The Walnut Dash to Scandinavia is all very well but let’s face it, it hasn’t had much to do with steel guitar, has it? OK, I did get the Bennett lap steel out for the gigs in Norway, to the usual shouts of “ooh, what’s that?”, “I’ve never seen one of those before!” and “Please make that sound stop.” From this you might be thinking to yourself that my PedalPassion ™ was all a smokescreen, and that I just like driving a motorhome and eating sausages in countries which may provide a viable economic model for our exit from the European Union.
Well, my friend, how very wrong you may indeed turn out to be. Because I have been so busy on my Sho-Bud pedal steel guitar that I am about to make a mockery of you and all that you stand for. How DARE you (in my imagination) question my commitment?
I’ve been so busy, in fact that I will have to bullet point my Pedaller’s Progress just to get through it in an efficient fashion. Each one of these bullet points is probably worth a chapter in itself, especially if I took the appropriate time to detail my breakfast, lunch and dinner choices on the days in question. (Peanut Butter Sandwich x 15)
- Band of Tape
You may remember how I promised, by writing on a big red bus, that I would not get my pedal steel out publicly for a whole year, to give myself time to achieve an acceptable standard of play? Well, that promise, like so many vehicular oaths, bit the dust in a matter of about six weeks. Band of Hope’s leader Tom had scheduled a session at a studio in Oxfordshire, and I turned up far too early in my van, ready to record either on the Bennet lap steel, my comfort blankey, or on the Sho-Bud which I’d had for about three weeks by this stage, even if I hadn’t done much else during that time apart from practise. One of the marvellous things about Pedal Steel is that it has almost no acoustic sound at all, so it’s possible to practice way into the night without disturbing other members of the household. Until they come down and find you practising in the dark at 2am, hunched over and nodding off, that is. Then they tend to become very disturbed indeed.
In the event, encouraged by Tom’s gentle get-on-with-it, I screw the legs on the Sho-Bud and set up in the control room, next to Pete the engineer. The rest of Band Of Hope set up in the performance rooms next door. I alone get to sit next to Pete and watch the tracks come together, and add my bits. Band of Hope is still pretty new to me. I’m coming in after another great pedal steel player who’s been a part of the band for years, and I’ve been playing for slightly longer than it takes to make a good stew. The day in question is quite a warm day, and the combination of nerves, concentration and sunshine mean that a fine bead of sweat appears when I’m playing. My shoulders ache and burn with nerdy exertion after a short while. The nerviest bit by far is at the end of the session, when Tom suggests a pedal steel line might work over a track that I played six-string electric on. The band is sitting round in the control room to hear me lay it down. I respect and like them a lot and don’t want to let them down. I think they know this and give me a little round of applause when I finish. It feels good, even if they are just being polite.
When I started making telly I was a little shy of revealing my love of music on the medium that I laughingly call work. No longer. My dream is one day to have an entirely musical episode of Rogue Traders, where there are NO spoken elements at all except for the final confrontation, which is indeed spoken, but accompanied by a full, mobile orchestra. Imagine my childlike joy when one of our complainants, Andy said that he had written a poem about the aerial company which had ripped him off. I gave him a call and asked if what he had actually written might indeed not be a poem, but a country song waiting to happen. Andy agreed that in fact, yes, he now realised that he had indeed written a country song, and that yes, he would be happy to play it with me at his home in Bristol. Magically, during an otherwise normal interview, guitars appear, Andy sings, and I play. It’s the hottest day of the year, and the shimmer of the heat haze matches the sound I’m making with my hands, feet and knees. It’s fun to do, it looks good and, judging by the crew’s reaction, it’s funny. In addition to which, Andy is a lovely guy and totally up for it. But it doesn’t end there.
