I’m (Dave) writing this blog sat at home in the warm whilst outside February is going out with an icy blast of bitter winds and snow. Thankfully this is the first real snow of the winter for us; if it had come a month earlier it could’ve made things very difficult.
But then again we do seem to be living a charmed life at the moment.
We were at Banbury Folk Festival in October 2016 when we received an email and then phone call from folk-rock god and thoroughly nice bloke Dave Pegg (Peggy) offering us (Winter Wilson) the support slot on Fairport Convention’s winter tour 2018. Obviously we were delighted and did a bit of a jig around our camper van (not easy). At the time it seemed an age away and we were just concentrating on living long enough to make the tour; it took quite a while to sink in.
It then began to dawn on us what a huge opportunity it could be. Obviously we’d been aware of Fairport from our youth and remember going through people’s record collections at parties and such and seeing those iconic album covers by artistes such as Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones and, nestled amongst them in equal stature, you might find Liege & Lief or Unhalfbricking by Fairport Convention.
Since those days I’ve heard lots of music that sounded similar to what Fairport were making back then, but there was nothing like it before them. After a little while we realised that we were to be touring with true game changers, a band that helped create Folk Rock.
Oh shit, we’d better get match fit.
At that time we had no plans to start writing and recording again as we were heavily involved in promoting Ashes & Dust, the album we’d released a few months earlier. But Peggy pointed out it would be a good idea to have a new album for the tour. We had the minor distraction of a tour of Australia and New Zealand from January to March 2017 to contend with, followed by a stack of gigs around the UK and Europe (you can read about our exploits down under in an earlier blog), but then again there’s nothing to concentrate the mind quite like a deadline. We also needed to book our own tour (we don’t have an agent – it’s a control thing) to promote the non-existent album that was miraculously going to appear before the start of the Fairport tour.
I vividly remember negotiating a London album launch gig at Cecil Sharp House, the home of English folk music, for April 2018, whilst not having a title or single note recorded and only three songs written for said album.
However, we got stuck into it, the songs began to take shape, the recording went well and by October 2017 several boxes of CDs were blocking the entry to our garage and we had a tour booked to follow up on the Fairport tour.
Far Off on the Horizon has been extremely well received by critics and punters alike – we could not have been more pleased. It has received features in a wide range of music mags and online sites as diverse as The Daily Telegraph and The Big Issue and is by far the best-selling album we’ve released to date.
Back to the Fairport tour.
With new strings on string things, new batteries in pick ups, tuners etc and optimistic boxes of CDs and tee shirts, we packed Tallullah (our trusty camper van) and set off. The first gig was to be at The Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury on Thursday January 25th. We’d travelled down the day before to play live and have a chat with Genevieve Tudor for her show on BBC Radio Shropshire. It was a welcome distraction as our nerves were getting the better of us. That night we stayed with our good friends John & Sue who live nearby.
John and Sue kindly fed us, plied us with drink and spoke in soft, soothing and encouraging terms while we jabbered on in bollockspeak like two stressed chipmunks. We’ve done stacks of gigs and have screwed up in front of some impressive musicians, but this was a different level, and it was getting to us.
The thought of playing in much bigger venues wasn’t the major concern; we knew we’d overcome that once we’d got a few shows under our belt. More than anything we were nervous about meeting Fairport and their crew. We were to be spending a lot of time with theses folks, seeing them almost daily for nearly five weeks (29 gigs in 32 days). We desperately wanted to get on with everyone without coming across as gushing, sycophantic slimeballs.
We arrived at the theatre in good time, 4pm for a 5.30pm soundcheck. Two of the crew, Andy (truck driver, PA rigger) and Johnny (sound man), came to say hello. They were lovely and told us to go for a walk as we had loads of time. As we were heading off for a wander, Fairport turned up, smiles, hand shakes, hugs and kisses. What on earth were we worried about?
