Wide awake in Dreamland: Last Great Dreamers live in Chelmsford, Camden & Bournemouth, April 2015
I never sleep properly in hotel rooms. If I’m not roused every 10 minutes by a slamming door or laughter from returning merrymakers, I’m kept awake by the hum of something electrical (what is that?) or deep-voiced conversation from an adjacent room.
Tonight, as my bloodshot eyes stare at the bedside table, I’m serenaded by the sound of a woman next door being pleasured by a gentleman who, to be frank, doesn’t hang about. Unfortunately (for me, at any rate), he doesn’t hang about repeatedly, and every so often I’m treated to 30 seconds of ecstatic moaning before the pair continue their humdrum conversation. It’s like a late-night Channel 5 movie circa 1998, only with better reception.
With this going on I can’t even snooze, let alone catch some serious shut-eye, and though my body stays slumped on the mattress, my mind gets up, gets dressed and gets to work. It’s an officious little scrote, too - casting its eye over the day’s events, analysing where I went wrong and giving me its appraisal.
“So, you left tonight’s Last Great Dreamers gig with four copies of the setlist, did you?”
“That was stupid, wasn’t it?”
It was. But in my defence, your honour, it was an accident. Well, it started as one.
At the end of the show, at The Anvil in Bournemouth, I swiped the nearest setlist, which belonged to bassist Ian - who, being the gent that he is, apologised for his handwriting and suggested that I might like a different one. So I peeled frontman Marc’s copy off the stage, unaware that my wife Tara was busy prising guitarist Slyder’s off the side of an amp. And then I laughed at the trio of A4 sheets I’d acquired and thought that I might as well aim for the full set, which I completed with the help of the band’s roadie, Paul, who handed me the final one - belonging to Steve, the drummer - with a warning: the band wouldn’t have a copy to refer to when compiling the setlist for the next gig.
I laughed. Again. I was sure it’d be fine.
Later, in the bar, I waved my paper trophies around and Slyder asked me whether I’d give one up, for the reason that Paul had cited, and of course I was willing - but it somehow never happened, and I went back to my hotel with the lot. And now here I am, lying awake worrying that I’ve stolen all the band’s songs. If tomorrow night’s show, at the Beambridge Inn in Wellington, has to be billed as ‘Last Great Dreamers in Conversation’ it’ll be my fault. I can deny it no longer: my setlist addiction has spiralled out of control. I’ve moved from petty theft to grand larceny - no, make that kidnap!
My God, what have I become?
The moans from next door have subsided and the couple are chatting again, but it’s already too late: I must add ‘eavesdropping’ to my list of crimes. I’m a monster - a tired, accidental monster.
Life on the road clearly isn’t for anxiety-riddled wrecks like me, but for Last Great Dreamers it seems to be working out just fine. The band are seven gigs into an 11-date jaunt around some of England’s, and one of Wales’s, finest clubs and pubs, and their energy levels appear to be snowballing. This is their first proper run of dates since their reformation last spring, when they clocked back in after a 17-year retirement, and having watched their relatively speedy evolution over the course of a year I’m keen to see how this chapter plays out.
Two weeks ago I stopped by the Asylum in Chelmsford - yes, that’s a venue - for the opening night of the tour, to see the Dreamers’ longest-serving drummer, Steve Grainger, play his first gig with the band since their return. Steve was at the band’s comeback show at Camden’s Purple Turtle last September, but he didn’t play. Instead, he watched from the stalls with the rest of us as his predecessor, Ginge, returned to the drum stool (as he will again for this tour’s final three dates). At one point during the Purple Turtle show, Marc announced Steve’s presence, which got a cheer from the crowd. However, last month, when I asked Steve about that night for an interview piece I was writing, he told me that he couldn’t remember much about it - or, as he put it: “I was absinthed out of my skull.”
Marc and Slyder might have spent their 30s thinking that their rock ‘n’ rollin’ days were behind them, but Steve has never put down his drumsticks, and time has not diminished his reputation as a live wire. However, absinthe was off the menu in Chelmsford - along with alcopops, cheeky shandies and wine gums - as he was on medication for a tooth abscess. Steve might be restless but he’s not reckless, despite an apparent disregard for the benefits of flossing.
It was my first trip to the Asylum, and I was quietly charmed by it. The downstairs bar, with its cosy back room, gave the sociables somewhere comfy to chat, while the gig-goers got to enjoy the upstairs stage, which looked like it was situated at one end of an air-raid shelter. The turnout might have been low but the band didn’t slack off, and I left the venue with a capsule review that read “confident performance”, plus a bloodied copy of the setlist (my finger opened up - presumably as divine punishment for stealing).
