Sunday, 28 February 2016

Of Gigs And Overnighting Airports

It’s the end of a very long couple of days and I am sitting in Café Balzar at Stansted Airport.  I hadn't intended being here, at least not today and my system is in shock.  Having not eaten properly for a couple of days, (damn the Mini-Egg season) I thought that, since I’m here, I should find some real food.  Café Balzar had some tempting vegetarian offerings on the menu board outside - or what passes for an outside at an airport.  However, when the entire edifice is under a dome just like the ones you see in all those cities depicted in miserable science fiction futures it is hard to know what “outside" means.  Unfortunately at 11.30pm there is not such a tempting menu inside.  I thought the goat’s cheese, chick peas and vegetables on a flat bread base sounded respectable, so that’s what I ordered.  I wasn’t wearing my glasses and I really should know to wear my spectacles when perusing menus.  My plate is now empty except for the pile of sliced red chillies that were cunningly hidden at the end of the list of ingredients and under everything else on the flatbread pizza - and my mouth is on fire. 

 I am unenthusiastic about spending another night in an airport waiting for the following day when I can travel.  It was only a few weeks ago I did the same thing at Gatwick.  I’m off to see P tomorrow.  We have been apart for nearly two months and that is too long between visits and, quite frankly, too long between hugs, kisses, shared food, films, music and deep conversation.  I need my batteries recharged.  That doesn’t mean I had to come here tonight and sit up not sleeping because I am so excited.  I shall try to sleep at some point, but if I do grab a few winks they will undoubtedly be fitful ones.  I’d have preferred another night on the boat.  The soothing movement and sound of the water, the occasional call of the pheasant roosting in the willow across the river, late night discussions among moorhens and the solid fuel stove at the bow end throwing out the therms and keeping me warm and comfortable in my bunk adjacent to the engine room.  

My journeys to Switzerland, France and recently, Iceland and the USA are reliant on a network of friends who kindly allow me to park my van in their driveways.  Such is the price of living in The-Back-Of-Beyond.  I am fortunate to have friends who live in towns with railway stations.  They may not feel quite as fortunate in having a needy friend with a dirty van.  A couple of weeks ago at a gig I floated the question of parking on the keyboard player’s drive.  I do this when he doesn't have visitors and if I travel during the period from December to April when I can fly from Stansted to Geneva (my spellchecker keeps rewriting “Stansted" as “Stagnated” which, in my present state, is both irritating and mildly amusing).  He lives in a town on the Cross Country train line between Birmingham and Stansted Airport and it is by far the cheapest option.  

Unfortunately, the best laid plans are subject to railway timetables and replacement bus services.  I had planned to go tomorrow, but that’s a Sunday, and Sunday - as everyone knows - is the day the railway business inflicts special misery on the travelling public.  Over the past few years I have discovered that Cross Country Trains specialise in cancelling their one train an hour with little notice, so it is imperative to time the journey to account for this possibility by factoring in an extra hour.  It is no good arriving at the airport after the flight has flown.  One might have hoped that an infrequent train service to an airport, specially London’s “third” airport would be offered some form of protection by the services that connect it to its feeder constituency, but that is not the case.  Neither do they run trains in the evening when flights are still coming in or on Sunday mornings when flights (like mine) are flying out.  What is the point of an airport service that doesn’t serve?  Consequently, after an action-packed day I returned to the boat to pack and finally get round to working out my travel plans to meet my flight (I said it had been a busy couple of days).  I could not really come up with a workable combination of trains and friends’ driveways.  The only option was to take up the keyboard player’s offer , but go tonight instead and sit it out eating expensive, mouth-searing Tunisian pizza.  With an hour to go I set off into the night at speed, breaking all my own rules and the law by phoning the keyboard player’s wife to check that it was okay to turn up twelve hours early.  I suppose I am glad the airport stays open all night, unlike King’s Cross Station … but that’s another story.

