Festival fun and the Realities of the Road
I first went to Bearded Theory Festival 2 years ago when my last band Electric River finally felt like it was starting to go somewhere. Sadly it was also the same year the band decided to call it a day. I remember the three of us rocking up from another festival late at night to play an acoustic set to the same friends/crew who had arranged for me to return and perform in my new solo capacity.
We collectively decided to get on the booze and play catch up having travelled a lot that day and eventually finished our antics under the ever encroaching spectacle of daylight. We all passed out in the back of a trade van in total darkness and a severe lack of ventilation. A few hours later, the sliding door opened unleashing a torrent of sunlight into the back of the van instantly waking us up like a bunch of hibernating vampires. With our eyes still adjusting to the piercing brightness, a voice followed with the words ‘lads, how would you like to play on the mainstage?’
A ‘no brainer’ response (in the most literal sense) followed. A band had pulled out and we were told we’d be filling the slot in 45 minutes giving us about 20 minutes to engage our heavily taxed bodies and heads into action for soundcheck. Our friends kindly helped us out with healthy recovery food and fluid which in return I graciously threw up en route to the main stage.
We managed to get through it all ok before going on to play a further 2 memorable sets at the festival that day making plenty of friends along the way. That was my introduction to the festival and the kind hearted Bearded Theory spirit.
Anyway - that was then, this is now and what a difference a few years make. Walking around the festival was a stark reminder of the recent past with many Electric River T-Shirts on parade and many conversations struck up about my involvement with the band and what I was doing now. I only wished the other guys were there too to hear how appreciated their efforts were.
Naturally, the prospect of playing Bearded Theory got me pretty excited even if it wasn’t gonna be rocking around on the main stage with my mates this time around. Instead, I played a few ‘private’ sets to good friends, did a spot of busking at the festival and played my first ‘official’ slot at the Tea Tent.
It was the slot in the Tea Tent that was probably the highlight of the weekend for me. About 2 songs into the set someone got up and walked over to my unattended merch box which was open in front of me to buy my CD completely unprompted. This then seemed to kick off a continuous process and throughout my slot I watched my stock swiftly and unexpectedly disappear. The atmosphere in the tent was very laid back and non-pressurised making it the perfect place to test my music in this relatively unfamiliar festival setting. Once again, Bearded Theory went above and beyond my expectations and I’m grateful it was where I lost my solo festival performance virginity given the history.
The success of Bearded Theory meant that my stock of EPs had depleted considerably which though appreciated wasn’t ideal considering we had a week long run of gigs soon to follow.
We kicked things off in Stafford returning back to The Market Vaults which is a place that always treats us well. I was slightly hampered by sound issues and there were a few punters in there unhappy at the lack of pub standards (Tracy Chapman etc etc) that were in my set but these are the exact types of people I couldn’t give a shit about winning over. Generally, it was good to dust off the pub set cobwebs and just get things going again.
A miserable rainy night in Brighton followed in a small pub where I ended up playing to 3 punters. Even though the situation had all the ingredients to be a cocktail of awkwardness, disappointment and embarrassment, we actually had quite a nice evening making friends more than anything. These are the evenings no one sees (duh!) and the nights I’m sure we’ll remember should we get anywhere near the level we want to get to.
When we fired up the van the next morning it was clear something mechanical was going judging by the foreign sound coming from under the bonnet.
Typically when on tour and only on tour, Dr Box was right on cue to start kicking up another fuss. The whole point of this tour and the month of June in particular was to raise money for studio costs. Yet again, the future of our earnings looked pretty bleak but we still, out of necessity, tested our luck and trundled on to the remaining gigs despite the noise.
London and Cardiff followed, both of which were in really nice venues and offered us the opportunity to catch up with loads of friends.
With every passing day though, the engine squeal got louder. Furthermore, our gas cookers in the van were becoming very temperamental which meant the standard of our food and living conditions were declining in tandem very quickly. The next day, whilst attempting to dismantle the gas hobs, I managed to cut open my thumb, dislodging some serious skin making it perfect for getting in the way of playing guitar.
With another upcoming gig in Swansea that night we headed to the nearest Kwik Fit to get an opinion on whether the van would survive another 4 days on the road. We were told we had a fuel leak which was news to us and that our engine was in a pretty dodgy state but we could probably risk driving it a little longer. Sod’s law, it was due for a service the following week.
