Rolling up the drive to Highclere Castle felt like being invited to one of Lady Cora’s weekend get-togethers. Which, come to think of it, I suppose it was. The setting, familiar to all Downton Abbey fans, is stunning, and the day was blessed with beautiful weather.
An Iron Age Hill Fort dominates the landscape and an early Anglo-Saxon charter suggests people have lived here for some 1300 years.
On Sunday, they were out in force for the ‘Heroes at Highclere’ event, a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and were wowed by aerial displays from a Spitfire and Tiger Moths, the Red Devils Parachute Regiment freefall team and a 1944 Mustang called Ferocious Frankie which has a top speed of 505mph. There were eight hot air balloons from the Army Air Corps, helicopters, and a vintage car display.
The band came together from various directions - Simon and Rowan returning from family holidays in the West Country, Ron making the long drive from Colchester, myself and Nick a short hop from West London, while Sadie flew down from filming the Downton Christmas Special in the North East - to perform on the big stage along with Alexandra Burke, The Military Wives Choir, The Rock Choir and three part vocal harmony group The Spitfire Sisters.
We gathered in the dressing room for a pre-gig rehearsal, Rowan banging out the rhythms on the table-top, complete with rattling cups and saucers. Warming up voices and fingers, reminding ourselves of the arrangements. Some things work well on record but a live performance is something different and arrangements are constantly evolving. A key change here and there, the odd STOP or two.
No soundcheck, which is always a bit of a nightmare, just a quick line-check, which involved a last minute change as we discovered one of Sadie’s guitars wasn’t working. No time to panic though… we’re on.
After an introduction from Hugh Bonneville, the opening riff of ‘Superficial’ kicks the party into life and the girls sashay on. Chris does a marvellous job of the sound out front and we’re soon in the groove… ‘All My Sins’, ‘Staying Alive’, ‘Everybody’s Got A Song’, ‘Use It Up’ and ‘Nothing New’. The sun is shining, Sadie’s smiling and, before we know it, it’s time to head off for a photo shoot with the lovely, talented Kirsty Grant… no doubt you’ll be seeing the results shortly.
Thank you to everyone who came and supported us.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece
(When I Paint My Masterpiece ~ Bob Dylan)
It’s a first time in Rome for some of us, though Elizabeth was here in the early eighties for several months filming ‘Once Upon A Time In America’. Many of the interiors for that marvellous film were shot here in this ancient city. And what a city!
Whisked from the airport to our hotel on Via Veneto, we then head off to the Hard Rock Cafe for our evening meal kindly provided by our hosts who look after us very generously during our stay. We’re missing Elizabeth who, due to filming commitments, doesn't arrive until much later.
Saturday is ‘gig’ day. ‘Hard Rock Live Rome’ has been created by Hard Rock Cafe in partnership with Roma Capitale and is taking place at the marvellous Piazza del Popolo. History, human genius and the Mediterranean sun have conspired to make Rome one of the world’s most seductive and vibrant cities and the Piazza del Popolo is buzzing on this Saturday morning as we arrive for sound-check.
Backstage, our dressing room is stocked with fruit, sandwiches, snacks, wine, beer, vodka, juice and, most importantly (for some), water! We check out the instruments provided by Fender, set up and sound-check - watched by inquisitive passers-by and our two diehard fans, Kirsty and Shelley, who have made the journey to lend their support - then head back to the hotel for lunch/siesta.
The evening gets lift-off with ‘The Carnabys’, a young rock band from England, then we’re on. ‘One Thing Leads To Another’ kicks off our set while Chris twiddles the knobs and creates a wonderful front of stage sound. The audience love ‘Staying Alive’, singing and dancing along, and before we know it we’re into our last number ‘Nothing New’ and tumbling off stage to the VIP area for cocktails - I lost count of how many Nick had - and this was just the start of the evening.
Later, much later, there’s a party at the Hard Rock for those hardy souls who haven’t had enough to drink, while others slope off to bed in preparation for a day’s sightseeing tomorrow.
In Rome, art is not locked away from view, it’s quite literally all around you – amazing classical statues, stunning Renaissance frescoes, breathtaking baroque churches, sculptures by Michelangelo, paintings by Caravaggio, frescoes by Raphael, fountains by Bernini. After breakfast on Sunday morning - with Elizabeth already flying back to Downton Abbey - Simon, Ron and I walk the cobbled streets to the Trevi Fountain. Finished in 1762, it is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous in the world, appearing in several notable films, including Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’.