Let me tell you about my busy couple of days.  I still have not resolved the battery and inverter issues on the boat, but they have had to take a bit of a supporting worry to getting some songs sorted for Saturday’s half-hour slot at Norwich Arts Centre.  NAC is probably one of my favourite places to be entertained, even though I really do not like the main auditorium in the converted church.  What makes it special for me is the staff and (unusually for me) the bar.  The bar is one of those rooms where I have frequently gone to meet friends and even the room itself feels friendly.  Every time I have gone to see something happen at the centre the staff have without fail been helpful, courteous and, on occasion, downright considerate.  Today was no exception and although I have been to events many times where friends have played, today was my first time there as a solo performer.  I was booked to be one of four acts for a monthly session known as Play The Music - or possibly Play The Acoustic Stage, I get confused - in the bar I was pleased to note.  My fellow performers for today were to be Chris Pidgeon (a solo singer/songwriter with a row of pedals including a looper), Andy Kirkham (singer/songwriter and guitarist very extraordinary) and Hot Raisin (a female guitar duo singer/songwriter act).  I was on third.  The moment I walked through the door with guitar and My-Special-Stool in one hand whilst hauling my footdrums with the other I was approached by someone who wanted to show me where I could stow my kit safely and securely until I was required to set it up.  I was asked if I needed to be shown where to go and if I knew where “the facilities” were.  If only some schools could rehearse similar courtesies.  I lost count long ago of the number of times I have driven for two or three hours to arrive and set up for whatever workshop has been booked to be greeted on arrival by a harassed, but otherwise armour-plated, receptionist/secretary and not even asked if I had had a good journey, let alone offered a glass of water.  On one occasion I took five rather unanticipated hours to get through what appeared to be roadworks extending for the majority of the ninety-mile journey to a school in Derby and all they could manage was to demand that I set up as quickly as possible because the children were waiting.  Of course no one was available to help unload about forty drums so the setting up took even longer because of the number of trips I had to make and being unable to get my vehicle anywhere near where I was working.  I was embarrassed enough to be late without needing to be treated like a naughty Year One pupil.  No, in this regard Norwich Arts Centre is exemplary.  It was no trouble to get someone with the key to open up the room two or three times when I needed access.  It was always carefully locked afterwards too.  Small things maybe, but to me they seem important enough to make a difference.  I was delighted to be sitting in the bar waiting for the organisers to show up when I heard something familiar on the sound system.  “Is this Camille?” I asked the woman behind the bar.  She smiled that someone knew and appreciated her choice and we talked about this wonderful French artist for a while.  I had the great privilege of seeing Camille perform with her band when she was touring the (at the time) newish album, “Ilo veyou”, a couple of years ago.  This was in one of my other favourite arts centres, Château Rouge, a walk into town from P’s apartment.  Bar Woman did not know this later album.  She was playing “Le Fil” which, to my mind, is a testament to Camille’s incredible creativity in that she created an album full of innovation with all the songs linked by The Thread - a drone that sounds throughout the album.  If you don’t know it, you must seek it out immediately.

Sean took some photographs with my phone
The organiser of the Play The Acoustic Stage gig had promised an attentive audience, my favourite kind.  I was rather dismayed that the audience was not as attentive as I had hoped during the first two sets.  There were little outbreaks of conversation around the room and sometimes the performers were trying to outloud them.  I don’t find that works well for me.  I am far too thin-skinned.  When my turn came I had to speak over some chat as I made some fatuous opening remarks, but I chose to sing “Cruiser” as my first song.  I love to watch an audience during songs like this.  I am not aware of another song that tackles this subject in the same way.  Soon after starting there was hush.  I think people started off being curious about the drums, but as they could hear the words they really listened to the song and stuck with me for the rest of the set.  I have often wondered why I think I do this to myself.  I don’t feel I am a natural performer.  Attacks of nerves can sap my memory, my fingers and my feet and strike at any point during a set.  Today, I got to the end of my short set and realised I had actually enjoyed myself.  I might do it again somewhere, then.  After “Cruiser” I sang “Circumcision”, “Fighting For Me” and “Dear Mr Carter”.  

One of Sean's somewhat more arty shots!

Many thanks to Jason who extended the invitation to play, to Ryan who looked after the sound very efficiently, to my fellow performers and to my new friend, Sean, who treks over to Grange Farm Studios for our monthly Hangout sessions, but who came along today.  It is nice to see some friendly faces in the audience.

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