Ghost Stories

Last month the Telegraph ran a competition to write a ghost story in 50 words with the premise that you can build suspense in just that many words. Me, my friends and some of my family had a go…here’s my effort:

 

“Out past the crooked bridge, beyond the bracken and the puddles of briny water, deep into the marshland where the mist hangs like a phantom; that is where it was seen by old man Morley with it’s gnarled skin and roiling eyes, that is where it is said to wait”.

 

Feel free to post your own.

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A Note on Song Writing

I lean on the railing and look up to the sky, trying to think of the line that conveys this feeling, this thought. It’s cold and it’s getting dark out here on the seafront. I will need to head home soon but the light just isn’t quite right back there. Sure, the guitar sits in its case waiting but it’s not what I need, what I need is to sit and think about the words and whether they excite me, whether they convey what I am trying to communicate. And so these things start, that process of birthing a new song, raising it up to walk this world. It’s an environment of indecision and worry. Is this music good enough?

 

Songs are like cousins, they come in all different shapes and sizes, attitudes and circumstances and what works for one songwriter doesn’t necessarily work for another. How are they made then? Songs are written for survival. From the perspective of one’s soul it is the writing of the song that soothes the spirits, puts form to fears and leads the writer (as well as the people and situations that inspire him) to redemption. Guy Clark said he only wrote songs ‘to stop myself blowing my brains out’, similarly Mark Kozelek mused upon the reasons for song writing in his 2012 album ‘Among The Leaves’, reflecting that songs were hard to write, that’s why most albums only have ten tracks. Song writing, to state the obvious, is soulful stuff.

 

On a financial or physical plane song writing is essential too. Songs mean money, they allow you to gig, sell your records and claim royalties. At the dawn of the music industry, it was Robert Johnson who discovered that if he wrote more songs, he earned more money. The Bluesman was paid per recorded song so he simply re-recorded the same songs and varied their structures and chords slightly, adding new lyrics. But this was not a source of profit, it was a source of financial survival for the man. This self perpetuation is no better summed up than by Will Oldham who claims he has no idea how much money each of his records make, all he cares is that it is enough money to allow him to continue to make his music the way he wants to make it.

 

Although my songs derive from the soul, in the sense that I write to sustain and survive mentally and spiritually, they still vary in terms of their inspiration. For me the two sources of song writing are the emotion and the intellect. I feel things strongly so I write songs to manifest them. Most of these songs originate from emotion and that is my most comfortable setting, the most authentic to me. Although this is not always a good thing; to bear all your emotion, raw and unadulterated and without any poetry is not pleasant for a listener, it is not craft.

 

When I became a songwriter in The Lucky Strikes I was called upon to write songs to a specification, to follow a concept. This was new and exciting to me and I wrote with my intellect. It was creative writing but still littered with the emotional observation (or the reality) that I have to invest in each song. The true art of song writing is to meld the emotional and the intellectual together in a perfect balance. To refine that emotion with beautiful words, to hide it under a veneer of poetry, well that is entertainment; that is what entices the heart. As Bob Dylan once said, ‘Give a man a mask and he will tell the truth’.

 

 

This same balance can be seen in the literal meanings and imagery of songs. Each song I write is rooted in the real world; events, situations, phrases and characters are captured from real life. As a human being I have a need to give a voice to my surroundings and experiences. Songwriters do this. However, the song writer needs to filter these experiences and transpose them into a universal realm that is applicable to all and can be felt and understood by all. One does not have to recount the exact happenings or meanings of things to make sense. You can bend truths, blend experiences and feelings to a greater whole.

 

There is an idea therefore that authentic songs are felt then written rather than simply manufactured. Both Jarvis Cocker and Sheryl Crow have stated in interviews that they felt comfortable not writing and releasing music for certain periods of time because the new music was supposed to reflect their soul, their emotion and not a business or scientific exercise to recreate another ten or twelve track album that would climb the charts every year.

 

As well as giving form to songs and then maturing them through performance (Some have been played fast, while others with barely a whisper), songs are also the songwriter’s companion and they act as a geographical and historical pin in the map of life. I’ve written in damp attic flats in the suburbs of Sheffield, on park benches in sculpted cliff top gardens, I wrote one song in a car on the M1 and finished it off in a shed in Leeds; I have even written in a barn in the deep forests of Woodstock, New York State.

 

Each song, when sung and played recalls these times, those historic feelings but also creates new memories of performances. As a result, songs take on multiple lives for the song writer as well as the listener. For instance, there may be a song that reminds me of the place of writing but also of a happy moment somewhere else, three years later, when I performed it in a theatre where I made some friends, or the time I played it for my sweetheart because she asked me to sing her a song one winter’s morning.

