US tour 2014, part 3: Thunder Roll and Moonshine

We’re back in Dixie, and our first stop is Pawleys Island, South Carolina, which seems to be a place mostly devoted to golf. Barely knowing a caddy from a birdie, I feel a fraud. We stay on a swamp-moss-draped resort (a former plantation, which spooks me somewhat) whose rooms have tee-patterned wallpaper and little display cases showing the evolution of the golf ball. Our show takes place under a big tent, with the chirp of crickets accompanying us in the sultry night.

The Paramount Theatre in Goldsboro, North Carolina boasts a fine array of pageant costumes in the its green room (see below). At dawn the next day, the mighty Tom Anderson arrives to chauffeur me on the most fleeting of trips to and from SoJam, to give an hour’s worth of songwriting workshop. I find an ebullient class of 30 students full of ideas, and wish I had several more hours with them. As it is, there’s barely time on the way out to high-five a few friends and vocal heroes including live-looping queen Julia Easterlin, whose family – as chance would have it – will host us for dinner a couple of days later.

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Then Wilmington NC, a historic port town on the Cape Fear River. As usual, there’s not really time to explore, though just before the show I sneak a quick walk to and from the riverfront– old, pretty, with the merest glimmer of seediness from the windows of its shops and bars. Across the sunset-pink water sits the enormous USS North Carolina, with a Tom Sawyerish paddle-wheeler rolling by to complete the picture (below).

Thalian Hall, where we are performing, has everything I want from a venue – historic atmosphere, friendly efficiency, techies wearing kilts. Within two minutes of our arrival the staff have anticipated our every question and need; better still, they give us a tour of the attic space that houses one of the world’s only working Thunder Rolls. This arcane 19th-century sound effect is a long wooden trough that slopes from one side of the building to the other and back again, above the proscenium arch. At intervals of a few seconds, you release half a dozen iron cannonballs at the top of the run and they rumble down it as someone else spins a barrel full of dried peas to make rain and, from the stage below, Lear rages at the sky. It’s a contraption Wile E. Coyote himself would be proud of.

Getting to and from this artefact is an adventure in itself, involving a crawl through various tight spaces and a clamber up and down an rickety ladder. Afterwards, we descend a back staircase of dark polished wood that our guide tells us, a little abashedly, used to be reserved for blacks in the days of segregation. It’s a jolting reminder that for all the jetsam of the past we celebrate under the “historic” banner, there will always be grimmer shadows lurking.

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My first impression of Augusta, Georgia is the plaque outside the Methodist church where we will be playing – founded by “a young Virginia minister who denounced the worldliness of fun-loving Augusta”. I’m not sure whether to be pumped or nervous about encountering fun-loving Augusta and its detractors. With time to kill, I wander through the deserted Sunday morning streets towards the Riverwalk to find somewhere open for lunch. The Boll Weevil has one of the most monumental dessert menus I’ve ever seen, and I stuff my face with blueberry cheesecake. A waitress passes me with a huge iced cake balanced on each hand. Then comes the terrible cry: “Cake down!”

As I emerge into the intense sun, I notice I am on James Brown Blvd. The Godfather of Soul has a street named after him that leads directly to the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre. Must be something musical in the water.

IMG_2180The city has come out of church and loosened its collar as I head back to the venue. A patch of common land is given over to a Hispanic Festival whose thumping bass follows me for several blocks. Then suddenly, I hear these loud blasting chords. A big fat Fsus4. I can’t tell where the blasts are coming from, still less what they are. Car horns? Some kind of pipe organ? A John Cage happening? I’ll never know, but for a few minutes I am elevated to this dreamlike sense of grandeur.

Inside the church, we are preparing to give the congregation their first ever amplified music experience. The church has hired in not just any PA, but one with enough subwoofer power to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Probably best not to fire all cylinders. Probably also best not to describe our song Burden as a “drinking song”. It’s interesting how the song has run the gamut of interpretations even in the year we’ve been singing it. I originally intended it as a love song; now we tend to perform it in the spirit of a pub singalong. But Sara’s churchgoing mum tells me she hears it as a worship song, and that’s how we present it to the Augustans. I love the idea of songs being repurposed and changing their meaning depending on context. Case in point: the state anthem Georgia On My Mind, which could equally well be about someone named Georgia.

The folks of fun-loving Augusta seem to love our show, including our friend Jamal Moore from The Exchange. Afterwards we’re taken to a reception in the church hall with not-insubstantial nibbles AND then whisked off to a “potluck” feast at the Easterlin family home. I make myself so thoroughly at home that not I end up bouncing on the trampoline in their garden and trying to figure out how to play the harp in the living room. (Kevin and I busk our way through a bit of Satie; I immediately add harp to my wish list of impractical instruments to own some day). We’re even invited back the next day to lounge around in the hot tub and play with the dogs in the family’s absence, which we eagerly accept.

