In April this year I was approached by my German agency representative and good friend, Dominik to ask if I could play a show in Switzerland in September. He’d been contacted by another good friend , Norbert Mandel who runs the Z7 venue in Pratteln and who also promotes a festival just outside Basel. Norbert needed a huge favour as his headline act for the last night of the festival had pulled out of all their scheduled shows due to the sudden death of one of their members.The band, ‘Riverside’ were old acquaintances and I’d heard about the tragic death of their guitarist, Piotr Grudziński the month before. I told Dominik that I would not have a rehearsed band available then and to bring them together for a one off show in Switzerland did not make any sense. He offered me a German pick up band who could rehearse in Karlsruhe and I could work with them a couple of days there before playing the festival on the Sunday. This was out of my comfort zone but after checking out the musicians on You Tube I decided to go for it. Norbert was exceedingly grateful but in all honesty he had helped me out with shows in the past and had always been supportive so this was the least I could do for him.
The arrangements were made and everything was put in place. I just had to choose a set list for the band to learn. I decided against a full performance of ‘Misplaced’ as I’d declared Bilston Robin as the last outing and didn’t want to be seen to be perpetuating the tour. I also didn’t want to put the new band under pressure too much so opted for some more straightforward songs that didn’t require lots of sound work.and back up effects. I chose Feast of Consequences, Long Cold Day, Family Business, Misplaced side 1, Lucky, Market Square Heroes and Internal Exile with the Company as an encore. I only had to fill 70 mins and these songs gave me a good variation for a festival set. The months crept by and it was all on pause in the back of my mind until a few weeks ago.
I was aware that I hadn’t sung a full set since end of April and with all my ongoing back and knee problems I wasn’t exactly a specimen of health as any fitness training outside of gardening duties was out the question. I was glad it was only a 70 minute set. Rehearsals were scheduled for the Friday and Saturday before the show in Durlach at my good friend and former BAP drummer Juergen Zoellers studio. I’d hoped the trip would coincide with Liam’s September school holidays so we could all be there but I ended up with the strange experience of being in Durlach staying in the ‘Blauer Reiter’ hotel just 10 minutes walk away from our old Balcony on my own. I arrived in Stuttgart on Friday morning and Dominik drove me to the hotel where we had lunch before rehearsals.
The band had just set up when I arrived and were about to play the set together for the first time as all their homework had been done alone.We were all a bit nervous for the first 20 minutes but got into the nitty gritty pretty fast. Apart from a few sound and groove issues that were easily sorted out they had really got to grips with the songs and on the second set run through I was very confident that by Sunday it would be more than just acceptable live. Willy Wagner was bass player and MD for this show. I’d met him once before when he was playing with Juergen Zoeller’s band and they were on a night out at the Kranz. A highly affable guy and a great bass player with wonderful textured sounds he knew what he was on about and had prepared well for the sessions. He had the added bonus of having a birthday on gig day. Tony Clark was my guitarist. An American with a German mother, brought up in Seattle and moved back to Frankfurt in the 90’s he was a real likeable character with a healthy touch of the zany about him. Also an accomplished musician he surprised me when he took out a Japanese flute from his stacks and wowed us with a few deep trills. It turned out he’d studied Japanese music and was in fact a man of many talents. Michael Hauser was our keyboard player and like the others had done his homework on the arrangements and the sounds before he arrived at the studio. Well together and another easy going character he had the keys well under control. Our final band member was Moritz Mueller. A highly respected drummer with a list of credentials like the others he was so busy that the first 2 days he headed back home to Frankfurt after rehearsals for other sessions. A great player he had the set in hold on the first run through with only a couple of pointers to be made. He never stopped smiling.Considering this was our first meeting and run through it went exceptionally well.
Juergen Zoeller popped in to see us and he was suitably impressed. I’d know about his rehearsals studio for a while but had never been there. His drum collection needless to say was impressive and he played back the video that was promoting his new album due for imminent release. It was great to see him so excited and animated with this new project and I loved his energies that were still high after decades in the music industry. You can catch the first video of the title track from the Zoeller and Konsorten album here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLplwn1DmZ8
Juergen joined us later in the Vogelbraeu beer garden as we indulged in a “band bonding session” with schnapps and beers a go-go. We were joined by my sound engineer Alistair Lindsay who flew in that afternoon to be at our final day of rehearsals to get to know our stage set up. My good friends Steffen and Petra were also there and with help from our Irish waiter Nyall we managed to trip the light fandango till I crashed just before midnight. It had been a long day having left the Studio at 5 o’ clock that morning for the journey out leaving Simone to take Liam to school on her first solo outing in the car. We called each other just before the zeds took hold. It was quite surreal talking to my lady in Scotland from a hotel in Durlach!
