Thursday, November 16, 2006

SINGING IN THE RAIN – a weekend in Seattle’s record deluge

A soggy arrival after 3000 miles of tour bus, somewhat enlivened by not one but two blowouts en route – neither of them life-threatening, fortunately, but a bit frightening nevertheless, especially the one in the middle of the night in the Arizona desert. Doesn’t do wonders for sleep when you suddenly hear ‘BANG - whap-whap-whap’ from below your bunk, followed immediately by a cloud of burning-rubber gas engulfing our quarters. All that was missing were the klaxons, and the shouts of “Dive, Dive” as in bad submarine movie (that’s what our sleeping berths are like aboard the night coach). Still, we did see some amazing stars out there in desert night, but nothing left of our tyre; it seemed to have vapourised entirely, and was probably going to wreak havoc (in bits all over the highway) on some unfortunate bike or Honda Civic later that night.

Still, a kind tow-trucker fixed us up and saw us on our way at 5am in Flagstaff, after some most enlightening conversations about the temperature of boiling water at high elevations (Flagstaff is about 4000 feet above sea level), Onnie & I having absconded for a half hour for some truly tepid tea at the Transport Cafe across the highway.
The second tyre aberration occurred after our show in Portland, Oregon, this time in rainy downtown, so no danger there, but nevertheless it turned our drive to Seattle next day into a six-hour rainy marathon when the drive would normally be about two.

However, a rare night off was not to be denied us, and a sprint through the puddles immediately after arrival took us to our favourite Seattle food trough, Assaggio, where we were given the usual warmest greeting by host extraordinaire, Mauro Golmarvi. It turned out to be a provident weekend to have made the visit, as they celebrated their thirteenth anniversary on Monday (13th), our next night off, and we were delighted to join his guests and to enjoy some of Italy’s very finest wines along with Mauro’s simple, elegant and personal menu – and some really great company - in one of our favourite cities anywhere…RAIN or shine. Mille grazie, Mauro!

Now if all this background stuff seems to be a case of cart-before-horse in terms of “what about the gigs, Alan?” then forgive me blocking in the canvas with some broad brush strokes and extra colour before going into the details of showtime and adding in the bright lights of venues, clubs, casinos etc. that brought us on this long journey in the first place. I suppose I have to jump back another month and mention that it all started in Japan back in September, at the Blue Note(s) in Osaka and Nagoya (Nissan, and Toyota towns respectively) before going on to a new stage for us in Tokyo, at Duo Music Exchange, a club part owned by Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, and with a great young musical audience who just love to funk! That was special. As always, it’s a helluva flight both ways and a few days rest were in order before setting off again for sunny California, where we did half a dozen varied gigs – some by ourselves, and some with our pals Tower Of Power, and even one with War as well. We had fun with both bands and one of own gigs, a new venue in Bakersfield, saw Sal and Marcos from War surprise us by jumping onstage at the end of the set and playing impromptu percussion, prior to an impromptu late-night drinking session which led to much further merriment. Not to be outdone, both Larry Braggs and Roger Smith of Tower sat in with us on our final gig with T.O.P. in Albuquerque. Then it was farewell to these guys until next spring.

So it was on the bus again for a marathon 1200-mile ride to Petaluma, California – a delightful little town in the north end of Marin Co. which we had never visited before. A really great little theatre – The MYSTIC – which dates back to early last century, and an enthusiastic crowd to boot, who dated back to…? They were totally into it, as were the gang the next night in Portland, at a very similar setting, The Aladdin Theatre. We had some laughs there, firstly at the meet & greet for radio station ticket winners in the green room where one couple had either been taken by some ‘acid’ rain or had had a previous date with some heady elixir, and then being regaled with anecdotes from Cliff Castle of Audix Microphones who are HQ-ed in Portland, and who keep our sweet voices heard above the general din of the AWB fife & drum brigade.

And the rain fell, and fell again, then staggered to its feet, and then fell again in more torrents as we rumbled on into Seattle, which brings this little dissertation full-circle and somewhat legitimizes the dread-panned title of this piece; I should mention the stalwartness of the ‘Seattle-ites’ in their defiance of weather that would keep most Americans I have seen over the years firmly indoors. We Scots have a similar climate most of the year – wet, windswept and interesting – and so I appreciate a species which carries a brolly at all times and strides out into the night undaunted and unable to resist good music (they also seem to like AWB). They were a welcoming bunch as usual and we saw seven quite different houses over the four nights we played Jazz Alley, each as interesting and vocal as the last, but each as demographically and age-group-ically varied as the last, also. Forgive me, but I couldn’t find an adjective for ‘age-group’ so I made one up; not that forgiveness is something I seek very often, since I tend to think that one man’s forgiveness is another man’s lunch waiting to be stolen.