What I didn’t leave with was a Creme Egg, because… well, I had my chance and blew it. Two songs before the end, Marc produced a plastic bag and enquired (with his tongue in his cheek, I should add, lest someone from the Vice Squad be reading) whether anyone fancied a “cocaine-filled Easter egg”. A few seconds later, a shiny, fondant-filled piece of confectionery whizzed past my ear as I failed to catch it. “There’s only three left,” said Marc. “Steve’s had eight; I’ve had one. Slyder puked his up. Let’s get wasted, guys!”
Four days later, at the Fiddler’s Elbow in Camden, another bag full of eggs appeared, and Marc claimed to be holding the Easter Bunny under duress. “How about the cool kids at the back? Do they want a chocolate egg?”
Marc’s between-song banter makes each Last Great Dreamers gig unique, as it seems to flow directly from the top of his head to his mouth. Sometimes it’s deadpan; other times it’s mock excited, like a bingo-caller hyping up a prize from the pound shop. In Chelmsford he introduced Ashtray Eyes as a song written on tour in Iceland in 1993, at an ice hotel, about a boy called Karl. In London, however, he spun a different yarn, explaining that it was penned while the band were at a goulash restaurant in Helsinki called the Yum Yum, and inspired by the waiter, who taught them “the art of self-fellatio”.
This was Marc’s pièce de résistance. His measured intonation implied magic and mystery. Think ‘The Beatles in India meeting the Maharishi’. With the introduction finished he stepped away from the mic for a full five seconds, before returning with a matter-of-fact afterthought: “There’s only, er, Ian who can do it so far.”
The Fiddler’s Elbow gig pulled a bigger crowd than Chelmsford, gifting the band a rowdy, vocal audience with which to work their charms. They played all but one track from their latest album, Crash Landing In Teenage Heaven, along with five songs from their 1994 debut, Retrosexual. And it was such a bold performance that the Asylum show, for all its confidence, suddenly felt like a warm-up.
Sure, Marc battled to keep his guitar in tune and accidentally introduced Sci-Fi Louise in place of Mary Wants (“only joking”), and the mistimed cue at the beginning of Supernature Natural was unfortunate. But in all other respects, this was the best gig I’d seen the band play since they reformed. Energy-wise they found a fresh peak to scale, and Slyder’s guitar had an untamed edge that pushed their 1970s glam-rock influences forcefully to the front of the stage. Come encore time, I was totally lost in the band’s world, singing along with the backing vocals to Lady at such volume that I was embarrassing the missus. (By the way, the encores on this tour weren’t automatic - of the three dates I saw, only London got one. “We didn’t really have a choice,” joked Marc as he returned to the Fiddler’s Elbow stage. “The landlord wouldn’t let us out.”)
And so to Bournemouth for part three - or, as I like to call it because I’m a sucker for a rhyme, ‘LGD by the sea’. Some of Slyder’s family came down to watch this show, as well as a chap in a vintage Silver Hearts T-shirt that drew admiration from the band, and I hope that both parties left proud. It was a late start, albeit a scheduled one - it had gone 10.30pm when the set kicked off with Supernature Natural - but the band gave another jet-fuelled performance that, on a technical level at least, was better than the Fiddler’s Elbow.
This was exactly what I’d hoped would happen on my mini-tour - that I’d leave each gig thinking that I’d just seen the band’s best performance to date, and wanting to plough on to another gig to see whether that one would top it. If there had been an encore tonight, it may well have ended up being my favourite of the three shows, but the absence of Chrome Tonic and Lady earned it a silver medal to Camden’s gold. Whoever coined the term ‘less is more’ obviously wasn’t high on cider, song and sea air.
Before tonight’s gig, Marc told me that he’d reined in the between-song chat since Camden, and I hope I didn’t look too crestfallen. It turned out that he still had plenty of fun with his introductions, both to songs and band members, but it felt more streamlined, making for a tighter-fitting set where the songs kept coming. There was no free chocolate, and Ashtray Eyes was introduced with a cryptic: “Anyone been to Skegness?” But I don’t think Marc’s about to quit his shaggy-dog stories and self-deprecating patter any time soon. I hope not, as it’s part of the band’s charm and as British as Bournemouth seafront. There’s no need to tell us what’s really going on, because Last Great Dreamers’ music speaks for itself.
And that’s not a bad line on which to finish my report. It’s been a long night and I’ve caught about an hour’s sleep, but now daylight is poking its head through the hotel curtains, inviting me downstairs for cornflakes and a cuppa. I accept its invitation, hoping I don’t fall asleep and drown in my semi-skimmed. Later, when I return to my room, I hear more passionate moaning from next door. Christ, they’re still at it - that’s a solid eight hours, not that I’ve been counting (note: I have definitely been counting).
Good luck to them, but this is where I bow out. I’m dog-tired but I’ve had a ball. On both counts, the term ‘good night’ has never felt more apt.