Some other parishioners have offered up their homes for us to sleep in. I’m expecting a sizeable place, but nothing can prepare me for the palatial residence we drive up to. Massive Ionic columns at the front entrance, marble floors, four-poster beds with steps up to them, ensuite baths in every room, lift, pool table, the lot. It’s the size of a luxury hotel and it’s occupied by one elderly couple – though they have 16 grandchildren and also rent out the house to corporate parties during the Masters golf tournament. One such party has left behind a bottle of Maker’s Mark, which we sip on the porch until the wee hours.

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Variations on a theme of Southern Hospitality: the joke I tell to audiences in this region is that I didn’t know what this well-worn phrase meant until it was handed to me on a plate. Truly, heart and stomach are indivisible here, and in just a few days we’re on the receiving end of more huge meals and general acts of kindness than I can count. There’s the night an audience member invites us to the beautifully furnished back room of her shop, and orders us to help ourselves to anything we see, including various legal and not-quite-so-legal varieties of moonshine, each with a shaggy dog story attached. There’s the sunny small talk with everyone from promoters to waitresses and check-in staff (the Delta agents at ATL airport do pretty good English accents, as it turns out). There’s the impossibility of leaving anywhere unladen with bags of food. If very occasionally the lavish generosity has an undertone of emotional pressure – at one venue the caterers more or less stand over us as we eat to make sure we are enjoying it – that doesn’t negate the warm and fuzzy feeling our Southern experiences leave us with. I miss the brisket and collard greens already.

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US tour 2014, part 2: Kissing a Sunset Pig

We wake up to the brilliant sunshine of San Diego. I walk along the beach path in Mission Bay Park, among bronzed fitness freaks, a Sunday worship group singing under a gazebo, a jogger powering a pushchair, a cyclist towing his dog in a little trailer, and out on the water the snarl of jet skis. I find a patch of beach to make my own, and take my sun-baked rest cure. The day before had begun wearily enough in Natick, even before the six-hour flight and the shuttle bus to the car rental with the driver’s constant, unintelligibly-accented stream of chatter met by our ashen, blank faces. All hail Vitamin D, and the incredibly simplistic emotional circuitry that means sun = happy. I am ready for anything.

“Anything”, in this case, is hardly a gruelling prospect. It’s a bowl of beautiful Californian-Mexican grub (spicy mahi-mahi served on rice, salsa, guac etc.) at a branch of the San Diego institution Rubio’s. Then we head to the nearby suburb of La Jolla, where we’re playing an afternoon show in an Episcopal church. It has some attractive stained glass, including one window of St Francis and what looks like Jesus with sci-fi lasers shooting out of his fingers. During the second half of the show, the sinking sun hits the west window and paints the floor of the nave in intense blue and yellow. By the time we emerge from the church to meet, greet and sign CDs, the sun is hitting the ocean, and the sky is the backdrop to a 1980s music video.

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Have you noticed how most songs about places are really about not being there? San Diego Serenade by Tom Waits, California Dreamin’, California by Joni Mitchell, Going To California by Led Zeppelin, even the O.C. theme song by Phantom Planet… they’re all about an idealised, imagined or remembered version of the Golden State, written from an outsider’s standpoint. Nonetheless, they all made the cut for my Cali playlist as we cruised up Interstate 5† from San Diego to L.A. with the ocean to the left and scrubland hills to the right. There’s nothing quite like hearing Pet Sounds in its natural habitat.

(†A.k.a. the Fiiiiiive: I can’t help hearing Californian road names in the voices of The Californians from Saturday Night Live.)

To a hungry consumer of American pop culture, the whole of L.A. can seem like a patchwork of musical references and film locations. There’s barely a street or neighbourhood whose name doesn’t crop up in a song I love, barely a café whose décor I don’t dimly recall from a movie scene. Our first stop after checking into our hotel is Café 101 in West Hollywood, which apparently features prominently in Swingers (I haven’t seen it). Then on to Bardot, a club near Hollywood & Vine that is all art nouveau curls and red mood lighting, with a stage set up in a central courtyard. In the balmy evening, it takes us a while to realise that we are open to the elements – a set-up that could only work in a city like L.A. where rain is a newsworthy occurrence.