From there it’s a stretch down to the Colosseum - “Dodging lions and wastin’ time” (Bob Dylan, same song) where we lunch on pizza and wine on a vine-clad terrace… fun times.
Finally, I must on behalf of the band, thank Marc Carey for inviting us in the first place and all his team for making it such a smoothly run and enjoyable a visit. Hope to be back in Rome and do more with HRC some day soon.
Apollo? Odeon? Now apparently the Eventim Apollo. Dreadful name. Great, historic venue. I first came here back in the ’80’s. I’ve seen Dylan here more times than I can recall, Ry Cooder with a stunning band which included Jim Keltner, Tim Drummond and John Hiatt, Paul Simon with Steve Gadd, Eric Gale and Richard Tee, John Martyn, Mark Knopfler…
One of the UK’s largest and best-preserved original theatres it opened in 1932 as the Gaumont Palace cinema. Designed in the Art Deco style the venue had 3,487 seats, a large 35 foot deep stage, an excellent fan shaped auditorium which, despite its enormous 192 feet width allowed remarkable intimacy and excellent sightlines from all parts of the house, twenty dressing rooms, a theatre organ and a café/restaurant located on the balcony/foyer area.
Renamed Hammersmith Odeon in 1962 the venue started playing host to many legendary acts including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Marley. It was refurbished in the ’80’s, renamed the Labatt’s Apollo for a while, then Hammersmith Apollo shortly after.
2003 saw the venue renamed once again, as the Carling Apollo Hammersmith. Major alterations enabled the stalls to be removable, allowing for both standing and fully-seated events. Capacity became 5,039 standing and 3,632 sitting. In recent years, performers have included Oasis, REM, Stereophonics , Kylie, Elton John, Peter Kay and Paul Weller to name but a few.
In 2006, the venue reverted to its former name, the Hammersmith Apollo and, in 2009, as a result of a joint venture with HMV, became known as the HMV Hammersmith Apollo.
The legendary music venue has now changed hands once again as AEG and Eventim have teamed up to recreate it's iconic Art Deco design. Following multi-million pound investment and a huge visual transformation the refurbished venue is now called Eventim Apollo.
Highlights of the refurbishment include fixtures and fittings returned to original designs, restoration of the ornate plasterwork and re-decoration which matches the original paint scheme. The refurbishment also revives the two marble staircases previously concealed beneath the extended stage, as well as restoration of the original foyer floor mosaic panels, whilst in the circle the original windows are revealed allowing natural light to once again flood the circle bar…
Leaning out of the back window of our dressing room, looking down at the stage door, I can’t help but marvel at how those first few guitar lessons in Chiswick have led to this. I never dreamed (well, maybe once or twice) that I would perform on this historic stage and walk the backstage corridors frequented by some of the greatest songwriters and performers of the past. It’s truly an honour to be here and a fitting end to a tour that began in Rhyl in a hurricane and ended up here on a beautiful spring evening. As the sun sinks in the west we wind our way down to the stage… Hello Hammersmith…
Wednesday March 12th found us hurtling up the M1 to Bradford. Great to be back on the road again.
St George’s Concert Hall is a grade II listed Victorian building, the oldest concert hall still in use in the UK and the third oldest in Europe. German Jewish wool merchants, who had moved to Bradford because of its textile industry, financed the building, which opened in August 1853. Located in the heart of town, the Hall is a two minute walk from our hotel, The Hilton, and plans are already afoot for a curry after the show.
One of the delights of this tour has been to share stage and dressing rooms with the ‘ghosts’ of the past and over the years this beautiful old venue has hosted many of the world’s top performers including Charles Dickens, the Halle Orchestra, Free, David Bowie and Genesis… it’s a wonderful thrill to step out and perform to packed houses as others have done before…
An early start on Thursday as we have a five hour drive to South Wales ahead of us, followed by a three hour trek home after the gig!
Over the misty moors on the M62, then south down the M6 and M5, we cut the corner via Ross on Wye and the M50. The mist has cleared, the sun shining as we roll down the Wye Valley, through Monmouth and on into South Wales.
Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion was opened in 1932. Well known for its octagonal dome and striking frontage, it was originally intended as a Palm Court for hosting Tea Dances and Balls. Recent performers have included Rob Brydon, Eddie Izzard, Cerys Matthews, Katherine Jenkins, Ralph McTell… Mike and the Mechanics and Sadie and the Hotheads!
Strolling along the seafront, pre-gig, it’s easy to believe that summer has really begun…
After a warm, Welsh welcome and a quick load out, we drop James at his hotel in Cardiff, then rattle back down the M4 to London.
Friday 14th, the penultimate gig of the tour, is possibly the strangest of all the venues. Part sports hall, part theatre, the 1000 seater main hall at Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre feels like a mini stadium. The crew do a magnificent job of creating the right atmosphere and the crowd give us a rousing welcome as we step out of the shadows… Bison yelling encouragement from the wings…
Next up… our ‘hometown’ gig, Hammersmith Apollo!
Criss-crossing the Capital, west to east, north to south and back again by road and rail, clocking up the miles on this, our longest tour to date. We leave our various homes on Sunday March 9th in beautiful spring sunshine, a welcome mini-heatwave after months of rain.
It’s a short hop up the M1 to the city of St Albans in southern Hertfordshire. Originally the Roman city of Verulamium, it was the first major town on the old Roman road of Watling Street for travellers heading north.
Tonight we’re playing at the Alban Arena, a theatre and music venue which has been the centre of culture in the city since the 1970s.
It’s always a thrill to arrive at these venues, check out the dressing room and backstage, then wander out to the auditorium. Some are stunning, others less so, but all have their charm, their history.
We usually arrive around 4pm, by which time the road crew are set up and ready to rock. Mike and his mechanics soundcheck from 5 till 6, then it’s our turn. By now the sound boys have it down and after a couple of songs we’re heading back to the dressing room for a bite to eat and a glass of wine before kick-off…. by 9pm we’re usually back on the road home. As Bison once lamented, “You guys are halfway up the motorway by the time I’ve turned their amps on!”
Monday afternoon finds Sadie, Simon and I pulling out of Waterloo East, rolling through the Kent countryside to Royal Tunbridge Wells, a large town and Borough about 40 miles south-east of central London, situated at the northern edge of the High Weald.
The town came into being as a spa in Georgian times and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Beau Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. Though its popularity waned with the advent of sea bathing, the town remains popular and derives some 30% of its income from the tourist industry.
We welcome our American ‘pledgers’, Bre and Whitney, who join us for dinner at the Mount Edgcumbe pub - a fantastically quirky place with bird boxes, restored furniture, lanterns, and a cave where you can chill out before dinner. It’s also home to Ian’s daughter Kirsty (& partner also called Ian) and delightful grandson Josh. Kirsty is a wonderful photographer and will no doubt be adding to her impressive collection of band shots at tonight’s show.
The Assembly Hall Theatre opened in May 1939. During WWII it was used for troop dances, film shows and events to raise money for the war effort. Refurbished in 2001, the theatre attracts audiences of over 150,000 a year. It’s a sell-out again for tonight and it’s been a real privilege for us to perform to packed houses….
… it’s not over yet, but only four dates left. Catch us if you can!
Basingstoke, nicknamed "Doughnut City" because of the number of large roundabouts, and often mistaken for a ‘new town’, is actually an old market town. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, it remained a small market town until the 1950s, after which it developed rapidly as part of the Government plan to accommodate the London ‘overspill’.
The Anvil theatre, opened in 1994, was built to tackle what was then seen as a 'cultural desert’. The building's name reflects its unusual shape which resembles the horn end of a traditional blacksmith’s anvil.
A lovely venue and a great crowd. Sold over 40 CD’s tonight! Good to see the sadiesisters in attendance: Shelley, Kirsty and Honor with our two American friends, Whitney and Bre. Thanks for your support, ladies…
Next day is another trip out east. For me, Simon and Sadie it’s the District line to West Ham, then National Rail to Basildon.
Like Basingstoke, Basildon’s prime purpose was to house the overspill of London citizens after WWII while, during the last decade or so, many migrant families, including Polish, Albanian, Romanian, Nigerian, Ghanain, Jamaican, Indian and Bengali, have moved from London boroughs such as Hackney and Peckham, and settled here.
The town is uninspiring, the dressing rooms and backstage area - plastered with signs stating: ‘Please don’t put make-up on the walls’ - look they’ve never been cleaned. We do our best to make it ‘home’ for the next few hours but it’s a struggle.
