Watched a documentary about Iron Maiden last night after the post-gig drive. I felt an odd kinship with the band and their operation; the shots of acres of cables, phalanxes of road crew, logistics experts, massive mixing desks condensed into custom-built computer programs, wardrobe mistresses, lighting rigs, ocean containers' full of road cases, with lead singer Bruce Dickinson deftly piloting the plane that transports the whole she-bang around the world not so very different from what we're doing out here. On a much, much way much smaller scale. Day One - Manchester
The day starts early and we're loaded up and ready to depart from friend Andy's house at 8 AM. Our high spirits dim slightly when the neighbors ask if we're (47-year old) Andy's parents.
Halfway up the motorway we realize that what with all the packing and loading we've left our mobile phone behind.
A six hour drive and we're at the gleaming new BBC Studios in Salford Quay. BBC security is tight as for a government building, but we're soon unloading and setting up. Everyone is helpful and professional. I've got a busted cable on a keyboard and there's a relaxing of protocol to allow an engineer to take the pedal to the workshop and fix it.
Our host Marc Riley arrives, calls me "chook" which always gives me a thrill, and we go on the air in two different segments of his show. I think we played alright and we have a few laughs. Then the studio is empty and it's just us and the night security guard helping us load up the car.
We set off in search of Indian restaurant Akbar, where we ate last time and had great food and, even more important, a parking place in clear view of the restaurant since we have 5 guitars, various amps, all our bags etc in the car. For a minute we lose heart, it appears Akbar is now Bollywood or so the GPS says, but as we start driving back toward the motorway and our hotel we spot the real Akbar, find a parking place right out front and join the crowd of boozing young professionals who probably wonder what Andy's parents are doing out at this hour.
Day Two - Glasgow
A little bit of a rough start - our road manager (me or Eric) booked us in a hotel with plentiful free parking, not an easy feat in Manchester but the pillows were substandard. Still, it's better than the band accommodation I stayed at one time here where everyone sleeps on pallets on a basement floor.
We tear ourselves away from the property shows on TV (Homes Beneath The Hammer etc) and hit the motorway, our pilot Eric securing the driver's side window (we've borrowed Andy's swish car, but it has a few "issues") with sleek black gaffer tape. We stop at the first of many motorway services Marks & Spencers for yogurt and fruit. We have to fortify ourselves, knowing the load-in in Glasgow will be hell.
"Workers out, entertainers in!" Eric shouts as he pilots the car into the city centre, going against the flow of rush hour traffic. The club is down a tiny lane lined with overflowing garbage bins. We load the stuff into a tiny elevator, almost a dumbwaiter, then run down two flights to intercept it. Carry it through to the venue and heave it onto a very tall stage. This is where we feel like we should be wearing bandanas and baggy shorts with lots of keys clanking, hiking shoes and black t-shirts. But then we've got to move the car and find a parking space, so it's out of roadie mode and back to transport crew.
Soundcheck takes a while - it's the first show of the tour, so some of the equipment (amps, keyboard) is different from the US stuff. Plus there's a pole on one side of the stage that takes some negotiating and we're down a guitar stand so have to scavenge one from the bowels of the stage and it's a little precarious.
Catering (the vegan restaurant upstairs) serves up a delicious dinner and we wolf it down and run back to throw our gig clothes on and play. It's a nice turnout and the Glasgow crowd doesn't disappoint, shouting encouragement throughout the show and calling us back for a couple of encores.
Lots of hugs and pats on the back as I work the merchandise and Eric starts packing the guitars and cables. Load it all in the tiny elevator again (at least there is an elevator), run up the stairs, unload. Then run and get the car.
We get back to our friend Lindsay's house, about 40 minutes from town , where he has a delicious dinner waiting for us - after all that running up and down and playing for two hours we're hungry and that vegan fare just doesn't really cut it. We're still jet-lagged so it's no problem staying up talking until 3 or 4.
Day Three - Newcastle/Gateshead
It's not a long journey to Newcastle so our team sleeps late, chows down on crumpets and healthy muesli, does an interview for the Southend show, and tries to book a Premier Inn with an American credit card which is apparently not possible. A simple task like getting a room for the night turns into an hourlong project and suddenly it's time to say goodbye to Lindsay and head off. He helps us load all the guitars and stuff back into the car.
I used to imagine England and Scotland would mean dining in country pubs, staying in characterful inns, but for touring it's mostly a collection of places to avoid: Lindisfarne Services - no! Pride Hotel and Cafe One - the worst! Drive on. Instead of character we look for the bland and consistent - oh good, a Starbucks AND a Waitrose. There just isn't time or energy to risk "an experience" going wrong.
We make it to the venue in Gateshead by driving down a "Buses Only" road. Come to think of it, we did the same thing in Glasgow yesterday. For a one-time use per city , I think Buses Only are our friends.