We know that AerialForce, the company we are targeting, will be tricky to get hold of. They operate from a secure compound in Surrey, patrolled by goons, and getting close to them will be next to impossible. We need to have another trick up our sleeve. One of the things we’ve used on Rogue Traders is a giant television screen on an extendable arm, which we use to get a message into an office block full of people working for a company doing bad things. They get the message that everyone knows what they’re up to, wthout anyone requiring access to the building. We now just need something to show on it. I sit down at Garageband and put together a track which is the beautiful progeny of one of Tom’s Band Of Hope songs and The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. The lyrics refer to AerialForce and their owners.
Now I’m perfectly aware that this sort of thing can be horrendous. Even in the hands of very experienced funny songsmiths there are inevitably wince-making moments. With the possible exception of Tom Lehrer, I find that funny words tend to detract from good music, and squeezing lyrics into a song tends to make them less funny. It’s a risk. I run it past my producers, you know, as a bit of fun, something we can all laugh about and forget. They love it. It gets played to the Exec. He doesn’t hate it. Before we know it, there’s talk of a video being made. I’m kidding myself that I didn’t want this to happen. Of course I did.
There is talk of a real horse, of finding a mutually convenient bandstand, of taking the band to be physically present for the doorstep in a open-sided truck. These ideas float through TV productions like feathers in a stream, and have the currency of monopoly money. In the end, we plump for pre-filming at a location that I’ve used before – a dude ranch built by cowboy enthusiasts squirrelled away at a secret location in Kent. It’s amazing, and the perfect, authentic backdrop to a country song. Band of Hope look like they emerged in a cloud of dust from the trail, ready to play. One of my very favourite things is bassist Drew’s insistence that he will only do the gig if he’s given a poncho to wear. A poncho is duly provided. Paul is on a piano which has more missing teeth than Shane MacGowan off the Pogues. He completes a run up the keyboard and finishes with a dazzling smile (Paul, not Shane). Tom and Ben perfect the art of the nonchalant mid-air stare for the backing vocals, in stark contrast to my manic engagement with the lyrics and the camera. It’s one of those beautiful coming togethers of disparate and unrelated elements that makes television fun to make, and leaves everyone involved with a smile on their face and looking forward to watching the finished article, so…
…here it is!!!
Wallingford is a very cool town indeed. It’s home to Band of Hope, has a cinema, it’s on a major river, and every summer it hosts a free festival where you just stroll from one site to another until the music stops, which it doesn’t, until very late, at which point you are forced to go to the pub. We are booked to play two spots at Bunkfest, and I plan to make a weekend of it. I park my van on the outskirts of town and roll my pedal steel, amp, seat and handy baggy on a little collapsible trolley that I’ve bought for exactly this purpose. There we set up by the river for our first gig, which is spectacularly well attended and very fun indeed. We all know where we go in the band, there are quiet bits and loud bits and Tom is firmly in control, despite having left very little in the locker after a boozy Friday night to remember, and a gig which he claims he can’t remember at all, but for which he apologises profusely throughout the set. Sarah Drummer leaves us at this point to go to a family function. Tom, loyal Hopesters Nige ‘The’ Guffer, Nick and I help get her kit into her car, I bungee up my stuff onto the trolley and we troop down Wallingford’s narrow pavements to the Commodore’s club where we are booked to play after the fiddle people.
I love being in a band. Walking through the streets together after one good gig with the expectation of another up our sleeves is as good a feeling as you can get. Other people are walking on the pavements, sure, with their pushchairs and shopping bags, and that’s all very fine for them. But we have instruments.
We play those instruments together, and when we do, it often sounds good, occasionally brilliant. Sometimes I play things I didn’t know I could play. They just come like gifts out of nowhere. Then sometimes I make simple mistakes and I get a cold sweat and hope no-one notices. People come to listen out of choice, and they stay until the end. I’d say at least a quarter of those people must think to themselves ‘I wonder what that’s like, playing that thing, and being part of that band’. Well I’ll tell you for nothing: it’s fantastic. It’s nothing to do with your Top of The Pops or your Albert Hall. It’s about being in a gang and being in the moment and there is no substitute.
