Tour Diary: New York to Winchester: Barn Fevers, Bob Harris and Alfred, King of Wessex

Monday 2nd April 2012

Simone and I catch an overnight flight from Newark to London. Aurora is on a different flight and Art is taking a few more days in New York to meet with friends. Newark looks like a dark kingdom in the dusk, something akin to Mordor, all jaggedy towers and plumes of ominous smoke. We had returned from New York City on the Thursday, stopping briefly in a car park off the motorway in Poughkeepsie to drop an LP off for Nate (Conor Oberst’s manager and CEO of the Team Love record label). This was followed by a show in Woodstock on the Friday.

Over the weekend, I had the barn to myself, what with Art staying in New York after our Mercury Lounge show. As a result I had let the fire in the stove die, a role that Art had fulfilled manfully during our time as barn mates. I recall the immense cold of the night, the pines still outside while icy fingers reached into my soul. The next morning I awoke to a malady that I have since referred to as ‘barn fever’. I could not get warm, I had lost all appetite and it hurt to move my eyes to the side. I spent a lost day huddled by the rekindled stove, Indian rug about my shoulders reading Julian Barnes’s ‘Arthur and George’.

It was with this growing fever that myself and Simone found ourselves in the departures lounge, me with this raging fever and Simone reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and fielding emails on his phone. An Englishman sits alongside us and introduces himself as a friend of Jeremy Backofen, (the Felice Brothers producer who I had met at the Woodstock show where he joined us with some shakers for Radio Song). The English guy is pleasant and says he plays keys in a band called Brakes and was once in British Sea Power. He now lives in New Falls, New York. He makes an effort to light a conversation but I am barely keeping hold of my vital life senses and Simone is adrift on a sea of emails and administration. I haven’t slept for at least twenty four hours and this is added to by the five hours fifty on the red eye to London. I don’t eat and drink little on the flight. I try to fall asleep in various positions but only manage some quiet shut eye when my head is resting on the seat in front.

We arrive and are met by an eastern European chauffeur. He’s not big into talking or helping with our bags. We head for the flat of Simone’s literary agent and I manage to grab two hours rest on a mattress on the floor. I hope for the sweet and blissful release of sleep but I find I simply cannot drift off, which makes me feel worse than ever. I shuffle around the flat fearing that I may never eat or sleep again. We get a cab to Portland Place. I buy a snickers bar and a lucozade from a corner shop. They are the first foodstuffs through my mouth for at least two days. They taste sour and grimy.

On arrival we are shown up to the Radio 2 studios. We set up. Bob Harris comes in soon after and shakes our hand. Simone heads off to the toilet leaving me with Bob in the studio; he behind the gargantuan radio console, me pale and confused with lap steel. Bob is a very pleasant man and we chat about the numerous differences in language between English and American English. I want to say how much I admire him and that I used to listen to his show when I was a student, late on Saturday evenings but I can barely make any sense of my brain. Simone takes a considerable time deciding what songs to play and when he does, they are ones I haven’t played lap steel on or the keys have changed. I look at my hands and ponder whether this will come off good or not. I am going to have to work hard. During the last song Bob leaves briefly to move his car so as to avoid getting a parking ticket, which strikes me as odd. Surely he has a specified bay at the BBC?

The recording is hit and miss. I look up to the producer and label man in the control booth. They put thumbs up so I accept it as OK. We walk out into the corridor. I glimpse Steve Wright’s shoulder through a door as he broadcasts his afternoon show. He looks a big guy. All I can think of is home and bed and the few days rest I am going to get. I manage to navigate London for home and that night the fever breaks after a marathon fourteen hour sleep. I am a new man by morning.

Friday 6th April 2012

Jack picks me up early, having driven from the Gower at dawn. Our first stop is Heathrow to pick up Simone and Simi from the airport and then onto the old capital of England, Winchester. At the venue, The Railway, I instantly feel at home mainly because I have played there so many times before with the Lucky Strikes. Oliver is the promoter and our host. He does an excellent job of both and looks after us. The Railway is decked out with plastic seagulls and homemade portholes - a theme for a club night later on. The gig is good and we stay at Oliver’s house, eating cheese and putting away a prodigious amount of whiskey and coke. Oliver and I talk a lot about the Southend music scene and Dr. Feelgood. We retire late.

Saturday 7th April 2012

The next day is very relaxing and Oliver takes us on a countryside walk into Winchester via a route starting at his house in Twyford and then across to St Katherine’s Hill, which affords us views of the cathedral and its associated ‘hospital’, where the pious practitioners of the Middle Ages would offer free sustenance to poor and needy travellers. Word is that you can still get a portion of beer and cheese there. At the top of the hill, through a dense copse of trees, there is a ground level maze. The grooves seem to have been worn over centuries and the information board links it to an assize ritual of a bygone age. We follow the path down across a field arriving at a church where we sit under an ancient tree for a while, its sprawling branches providing us with shade. We follow the river Itchen (which Oliver tells us is one of the clearest waterways in Europe on account of its short length) and play ‘pooh sticks’, which is a game enshrined by A A Milne in Winnie the Pooh whereby you pick a stick, drop it on the flowing water from a bridge and then race to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick is fastest. Simone and Jack are most excited to start this game and it releases the inner boys in them. It ends with them swinging from a rope above the water further along the path.

We arrive in Winchester feeling exercised but spoil it all by eating pastries in a deli that sits across from the cathedral and is owned by TV chef James Martin. The day is fine and crowds mill about the terrace outside the cathedral. The building itself is subsiding and we walk its perimeter, through the herb garden and around the buttresses. We have no time or money to spare to go inside. So, with bellies full and legs stretched we leave Winchester to its sweet waterways and cobblestones. As we try to find the route to the motorway we find ourselves driving straight towards the giant statue of Alfred the Great, sword brandished in one hand. I wasn’t expecting it to be so large. Simone jokes about pledging one hundred Catskill swords to him.

Our next stop is Oxford, which today is fairly unremarkable although strangely I feel close to home and untroubled. The venue is a wine bar come pub. The gig is the best so far, with the band in light and comedic mood. I even get chance to catch up on my reading. We stay in a Travelodge near Oxford. As all travelling musicians know, there is a degree of order about hotels. Travelodges are OK but Premier Inns are the next step up. Beyond that, you’re kings of the road.