Gav who is running the gig very kindly helps load the stuff up a flight of stairs into the function room above the pub rooms below. The Central is a nice pub and I think they've just started having shows upstairs. The soundman is a girl and seems confounded by the P.A. - I don't think she's ever been here before and it takes a long time for her to sort through the cables and channels but that's okay because I'm still trying to make sure we have a room for tonight. The Premier Inn have agreed to let us check in late and promised not to give our room away.
We soundcheck, bolt down some of the pub's very decent food, throw on our stage clothes in the storage room (I undress thinking that even though there are no curtains, it's okay cause there don't seem to be any buildings around. At that exact moment a packed commuter train swings into view right outside the window and is gone before I can snap off the lights - good evening Gateshead!)
It's a fun mixed ages crowd, a lot of them shouting unintelligibly (it is Newcastle after all) but I think they like us. The soundwoman looks shellshocked. Eric's old friend Steve helps sell merch and there's lots of hugging and trying to keep beer glasses off the merchandise. We pack up the equipment and because it's a room upstairs and closed once the gig is over, we're able to sit for a minute and have a drink in the pub. Then Gav helps us load up the car, Eric fends off a drunk "I'sh ben lishtening ta ya shinsh I wash a lad!" and we fire up the GPS and get to our Premier Inn, find a luggage cart, unload all the guitars and our bags, and settle in for the night. Just like Iron Maiden, things aren't as wild as they once were. There's some frenzied pounding coming from the room above and we shout "Could you keep it down up there, we're trying to listen to the Archers!"
Day Four - Hull
We sleep late and drag ourselves out of the hotel after the maid knocks for the third or fourth time. It's raining and we pile the equipment back in the car, get on the motorway and head for the first motorway services because we haven't eaten since the pub meal and it's one in the afternoon. I resist buying the paper as the car is full of Guardians and a Scottish Herald already. Yesterday's article that I read to Eric was an interview with Wilko Johnson, who's been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is out doing a farewell tour. Maybe only now is he understanding how he has held a place in people's lives. It's nothing to take for granted. The thought that we're doing alright, for filling a pub room in Newcastle, that it means something - Wilko's farewell is affecting us all.
There are the lights of the Humber Bridge and Eric tells me the story (not for the first time) of how he was the last to be allowed to cross the bridge that night we first met at the Bull Hotel in Hull. How ice was falling onto the car. "And if you hadn't been able to cross? Then we might never have met at all?"
Friends Kathy and Kevin serve us a lovely chicken dinner before we go to the Adelphi for soundcheck and the gig - this place has been around forever and the grime has a patina of grime but it is a classic. I think I played there two or three times before Eric and I started playing together, for us it's the third or fourth time. There's some competition in town tonight with John Otway in one venue and the Pretty Things in a town hall - that's a lot going on for one night in Hull but our turnout is great and everyone's very supportive. I love Hull, people have a good time and it cracks me up how when Eric uses his old entertainer's "And remember - if you're driving home, don't forget to take the car!" the entire audience LAUGHS.
Sell some records, take photos with a nice Japanese guy Tot who flew all the way to England to see Wilko and took a train all the way up to this mysterious place called Hull to see another hero Wreckless Eric. Then load out over a parking lot filled with puddles, trying not to get the guitars and amps wet. See the lights of the Humber Bridge again ("ice was falling onto the car...and just after me they closed the bridge." "And if you hadn't been able to cross? Then we might never have met at all?"); unload the guitars, stay up for a few hours at Kathy and Kevin's eating and drinking in front of the wood burner.
Day Five - Stockton on Tees
Think I'm finally over the jet lag and now just feeling worn out in general. Have some sausages and lots of coffee, load up the guitars and start the drive up to Stockton which is under two hours away. Our pilot is tired too, so we stop at the services to shut our eyes. People are clutching their coats around them - the temperature has really dropped. It's Mother's Day in England, the services is full of people going north or south to visit their mothers.
Finding the venue in Stockton is not easy, despite the "widest high street in all of Europe" - there are bollards blocking any possible turns off of the widest high street. We rely on our trusted friend "Buses Only" again and with the help of Dave the promoter who runs alongside the car (all those guitars etc in the back mean no room for passengers) to guide us in to the side street. Unload with the help of Dave and a small trolley through some bollards and up a cobblestone street.
It's quite a small venue and takes some organizing and setting up to get the stage and lights going but the soundman Chris is super-efficient and helpful. Dave gets us pizzas which we (surprise) bolt down and then play two sets for a mixed crowd - I think we did alright because everyone wanted to buy a record after. We pack up and get the trolley, bring the car to the bollards, down the cobblestones and try to find our way out of Stockton.
There's the Humber Bridge lights again, we're barely able to keep our eyes open, I ask Eric to tell me again about how he was the last to be allowed to cross the bridge that night we first met at the Bull Hotel in Hull. How ice was falling onto the car. "And if you hadn't been able to cross? Then we might never have met at all?"
"Nah, I just would've turned around and gone down the other way."