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First pencil of the tour - the groovier the town, the less likely you are to get a hotel pen

It was a good call to travel to Bloomington ahead of schedule - its a much nicer place than the campus in Lansing, Michigan. It's almost like a film set really.....

After having a good sleep I still got up at 6 and went for a walk and breakfast. That big building on the left is our hotel.

Since most of the day passed uneventfully, I've thoughtfully documented some of my culinary adventures; breakfast was Eggs Benedict.

Bloomington is quite a young town with lots of students everywhere, there must be a university nearby.

This is the town square, like I said, it reminds me of the square in Back to the Future - picturebook America.

After breakfast I went back to the hotel for another doze and then decided to go out and get some lunch; Chicken Noodle Soup

The hotel we're staying at is quite studenty (its called "The Graduate") the lobby is full of students on their computers and littered with student magazines. I creepily took a picture over my shoulder, while pretending to take a selfie.

Here's the theatre - the Buskirk Chumley Theatre - we last played here in 2015

Sandra Bernhard has played here, she was in one of my all time favourite films - the King of Comedy, with De Niro and Jerry Lewis.

The theatre isn't that big, around 650/800 seats, but its nice to be playing a smaller place.

Soundcheck

The gig turned out to be a real blinder, and 'Heroes' continues go down really well. We got a standing ovation and its nice to be playing a small (for us) theatre, a lovely intimate show where we could really pull out all the stops.

A woman (who I think had given us the same gift some years before) handed us all a New Testament in a padded bag at the signing - I'm not really religious (I'm more of a pantheist) and am a bit wary of the religious right/Tea Party in America - but these bags make excellent microphone covers if you're travelling. Besides I've never been offered the collected works of Aleister Crowley by a Satanist after a gig (plus an app, plus a padded bag) so I accepted in the spirit in which it was given (we all did). 

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So on the day we should have been spent travelling to Chicago to play our gig at the Chicago Symphony Centre (cancelled, I wrote about it here) we moved on to Bloomington, Indiana - where we will play our next gig on 21st March (tomorrow).

This is LaFaye, our driver, who is very charming and when she discovered that we were musicians, asked if we'd be playing on the bus? - I quickly disabused her of that notion. The whole journey was going to take around 5 hours (more accurately 6 with stops etc). I'm still not quite over my jet lag and am still getting up ridiculously early, but am slowly adapting. I'm also getting back into the American way and have started saying 'awesome' all the time, rather than 'thanks' or 'OK' - having breakfast before leaving, I even saw a tv ad with the strapline - "the future of awesome". Here's the bus with plenty of room for us all to spread out.

I said a couple of days ago that I preferred buses to planes - I take that right back, roads are way more bumpy here than in Europe, where you can glide along at 90 mph (in Germany at least). They don’t seem to have the autobahn/motorway type of roads you have in Europe - just highways where you are limited to 60mph - which is just as well as you can feel your brain rattling around in its skull 

A quick stop off for petrol and a browse round the store

So we drove through the unremarkable flat landscape (mostly farmsteads etc) through Michigan and passing into Indiana. I listened to an interview with actor Jon Bernthal, star of The Punisher.

After a few hours we pulled over for lunch in what looked like a fairly nondescript service area (its actually called 'Gas City'). While the others went off somewhere else to eat, I took a chance on the British restaurant 'Paynes' - not expecting much more than fish and chips.

Instead, I found a packed restaurant, who kindly agreed to serve me quickly and true to their word, I was soon taking this photograph of an authentic British beef stew with Yorkshire pudding, while listening to Elgar playing over the PA. The only inauthentic thing about the place was the complete lack of British surliness - replaced with Indiana hospitality at its finest.

So after bolting down my meal, I walked back to the bus and finding it locked, walked into the nearby cafe/store and found the Ukes leisurely finishing their meal.

And here ar the Ukes waiting for LaFaye to finish her food and open up the bus - it's not as cold as I thought it would be (there's still some snow on the ground) but the wind makes it chilly if you don't have a hat on.

Driving past more farms

Until we reached signs for Bloomington

Arriving in Bloomington in the rain, we passed the theatre we're going to play tomorrow - we last played here in 2015.

Hotel room - I haven't been in a room this chintzy in a while.Despite feeling very tired, and having had only a short nap, I went down to reception where we met our old pal Ellen Campbell, who has been a long time friend to the band - she also plays in a Bloomington’s only ukulele band: The Uke Tones. After a while I wandered out to a bar for something to eat and hooked up with some of the other Ukes before heading back to the hotel and sleep.