With the rain bucketing down (so much so it was coming in through the front doors of the van) we got into Swansea and took a little detour to pickup a new batch of EPs to sell at our gigs replenishing the stock that Bearded Theory gobbled up. The only trouble was when I got to the pickup point, a local convenience store, the package wasn’t directly addressed to me which then began a long and hugely frustrating process of back and forth. I was finally able to obtain my boxes of CDs 30 minutes later but we were now rushing getting to our gig in Swansea on time.
If there was one place I was glad to play on this tour having just had a pretty testing 24 hours, it was The Swigg in Swansea. We were greeted with a beer and a first proper meal in ages before setting up and playing for a good 90 minutes. Following the gig, we packed up and were invited back to stay in an apartment overlooking the sea, nestled in a beautiful moonlit cove. It’s the unexpected moments and the getting to know unfamiliar good people that make this journey a little easier to stomach. Though it was a fairly heavy night and we didn’t get much sleep, it was totally worth it and we hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.
Most of the next day was spent driving through the southwest to Newquay where we eventually set up to play at a very cool bar called ‘On The Rocks’ overlooking the famous surf spot and beach.
We later learnt it was an excellent place to watch pissheads run into the sea below butt naked thinking they were concealed by the cover of darkness. Once again, my set was hampered with guitar problems with my Taylor guitar seemingly losing about half of its volume and clarity about 4 songs into my 20 song set. I resorted to my other guitar (normally used specifically for open tunings) but the shape and nature of its pickup system meant that I was fighting a lot of feedback throughout the evening. It’s horrible when things like this happen because you’re ultimately spending your energy fighting with the sound doing the absolute best you can to make sure no one else in the room is aware of the inner conflict you’re going through thus killing any chance of truly finding your musical flow.
Rather than spending the day in Newquay as we’d planned, we headed towards Falmouth for our final gig on this run, stopping off in a nearby town to get the Taylor looked at. Fortunately, but just as irritatingly, the issue with the Taylor probably stemmed from not using a DI box in the setup, though I’m not sure why it was working fine in soundcheck and the first few songs of the set.
Our final gig was at a very cool bar in Falmouth called ‘The Chintz Symposium’. I was bunged in the tightest corner of the room and did my best to entertain everyone the best I could. Sadly I’ll remember this gig for being called a c*** on several occasions by a group of people who just happened to have sat directly in front of where I was playing. It was more drink than anything but it just made my job revolve around not rebounding or reflecting the awkward hostility to the rest of the room. It was a situation that I really didn’t want to be in which was strange considering I was ultimately there to do what I love. By the end of the night though the vibe had thankfully changed and there were some really nice people that had turned up late who helped pull me out of the depths of my despair and my road worn fragility.
After packing everything away, we decided to park up in one of Falmouth’s most scenic spots for yet another stunning sea view and reflect on the last 8 days of which in a nutshell included 7 gigs, getting ripped off at 2 of them, having my guitar die at one of them and constantly being called a c*** at another.
To top things off, come the next morning on our sleep deprived drive back from Falmouth to Kent the van finally gave up with warning lights flashing across the dashboard like a christmas decoration. Having this happen on a Sunday didn’t help either and we had to wait until the following afternoon in Clevedon before we had the issue looked at and sorted.
It’s very easy to romanticise over the fact we live in a campervan and are playing music like free spirited hippies to get by but the reality is littered with grimey details, dodgy situations, pains and struggles. It’s something other bands and musicians will easily be able to relate to and one of the few occupations where it is expected and readily accepted.
But then again (as highlighted so often in my previous blog posts) playing music offers you the opportunity to meet so many good people who genuinely help you out, out of nothing but the kindness of their hearts. It offers you a strange and beautiful lens to witness the best (and worst) sides of humanity which most people would never access. It's an education in itself and for that we’re grateful and lucky.
The tour might not have lived up to all of my expectations (maybe it was stupid of me to have any expectations to begin with) but I’m glad we’re getting to experience loads of real world scenarios for us to learn from. You have to start somewhere and I know better than anyone that starting anything can sometimes be the hardest part.
As always, thanks to those who have come out to a gig, said hello, bought a CD or just read this blog. It all counts and I hope this journey we’re on eventually rewards us all in some small way.
This week we head to Southampton, Cornwall and Bath for another run of gig dates.