We’re at Bardot to perform a couple of unplugged songs as part of School Night, a weekly musical hang curated by KCRW’s Chris Douridas. This kind of intimate performance, with no comforting mics to hold on to and an audience at very close quarters including a famous film director front and centre, is much scarier than singing in an opera house or arena. What will the hipster crowd make of the English a cappella imposters in their midst? Happily, they go for it, with attentive hush giving way to whoops and cheers. Then again, to judge by the outrageously eclectic bill – after us it’s folky neo-soul followed byheadbanging Southern rawk – it would take a lot to faze them.

IMG_2113 The next day, after a private lunchtime performance, some of the gang hit the beach, while Kevin, Hugh and I head for the hills. We park by the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, where Lorde is playing that night (though I need hardly point out that the Swingles show is the hotter ticket). Eschewing the various gentle paths available to us, we make for the steepest, sandiest slope in sight, and madly scramble up it. The sun is on maximum grill setting, and we puff and sweat our way to the top, where we are rewarded by the most phenomenal 360 degree panorama of the smog-hazed expanse of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we amble down, past cacti and bony lengths of rusting pipe that protrude from the hillside, past Griffith Observatory and a choice view of the Hollywood sign.

The Sayers Club, where we have our first L.A. show in a decade, is known as a venue of choice for Prince and The Black Keys, and we’ve been told that Bruce Willis’s daughter Rumer will be playing the late set after us. It’s as cool as you’d expect, with artfully distressed walls, leather couches and bare lamps hanging from the ceiling. Big screen prints of Samuel Beckett and the Queen look out from behind the stage, making this Beckett-loving subject of Her Maj feel nicely at home. The room is almost at Dans Le Noir levels of mood lighting by the time the doors are opened to a crowd that includes industry types, a cappella pals, fans from the Philippines, ex-Take 6 titan Mervyn Warren, and Ward Swingle’s daughter. Their reaction to our set is beyond all my expectations – the heavy artillery of Piper and the Bach fugue are received equally ecstatically.

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Like many Londoners who need something to feel superior about when it’s raining and the tube’s broken, I’ve always assumed I’d be totally incompatible with Los Angeles. Having come prepared to loathe it, I leave seduced. Probably it’s the heroes’ welcome we are treated to; no doubt the city’s convenience-first mindset (plentiful parking, cafés whose staff offer up the Wi-Fi code unprompted) and sun are factors. The presence of healthy options on menus comes none too soon; hiking up above the grid helps counteract the sense of sprawl. I may not be planning to up sticks for the pilot season, but I’m surprised to find that the idea of L.A. makes sense to me.

And with that, I am humming Jolie Holland, not to mention Rachel Stevens, and we’re eastbound again for a run of gigs in the South. Tune in next time for brisket, moonshine, thunder runs, trampolines and much more.

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US tour 2014, part 1: Bridging the Fancy Gap

“Wow, doesn’t feel like we’ve been on tour for a week already,” I remember chirping from the back seat as we drove into Massachusetts on Friday. A grunt from the driver’s seat suggests this sentiment may not be universal. We have ploughed through 12 states within the last five days. FL > GA > SC > NC > VA > WV > MD > PA > NJ > NY > MA. For me, exempt from driving for the simple reason that I can’t drive (a bombshell greeted with bafflement by most Americans), it’s felt breezy.

By Saturday, though, I have no trouble accepting it’s been (over) a week. My laundry situation has reached crisis point; I have staged an intervention on myself with regards to the hoodie I have worn almost constantly since London; my forages through restaurant menus for vitamins are increasingly desperate. I’m in strip-mall Starbucks purgatory several miles outside a cute New England town. I’m tired and grumpy. What do you mean, you can tell?

*

“What’s in the cases?” asks the check-in guy at Heathrow. “Microphones?” They’re wireless transmitters for our mics, we explain. He nods. “Sick.” Pause. “So who gets the most girls?”

Business travel means having much more important things to do on a long flight than watch films. So I definitely didn’t plough through Maleficent, The Lego Movie and numerous episodes of New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Actually, business travel means knowing not to start a movie near the end of the flight. Otherwise, you’re doomed to having the critical scenes repeatedly and ramblingly interrupted by PA announcements. This time, the flight attendant on the mic is especially lacking in gift of the gab, leaving cavernous gaps in the middle of her spiels and then coming back on the system to let you know that the credit card offer she spent half an hour detailing is in fact no longer valid. When we land in Charlotte she cautions us not to use our mobile phones while going through immigration, “otherwise you may find yourselves in water.” [silence] “In hot water.” So we behave ourselves, and our connection to Jacksonville, followed by a drive to St Augustine, passes without drama. We step in from the steamy Florida humidity to fridge-like AC in our rooms, and crash.