Later on, the crowd thins out, and all the gigs have been played. We stop into a church. We wander around the field looking for friends. We find them all in this bar, where I share a sausage roll with my good friend John Jones.
And that, my friends, is Bunkfest.
4. Borderline Personality Disorder
‘I feel like I’m going to lose my mind’. Said Madonna in 1984 or possibly late 1983, given which, possibly through a combination of medication and meditation, she’s actually held it together remarkably well. She’s been through a lot.
The Borderline is also a London venue, one of my favourites because of its proximity to the tube, its latterly hokey-but-fun Western styling and the fact that they regularly put on music that is right up my boulevard. It could probably be called the home of British Americana, and some epic names from that genre and others appeared there early on in their careers – lifting straight from the venue’s website – R.E.M, Muse, Blur, Rage Against The Machine, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Oasis, The Libertines, Mumford & Sons and my favourite, Ryan Adams have all gone down those stairs and then up again into the Soho night. It’s intimate, 300 people makes it feel overloaded, and the stage is a modest 2 foot high affair. In every respect, it’s the perfect place to see bands up close and personal, and I always keep an eye out to see who’s on there.
So when Tom told me that Band of Hope had a support slot there, I FELT LIKE I WAS GOING TO LOSE MY MIND and, like most rock stars facing a big gig, immediately began devoting thought to the problem of parking. If you’ve ever seen the club scene in the film film From Dusk Til Dawn, then you’ll have a good idea of what, despite its name, The Borderline is not.
It is not a desert-based entertainment venue, surrounded by nothing but a whole lot of mesa, within which you are free to park your RV or massive motorcycle willy-nilly. It’s a tight little Soho hideaway, with pedestrian – only access to its delights. The good news was that, brilliantly synchronised with the evening’s performance, that afternoon I was presenting the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s annual Tow Car of the Year (VW Passat Estate Alltrack! Of course!) Award just down the road at the RAC club. Their chauffeured car took me straight to the door of the Borderline, accompanied by some of their excellent team, who hooked up and tagged along just behind me, as you might expect. This underlines once again how thoroughly decent caravanners and motorhome drivers are, as if the matter were in any doubt. They gave me not only a transport solution out of a tricky corner, but also supplied my own portable, highly appreciative audience of friends.
I did my usual jittery set-up on stage, screwing in legs, attaching rods and cables, a process with which I’m getting more familiar but which isn’t yet second nature. My main problem is that jangling nerves always get in the way. I go through the same routine every time and haven’t discovered a way to change my habits: losing crucial things, cold sweating, wondering how I will replace them at short notice and then finding them again under other things which I had placed on top of them just seconds before. I have come to the conclusion that I do it purely to heighten the excitement of the event. As the first act on, we were soundchecking before the other bands, but I was still a full half hour ahead of anyone else so I could tune up and get comfortable. I had the hippy hippy shakes in my hands, and just wanted to make a beautiful sound. One by one the band arrived and we said hello to the other acts – headliners Summerhill, a band Tom had been a part of in one of their incarnations, and Michelle Stoddart of the Magic Numbers, flying almost solo with another guitarist/singer/songwriter. She sounds marvellous.
When the time comes, it’s beautiful. I nip to the loo for an emergency wee and nearly miss the beginning of the first song, but leap on to the stage not a second too late, stick my picks on my right hand, get comfortable with my tone bar in the other and try to make her sing. Through the lights I see my friends from the Caravan and Motorhome Club, I see Nige, Tom’s family and strangers who have no reason to be at The Borderline to listen to us, but do. I look across and see Sarah behind her kit. I see the backs of Band of Hope as they pump out vocal harmonies to one of my favourite venues, the lights from the beer pumps picking out faces in the crowd. I lose focus a bit in the second half and it’s not quite as good, but it’s still not bad. I feel myself smiling a lot and I feel like I’m in the right place, sitting behind my sewing machine of joy, listening and plucking and grinning.