We’re going to take a little departure from strict pedal steel business for a moment. If you’re here to find out what little I know about copedants and string gauges, I’d advise you take a break and stretch your legs. Whatever you do though, don’t get confused by taking a stretch and breaking your legs.
If you don’t make an effort, making music can be an insular business. It’s very easy to spend hours sitting in a darkened room chasing a particular chord or tone to the exclusion of all else, forgetting that music is for sharing. I make a habit of crouching over a guitar until the early hours running the same licks and scales over and over until, well, until recently, this happened:
Yes, it appears that repetitively straining your wrists can injure them, due to a thing called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and although the above picture suggests that the problem stems from playing the guitar, I am not so sure. I think the lion share of the problem is more likely to be the toxic smartphone which is rarely far from my right thumb, and which, in diametric opposition to the guitar, invariably brings me anxiety, insecurity, and paid work.
If you’ve never had Carpal Tunnel, let me give you a flavour of it’s delights. Suddenly, simple tasks like carrying a bowl of cereal become painful and risky. Not only can the bowl, without notice, transmute into a porcupine, stabbing its spines into the fleshy chicken-drumstick cheek of your palm, but then the whole thumb mechanism can suddenly give up entirely, sending your granola tumbling to the ground in slo-mo like Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard. And there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it. The painful point (it can be painful to point) is this: Things like RSI can strike at any point, and deprive you of the ability to play or sing or walk or breathe. You have to gather ye rosebuds while ye may and make your music in the sun.
I once held a VERY large fish with country legend Kenny Rogers.
I should be more precise: Kenny Rogers and I each had a very large fish of our own. At no point did I share a large fish with Kenny Rogers. Happy to make that clear.
AS you can imagine, as a country music fan it was a big deal for me to meet Kenny Rogers. I made use of every available second to perform what my colleagues call ‘The Allwright Brain Bleed’, squeezing every drop of information I could from him on set and in his dressing room. He did not take on though, signed my mandolin and was utterly wonderful. All in all it was a truly joyous coming together, with the exception of one moment. Kenny (Mr. Rogers to you) told me how an operation on his right hand some years ago mean that he can’t now play the guitar, and although his magnificent voice remains a seam of a pure liquid gold, his shonky picking paw was clearly a source of great regret to him. You can imagine: a wonderful journey all starts with a man alone, with a guitar, on a stage. Take the guitar away, he is powerless, deprived of his magic wand of independence. It must feel like the journey is coming to a close. That’s tough. It’s also VERY country. The message I’m getting to, through a Hampton Court maze of protracted nonsense, is that the moment for practice is sometimes over, and, regardless of your level of preparation, it’s time to take it out on the road to see what’s out there, because you never know when your red right hand will flick you the mighty V, signalling that time is, in fact, up.
With that in mind, Donald Davie and I, the Walnuts, devised The Epic Walnut Dash. We carved ourselves a few days at the beginning of the summer when we wouldn’t be missed, and worked out a route to get us to Oslo, which, travel fans, is the capital of Norway. Once we had worked out a final destination, a route, a means of transport (splendid borrowed Bailey’s motorhome), set list, curry and cake sponsors, sleeping arrangements and list of next of kin in case of accidents, we realised that we had no reason whatsoever to go to Oslo. This, therefore, had to be the very next item of business.
I have mentioned in previous Steelgrimages that Davey and I met when he came on my radio show to talk about Sevensongs.org, his unique method of battling the Alzheimers which took his in-laws from him in front of his and his wife Nikki’s very eyes. Having never performed in public, Davey dived in feet-first and publicly offered to play seven songs anywhere, for anyone, without asking for a penny for himself, but handing round a cake tin at the end for Alzheimer’s research. To date he’s done about 80 of these gigs, and I’ve joined him on a couple at the huge risk of unravelling all the goodwill he’s accumulated in front rooms across the country. He’s raised over £20000 all by himself, both with and without a beard, just to show that he is nothing if not versatile. We decided then that The Walnut Dash would be Sevensongs writ large – raising money for Alzheimers, and with the added stipulation (my idea) that we would sing and play wherever we stop, until someone paid us to stop playing. This seemed like a good idea. We had a couple of gigs set in stone, three in Oslo and one in Amsterdam. Otherwise, the schedule was as fluid as pancake mix on a warm windowsill. In fact, lukewarm sloppiness is a term that could be used to accurately describe the whole operation. Witness the back of the T-shirts, commissioned at the last possible moment from excellent Scott at Balcony Shirts.
