“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then coming back on the system to let you know that the credit card offer she spent half an hour detailing is in fact no longer valid.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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.