The performance area itself is pleasant and the crowd very receptive. After ‘Use It Up’ one gent shouts out: “BEAUTIFUL”…
Still, the show over, we get out of town as fast as we can…
Looking forward to St. Albans!
And so to the ‘local’ gigs. We’re making our own way until the trip back up north to Bradford on March 12th. Today Sadie is on set at Ealing Studios and unable to join us due to an ever changing schedule. I’m on the train from Mortlake to Ipswich, via Waterloo and Stratford, Simon training it from Earls Court, Nick and Dani driving from North London and picking up Terl en route, while Ron lives half an hour down the road in Colchester.
In Mediaeval times the Cornhill became the centre of trade and local government in Ipswich. The first recorded building in the area was the Flesh Market, or Shambles, mentioned in 1346 and reconstructed in 1378 and 1583. The upper part of the Shambles was an open gallery which provided a vantage point for viewing public occasions on the square below.
The first Corn Exchange opened in 1812 and had a forbidding appearance. Its exterior was jail-like, the openings in the walls being grated with heavy iron bars, while the interior was open to the sky. In July 1849 it was covered with glass and the iron gratins converted into windows. In 1888 the fruit and vegetable market was transferred from Falcon Street to the Corn Exchange where it remained until November 1970. The last Corn Market was held at the Corn Exchange on 29th June 1972.
During 1971 the decision was made to remodel and the 'new' Corn Exchange was opened by the Duke of Gloucester on 22nd September 1975. The Grand Hall is used for live shows by touring companies and local groups, keep fit, discos, dances and dinners, an annual beer festival in September, while The Robert Cross Hall is used mainly for craft fairs, exhibitions and late night musical entertainment.
Sound check over, Simon and I pop out for dinner at ‘The Grumpy Mole’ , an old fashioned English caff, all roast beef and fish and chips, while some sample the culinary delights of Burger King…. then it’s back to the theatre, banter with Bison, quick change and we’re on… Dani doing a magnificent job, as usual, in the absence of our ‘leader’. The set gets tighter every night, everyone relaxing into their parts, playing with confidence, experimenting.
After the show, Simon and I make a quick taxi dash back to the station for the train back to London while Nick, Dani, Terl and Ron wend their weary way back down the A12. At least Ron doesn’t have far to drive tonight!!
Next up is Ferneham Hall, Fareham. The town, originally known by the name of Ferneham - hence the name of tonight’s venue - has its origins in a small settlement developed before Roman times at a crossing point of the River Wallington, close to the top of what is now High Street. The Romans arrived in about AD43 and built a large fortress at Portchester to shelter their garrison and defend Portsmouth Harbour. Evidence of settlements in Saxon times have been suggested by the discovery of flint arrowheads, knives and other implements at Hill Head while, during the Iron Age, the Celts used the River Meon as a harbour.
Ferneham Hall is one of the smaller venues we have performed in, with a cramped dressing room - and that’s putting it politely! All squeezed into the narrow ‘crew room’, we sit and talk, sup tea, apply make-up - just the girls - though Terl wouldn’t mind having a go and, back in the day, the Nelson Brothers were partial to a little eye-liner!
After pre-show warm-ups we make our way backstage. The lights go down, Terl, Nick, Sadie and myself enter stage right, Simon, Ron and Danica stage left. As the lights go up to warm applause, Terl counts us in and the opening riff of ‘Superficial’ kickstarts another great evening.
Pulling in to Birmingham I notice how much it has changed since I my college days of the early ’70’s. Once described by folk singer Mike Harding as needing a chain around it with a sign saying ‘Danger. Hole In The World’, the area surrounding the Symphony Hall has been tastefully regenerated. Bars, restaurants, shops - including an Art Gallery selling limited edition Bob Dylan prints from the Drawn Blank series - and coffeehouses line the streets and bridges of the old canal side.
If The Sage was stunning, Birmingham Symphony Hall, though different, is equally so. Considered one of the finest in the world, this 2,262 seat concert venue is home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and hosts around 270 events a year. Modelled upon the Musikverein in Vienna and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam the venue presents a programme of jazz, world, folk, rock, pop and classical concerts, organ recitals, spoken word, dance, educational and community performances.