Of course it all comes back to food and drink, doesn’t it? From the dietetically perfect foods of the Orient in Japan, back to the hearty Northeast grub of New York, then on to the Southern Californian nightmare of Denny’s (Chez Denois, as we daub it), Wendys, Pizza hut, China Buffets (all full of Mexican patrons), Big Boys, Bigger Boys, Bad Burgers, Super-Subs, and Taco Bells (all full of Asian patrons) – what a variety of absolute shite, but all within walking distance of your BestWesternHolidayHampton. Since tour buses do NOT do a local limo service once parked for the day, that tends to be the main menu in the StripMallville of much of So.Cal. nowadays. But by good fortune, things picked up after that, on a good curry night with old pals Steve Ferrone & ‘Granny’ Grange in LA, to some fine finds in unlikely places like Mesa, AZ (GREAT Mexican), a Casino steakhouse in Alpine, CA, an Indian buffet in Petaluma, then to finding our hotel was around the corner from Corey Shriver’s ‘Wildwood’ in Portland (yes, guys, I’ll send you my haggis recipe – I haven’t forgotten), and finally back to the start of this epicurean journal that is now finally all but over here in Minneapolis.

And where do you think we’re playing…..Rossi’s, which only has one of Minneapolis’ best steakhouses on the premises and a matching wine list!

I’m off to have a couple of new holes put in my belts, and then prepare to be rolled onstage for the remainder of the week. It isn’t raining here, but I’ll sing anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers and may you have a high (and dry) one up in Seattle!


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Farewell Arif

We sadly say goodbye to Arif Mardin who passed away on Sunday. It would be fair to say that none of what we have today could have happened without him. Like so many of his protégées, almost all of whom became his musical family, he gave us the knowledge and the poise which turned our raw talents into something magical, and set us on the road to explorations and achievements we might only have dreamed of. We all remained close to Arif and his family – he and Latife were like an aunt & uncle to us - and their children, Nazan, Joe and Julie have grown up to be our friends. I can only imagine their sense of loss, and our hearts are with them in the void that he has left.

Luckily, Steve, Onnie and myself had the great fortune to be able to contribute to his last recording session just a week ago in New York, and the album he was finishing will be safe in the hands of his son, producer Joe Mardin, to lovingly add the finishing brush strokes to his life’s work – a luminary career which helped launch and establish everything from The Young Rascals in the late 60s, to Norah Jones in this new Century, and with accolades, triumphs and associations along the way which include Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, Bee Gees and ourselves to name but a smattering of those he has gifted with his inimitable touch.

Unfortunately we won’t see his like again; his manifesto was always that of the artist and his priority was devoting himself to showing each of us the right voices and grace notes to add to the expression of our ideas - and turn them into records that would not only stand the tests of time, fashion and changing cultures, but would become icons for generations of music lovers. His opinion was still currency and his word was bond. He never wavered in his belief that music, while the queen of our souls, was still an unfinished & imperfect lover and that there was much yet to be discovered, molded and experimented with. We will try to carry that torch on as our legacy from a consummate master, a beautiful soul, and a great friend to us all.

We love you, Arif. Thank you and farewell.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

“IT AIN’T HALF HOT, MUM” and other notes from the front.

Well, it all started in Dubai really, where the temperature three weeks ago was around 34 C (that’s about 94 F) in the shade and there we were dressed for the cool of the New England – and Olde England – springtime when we set off for the pleasure dome of The Gulf (Dubai), and a couple of concerts there just to soften us up for what we’re now experiencing in Kansas this weekend. Trouble is, there was a two-week tour of decidedly nippy Great Britain in between, so there has been an extraordinary amount of costume change, odd emergency clothes - purchases and subsequent luggage atrocities all round.

Nonetheless, here we are not too much the worse for wear after our exertions abroad, and more new music fans in Britain who finally know who we are and what it is that we do (I think they thought Average white Band was a spurious European radio frequency or something, over there) but some magic word-of-mouth bush telegraph brought them to our UK shows by the dozen, and they didn’t half spice up the audience from their front and centre positions…apart from the one geezer at The Jazz Café in London who stood in front of Klyde, rolled ciggies continuously (a chain-roller) and proceeded to blow smoke up in his face all evening, as he gulped for air to continue singing. Some people!