The next morning, in the poky corner of the hotel devoted to breakfast, a heavyset family is hogging the waffle-maker. They are something close to the Platonic form of redneck. Mom’s t-shirt features a large Confederate flag with the caption “I’m not wearing this shirt just to piss you off… But if it does, WELL OKAY!” I overhear Dad saying: “I’ll hit him, then I’ll hit him again, then again. He’ll believe in God when I’m finished with him.”

Outside, the palms are swaying against a grey sky. A big fan-tailed bird of prey takes off from one of them and flaps off towards the sea. An osprey?

*

St Augustine claims the title of oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America, and the centre of town is a combination of old Spanish colonial buildings and others made to look old and colonial. Marching into the venue with our Francis Drake accents, we meet the promoter, who turns out to be a committed Anglophile who used to work for British Nuclear Fuels. For all her familiarity with Limey-speak, though, we find we have caused consternation by asking for bottles of “still mineral water” on our rider. Taking this for a rare specialty beverage (rather than what Americans simply call “bottled water”) she has sent out a search party to scour the local stores for it. Oops.

The first gig of the tour goes over well. Do the audience detect a jetlag-crazed gleam in our eyes? At the end of the first half, Sara is in the middle of her opera diva bit when Donizetti’s libretto and melody desert her completely. This after hundreds of flawless performances of the same song! Memory’s a funny thing. The rest of us are somewhere between terror and fits of giggles as she bluffs her way through some fake Italian, and manages to right the ship. It’s an amazing piece of showbiz sleight-of-hand – a lesser pro would simply have crumbled – and the audience are none the wiser. Later in the show, Kevin introduces After The Storm at the exact moment an actual storm starts growling and howling outside. Anything can happen in Florida.

As it’s my first time in this most tropical corner of the US, it’s thrilling to emerge from the venue into a nocturnal concert of bleating, bleeping frogs, all hitting the same two-note riff. (C – D flat, since you ask.) We walk through narrow streets of clapboard houses strung with lights, until we come to an old warehouse. The Ice Plant, once used for industrial production of the frozen stuff, is now a cathedral of cocktail-making, with a happy hour that starts at 10.30pm. My Old Fashioned – containing a big hunk of homemade, perfectly clear ice – goes down a treat.

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After a free day on and around the long, white-sand beach near our hotel, and a splash in the warm surf, we head to Atlanta to perform a short set at an industry showcase. Between our soundcheck and the gig we have an afternoon to kill downtown, and I wander around in the beating sun looking for ways to pass the time, and not having a lot of luck. (I make the mistake of thinking the Martin Luther King Historic Sites are out of walking range.) My disappointment is coloured by a vague expectation that the city should be decked out like an OutKast album cover. There is this sign, mind you:

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Isn’t it depressing that, as I took that picture, my main thought was “Facebook cover photo”?

Boredom sends Hugh and me up the almost-empty Ferris wheel that offers decent views of the Olympic Park and the city skyline. A sign below, pointing straight up at us, reads: “After the wheel, eat meal at WAFFLE HOUSE.” This tickles us.

I feel sure that we must be the only fey Brits in the ATL – until I see on a poster that Belle & Sebastian are in town! We don’t bump into each other, which is probably for the best, as I would have garbled some stuff about how their music briefly got me an access pass to the cool arty clique at school, or how If You’re Feeling Sinister came on in a Munich café that time when I was feeling desperately homesick, and made my day.

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Wednesday is the monster drive north from South Carolina to Pennsylvania. Early on, we pass the enormous and suggestive-looking Peachoid in Gaffney, which I remember from House of Cards. This excites me, as does the sign to somewhere called Fancy Gap. We stop for lunch at a Virginia branch of the wonderfully named chain Fatz. I steer clear of the all-you-can-eat ribs, but the key lime pie gets me in its death grip.

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At a certain point, all the place names seem to end in –burg. Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Edinburg, Harrisonburg. Our destination is Harrisburg, the somewhat unlikely capital of Pennsylvania and a city that I’m sure has its charms. All I see of it, however, is the Burger King where I grab lunch, and our concert venue. The latter is a great space where we meet with a beautifully warm welcome by the promoter and the easy-going-but-efficient tech crew. The result, not surprisingly, is a lovely show.