I was surprisingly fresh next morning considering the previous nights session. Clean corn schnapps and beer had something to do with it with no toxic fall out registering in my system. I did hug the duvet till late morning and emerged into another blistering day for coffee in the garden before rehearsals. I’d arrived later than expected but had brought a tray of coffees as a token of mild apology that was graciously accepted by one an all. Alistair was slightly bleary but everyone else had already racked up the first 3 numbers of the set and had springs in their tails.We ran through a faultless ‘Misplaced ‘ and the rest of the material and decided it was all in place and ready for a stage. There was no point in continuing the run throughs as the band had mastered the songs and in my experience over rehearsal is as bad as under rehearsal. There’s a point the brain saturates and you start to overthink, screw up and then lose perspective on what you’re trying to achieve. I considered us more than ready for Switzerland and called a wrap on the day. It was sunny outside and the Biergarten was calling us.
I took in the Celtic Rangers game on my laptop in my hotel room then joined Alistair for some precautionary “Radler” shandies before moving gently into the curve of the evening. Yatta was due in around 7. I’d offered to fly him in for a ‘busman’s holiday’ and as he is now acting as agent for ‘Lazuli’ he could catch both our shows, set up some business and enjoy a weekend away from home with no pressures. I hadn’t see him since he left Durlach in the Clown Carrier bound for Scotland with the returning German merchandise. Again it was strange catching up here again in the biergarten where we’d had our last meal together. Even stranger was meeting up with Simone’s daughter Mona who works part time as a waitress at the Vogelbraeu and who I’d arranged to see when I was over. We hadn’t seen her since we left for the airport in July and Simone and Mona obviously deeply missed each other. Simone was worried that Mona might be upset at the fact her mother wasn’t there this time and that meeting me now might be difficult for her. We shouldn’t have worried as a smiling happy Mona bounded up to our table and big hugs were to be had. It was great to see her and we talked about Liam’s school and how he was fitting in and how her Mum was finding Life in Scotland.We swapped photos and videos and I called Simone at home so she could talk to her. It was a lovely short time and we both promised to try and get together in Scotland before she goes off on her 6 month trip to South East Asia and Australia.
Yatta finally arrived with Dominik and we dined on roasted pig knuckles with accompanying beers and schnapps. The band, minus a gigging Moritz, elected to move to the Kranz to meet up with Steffen, Petra and Carsten so we settled the bill and said our parting goodbyes to Mona to head up the main drag to the pub. Carousing continued and it was great to have new story boxes opened with Andy a fine teller of tales that grew wings and wildness as the shots of schnapps became an endless parade.I had one eye on my watch and as midnight approached I took my leave and avoided the procession to the only kebab shop still open. We were up early for the 90 minute drive to Basel and our festival venue. I needed a decent sleep before the big day.
The band were at breakfast when I hit reception around 9.30 on yet another blue sky day. Alistair was peely wally and had been throwing up all night. He blamed the pig but the jury had it down to schnapps intake.Yatta was shaken but not stirred and the rest of us were slightly fuzzy but nothing a long drive with an open window wouldn’t sort out. We headed for Basel and Pratteln beyond.
Everytime I’ve read a tour itinerary and seen “Pratteln- day off” mentioned I’ve sighed as with all due respect it’s a particularly boring town with nothing going for it.I’ve spent hours in the past reccying back streets for restaurants and things to do and the most interesting establishment I ever found was a Sex Supermarket on the second floor of one of the many banal concrete structures that make up the bland urban landscape.The Z7 club is the only reason to go there as far as we were concerned. Today’s venue was an open air only a few minutes from Pratteln and I admit I didn’t do my homework before coming out. If I’d known of the existence of Augusta Ruarica a few years ago my days off in Pratteln would have been a lot more interesting.