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Today marks an important moment in the progress of this tour - the first page of the 12 sheet tour schedule (double sided) can be torn out and thrown in the bin. We've been here before - in 2012, when Kitty was still playing with us and we are staying in the same hotel, on the giant campus which stretches for miles.

I finally got a good nights sleep and am back in the groove (I think). The morning passed uneventfully, I bumped into Jonty and Rich at breakfast - we had a rehearsal in Wills room, working on 'Star Trek' and a few other things - Jonty had to visit a doctor as he had pulled something in his leg getting his suitcase off the carousel at the airport. 

So we all mooched around until 4pm when it was time to go to the venue. Thankfully there were some shops nearby so I went and bought a six pack for us to drink after the show (many campuses are 'dry' and 'smoke free' in the US) - but you are allowed to play rock'n'roll sometimes. 

We jumped in taxis to get to the venue (a few miles away) but the driver of our cab wouldn't let us put our bags/instruments in the boot - Leisa speculated that he'd got his wife locked in there or it was full of bondage gear.

Sensing our irritation the driver tried being matey:

'Where you guys from'

'The UK'

'Oh yeah? - My Grandma came from there'

'Right - what part?'

'Whats that big place?'

'You mean London?'

'Yeah' 

Walking up to the Wharton Centre - like most theatres on American campuses, it was a cavermous barn which held about 2/3 thousand seats.

I've seen some rotten shows in my time, so I'm not wholly against the idea of shooting at the performers, but I'm glad the venue was 'looking after us' - the food they gave us was excellent too.

There were several panels of photos like these with all the many legends who had performed here. While we were waiting to go on we videoed a quick tribute to Dick Dale (the King of Surf Rock) who died this week. Reading about him, it turned out that despite his name, he was a Lebanese American, which would explain why his big hit "Miserlou' (used in many films) sounds so middle eastern.

The show went over well and despite the size of the theatre (and a big audience) we manged to put the energy over. After the show instead of signing we went out on stage to do a Q&A with ukulele players who had attended (about 200) and then back to the hotel.

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Uh-oh - today was crash and burn day with the jet lag - I'd gotten up again at 3.30AM to type this up, and then having done it and had a shower, decided I was 'good to go' as they say here - I should have slept more as the whole day passed in a somnabulent haze. We left the Houston hotel at 9.30 and then drove to the airport, with the same driver Mike who'd collected us on our flight from London.  

To coin a cliche which I'd been trying to avoid, Houston did have a problem according to driver Mike: a blaze at a chemical plant in a district called Newport had disoloured the sky with a huge pall of smoke and many schools in the area had closed due to the fumes.Car we passed on the way to the airportOur next gigs were up north and we were taking two flights - one to Detroit and then connecting to Lancing - a university town in Michigan which we'd last played in 2012. We are on basic economy tickets for all our flights (which means clinging to the wings, undercarriage etc) but our Houston - Detroit flight was good, with plenty of leg room.This is the most tiring thing with tours that involve multiple flights - going through security. Bus travel is pretty much always preferable and you can stretch out and do your own thing.Will cops a burgerGetting on the plane to DetroitOn arrival in Detroit, the news came through that our gig at the Chicago Symphony Centre had been cancelled! This is a big blow for us, as its by far the largest and most prestigious gig of the tour and as the musicians of the orchestra are on strike - there is nothing we can do. On announcing this on social media, our feed immediatly filled up with comments such as 'come to Kentucky!' or 'play in Pennsylvania' - but the reality is that tours like this take many months of rigorous planning, years ahead of the actual event - we'll just have to kick our heels.

Screen time in the departure lounge in Detroit

On the connecting plane to Lansing

As soon as we got off the plane we noticed the difference in temperature - it was cold - we'd been delayed in Detroit and by the time we got to our hotel, I noticed it had started snowing.

The time difference means that we are one hour forward from Texas, and dispite being zonked, I managed to make it out to an Italian for a bite to eat with some of the crew and then I hit the hay.