A particularly innovative feature is the hall's acoustic flexibility. It has a reverberation chamber behind the stage and extending high along the sides, adding 50% to the hall's volume, the doors to which can be remotely opened or closed. There is an acoustic canopy which can be raised or lowered above the stage. Dampening panels can be extended or retracted to ensure that the 'sound' of the space is perfectly matched to the scale and style of the music to be performed. There are also reverse fan walls at the rear of the hall which provide further reflections of sound. All the walls and the ceiling are made of concrete.
The hall is built only 30 metres from a covered railway line. As a result, the hall is mounted on rubber cushions, as is the railway track (could do with some of that at my house!). The hall is also shielded from heavy traffic on Broad Street by double skins of concrete.
After soundcheck we slip out to Wagamama’s for a bite to eat… then it’s ‘Superficial’ time… the half hour set slipping quickly by, before the drive back down the M1 to London. After dropping everyone off at home, Ron returns the Splitter to Wembley and gets in his own van, only to find he’s been locked in to the compound! 1.30 in the morning and no-one around…
We left Perth in early Spring sunshine, heading down the east coast, past Lindisfarne - the island, not the band. No fog on the Tyne today! - bypassing Berwick upon Tweed, and rolling in to Gateshead around 2pm.
We have performed in some beautiful venues on this trip. This is one of the finest.
The Sage contains three performance spaces; a 1,700-seater, a 450-seater and a smaller rehearsal and performance hall. Structurally it is three separate buildings, insulated from each other to prevent noise and vibration travelling between them. A special 'spongy' concrete mix was used in the construction, with a higher-than-usual air capacity to improve the acoustic, and the three buildings are enclosed, but not touched, by the now-famous glass and steel shell.
Critics say it resembles a large slug, or a shiny condom, but in today’s sunlight it stands as a proud testament to the musical history and legacy of the North East.
Below the concourse level is the Music Education Centre, where workshops, community music courses and day-to-day instrumental teaching take place in over 20 individual, sound-proofed rooms, one of which is also a recording studio.
Simon, Nick, Ron and I drop our gear in the dressing room and take off for a walk over the stunning Millennium Bridge and in to Newcastle. We spot Terl sneaking a quiet coffee in Starbucks and cajole him into joining us for a stroll. I think he really wanted some peace and quiet! Life on the road doesn’t always allow for ‘me time’.
After the show we jump in the van and get a head start for Birmingham, driving the hour or so to Scotch Corner where we spend the night in the Holiday Inn. Danica heads off to bed early as she is leaving early, by train, to sing at a friend’s wedding tomorrow, before joining us in Birmingham…. busy times.
Our day off in Perth dawned: beautiful, crisp and cold. It felt right. The Hotheads put on hats and coats and set forth , our boots clomping on the rough cobblestones of the ancient city. Our mission: to find the tombstone of a man named William Lauder. Accompanying us was Bell Lacey, Nick's daughter, whose arrival that morning had created a ripple of excitement in the band.
Though only twenty one, Bell seemed to have been blessed with an intuitive understanding of aging band members and their eccentric ways. She seemed to instinctively get the point of our quest, and, asking no questions, fell in wordlessly beside us on our walk, bestowing the oxygen of her youth upon us as naturally as a sea breeze. Off we set.
William Lauder's achievement, and the reason he had inspired our mission, was the planting of the seed that had culminated in Danica Chapman. William Lauder was her Great Great Grandfather. She was determined to find where he lay. She led the pack into the cemetery.
Two hours later, the sun still shone brightly, but William Lauder was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else who had ever set foot in Perth seemed to be represented by the rough and tumble of tombstones, new and old, all set in a hodgepodge of angles in the grassy slope. All crying for attention: all asking to be gazed at, to be acknowledged, to be recognized. I lived! I loved! I breathed! I was! I was! I was! But no William Lauder anywhere.
Finally, it was time to give up and trudge home. As a group, we began to make our way out of the cemetery, our thoughts turning inevitably to a pub lunch, the default position of those who must trudge on, who must still live, who must eat, who must work , who must play, who must eventually grow old.
"I found it! I found it!"
It was Danica, assisted by a group of cemetery employees! Their comfortable association with the dead had helped them forge a path straight to the tombstone. No false reverence here, their boots had kicked away the grassy subterfuge. "Hurray! Hurray!", we cheered. " We found him! We found him!"
Then, of course, we ate a pub lunch. Well, not me. I went back to write the blog.