As we came into the area you couldn’t but help notice the occasional lonely Roman pillars and sections of broken ancient stonework along the streets among the village buildings. It turned out that this was a major Roman metropolis that had been constructed in 50BC and thrived until it’s eventual destruction around 330AD when the Empire collapsed. Only a few major structures remained but the entire area was a huge ongoing archaeological dig and new information about the town and it’s inhabitants was being discovered all the time. It was a truly fascinating place. Our stage was facing the old amphitheater, one of the largest remaining North of the Alps and it was a magnificent setting. I wandered around the site in the baking sun soaking up the history. 15000 people had once lived here and it had been a thriving place of culture and commerce it’s position on the banks of the Rhein making it a very important trading centre. As the Roman Empire crumbled and the native tribes pushed South and reclaimed their territories the colony had come under prolonged and sustained attacks. The town had shrank and eventually near disappeared by 350AD helped along by starvation, disease and a harsh climate. Today it lies mainly beneath modern structures but the maps and models that can be seen by the amphitheater make you very aware just how important and extensive Augusta Ruarica was back then. http://www.augustaraurica.ch/en/ https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g2538993-d3458199-r171431463-Augusta_Raurica-Augst.html
After a quick wander in the backstage area and it’s surroundings I was looking forward to more exploring but soundcheck was first up. Alistair quickly got the channels to hand and one by one the band checked in. We ran through ‘Feast’ together and all was tickety boo. There was no need to play anymore and everyone was confident with their sounds on stage. We headed to the hotel to check in and quickly get back on site as I wanted to go to the nearby museum with Yatta. Urgent messages on the mobiles to return to deal with a “huge problem” were ominous. ‘Lazuli’ were using the same outfront desk as us and their engineer had accidentally deleted our sound files that Alistair had saved on the desk thereby wiping our soundcheck and requiring us to go onstage that evening after a line check. It wasn’t what we needed but I had faith in my out front engineer to come up with the goods. The band I knew were good enough to handle it as well.
It was great to see the ‘Lazuli’ boys after such a long time and I had the added bonus of catching up with Chris Thompson and his Norwegian backing band again. I’d worked with Madds the guitarist and the guys before in Bergen with Chris and we’d done a couple of German festivals together in the past.Gunnar the keyboard player and I got on particularly well and there were lots of smiles when we all caught up. As expected Chris and I shared ailments and he recommended a support to try out on my knees. He looked in great shape and his plaited beard had come a long way since I last saw him. My daughter had driven over from France to see the festival and spend some time with her boyfriend Romain.Taz hadn’t seen Chris Thompson since she came with me to New Orleans over 10 years ago for an SAS band corporate gig so the catch up photo was obligatory.
I had time to kill and after the sound situation was dealt with Yatta and I headed across the road to the museum. We are both suckers for historical stuff and a museum less than a spear’s throw from the backstage tent and with a treasure on display was a serious draw.
The local council or whoever deals with Ruarica have done a fantastic piece of work with street displays and signposts to various locations around the town to give the visitor a great insight in to what it was like back then. None more so than a fully reconstructed Roman villa an annex to which was the museum. It was well laid out with pride of place going to a massive collection of silver objects that had been found during excavation works back in 1961. The biggest hoard of ancient silver discovered in Europe is reckoned to have been buried just outside the walls of the fortress and belonged to 2 men , one a Roman commander. I thought it was a pretty smart move burying it outside the walls rather than in their villas and obviously the marauders or whoever were on the rampage took care of the owners and the silver was subsequently undiscovered until a digger ripped up the hiding place. It wasn’t even as if it was immediately recognised as a silver hoard as it lay in mud and snow for months with some people thinking it was just old rubbish. There were pieces found that were about to be thrown out by their owners as they considered them just scrap metal. The artifacts now cleaned up are dazzling in every respect and the silversmith work leaves you open mouthed. My favourites were the soup spoons and the huge traveling candle that broke down into pieces for transport. There were copies of the spoons for sale in the museum shop at 100 quid a pop and I’m sure an oligarch or two had picked up a set to impress their dinner guests. The price tags were out of my league even though the wee voice in my head was tempting me with “go on, buy one, it’s an investment!”
Yatta and I wandered around the exhibits and had a laugh later as both of us had been thinking about a heist after noticing security seemed pretty lax! ( If anything happened after we left we both have cast iron alibis). It was fascinating and I couldn’t but help being reminded that this had all once been part of a huge thriving colony of a bygone Empire that has long since disappeared in the murk of ages. The reconstructed Roman house was also to be marveled at. It had been paid for by private investors and was worth every penny. Wandering through the villa made it easy to imagine the simplicity of Life back then and the atmosphere was so tranquil. At the same time I shivered at the thought of what happened to people here once the defenses eroded and help from the South was cut off leaving them alone to fend for themselves.