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This was a busy day, its 3.30am (now) and I've woken up after five hours sleep, so I thought I might as well get this out of the way rather than staring at the ceiling for the next hour - so here goes. Above is the first of many pens that I will collect from this tour (Le Meridien, Houston).The day had started after getting a full seven hours sleep when I was first down at breakfast at 7 am, I had managed to stay awake till 10pm (Houston time) the night before. Slept till 6.30 then I was the first into breakfast - read up on the history of Houston on Wikipedia over my food - its the fourth most populous city in the US, it boomed in the '50s with the advent of air conditioning, which made the summers more bearable, and many businesses moved here: energy, medical, aeronautics, and transportation etc.After breakfast, went back to my room and took more power naps until it was time for us to assemble and walk to our workshop at the Cullen Centre at midday - here's the gang: I think I'm going to start calling the Ukes - 'the Gangbrand', as I'm never quite sure what we are - a group of friends or a business - travelling around the world, fulfilling 'demand' and satisfying customers 'entertainment needs' - oh well, in the words of the late great Kurt Cobain - 'whatever'The walk was about ten minutes and the streets were quiet, apart from some kind of a cycle race marathon in a nearby park - the town has a tram system, which according to Marie (Dave's girlfriend, a Texas native) was build to encourage more people to live downtown - she said 20 years ago it was all businesses, but now there are many more apartments.

Here's us getting ready to go into our workshop, I'm not sure what it was billed as, but we did what we always do: talked about how we play together as a group (don't all play the same thing - make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, park your performing ego at the door etc) and played a few common songs (eg Happy Birthday) in different styles etc.  The are plenty of active groups around here and we had attendees from the Houston, Dallas and Galveston ukulele clubs/societies, all with their own branded stickers, badges etc.Here's us briefly chatting at the end, before we had to rush off to soundcheck as we were doing an early gig (5.30pm - thank goodness).The obligatory soundcheck photo - the first of many such pictures I expect. The Cullen Theatre is an interesting place - the Houston ballet is resident here and, unlike Covent Garden or Dresden in Europe, where the Ballet and Opera house are in the same buidling, the Houston Opera is in a different theatre - there is obviously plenty of money in this town. Flipping through the brochure, past pictures of the dancers from all over the world (including a principal dancer from Birkenhead in England - a real life Billy Elliot!) are pictures of the sponsors - a selection of immaculately coiffed ladies and their husbands, who have made large behests to the place (many in excess of $100,000!). I was reminded of some of the 'meet and greets' we did straight after gigs on our 2016 tour, and feeling like a sweaty horse in a roomful of wealthy people!We'd done pretty well on the tickets (sold 1100 seats) and the gig was good - we all managed to get through it and the response was positive (standing ovation). Several old friends of the band, including Ricky Upton, had travelled long distances to see us (all the way from New Orleans, with his family - thank you Ricky!). As ever and somewhat sadly when we tour, there is never enough time to sit down and have a really good chat as we are always prepping for the next show and more travel.
On the walk back to the hotel, the town had livened up considerably from the afternoon (it was St Patricks Day after all) we walked past several erstatz 'Oirish' style bars - all with names like O'Crikeys and bursting with revellers in green clothing. I noticed the moon going over this residential skyscraper, each apartment with its own vertigo inducing balcony, one of which seems to have a swimming pool - presumably the penthouse.Me, Ben, Will and Doug, feeling hungry, decided to go fo a slice of pizza at Franks - recommended by lots of people - unfortunately the place was rammed with a huge queue, so we walked back to the hotel to have a drink and some food. 
And bumped into Dave, Ricky Upton and the rest of the Houston ukes for a drink before stumbling off to bed at 10am. We're travelling tomorrow up to Michigan (two flights) but no gig, but we will be back in Texas on the 25th at Boerne (pronounced 'Berner' according to our friends in the Houston Ukes) - I'm going back to bed - zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
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Checking bags at Heathrow

After catching the early train up to London - I arrived at Terminal 2 ready for the 10 hour flight to Houston.

Hooked up with the Ukes in the departure lounge - meeting the Ukes in airports has now become like nodding at familiar commuters on the bus. The big news is that Leisa has got married to her partner Anna - Congratulations! She said it was weird, as no sooner had they got married (a couple of days ago, just the legal stuff in a registry office) than she was off for a month touring. I think they're going to have a big party when the band get back in April.

Despite my reservations about the length of the flight (10 hours) - it was a pretty good trip. I saw a couple of movies, did a bit of filming in the toilets and generally stayed off the booze (one glass of wine with lunch). We actually arrived 25 minutes early and I managed to stay awake throughout the entire flight. The general idea being, as soon as you get on the plane, if you set your watch to the local time at your destination, you'll fight off the effects of jet lag better.

First view of Texas

Houston Airport, or George Bush International, as I think its technically called is vast, and its a bit of a pain to get off after a long flight and have to walk a good half mile to immigration.

However, we were in luck with the visa queue, as they can sometimes take an hour to get through, we passed through without much hassle. Ben and Rich wait in the queue.