You see? We really didn’t know what we were doing.
Due to ‘work’ I couldn’t be there at the start. The duo became a trio in Hamburg, as, fresh from the set of Watchdog I joined Donald and Davey at the airport. I was as excited as a young puppy to see them. They were less enthusiastic, stressily pointing to the strict German rules on stopping outside the terminal. In fact they barely got out of second gear to scoop me up for fear of incurring a fine. They were even less impressed when I instantly got out my selfie stick for this picture:
Have you ever seen two human beings less impressed by another human being? It was like riding with not one, but two whole Shania Twains.
We drove all the way to Aarhus, eating hotdogs
and, once the Shania Twins had thawed out, joking all the way about how we would, no doubt, find Aarhus positioned squarely in the middle of Aarstreet. You’ll notice how the T shirt above states that the venue for that night was to be Waxy’s Irish pub, in the event that they ever answered the email. Well, they didn’t, and it was my job to arrange that night’s venue. For weeks I rang at different times of the day, I emailed ways in advance, then rang again. Then I gave up, figuring that to be an Irish pub anywhere in the world, you only really have to do two things:
- Serve one of two types of Stout.
- Welcome and encourage impromptu live performances of acoustic Celtic music.
Well, Waxy’s had clearly not signed up to that manifesto. They decided that being Irish involved having a completely desolate, empty pub and turning away desperate middle-aged men in new t-shirts with guitars and a charity bucket. I am not a bit bitter about this. I would however suggest that if you ever go to Aarhus EUROPEAN CITY OF CULTURE 2017, BY THE WAY, you should do what everyone else there seems to do, and give Waxy’s the widest of possible berths. Waxy’s is like that foreign student wearing a big hat in the St. Patrick’s day parade, opportunistically looking about for drunk girls and riding the wave while it lasts, while not having a Eammon De Valera what it’s all about.
Well, Waxy’s of Aarhus, let me tell you something.
What you don’t know is that while you thought we were having an extended pee, we all got our instruments out and played a song in your empty corridor! WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT, WAXY’S??? CALL THE COPS WHY DON’T YOU??? CITY OF CULTURE, MY AARHUS!!!! WE STUCK IT TO THE MAN!!!
In fact, the man stuck it to us pretty comprehensively. For a couple of rainy hours we struggled in Aarhus to find anywhere to play, turned away like biblically prospective parents, until Donald hit upon an immaculate concept: The entrance of the department store at the major crossroad in Aarhus was covered and brightly lit. It was frequented by tipsy students of the City’s university who had just graduated. It was, in short, the venue we’d been waiting for.
Out of shot in this photo there are at least another three people either dancing or seriously thinking about what dancing is. Behind them are another three people who are there by accident. This constitutes a crowd. Left of picture, closest to us, justifiably transfixed by Donald’s blazing fiddle playing, in the white shirt and curiously cropped jeans, is Benjamin. Benjamin is a student on an engineering placement in Aarhus. He instantly became Donald’s biggest fan and our manager for the night, promising us that he could get us playing in any venue in his home town.
Benjamin was very, very drunk indeed.
He quickly ascertained that Donald was the best musician in the troupe. He advised Donald to get rid of us and go it alone. He then started to call Davey ‘Donald’ and tell him how much he loved his fiddle. At this stage Donald noticed that Benjamin could not stop ordering drinks for us all, and suggested that we leave him to freshen up on what was, after all, a school night. Whatever Benjamin was engineering the next day, I sincerely hope it was not intended to bear a child’s weight.
After Aarhus, things got better. They weren’t all that bad, but they still got better. Walnutiae 2 to follow….