We met Ellen (Peggy’s partner) and, after she had explained to Kip where she stood in the pecking order (see photo), Kip and Ellen set up the merch stall in the foyer. We had a posh new banner, CDs, badges and tee shirts. The tee shirts and badges displayed the message that most folks on this tour were thinking -“Who the folk are Winter Wilson?”
The theatre was lovely, the sound check was a doddle – Johnny “gin ears” Gale (don’t ask, it wasn’t us) clearly knows his stuff. Fairport joined us to run through Still Life in the Old Dog Yet. It’s long been a tradition that they join the opening act on their last and therefore Fairport’s first song. We had sent them three songs and have no idea why they chose this particular track. We ran through Still Life a couple of times, but they’d got it on the first. Our nerves settled a little more.
Our set was due to start at 7:30pm; it was to feature three new songs from the new album and we had practised them a lot.
At 7:25pm uncle Mick Peters, the tour manager, went to our dressing room to call us to the side of the stage. He needn’t have bothered – we’d been there since 7pm. Ric Sanders
(Fairport fiddle maestro) then came up, cracked a few jokes, gave us a hug and, after getting the go ahead from Mick, Ric then walked out onto the stage to introduce us. After a couple of minutes of Ric’s stand up routine we were on.
We nailed it………… almost! The first five songs were fine, a little nervy but okay. Then Kip introduced Fairport and the audience whooped and cheered. She then chatted to the audience about our last song Still Life in the Old Dog Yet and the audience laughed in all the right places. While this was going on I was looking behind me at these five blokes and pinching myself. Gerry counted us in and bang – we were off. I sang the first two verses and was thinking “This is great. I’m on stage playing with Fairport on one of my songs and it sounds brilliant”. I didn’t realise I’d completely missed the third verse and gone into the middle eight until I saw the look on Kip’s face.
The band didn’t miss a beat. We finished the song, took a bow and we were off.
At the interval Peggy came to me and said “Sorry Dave. I’ll get it right tomorrow night” I thought about keeping quiet but then told him about missing a verse. He put his arm on my shoulder, laughed and shouted, “Chris, it was Dave that f***ed up, not me!” It wasn’t mentioned again, and I got it right every night after that.
And so the tour went on, twenty nine gigs in thirty two days. It should have been twenty eight, giving us the four Mondays off, but Fairport were doing a charity gig at Cropredy Village Hall on the second Monday, to raise funds for the local school and Peggy asked us if we’d like to play. “No pressure,” he said. “If you’d rather go home and sleep I understand.” As we were miles from home, we were planning on booking into a camp site to get our washing done and then sleeping in the van that night. As it turned out, along with the gig there was accommodation thrown in at Aunty Shirl’s (Cropredy legend) and while we were in the Brasenose having a pre-match aperitif the wonderful Shirl was getting our washing done.
There were a lot of laughs. I frequently bumped into Gerry Conway
(awesome drummer) wandering the backstage corridors of many theatres. Gerry would be looking like he had as much idea as I had as to where he was or where he was going. We were at The Cheese & Grain in Frome and I was chatting to Gerry while he was tinkering with his drum kit. “Is this a regular gig on the tour then Gerry?” “Apparently I’ve played here several times but I’ve no recollection.” I can understand where he’s coming from; this was our first tour on this scale and we were taking photos of every venue and behaving like excited kids. Gerry’s been doing it for over fifty years.
Chris Leslie (a major contender for the sweetest man on the planet) is not only a brilliant musician, great songwriter and singer, he’s also a magician and possibly of another world. He can make playing cards appear and coins disappear right in front of your eyes. No idea how he does it; it has to be be magic.
Ric and Mick the tour manager developed something of a ritual as the tour went on. Each night before Ric went on stage to introduce us, he would hand over his shoulder bag (which we christened the sporran) to Mick. The handing over of the sporran developed into a Goons-type routine with dancing and silly voices. I managed to capture it on my phone one night for posterity, just before Ric hurt his back during the dance routine.