 Waiting for our bus outside the airport - the weather is pretty balmy here.

Here's a quick snap of downtown Houston as we drove from the airport. We had an interesting chat with the driver (Jordanian) - apparently Houston is very prone to flooding - as a city, its low lying and close to the Gulf of Mexico. The poor guy was saying that when Hurricaine Harvey hit Houston in 2017, it decimated the place (he lost his home) and caused $125 billion worth of damage. Its easy to forget how violent the weather can be in the US.

As we arrived at the Hotel, I got collared by a woman from a good natured wedding party standing outside, who called over her husband (also tall for a photo op). It's St Patricks Day tomorrow and a lot of people are out celebrating

Despite being fairly tired, we were informed that our hotel had a rooftop bar, which we all went to for a quick drink before heading off to hit the hay. We've got a busy day tomorrow, a workshop and a gig. Adios.

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Greetings Campers! I'm packing today for the longest tour we've ever done, a 30 day, 18 date barnstormer across the USA - well large parts of it anyway. It'll be good to be back in the States, where the band has many friends - we've been here too many times to mention, but never for this long.

I didn't do the last US tour in 2016, as I was sick in a German hospital wrestling with my old friend Death - who kindly gave me a reprieve. That tour (that I missed) was through the South West of the US, this one goes everywhere - we'll be playing in 17 cities in 10 states and will take 18 flights, stay in innumerable hotels and I will possibly go insane (but its a living I guess). I think I may have to start collecting hotel pens again go focus my mind. To keep myself healthy on this tour I have packed a variety of tinctures, vitamin pills (essential for producing expensive urine - so a doctor friend tells me) not forgeting several sachets of dried soup in case we find ourself stranded after a gig, in a Holiday Inn, nine miles outside Nowheresville, Nebraska with nothing to eat and no way of getting into town.

Hotel pens removed/collected from the last tour I did in December 2016

We will be playing as an septet, with Jonty, Will, Leisa, Richie, Ben, me and Dave, with Doug (sound) and Jodi tour managing. Unlike our jaunts to Germany (never usually more than ten days) packing for this length of time is a serious business with every item considered, as weight is at a premium. Added to this is the consideration that while we will spend time in California and Texas where it is spring and thus warm - the tour will also take in Michigan and Iowa which will still be cold.

In other good news, I'll be celebrating my 61st birthday on a bus somewhere between Decorah, Iowa and Lincoln, Nebraska. I will probably not see our family hamster, Pippin again as he is 3 and a half years old (they ususally live 2 years) bald, lame and blind.

So we'll see how it all goes - I'm bashing this out on the train up to London Heathrow where we are meeting and getting on an 11 hour flight to Houston.

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The day started badly with the news that the ICE train that would take us from Schweinfurt via Bamburg to Berlin, had been cancelled which meant once again our travel plans had been screwed. I don’t know what has happened to German trains, this is the third or fourth time that we’ve been inconvenienced in this way, and on the day of a gig, it makes it much more stressful.On hearing the bad news about our trainHere we are glumly walking the the station in Schweinfurt to catch an alternate train.Viola (tour manager) suggested getting on the Munich - Hamburg train which passed through Bamburg and Berlin, which is what we took in the end to get to the gig on time, no reservation naturally, it was everyone for themselves.When we arrived at Bamburg, I felt the call from 'the evil one' (Macky Dee's) and went to cop a burger and a cup of coffee accompanied by Dave and Richie and Ben. and they call it the Rock and Roll lifestyle......So what was meant to have been a three hour journey spent relaxing in comfortable seats with occasional visits to the restaurant car. actually turned out to be a difficult journey for me, with intermitent periods sitting in an empty reserved chair before being booted out to go and sit in the corridor (next to the toilets) and contemplate the glamour of being in showbusiness. During one of these lulls - staring at people coming in and out of the toilet, it occurred to me ‘what would Keith Richards do in this situation’ - and the answer came to me in an instant - ‘he would go to the bar’, which I duly did after fighting my way through several carriages with my luggage, where in honour of the old rocker, I downed a Jack Daniels.Arrival in Berlinand straight into taxis to the hotel As we got in the taxi in the pouring rain, I could see in the distance the Reichstag - Berlin has always been good to us - it was here in 2006? that we played our first German gigs at the Bar Jeder Vernuft and later at the Tipi. We would often come and play for a week's residency and have all day to sightsee.  Those days are long gone and we are always on the move now.Arrival at the hotel - with just an hour till we had to be at the theatre, I managed to get in a forty minute power nap. The hotel was within walking distance of the venue thank goodness.And that, my friends ,is the Berlin Konzerthaus in the distance on the right. It is a fantastic place and a quite a step up from a pub gig - we are lucky to be playing in such places. and this is the auditorium - this is our third or fourth time playing here. SoundcheckingViolins for sale on the noticeboard in the Canteen (good food too).

