Saturday, June 06, 2009

Young, Marling and Me, an epic

American drawl: “Hey if you guys need anything, just let me know. Anything, really, I'm your man.”

Polite wavering English voice: “Umm, yeah we were wondering if we could get a beer or something?"

American: “Done, no problem. That it?”

English: “Yep, I think so.”

American “Ok guys, whatever you need yeah?”

English: "Yeah thanks a lot. Man."

The American was Neil Young's tour manager, Elliott. A genial and hospitable chap. With a broad grin and a lusty head of white hair. The English voice was Pete Roe's, keyboard and banjo player with Laura Marling's band.

It later occurred to us in a moment of contemplation, that we were backstage at a stadium rock gig and being offerred “anything we need”. Perhaps he didn't mean clean shorts and a bottle of water. Still, we were way too nervous and excited to reply what he probably expected: “four young hookers and a bag of speed.” I suspect if we had said that, he wouldn't have protested, it would have just been a bit difficult for him. “Well, I'll see what I can do boys, but I don't know any pimps in Nantes”.

The last week has been totally surreal, exciting and certainly the most terrified I have felt in public.

I received the call last week that Laura Marling was hoping to try out with the Sons of Noel and Adrian's drummer (that's me!) to fill in for her usual drummer (Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons). Naturally I was excited, but to begin with I didn't know the crucial factor – that these were supporting slots in Paris and Nantes with Neil Young in a stadium...

I was kept on tenterhooks for a day or so until they confirmed it, and then before I knew it, I was on a tourbus with my drum kit driving to Bush Studios to learn an entire Laura Marling set in four hours. Marcus was on hand to show me how it's done. It was a rather intimidating prospect, having to get on the kit to play my own less confident and less rehearsed versions of the drum parts for Laura's songs, us all knowing that my version would be the one to face 16,000 French people, and Neil Young.

Still, with encouragement, a cup of tea and some patience, we got it together and went back to Laura's to have a posh barbeque, an acoustic run through in the garden and an early night. Well, actually I stayed up really late watching Ghost on the telly. I really enjoyed the floaty depiction of heaven that Patrick Swayze strolls into at the end, when his work is done. It's a kind of dry-iced neon-lit tacky shimmering mess of soft greens and pinks. Like a perfectly distilled visual summary of the eighties.

We then made a rather epic van trip to Rouen, with a DVD collection comprising mostly of Woody Allen films. Ruth (our cellist) kept us entertained with intermediate knitting. We arrived there at about midnight, via a ferry from Dover to Calais which seemed entirely populated by insane French children. I didn't realise kids were such keen sailors.

Arriving at our hotel we found a bored, chubby unsympathetic laughing French man who informed us that he'd given away our rooms. It was as if we should join him for the funny joke. Bunch of tired English folk denied rooms for the evening – hurrah! “Yeah nice one fat French man! We've just been travelling for twelve hours, what a hilarious way to end our journey, without the beds that we booked. You bastard.”

English sarcasm is alive and well.

Of course, we sorted it (thanks to Tre, our tour manager), and myself and Ollie (our soundman) found a fondue restaurant where we gorged ourselves on melted cheese, hams and lager until we were completely bloated and sure that we'd have fucked up cheese dreams.

We both woke up going “fucked up cheese dreams? Nope, me either.”

We got to Nantes just in time for me to have my very own personal Neil Young concert. He was soundchecking and I got to watch them play to an empty stadium. Very surreal and exciting. Kind of brought home the enormity of the occasion.

We did our soundcheck with some very helpful crew folks. Still wasn't feeling too nervous at this point. My blind optimism and false confidence ruling the hour.

Backstage there were people everwhere, doing presumably important roles, though I couldn't tell you what they were. We got fed a dinner of sweet loveliness and I totally overdid the soft cheeses and felt pretty bloated, not what you want for your first stadium gig.

The moment approached and I was clearly in some kind of daze. Pete led a band prayer at the side of the stage while we could glimpse certain bits of the audience. We knew there were 8000 people there. Probably more like 7978. Perhaps twenty or so were in the bar. Maybe a couple were late. We locked heads and as we began the walk up the stairs, I could feel my balance going a bit. I sat down on the drum stool on this enormous stage and Pete later said that all the blood drained from my face. My stomach felt like a washing machine in motion. I was trying to do that thing that I do when I'm drumming on stage: close my eyes, keep my back straight and go into an almost meditative state in order to relax and feel the song. I realised I was shaking and then I opened my eyes to just see blackness and stage lights with the knowledge that there were an endless amount of people there,watching. Here comes my first vocal cue. Ok, fine, didn't fuck that up. Here's the drums – now remember, I need to pick up the pace on this one. And we're off.

The rest is a guess, a shot in the dark. Thankfully, I held my nerve. When I came off stage though, the nerves that I had held in my arms for the last half an hour, immediately dribbled to the floor and I felt exhausted, headachy and paranoid, really hoping that I had done alright.

By this point I had still not met Neil Young.

We loaded up on booze and went out the arena to soak up the atmosphere.

They took to the stage in a flurry of lights and general excitement and we were treated to some pretty rawking action. I just found a website that helped me out with the setlist for the night. They started with Mansion on the Hill, and straight into Hey Hey My My and Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. I was starting to relax by this point. Nodding my head, singing along, generally feeling proud and happy to be a part of this enormous show for the legendary singer. Particular highlight was Mother Earth, when he ditched his band to run to the back of the stage to play a touching ballad on harmonica and harmonium. Don't Let it Bring You Down was another solo acoustic – with the sickest twangiest acoustic sound I've ever heard. Pretty special. Down By the River was amazing as you'd expect and Rocking in the Free World was one of those songs that just kept coming back. They'd finish – do the last chord for five minutes and just when everyone's stopped going mental, they'd burst into another chorus. It was hilarious and exhilarating. Proper stadium rock!

