club goers stood next to me oblivious of what had happened next door. I was anonymous, just another tall bald guy with a beard in the night, herded in the smoking area outside the club and waiting on transport.
I can’t remember the journey to the hotel. It was all going hazy. There was only one pint in the bar before I climbed another set of stairs to the room.
The bear lay in the arms of his princess and slipped quietly into Zedland.