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Another long drive on Friday, this time taking us up to Natick, Massachusetts, the northernmost stop on our tour. The morning starts with Pennsylvania covered in mist, but by the time we stop for coffee and fuel in New Jersey, the sky is a brilliant blue, with the mythical Manhattan skyline a paper cutout in the distance. I love spending time in New York, but there’s something electric about just brushing against it. Last summer we played in Long Island before flying home from Newark, and the fleeting midnight drive through SoHo was thrilling, like the old story about the sailors who land on the back of a whale. This time, we cut across the northern end of the city, past the striking Riverside Drive viaduct, and into Connecticut.

Favourite place names on this leg of the trip: Throgs Neck Br; Woonsocket.

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As we get further north, the leaves take on more gold and russet, and the last stretch brings the New England fall palette in all its glory. Natick itself is a quintessential little Massachusetts town, with a wooden bandstand in the middle of a grassy common, a great deli for lunch, and lots of 19th-century red brick and clapboard. The local arts centre is a big supporter of a cappella music, and this is the Swingles’ second time here. It’s an old local fire station and has a cosy atmosphere, especially with some of our friends from nearby Boston – and others all the way from upstate New York and New Hampshire – in the audience. Afterwards, we repair to a local brewery and toast Oli’s birthday.

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Which brings me full circle to Starbucks, where I’m not exactly hung over (I didn’t indulge enough for that) but certainly feeling a bit sorry for myself. I diagnose it as a mild cold combined with the touring malaise that comes from zipping between ZIP codes without really absorbing your surroundings. Silly as it may sound, my failures to go to that museum in Atlanta or to make it beyond the Harrisburg Burger King have taken a tiny toll. So I get a ride into Natick proper and spend a contented couple of hours in the town, peering into antique shops and eating lunch on the common.

And then it’s farewell to autumn for a while, as we head to sunny San Diego, California. The Anchorman references will be hard to contain. More in a week or so – thanks for stopping by.

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Tour scrapbook, or, where was I?

When I last kept this blog in some semblance of a working order, it was nearly a year ago and we were in the US, then Dubai, then South Korea. I loved the process of chronicling the tour: it forced me to pay attention to the extraordinary experiences that are all too easy to take for granted. Since then, we’ve had plenty of tour adventures, but nothing that compared in terms of a joined-up stint on the road, and I’ve let the grass grow high on this page once more.

Well, here we go again. This time the itinerary reads: FL > GA > PA > MA > CA > SC > NC > GA > OK > TX, with two nights in our own beds before we head out to Russia via Northern Ireland. It feels odd to launch straight into another American tour diary without at least a recap of what’s happened in between, so here are some stray highlights from our touring life since last winter:

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A new musical crush, and a new Swingles video.

 Send help. Nothing on my to-do list is getting done. I’m much too mesmerised by this cover of All About That Bass:

 

It’s a likeable song in the first place – a big-is-bootiful manifesto with a doo-wop flavour that winks at OneRepublic and Justin Timberlake along the way. And, of course, it’s a total shoo-in for WOOFER’s set at LACF 2015 (the obscenely good line-up of which is now public, by the way).

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From the vaults: Clean Bandit interview

In my previous life as a journalism MA student, I was given an assignment to interview an up-and-coming music act. I chose Clean Bandit, partly because I knew their cello player a little from school, mostly because I had a sneaking suspicion they were on their way to hugedom. At the risk of saying “I told you so”, they’re currently no. 1 in the UK charts. The elements that make Rather Be so striking (synths, classical strings, big joyful house choruses, unexpectedly soulful verses, mad and marvellous video) have been in place more or less from the start, but the pop runes have now aligned for them, and deservedly so.

To my shame, I’ve sat on this interview since March 2012. Seems as good a time as any to post it.

Clean Bandit can’t believe they are getting away with it. “I thought there’d be more die-hard classical fans, like, ‘You bastards! How dare you touch Mozart!’” says Jack Patterson, the band’s soft-spoken synthsmith and audiovisual mastermind. “But most of the negative remarks are more like, this is good but the strings sound shit. This would be a good tune if it didn’t have these strings on it.”

The drummer, Jack’s 19-year-old brother Luke, agrees. “Most are just – they don’t get it, but in a good way. It’s like, ‘What is this? Why does it work?” Continue reading

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Why did the chicken art cross the road?

Our last afternoon in Dubai is spent talking business, rehearsing Christmas music and throwing together a hotel room iPhone cover of the Doctor Who theme, to put out in time for the 50th anniversary special. The Swingles and the Doctor share a birthday, and we’re both regenerating spacetime travellers, so it seems apt. Plus, Sara can sing real high like a theremin.

It feels good to bring an idea to fruition so quickly – even if it is just a bit of ephemeral fun – and to watch the likes and tweets and comments roll in. What did needy artists do before we had instant feedback to obsess over?  Continue reading

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