The show was packed and we got our ususal enthusiastic Berlin welcome.  Afterwards we went back to the hotel where we celebrated Hester's birthday - I've got my birthday in April and I'll be spending in on tour......

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After the show in Munich, we had a bit of a lie in before leaving for the train station at 11am to take the train to Schweinfurt, our next gig.We took the ICE train to Wurzburg for the two hour journey, then a changed onto a smaller train to Schwenfurt - the journey passed pretty uneventfully.Watching the windmills and pylons go by from the train, I don't mind wind turbines - I'm currently reading 'Landscape and Memory' by historian Simon Schama, which argues that the landscape in Europe had always been in transition.Changing trains in Wurzburg Ben sleepsArrival in Schweinfurt and a taxi to the hotelChecking inTown squareThis poster has been here for nine years and becomes more defaced with each visit (this is our sixth visit here) promoter Christain welcomed us in his usual avuncular style. The Canteen in the theatre has always had this strange little ball bearing momento, which is appropriate since Schweinfurt is the very epicentre of the ball bearing cosmos - funnily enough there are no ball bearing shops in town (not even as souvenirs). SoundcheckingWhile the theatre here is not that big (approx 750 seats) and is also about 30 years old, it has a pleasant contemporary feel and very good sound baffling. Our gig went over well and here we are going out for the encore.We have been presented with roses for the past two gigs - I sneaked my phone onstage to get a quick shot.Plenty of people came by the merchandising table to buy CD's - I haven't bought a CD in years, thinking about it: I pretty much stream all my music now.Our hosts have been kindness itself and after we'd done signing, we were invited back to the canteen to have some drinks and chat by Christian, I understand that the chat went on into the early hours. I made my excuses and left (as the journalists say) not least because I was tired but I wanted to write this up.

Signing the visiting performers book - last gig tomorrow in Berlin.

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Misty morning view from the 6.30 train to London
Greetings Campers - we are off on a three day jaunt around Germany, the last few gigs before we go off to the US for a month. This tour consists of three dates: Munich (which we've played loads of times before) Schweinfurt (ditto - I can't be bothered to paste in the links) and finally Berlin, where we play at the Konzerthaus.
We are seven for this tour: Jonty, Leisa, Richie, Ben, Hester, myself and Dave.
Someone had obviously been to a swell party and lost their shoe, as I went through Paddington station on the way up to Heathrow.
After meeting up with the band, we passed a pretty uneventful flight to Munich.
I had arrived, as it my wont, caked in make up ready for the last few shots of my latest ATTC film 
On arrival we met up with Viola (who flew in from Italy) and Jonty (who flew in from Hamburg) and went straight to our hotel  
View of Munich, from the taxi
Due to some screw up we had to wait for our rooms as they hadn't been paid for, this involved some tedious hanging around in reception.
Hello Darkness my old friend.............
I've written about this beautiful place before - the ceilings are amazing
The brochure: - I understand the Emerson String Quartet are quite well known, while Kissin (right) will be playing as part of the festival in a different venue (the man is something of a hero of mine and a monster on piano)
This is the exquisite ceiling of the in house restaurant, we had amazing food (I should have taken a picture) - wolfed down at top speed, naturally, as we were soundchecking afterwards.
Here we are waiting to be served.
If people look like their names, then our promoter, Claudius, here seen taking to Viola, would look terrific in a toga. Straight after food, we got down to rehearsing and plugging the gaps in the show, as we were seven, not our usual eight.
Furthermore, while Will, who was absent (seen here in 2018), might not sing a lot of songs in the set, he does loads of announcing and backing vocals - plus the percussive 'thwack' from his creepy lady hand is an important part of our band sound. So everyone was on their toes as we went out to play - and we gave it plenty of 'oomph' and finished up getting a big ovation - plus we'd sold out the house as well (1050 seats!)
At the end we were presented with the customary roses before we headed out to signing merch
The signing was complete chaos, with people coming at us from the front, sides and behind - all tapping on our shoulders etc, I had to work hard to keep my compusure in the melee - several people asked me how tall I was, (which must be my favourite question ever!) before we managed to get away and back to the hotel for a drink and then bed.
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