The rock rocked and the solo numbers genuinely felt intimate. It was quite something.

After Rocking in the Free World they all piled off stage, and from the side of the stage I could see one guy's job was to be in the right place to hand Neil a wet towel as he finished. They congregated around the back and then went on to do a ridiculously psychedelic version of A Day in the Life. I loved hearing the words "Blackburn Lancashire" in his high pitched Canadian drawl.

As they finished, I bumped into the manager chap again and said what a great show it was. “It'll be better tomorrow,” he said. I thought he was joking, but when I had the idea of going to their dressing room (and dragging Pete and Ollie with me), Neil came to the door, fuming. He was having a heated conversation about the sound guy – apparently he had missed a few cues or messed something up. I hadn't noticed anything myself (isn't it always the way!) but Neil was not happy. Elliott said “that's what you get when you mean it, when you care. Neil, he still cares.” Neil walked past me “where's that nice bottle of wine I reserved for myself? I'm sure I left it around here” and collapsed in a chair. He was starting to smile.

As Neil got up to leave, I had my moment. I tapped him on the shoulder and made a general introduction, explaining that we were part of his support band. We all shook hands, and I asked him if he saw our set. He hadn't so I told him to make sure he caught us in Paris.

There wasn't, it seemed, a lot more to say at this point. Then Pete had the good sense to give me the nod. Left to my own devices I would have probably stayed way too long and made a nuisance of myself. Pete Roe gave me the nod and one should always listen to Pete Roe. We went back to our dressing room to find an exhausted and drained Laura. It seems she had shared my total bodily meltdown after playing our set. We showed off about our meeting Neil and were bloody thankful that we had. Our trip was complete. All that was left was to do it all again the following evening.

We drove to Paris. Six hours of beautiful sunshine, more Woody Allen, knitting, motorway service station sandwiches and then some pretty evil Parisian roundabouts. Big shout to Tre, our tour manager and dedicated driver who did a sterling job of keeping her cool in those ridiculously spaghetti junctions. We were freaking out slightly that everyone's cars seemed to be pretty damaged. All the cars had sizeable dents and nutty drivers. The trick seems to be to honk your horn a lot and swear in French.

This time we were in a bit of a rush. We got to the venue, another 8000 capacity beast. Soundchecked as quickly as humanly possible and went to eat more lovely catered food.

We played our set. This time I wasn't so nervous. If anything I was just excited. I realised that I may never play a gig of this size ever again, so I may as well bloody enjoy it. And that I did. I felt much more confident and just trusted that we had done a decent job. I went out to the crowd to watch Laura do the last couple of songs solo, and realised that I was playing with a ridiculously talented songwriter and performer. She's 19 years old and she's definitely on it. Ace songs. Strong voice. Hairy band. Fair play.

We went to watch Neil and the team do their thing for the second time. We were promised that tonight would be better, and by jove they properly rocked.

Later on, after they had finished doing their rockstar thing, I got a bit confident and decided to go to their dressing room again. Elliott was by the door, “oh you is it, making a nuisance again!” he said. Thankfully he smiled and said he was just joking and I that I should come on in. I shook Neil's hand again and there followed some kind of general gushing. I think it was fairly one directional. He did however say that he caught our set this time and thought we were “great”. He might have just said Laura was “great” but forgive me if I'm not entirely accurate, it was a confusing time. He said he looked forward to seeing us again in England and at this point I had to confess that I was merely a temp, a hired replacement for Marcus, the usual drummer. He quite rightly asked where the hell Marcus was, given the gravity of the occasion. When I said he had to mix his Mumford and Sons album – it probably didn't sound important enough to Neil Young, and of course he scoffed and said that he should have made the bloody effort! I got a little overexcited and gave him a Laish Quartet cd. My own music in the hands of Neil Young. What can I say, I hope he enjoys it.

I had an extensive chat with Anthony Crawford, one of Neil's multi-instrumentalists who gave us a lot of musical feedback on our show and he even gave me a cd of his own solo stuff. (Cue that character from The Fast Show: “Which was nice.”)

Then I left them all to it, I had done what I came to do. I didn't want to overdue it. At least not in front of Neil and his band.

At 3am, the boys (myself, Pete and Ollie) were in a kebab shop, talking to some particularly messed up looking Parisian crusties. They mentioned having taken lots of ketamine and we tried in vain to keep a futile and confusing bi-lingual conversation going. I seem to remember suggesting we tried speaking in German, as English wasn't really working. And neither was French. A silly late night, lots of beer stolen from the rider and the last thing I apparently said, as I drifted off into a coma with my I-Pod on, was “I'm listening to aome crazy jazz”.

So mostly yesterday I felt hungover. Also a bit sheepish about my drunken behaviour but also a general warm sense of achievement. We had a long journey home, via the screaming insane French children on the ferry again. While I sat making notes of our trip for this blog, I asked Pete if he remembered anything I may have forgotten about the week.

A long pause ensued as I could see him carefully contemplate my question.

“I don't remember anything.”

I was driven home. Exchanged hugs with Laura, Ruth, Pete, Ollie and Tre and it wasn't until last night that I realised I left my bloody cymbals somewhere. They have still yet to show up...

I was able to dump my stuff and then go straight to the Komedia to catch the Mary Hampton and Diane Cluck show. In the bar by the entrance, Effie pointed out that they were playing the Laura Marling album.

It was lovely gig and just before I left, Diane came to say good night to Rowan (Coupland) who was supporting her that evening. I said hi, she took one look at me and said “nice sweater, nice colour” and with that she was gone...