 

With continual performance the song keeps renewing the composer. I have worked with an artist who does not wish to faithfully recreate his songs as they are on record. For him the song can change and evolve with whoever he is playing with. This makes the song forever current and never anachronistic. The songwriter can perform as he or she currently is, not as the person who wrote the song three or ten years before. I genuinely welcome revisiting my old songs to see if I can better them in their performance, or even reinterpret them in some way.

 

The environment in which a song is written is also very important. There are certain places I can write well and there are others I simply cannot. I write better when I remove myself from my everyday circumstances. Away from home increases my perspective on what I am writing about. This goes back to emotion being the originator of song ideas. Peace and silence must reign for the creation to begin to happen.

 

So the song, for the song writer, is cathartic but also an egotistical way to make physical the thoughts and interpretations in their brain and to offer these up for the entertainment of others and to seek validation of those thoughts (and the craft) through their support. But as I said, it’s getting late and this song won’t get written while leaning on this railing.

 

[Edited excerpt from Matthew’s forthcoming book of selected lyrics]

Bits of Life Repeating

It’s funny how your life and the characters who take part in it reciprocate over time. There are billions of people out there, millions of square miles to meet and inhabit and find fresh avenues, yet life always seems to come back on itself and retreads in the strangest of ways. Recently my old life, (namely the one I have lived and is just far enough away for me to think of it as an alien land, where the person I was is no longer), is revisiting me in the most pleasing of ways. There have been three occasions that I can recall:

 

*

 

The first – I met my girl at a quiz last year, she was the quizmaster in fact. I’d never set eyes on her before but as our love has blossomed so I have experienced flashbacks of her. It has now become clear that I had seen her the summer before at a poetry event I had attended at the very same venue I had met her doing the quiz.

 

I had gone to support my friends at Sundown Arts and had ended up under the stairs in a courtyard with a fellow local singer songwriter called Doozer (from ‘Deferred Success’). She was there across the yard at another table and I remember her laugh.

 

Further back still I remember browsing the bookshop in Southend where she once worked and she stood near me stacking books, her shoes off. She danced around the books delicately, her long dark hair waving. I remember it now; this was a year or more before. I can’t remember the books I bought, perhaps a Boris Akunin novel or perhaps a three for two offer, a birthday present even…but I remember her.

 

*

 

Second–  When I was younger I used to live in Sheffield. I earned no money and one of my greatest pleasures was to save up and go see bands play at the Boardwalk. This was a legendry venue that was tucked behind the Co-op in the high street. I believe it has now sadly shut down but I was lucky enough to see Bob Brozman, Walter Trout, Chicken Legs Weaver, Stewboss and even the Danish guitarist Peer Gynt set his guitar alight there.

 

Bob Brozman is one of the most inspirational slide guitar players I have ever met and was responsible for getting me hooked on Calypso and African music, as well as Hawaiian music and ultimately lap and pedal steel guitar. This one time he played he was supported by a guy who did a version of ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ by Gillian Welsh. I had just got into her and the thought that someone else was digging her music and liked it enough to play was enthralling to me. It was a fantastic version too.

 

Nearly ten years later I played a short run of shows with Simone Felice. The support was the amazingly talented Neil McSweeney and it took a Liverpool show, Sheffield and Leeds to realise that Neil was the very guy that I saw all those years ago. We drove up to Newcastle and it just clicked. Neil could not remember the gig but it was like an intimate moment of my life, unknown to almost everyone, had suddenly burst back into being.

 

Ever since those shows Neil has supported my music and helped the Strikes play some awesome shows in Sheffield. It was only last week that Neil contacted me to ask whether I would play lap steel and sing on his record. The very fact that our paths first crossed at a gig that inspired me to pick up the lap steel in the first place just strikes me as incredibly fortuitous and justified.

 

*

 

Third – In my really young days, before Sheffield, in that area just on the edges of the mists that consume memory, I was at school. My mother had rented a ‘Best of Dire Straits’ CD from the local library back when CDs in libraries were a novelty and meant you did not have to pay £15.99 for one. I was bitten and I listened to that CD for a week non-stop, from the resonators on ‘Portobello Belle’ to the phenomenal country picking in the solo of ‘Sultans of Swing’.

