“This next song,” says Pete Gow, “is probably the only reason we were invited to play Country to Country.”
It’s 11.45am on Sunday 13 March, and I’m in Greenwich, at the O2 – or the Millennium Dome, as I hope history will remember it – for a brief look in on what’s being billed as ‘Europe’s largest country music festival’.
The three-day bash has gathered together some of the genre’s current big names – the headliners are Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Eric Church – but there’s far more to the event than just an arena show, as dotted around the O2’s concourse are numerous smaller stages. Some of these stages are out in the wild, just around the corner from pizza parlours, bars and coffee houses. Others are tucked up toastily inside the dome’s satellite venues such as the Brooklyn Bowl. And it’s here, in this beautifully lit bar-cum-bowling-alley that Pete Gow, Case Hardin’s frontman and founding member, is pondering his band’s country credentials.
“It seems I let time slip away…” – Magnificent Bastard by Tommy Hale
Time is many things – some prosaic, some poetic. To the young it’s a comfort; to the grieving it’s a healer; to the toiling it’s a currency; to the creative it’s a storyteller. Albert Einstein once said that the separation between past, present and future is an illusion, which has got to be worth a shot the next time your mortgage payment is late.
The one universal, scientifically agreed truth about time, though, is that if you’re awaiting a new record from a favoured musician, it’s a massive pain in the arse.
It’s been eight years since Tommy Hale’s last album, Stolen Conversations, Three Chords And The Truth – and, given the opportunity to grill him about its now-imminent follow-up, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t ask him why.
You know that a frontman is giving it his all when, after the first song, he confesses to accidentally swallowing his chewing gum. The song is titled Hidden Treasure, and it occurs to me – because I’m a childish sort – that in a day or two that’s exactly what he’ll find on a bathroom break.
And if you groaned at that, be thankful he wasn’t singing Stick Around.
Shockingly, it was nearly 15 years ago, in December 2000, that I first saw Jonny Kaplan perform. I was at the Borderline to see Caitlin Cary, who was then fresh out of Whiskeytown. Jonny was supporting – mainly in an acoustic capacity, though towards the end of his set he borrowed Caitlin’s band and started to rock out – and I was impressed enough to look him up when I got home and order his debut album, California Heart. I reviewed that record for my old webzine, describing the 12-track collection as “a face full of sunshine” and labelling Jonny a purveyor of Cosmic American Music – the term coined by the late, great Gram Parsons to describe his own soulful blend of country and rock ‘n’ roll.
Y’know, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to write this piece. This morning, as part of a hospital outpatients procedure, I was injected with midazolam, a sedative drug whose skill set includes anterograde amnesia – or, as Wikipedia puts it, the “loss of the ability to create new memories”.
This evening, I’m sitting in the main theatre in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls watching a show called All Star ’60s, a five-band travelling revue that includes Bob Jackson’s Badfinger – or, as I’m putting it now, the best chance I’ve ever had to see the music of one of my favourite classic-rock bands performed live. And I’m wondering whether I’ll wake up tomorrow unable to remember a thing.
For the unaware, Bob Jackson joined Badfinger in 1974 and, along with Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Mike Gibbins, was part of the line-up that recorded one of the great lost albums, Head First, which remained unreleased until it was issued on CD in 2000. He and Tom Evans later formed The Dodgers, another great band with power-pop leanings, and toured the US together in an early ’80s version of Badfinger. These days, Bob appears to be a proud keeper of the flame – or, as he puts it this evening, a curator of a legacy.
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.
Goddammit, that headline is so obvious I’m almost ashamed. Almost.
Sometimes what’s obvious is what’s right, and what’s undeniably right is that this morning in old London town Mr Lee Rocker more than lives up to his name.
The bassist, who made that name with the Stray Cats in the early ’80s, is here at the London Bass Guitar Show, at the Olympia Conference Centre in Kensington, to perform for around 400 fans and other interested parties. It’s been nearly 10 years since I last saw Lee play live – at Dingwalls in Camden, a gig that had a completely different kind of atmosphere from today’s theatre show. Back then I had to abandon my place near the front when the dancing got a bit boisterous (to say the least). Today, with theatre seating and a sober audience – at least I hope they are: it’s 11.20am when the set kicks off – I enjoy a more civilised experience and get to hang on to my position in the front row.
No, they’ve not spiked the Red Stripe tonight – there really is a space-suited gentleman wandering around The Cellar. The Oxford venue, tucked in a side street just seconds away from the hustle and bustle of a city-centre Saturday night, is hosting a single-release party for Last Great Dreamers, and if there’s one thing astronauts love it’s a launch.
The band have christened the besuited character ‘Captain Helmut’ – from the German branch of NASA – and they appear keen to make him a star, man. He’s there on the cover of Supernature Natural, the second release from last year’s acclaimed Crash Landing In Teenage Heaven LP. He also graces the song’s video, which has just started its online orbit. And now he’s space-walking around a small bar in Oxford, handing out spot-prizes to punters whose dancing he deems worthy.
“Y’all can come down here. You don’t have to be scared of the rock music.”
And so Warner E. Hodges sets his trap.
I’m at Dingwalls in Camden and, so far, the six-foot gap in front of the stage has remained empty, despite two bands having already, in the parlance of the evening, rocked the place. As David Sinclair from openers David Sinclair Four noted, there are enough guitars racked up by the side of the stage to open an instrument shop. And as I’m noting now, one of those guitars belongs to Mr Rick Richards of Georgia Satellites fame, so you can be sure that the place had been rocked in a full and proper fashion, too.
In this, the first part of an occasional blog series, I’m listing some of my favourite songs and sharing a few of my thoughts about them, as well as some memories. These are tracks that, over the years, I’ve formed emotional attachments to, rather than simply come to love as good records (though they’re certainly those too). They’re songs I play to take me back to certain times and places. If you catch me cueing up a few of these tracks, chances are I’m trying to time travel – to capture old feelings, to feel the rush of a life lived, and to shed a few happy tears while I snuggle into my musical comfort blanket.
What’s the saying? Time flies when you’re having fun? It might as well just say ‘time flies’. This week, to my amazement, I discovered that it’s been five years since I last saw Dan Baird play live. It feels like two, yet I’ve not been having much fun over the last half decade.
Of course there have been moments, days, even some weeks, that I’ve enjoyed – a film, a convention, a holiday. But more often than not I’ve woken up in the morning and, as I’ve felt my operating system reboot, been consumed by worry and dread. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t feel existential panic or sorrow, and despite treatment – at first with antidepressants and then with therapy – I’m no nearer to resolving it, though one strategy I’ve found useful is to stop and smell the flowers from time to time.