All in all, however, it has been a wonderful adventure and a load of laughs with our indomitable Scottish crew of Jim, Shona and Stodge who keep us diverted, distracted and doubled-up most of the time while we plough on through the highways, byways and Motorways of the Old Country, and of course every night is a chance to meet up with old pals after the show and catch up on another year or two of ‘shite’ between us and pick up where we left off. While all the news can’t be good all the time as we all know, we were saddened to hear of the passing of old friend and onetime agent, Ian Copeland, whose brother Miles was our manager near the beginning, and who did his level best to decapitate me and Bruce Findlay in a dune-buggy escapade at his Long Island shore home many moons ago. It would have been a good headline – AWB singer, Simple Minds’ manager and Police’s booking agent Go Off Cliff…..Hundreds homeless!
Anyway, all three of us used up another of our respective nine lives that day and it lies in the large chest of now - cherished anecdotes in hindsight, and we all offer our condolences to Miles, Stewart, and the extended Family Copeland for their (and the music biz’s) loss. Rock on, Ian!!

It’s funny how being in the United Kingdom seems to level things out; in some ways, it is the most sane and sensible place on the planet, never too hot and never too cold - and that is reflected in the evenness of the people, who just take anything and everything in their stride and get on with it all with the minimum of fuss, and any unfavourable circumstance is immediately turned into a comedic situation. Yet on the other hand it seems as if parts of the British experience have yet to enter the 21st Century, especially with regard to the lot of the professional traveler. Just try to get an internet connection in your hotel room without mortgaging your home, or get a train that runs anywhere close to the published time (English Southern Region’s timetable has been moved to the ‘Fiction’ section in the British Library), or zip, out-of-breath, into the Italian restaurant round the corner for lunch at 2.24pm…..”I sorry, seer, ze lunch he eez over, see…we open at faaaiiiiiive okay?” – “but, I have to go to work and I just want a Bolognese and I’ll be out of here in SIX minutes and, and, and, and… when actually you just want to say, “YOUR FOOTBALL TEAM ARE ALL CHEATS AND LA LIGA IS CORRUPT AND YOUR GOVERNMENT IS ROTTEN TO THE CORE AND…” and, you trail off, “I’m effing starving and will now proceed to fall on a shard of broken chianti bottle in your doorway and louse up the rest of your giorno, so help me Infante Jeeezus!

At this juncture, I should point out that I don’t really intend to single out the Italian contingent for my invective; it’s the British who have imposed this conditioning on their otherwise natural Mediterranean laissez faire, and have concocted to keep to the mandates and mannerisms of ‘Wartime’ Britain, when opening (and closing) times of everything adhered to strict codes of social mores and only the Upper Classes could write their own louche calendar of events. We lower ranks in Her Majesty’s Workforce would never have turned a lathe, finished a stainless-steel knife, built a destroyer, boiled a candy or dug up a lump of coal if it weren’t for the narrowest possible avenues of recreation & delight to make sure we had our noses to the grindstone and our shoulders to the bathroom door – the locks don’t work there, either – and so we regained our balance after 1945, and kept it through Hell & high water until Margaret Thatcher came along and blew the whole thing out of the water with her middle finger raised in salute to all those that had laid their coats over her puddles and would henceforth have to sit shivering in doorways, jobless and homeless. Ah, the Baroness Bastard.

In spite of all this, however, the spirit is still absolutely amazing, and in most places there is a sense of GoForit-ness that reminds me of the 1960s in its sheer bravado and bolshiness. The youth are in power, and the power is 240-volts AC, and it is positively zinging with inventiveness in the arts, in fashion….and now in believe it or not, cooking. I have had some of the best meals ever on the road in the UK in the last couple of years, and it seems restaurant/galleries (gourmuseums? – I dunno how you’d describe them) are sprouting up all over the country, and ‘restaurant critic’ is probably now a degree course at the London School Of Economics for all I know. Honestly, it’s that good. Perhaps I should forget landscapes and start painting food instead.

Well now, that brings me back to Earth with a dull thud…and Kansas, which was where I started this memorandum, I think. Landscape wouldn’t be their strong point, I shouldn’t think, as it’s rather like a gigantic greenish tarpaulin that someone threw loosely over the earth’s surface and it’s flat but lumpy, if you know what I mean – at least compared to my Land, anyway. There are some trees and LOTS of cattle and, really oddly, signs by the roadside that say “BEEF– IT’S WHAT’S for DINNER” – and the cattle are just standing there looking at these signs as if waiting for Gary Larsen to come out of retirement. Quite surreal overall, but the people are extremely nice and it must be easy for cycling.

Still . . .It ain’t half HOT, Mum . . . phew, get my ice cap out quickly!