It was a great way to pass an afternoon and we headed to catering for something to eat before ‘Lazuli’ hit the stage. The crowd was a bit sparse and spread out in the amphitheater but by the end of the set the boys had done their work and encouraged the audience to dance and get involved.The went off to a fine reaction but as always it would be great to see this band playing in front of bigger crowds as they deserve more. Yatta has set up a clutch of dates for them in the UK at the end of November and I hope they get the attendances they need to keep things moving forward.They were happy with the show and that is all that matters.
Chris Thompson and his band were up next and he delivered exactly what you expect from an old hand at this game. The band were tight and put in a great set containing old stalwarts like ‘Blinded by the Light’, ‘Davies on the Road Again’,’ Mighty Quinn’ and ‘Don’t Kill it Carol’. Pro and on the dot it was another great performance from the vocal meister who shows no sign of slowing down and for a man who’s 70 next year he is still hitting all the notes. He never ceases to amaze me.
A longer set up for us as we needed to line check after the desk debacle and I’d decided that I’d approach this gig from a different angle as the crowd and setting suggested a more intimate approach. I entered centre stage and mentioned why I was there , dedicating the set to Piotr Grudziński. I introduced the band onstage one by one and we fell into ‘Feast of Consequences’. ‘Long Cold Day’ and ‘Family Business’ followed and everyone had settled down quickly into playing and enjoying the performance. I did not for any moment feel uncomfortable or out of place and the band with only a couple of run throughs in the previous days was pretty tight. ‘Misplaced side 1’ was up next and there were no trip ups or awkward glances as we sailed through the sections. The only problem I had was with the inevitable cameras that came to bear and as there were so many it was pointless getting too upset. However there was one guy who parked an i phone with a microphone on stage right in front of me and who showed little interest in the actual performance that did nark me. He was standing alone with his back mostly to stage and ignored me when I shouted down to him to move his equipment. By ‘Heart of Lothian’ I was fired up and tried to kick it off stage. This just irritated him and next time I didn’t miss but lost my glasses in the process. A bit of verbal followed him as he left the auditorium and I was close to letting the remonstrations get out of hand. The crowd were, I think a bit shocked at my outburst and I was in danger of blowing the great vibe we’d had up till now. I reined myself in and then intro’d and launched into an attacking version of ‘Lucky’. ‘Market Square’ kept the ball in the air and after another ‘Scottish’ introduction we ended the set with ‘Internal Exile’. The adrenalin and white wine took away the pain and I jumped from the stage to dance with the crowd as the band jigged away above me. A great reaction carried us off stage and then we hit them with ‘Company’ as our only encore. Watching ballet dancers in an amphitheater has a lot to beat.
It was a wonderful show and the boys did brilliantly. We took our bows and left with heads held very high indeed. Photos with the Company Italy afterwards and lots of smiles and quaffing of wine among friends old and new. It was a fantastic vibe and we carried it back to the hotel with us and rode it out till the bar closed. Thankfully for me that was earlier than anticipated and I hit my room before 1 as I had a flight home next day and a relatively early rise. The weekend had been a huge success and although I enjoyed the gig I was glad that this would be my last full show until at least June next year.
Dominik was pushing me for more shows with this band but I am not considering anything until after I have written and recorded ‘Weltschmerz’. I may use some of the guys on the album and nothing is ruled out regarding the future band line ups. There may be times like with this Swiss gig where to make it happen I have to consider changing personnel and with so many unanswered questions after Brexit who knows where the European touring situation will go. If visas are required in the future, as we have to deal with in North America, then one offs and small tours may only be feasible with European musicians. Who knows at this point? I enjoyed playing with the guys and we all had a load of fun together. I’d like to do it again sometime but as I said my focus is now on writing a new album. I’m sure there will be space for some Japanese flute playing on it ! 🙂
Monday was pain. I arrived home bent, twisted and aching in every bone, tendon and muscle. A hot bath with magnesium mineral oils took away the edge but I was regretting that off stage jump and the jigging on ‘Exile’ 24 hours before. It was great to be back with a smiling family and sitting around a table together eating dinner as the sun set over the Blue house. I’m glad I am off the road for a while and getting my Life into some sort of normality with a sense of routine to deal with instead of pinballing around airports, backstage areas, hotels and venues. I’m looking forward to this relative downtime with my lady and my stepson and getting on with our new lives here. This is a happy place and I intend it to remain so. Our northern villa on the edge of empires.