We land at Heathrow, step into the terminal, and enter into the well-rehearsed dance of immigration, customs, baggage, car rental, then at last the bon voyage from airport territory all the while thinking, “left, left, drive on the left.” At this point it’s 10 in the morning and we’ve been awake for about 20 hours. We’re soon driving on the M4 west to Bristol where our agent lives and who we’ll meet with warm greetings, then go directly upstairs to sleep until dinner. After dinner we do no more than go back upstairs and sleep again until morning. This is the ritual. We are now down the rabbit hole.
In this landscape, space is at a premium. Small cars drive fast on narrow roads. Narrow houses host narrow stairways. Petite kitchens are fitted with compact appliances. There’s even a system for naming smaller bed sizes. Portions of food and drink are also generally smaller, except for pints of beer where the Imperial pint is 20oz! More people fit onto less land than in America where we take our luxurious distances for granted.
Driving in Britain can be compared to delivering a thread through the eye of a needle without touching the thread to the needle itself. Such is negotiating any urban street. Woe to the side view mirror of any parked car that hasn’t been pulled inward lest another car smashes it with its own mirror. Cars routinely drive up on the curb or sidewalk just to be able to pass down the street. Rural driving is not much different as the lanes often have tall hedges on either side that give the road a tunnel-like effect. These lanes are barely wide enough for two cars to pass let alone a truck or some joker in an American SUV who believes their car is too precious to touch the hedge thereby causing the oncoming driver to go into the hedge himself. Driving is just a commonplace insanity.
We kick off the tour in south Wales where the British springtime is just beginning. Walking down the lane you can hear two sounds coming from over the hedge, one low and throaty and the other a high warble-bleat: ewes are lambing in the fields. We see them at a break in the hedge, frolicking. What young lambs do in green English fields is the very definition of the word frolic! It is early March and whilst there are no leaves on the trees the grass is lush and the first flowers, snowdrops and crocuses, are appearing. That night at Cuffern Manor, Jules, who hosts these concerts with his wife Jane, made a point of planting the seed of writing an essay about this tour. He reminded me that I had not written a UK tour essay since 2005. (Very well, Jules, here you go!)
Then the gigs begin ticking off – Corsham, Nailsea, then the Red Lion in Birmingham. Birmingham was one of my favorite nights and we did not even headline the show. We opened for Spiers and Boden, a much-loved British duo that might be better described as a five-piece band. At 180 people the room was standing room only. John Spiers plays a melodeon on two channels – one, running from the bass plate and another running from the treble plate so he sounds at once like a bass and a melody instrument. While Jon Boden plays fiddle, sings and plays a drumbeat on his “stomp box” at the same time. The stomp box is basically a plywood platform with a microphone beneath it. Thing is, it’s been EQ’ed to a very low frequency which makes it sound like a bass drum. The combination of all these sounds is stunning and it makes me try to imagine ways of importing this sound to America.
After the gig, cast and crew hastened back to our promoters Della and Chris’s home, and partook in the ritual sup at a table of soup, bread, cheese (many good stinky cheeses) wine (many bottles of the Co-op’s finest) and boisterous conversation. The lasting image of that evening in my mind is Della and Chris sitting side by side in matching wicker chairs, tatty with age and cushioned with hand knitted blankets, looking like wise and benevolent monarchs who nod approval to their wayfaring, vagabond subjects. By two in the morning the company dispersed up to third floor bedrooms to sleep in single beds under ancient and colorful quilts.
The gigs continue to tick off: Sussex – where we opened a show for the legendary Dave Swarbrick. “Swarb,” a co-founding member of Fairport convention and cohort of Martin Carthy, is a magical fiddle player and an absolute fount of stories. His recent lung transplant has enabled him to keep on living, playing, and making mischief. To say Dave smoked a lot would be an understatement. It took many benefit concerts and operations to bring him back to his current chops. He made a big impression on me when I first saw him play now 25 years ago at a club in Massachusetts. I was so happy to have the opportunity to tell Dave myself how happy I was to hear him play again.
Next gigs: Llanstrisant in Wales, Otterton Mill, and Hazelwood House in Devon, where we had a day off to walk in the quiet countryside. (“Ah, lovely Devon, where it rains eight days out of seven.”) Then Warwick, Bristol, York, Wakefield, and the Barnsley Folk and Roots Festival where we got to listen to Jez Lowe, Emily Slade and the Demon Barbers. Then a long drive south to Bath for a double header the next day: first, at the American Museum in Britain then that evening, a house concert in the Cotswolds town of Dursley.
By this time we are three weeks into the tour and our batteries are running on empty. What we most need is a couple days of quiet and sleep. Wiith two days off before our next gig in Scotland we decide to stop halfway north in the Lakes District. There we find a hotel in the quaint village of Ambleside. As we drove into town a huge rainstorm had just passed through. The entire town was drenched wet and everything the air touched sparkled in the setting sun. Later, walking the narrow streets and perusing the restaurants, an evening chill was setting in and the air smelled of coal fires. Ambleside is eye candy, really. What with every structure made almost entirely of stone, and a crystal clear brook running under arching stone bridges, this old market village set in ancient glacial mountains looks like it stepped out of a fairy tale.
Later that week, after our gig at the Edinburgh Folk Club, we had two more days off and we decided to stay in the big city. The first day we could barely see 50 feet in front of us it was so foggy – another good day to have permission to do nothing. This is when we saw the new Alice in Wonderland and I began thinking of this tour in those terms. On the second evening the fog lifted just enough that we could actually see the buildings – the magnificent, masculine, hewn-of-stone city that Edinburgh is. For dinner we chose a French restaurant, “Le Sept,” where the waiters, while casual in jeans, t-shirts, and days-old beards, nonetheless possessed a manner totally in step with the French-waiter stereotype. I wondered out loud to Sue if a prerequisite for being hired to wait tables at a restaurant such as this is to be ever just so aloof with a touch of surly. Truth be told, it only added to the ambience of the room with its small tables too close together, vintage French posters on plaster walls and high ceiling. The food was spectacular.
Our final gig was the String Jam Club in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders region. Noted as one of the best clubs in all of Britain, the String Jam is run by Allie Fox who is also both a musician and a booking agent. To me that’s the perfect trifecta because Allie understands the business from all points of view. Indeed, Allie knows how to cultivate an enthusiastic audience and made our work ever so easy that night.
By this time there’s a palpable sense of cruising downhill for the remaining days of the tour. From Galashiels south we had beautiful weather skirting the Yorkshire Dales to a party at our friends Tony and Rahel’s house in the midlands. The next day found us back again in Bristol, settling up business with our agent Lorraine, raising a glass of champagne together to the end of a successful tour, and preparing for our departure back up through the rabbit hole. Then sooner than you can say “Jack Rabbit,” we are driving in our (what feels like a not-so-mini) van in some very wide lanes of traffic on our way through Virginia toward home. The air is different, the light is different, the sounds are different – I am awoken as if from a dream. Though that’s probably just a relapse of jetlag.
I am left with a residual feeling of warmth and generosity for all the people who have been very kind to us during this tour. So many people go out of their way to open their homes, make our beds, fix us tea and meals, tell us their stories, and send us upstairs with a nightcap. They give us places to play concerts and to celebrate our shared love of this thing we call folk music. They give us experiences and friendships that we continue to treasure as we continue on down the road.
Thanks for reading!
Cheers, Dana & Sue