This four-week tour in Britain has been the best tour abroad yet. We managed to make it through without exhausting ourselves, and have no exciting disasters to report. It was a smooth trip, with the fullness of the days flowing one into the next. After five years of hard work a momentum has taken hold. By virtue of advertising, radio airplay, and word of mouth, the folk club gigs were mostly packed full, and there was a palatable excitement before each show like I’ve rarely seen at home.
Our first concert was in York for the Black Swan Folk Club, and was billed as a “record launch.” Press and magazine reviewers were in attendance and the mood was high. I have great appreciation for our soft-spoken, long-time concert promoter Roland Walls who’s had the patience from our first tour in 2001, to see attendance grow every time we’ve returned. It was a great way to begin the tour.
Our next engagement was supposed to be three gigs in Scotland on the Isle of Bute. When we arrived at the ferry dock the attendant approached our car and asked if we were the American musicians. He then instructed us that our venue had changed and we were now supposed to play on the Isle of Arran instead. How did he know?! We sped 20 miles south to the port at Ardrossan and just made the last ferry to Arran. We spent the next three days on this marvelous island, walking during the day and playing our pub gig at night.
The following Monday we caught the 11am ferry back to the mainland and set out north through Glasgow up to Perthshire to perform for the Glenfarg Folk Club. We located our lodgings at the Hayfield Cottage B&B where our host Pete led us around to the back of the house by a little brook to the old washing cottage. We settled into this cozy stone hut warmed by a coal stove where, two hundred years ago, textile mill workers’ clothes were boiled and wrung out to dry. The next morning after breakfast with Pete and Marian, we took a stroll by the brook and around the ruins of the old mill. Crocus was blooming by Pete’s fanciful garden sculpture, lazy mannequins of driftwood and wicker. This is a place we look forward to returning to.
Tuesday, February 1st - Dunkeld, Perthshire Scotland
This window on the second floor of the Taybank Inn overlooks the River Tay and the Dunkeld Bridge. The date of 1809 resides upon the crest of the bridge. The River Tay is wide and with vitality the current rushes under the high grey stone blocks of its five arches. The neighboring village of Inver sits upon the opposite bank of the river and a forested hill rises behind it. A mist of morning fog, coal and wood smoke hangs in the golden, slanted morning air.
Yesterday, after checking into the inn, Sue and I took a walk upon the Inver Trail through the Scottish Forest Reserve. We hiked a good five miles along the banks of the Tay past the tree where Neil Gow fiddled in the 18th century, then into the forest where the Hermitage resides. The Hermitage is a lofty Victorian style hallway perched upon a cliff overlooking a magnificent waterfall. The shape of the ceiling creates a great funnel of sound that descends upon the tourist as they walk through. Near to the base of the waterfall stands the tallest tree in all of Britain. In the 1860’s David Douglas, who was born in Scone in Scotland, returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest in America, and as a part of a reforestation and ornamental planting effort, brought back the trees that now bear his name: the Douglas Fir.
That night we settled into the Taybank’s downstairs pub for a meal of Stovies (potatoes mixed with just about anything – cheeses, meats, veggies, spices). Afterwards we fetched our instruments, and set up for an evening of fiddle and banjo tunes. A glowing wood fire and quiet applause kept us going, and I guess Nigel, the proprietor, approved because he began sending the barmaid over with drams of whisky and pints of ale whenever we went empty. After three hours we were beginning to wane but then who should walk through the door with friends and family in tow but Dougie MacLean. I had met Dougie during the Carnegie Hall concert in 1984, and Sue knew Dougie from his tours in California. After great exclamations, hugs and extended introductions to the entourage, further libations and more music began.
Dougie and company had just returned home from the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow where they had presented a concert at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. The program was called Rural Image and celebrated the land, Scotland’s agricultural heritage and our collective connection with the earth. It was a huge undertaking and it came off very well to glowing reviews. Sue and I were simply present to witness the MacLean clan blowing off a little steam at the end of an epic chapter. We were up past closing time carrying on and celebrating.
With Scotland behind us we scooted down the Motorway for our next four concerts in southern England. Our first was in the village of Corsham near Bath. There we played in a room with perfect acoustics. I’ll remember it clearly because for the whole of the second set it was as if we could do no wrong. Every note played, every syllable sung was a gift from someplace perfect, and the audience reacted in kind. This gig set the tone for the whole rest of the tour. It raised the bar of how we listened to ourselves, and every night we met it at least for a time.