It wasn’t all laughs though, as we got caught out several times by overnight road closures and I managed to inflict severe clunkage on Tallullah. Kip was driving us into Morecambe for the gig at The Platform and on the way in we saw the statue of Eric Morecambe on the sea front. We pulled up for the obligatory photo and, as it was surprisingly sunny (for Morecambe), Kip was struggling to see – she sits well below the sun visor. So I volunteered to drive us the rest of the way, reversing the van into a post in the process. Kip, being very good at jigsaws, managed to stick the rear light together with black gaffer tape. I was seriously pissed off – we’d spent a small fortune getting the bodywork done up last year and now I’d not only smashed the light, but also creased the rear door and dented the bumper. When the band arrived they were very sympathetic. Simon (Nicol) put his arm around me and offered silver gaffer tape, as it would be a much better match for the van. The worst thing was he was right.
We settled into the routine of the tour very quickly. Each day we’d arrive at the venue at 5pm, by which time the crew would have all the gear set up on stage. We’d carry our instruments in, say hello, do a sound check and then go and set up our merch stand. Then off to the dressing rooms get our posh clothes on and get back to the merch to smile and chat to folks as they arrived. (Peggy is a master at this, greeting everyone like long lost cousins.)
We soon learned that placement of the merch stand is critical and directly related to sales, prime placement being the spot that the audience have to pass to get to the bar and/or the exit. We would both man the stand during the interval, and at the end of the show Kip would man (woman? person?) the stand while I positioned myself in the largest flow of exiting people and dished out gig lists. Once folks had left, we’d get packed up, say our goodbyes and either go back to whoever’s house we were staying in or get a few miles in towards the following day’s gig and find a nice layby/carpark to sleep in. Kip, being in charge of logistics, had more often than not researched a cosy spot to head off to and it would be marked up on our trip sheet. This was the view we woke up to when we slept in a car park on Woodhead Pass after playing The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme the night before. Yes, it does look cold and yes, we are a little bit odd, but it suits us well and once you’re wrapped up in bed it’s very snug.
We performed in places we’d never dreamt of playing. The beautifully-restored Leeds City Varieties, where as kids we’d seen The Good Old Days in black and white on rented TV sets. Just as Ric was announcing us, one of the crew was reeling off the names of past performers -Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Morecambe & Wise, Laurel & Hardy…. It was an impressive list but did bugger all to calm the nerves.
The New Vic in Newcastle Under Lyme was a very different experience. It’s set out for theatre in the round which, as it suggests, means you have people sat behind you – probably a bonus if you’re watching me, but I couldn’t comment on anybody else. Kip wisely dispensed of the short dress for the night and wore trousers instead. It would have made for some interesting views when bending down to pick up her accordion.
It was great to play at every one of the these places, but the highlight for both of us and possibly Fairport had to be The Union Chapel in London. We were looking forward to it immensely and Fairport played a blinder that night, which made me think they were well up for it too. Mick and Ellen had both warned us that parking would be a nightmare, so we gave ourselves plenty of time as we were driving in from a hotel near Heathrow. We were planning on pulling up outside, dumping the gear and while one loaded in, the other would drive off in search of a parking space. Once found they would get a tube/bus/cab back to The Union Chapel. As it was, as we approached we saw Andy’s truck outside and there was just enough room to park Tallullah behind it. Andy had already received a parking ticket (an occupational hazard that he budgets for when pricing jobs in London), so we thought that the green meanie may have gone home happy and we’d chance it.
A rant, if I may. It’s great that councils are happy enough to allow, and in some cases actively encourage, venues to put on live events which are a benefit to the local community but then why give no leeway to allow trucks, vans etc to unload equipment into and out of the venue?
We’d never been to the Union Chapel before, only having seen concerts broadcast from there on BBC Four. It’s still a working Chapel, and services are held regularly – there was one planned for the morning after our gig. The stage was beautifully lit; Gerry’s drum kit was wedged in just in front of the pulpit making things a little tight for him and the rest of us, but well worth it. It’s not every day that your back drop is as stunning as this.
Gerry told us about appearing in a film many years ago and there was a scene of him playing in a band on that very stage. He’d hidden a bottle of brandy in the pulpit that he could reach from his drum stool. A dark horse that Gerry Conway.
Looking back, The Union Chapel was slightly strange in that despite being very excited at the thought of playing there, neither of us was very nervous. The whole evening was a delight, the event was a sell out with nine hundred people in there, the atmosphere was wonderful, the sound was great and we didn’t pick up a parking ticket. We played our set with beaming smiles and, when joining Fairport for Meet on the Ledge at the end of the night, I almost missed the first line of our verse as I was grinning like a loon at the crowd on the balcony who were singing like larks.
There was however one incredibly sobering moment on the day of the Union Chapel gig. On the drive into London we were laughing and joking and, as we came up off a slip road, we saw a burnt-out block of flats. Grenfell Tower………..Silence.
Tallullah our trusty VW camper achieved a major milestone on the tour. She racked up her first one hundred thousand miles (if we can keep doing this, two hundred is achievable). Saddos that we are, we caught the momentous occasion on camera and gave a little cheer.
The folk scene is relatively small and closely knit, and one of the joys of what we do is meeting people. Although you may not see much of them, many become firm friends over a few brief meetings. When we played Leeds City Varieties we stayed with Tom Bliss, a regular on the circuit up until a few years ago. The first time we met Tom was several years back when he and Tom Napper showed up at our house with Vin Garbutt. We were promoting a gig in our home town that Vin was headlining and, being the sort of bloke to offer a helping hand, Vin was giving the two Toms an opening slot at his gigs. Tom Bliss then stayed with us a couple of times when passing and we stay at Tom and Kat’s whenever we’re around Leeds.
The night before the gig at Leeds we were playing in Whitby and called in to see Vin’s widow Pat for a quick coffee and chat before the concert. We sang Storm Around Tumbledown that night in honour of Vin. He gave us a tremendous lift by recording Tumbledown on his album Persona Grata and he would always give us a plug whenever he sang the song live.
We were due to meet up with and stay with Alistair Russell and his partner Maggie for the gig at Whitby Pavilion. Ali is great singer and sound engineer (he mixed our last two albums). As it was, Maggie and Ali were away at the time, but they left us a house key and we and our lad Andy and his wife Alie had the use of their house for two days. There was a chap who we’d never met before came up during the interval at one of the gigs and gave us his card. He then said, “If you’re passing and need a shower or a bed, give us a call.” The chances are we will.
Before rounding this up we must pay tribute to the crew, Andy Salmon, Johnny Gale and Mick Peters. Their hours were longer than ours, they don’t get any of the glory and without them none of this would have happened. Top blokes, great to work with and lovely with it. Henry Rollins was so right.
Over the thirty two days we drove almost four thousand miles and relied on the kindness of friends and acquaintances for beds, showers, getting the washing done, the occasional lunch and a couple of hangovers. Special thanks to Sam & Elaine, Colin & Rosie, Kip’s cousin James and his wife Karen, Deany, Kirsty & Harry, Gwynneth & Brian, Paul & Jenny, Aunty Shirl, Maggie & Ali, Mary & Derek, Nicky & Jeff, John & Gill, Gail & Helen, Sue & Dave, Heather & Eileen. If I’ve missed anyone it’s not intentional; it’s just an age thing.
We learned a hell of a lot on this tour, but there was one thing I just couldn’t get the hang of. Twenty nine gigs and I still don’t know what to do with my hands when I’m not holding a guitar.
We could never thank the Fairport Family enough for us allowing us to open up for them on this tour. For them it’s been business as usual, but for us it’s been incredibly special and will stay with us forever.