Next came Twickenham, Chesham, and Dartford all in a row. By now I’m noticing my fiddle case has taken on the smell of the folk clubs. It’s a mixture of old wood and ale, wet wool and antiques, dust from books that nobody reads, and the ever-so-faint odor of cigarettes - smoking now being on the wane in most folk clubs. It is not unpleasant, and a bit nostalgic. I figure you could even bottle it and sell it at tourist shops. To remind folks of pleasant nights listening to music with a glass of ale at hand.
During these tours very little exists outside of the here and now. Home in the States is a distant place, and American politics of war and corporate greed are blissfully gone from attention. Our lives are narrowed down to music, staying healthy, and getting from one place to the next. We live in small episodes, moment by moment: one day we’re strolling through the ruins of an abbey in Bury St. Edmunds whose stones were used to build homes after Henry the 8th dissolved the monasteries in the 1500’s, another day we’re staring dumbfounded at the double consonants of the words on the Welsh road signs: Llangennech, Cwmllynfell (help!). Yet the simplicity and immediacy of this existence keeps our minds in an almost child-like state. This continual state of wonder keeps fatigue at bay and our sprits high.
Monday, February 14 Valentines Day – The BBC Radio 2 Awards
By some divine providence our friend, Steafan Hannigan, a voting member of the BB2 Radio-Folk awards, decided that he’d rather spend Valentines Day having a quiet night out to dinner with his wife, Saskia, and surrendered his tickets to the gala awards show in London to Sue and I. This was the equivalent to going to the proverbial ball. Under one roof was all the royalty of the British folk music scene. Upon entering the foyer we were served champagne and gave hellos to Steve Tilston, and Jez Lowe and Kate of the Bad Pennies, all the while marveling at the glitz. We were then escorted into the dining hall where we sat at one of the many round tables resplendent with candles, wine glasses, wine bottles, cutlery, and baskets of bread. Surrounding us were concert promoters, managers, musicians, and radio personalities. I can only equate it to being like the Grammy’s for folk music. Television cameras swung around the room on hydraulic booms, and spotlights shone in every direction. The best part of the night was the live music with performances by Bellowhead, Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span, and Karine Polwart. Fellow Americans Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot were also present for special lifetime achievement awards. Tom gave an eloquent speech when he received his award, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was in good form wisecracking his way through both his thank-you’s, and his song, “San Francisco Blues.”
Alas, with just one more week to go, the end of the tour was on the horizon. Northampton, Llantrisant, Bradford, and Burton on Trent were our last four shows. Each day’s experience was just about worth the whole trip over. The Great Knight Folk Club is in Northampton where Steafan and Saskia live. Every time we return we see their children grow up a little more. We finally got to hear Steafan and Saskia play a handful of tunes before each of our sets that night. The next night in southern Wales, we negotiated the windy roads to play in the Llantrisant Folk Club, which literally could pack no more people in than it did for us that night. Our most enthusiastic host Pat regaled us with her concertina playing and singing before our concert set. The following night we drove north to play in Bradford at the venerable Topic Folk Club. At near 50 years old, the Topic is the oldest continually running folk club in the UK. We saw Steve Tilston again and were so pleased to hear him play a floor spot. Steve tours in America regularly, so go see him! Our finale was a return to the brewing town of Burton on Trent to sing in the upstairs room at the Star and Garter Pub. Neil and Jane Dalton put us up that night and the next, and allowed us the luxury of sleeping late and feeding us well as we began to wind down from the tour.
Monday, February 21st
Back in Northampton we made our ritual trip to the supermarket to purchase things not available in the States: good tea, biscuits, Scottish whisky, and gifts for friends. We exchanged pounds to dollars, dropped off our rented car, topped off our duffel bags and carry-ons, and wait for our agent, Vivienne, to take us to Heathrow. The trip home is relatively effortless. All one has to do is mindlessly shuttle through lines and wait. We take our seats, however cramped, in our 747 and assume a position of suspended animation. For this moment, mid-air over the Atlantic, it’s good to just pause and consider a trip well done.