 

However, what struck me most was the incredible drumming style of Pick Withers. One Christmas I played Dire Straits Live at the BBC on constant repeat on my new Alba personal cassette player, so much so that the tape and walkman broke. As I grew older, so I took Pick with me and discovered that as well as being  the drummer of Dire Straits from about 1977- 1983 he had played with Del Shannon, Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, Joan Baez, Robert Plant and Gerry Rafferty.

 

In 2010 I was lucky to make contact with Pick and once again, a small part of my early life re-visited me. I spent a sublime weekend at his house in the north of England, playing my mandolin alongside him and his small band of local musicians. To stand and watch him drum was a great joy. 

 

Pick subsequently agreed to play on some of my own songs and on 4th August 2012, me and Paul (Ambrose, of the Lucky Strikes) headed up to Reservoir Studios in Crouch Hill to record. Me and Paul were exhausted as we had played a Whispering Pines gig in Hove the night before. We barely made the train and so congratulated ourselves with a breakfast in an Italian Café near Crouch Hill Station. The scrambled egg was incredible and the coffee was some of the best we had tasted in a long while.

 

We headed over to the studio and were met by Pick and Chris (Clark, owner of Reservoir and the awesome bass player in Danny and the Champions of the World). It was a hard session to begin with and we spent a good five hours running through ‘Night Water’, with Pick experimenting with different snare drums and sticks. It got to the point where we moved on, unsure of whether we had the right take for ‘Night Water’.

 

The next couple of songs went down much easier and Pick played what he referred to as a New Orleans/ Bossa Nova beat for ‘Half Life’. It was great and me and Paul were digging it a lot. At the end of the session we made another few attempts as ‘Night Water’ and I think we have managed to get the take we want.

 

Before Pick left for home he invited me to sit in his car and we listened to Randy Newman songs and Procol Harem. Pick felt there was no nuance in records any more; it was all just bigger noise. Are we forging a craft that no-one cares for any more? I don’t think that’s entirely true but I’m happy to follow it regardless.

 

The Promise (Part 1) by Tim Stokes (artwork by Simon Thomas)

ImageThe numbers rise. The blood rolls across the floor. Two. Three. Four.

A fervour is building. The braying of two hundred encircles the room. I feel it closing in and my mind begins questioning what I have done. I remember this feeling from last time. I tell myself my job is almost over, a performance reaching its end. But still I must listen to the din. I strive to block it out, just treat it as white noise. No words, no emotions, only a rumbling drone. It becomes more bearable that way. I try focussing on the numbers, but they’re becoming faint, consumed by the clamour that’s forcing its way upon me. So I just focus on the flow of blood.

Ten. A curtain falls. A cacophony erupts.

My time has come.

++++++++++

The referee crouches beside me, pushing me on my shoulder, turning me on my side to see the cuts. He stares at my bloody eye, then across into the open one. He knows what’s happened here, I see the scowl upon his face. Perhaps he’s a traditionalist? He seems upset. What does he care? He still gets paid.

The man drops me back to the canvas and walks away, his feet leaving smears of bloody steps.

Down in the sixth. The plan has been followed. The payment will be made. Promises kept.

Through one eye I watch my blood ooze across the browning canvas. Fresh blood mixing with old. The blood a result of a razor. A slice to my skin between rounds. Promises kept.

Beyond the ooze the victor is paraded. His arms are thrust into the air, the referee to one side, his coach to the other. He ignores the body and the blood in the middle of the floor. He’s happy with the result. The boy’s only young, just the beginning of another career. Maybe he’ll get somewhere. Achieve something. Make a name for himself. I’ve helped create champions before. That southpaw over in Madison I went down in the second for, his career’s going wonders. Gonna make the nationals so they say. Good luck to him.

An elderly hand rests on my shoulder, this one belongs to my trainer. He presses a damp towel to my cut eye and pulls me to my feet. No words need to be said, no need to inspect the wound. He knows I’m fine. Promises kept.

The arena has become a pantomime. Cheering greets the victor. Only hatred boils for me. Snarling faces fix themselves in my direction. Perhaps they realise something’s up? What are they going to do? This isn’t the first fight to be thrown. I gave them five good rounds, a short thrill in their drab little lives. That’s better than many others I know. I gave them value for money.

We reach my corner. My trainer wraps a gown round me. I go to sit on the wooden stool as I always do but the old man keeps me standing. He’s spotted the temper of the crowd. A bottle is smashed, a chair upturned. He nods at me and lifts the ropes that surround the ring. No point waiting around. Make a quick exit before the jeering turns more sinister. A clean break while we can.

Angry faces and scornful eyes part unwillingly as we move through the auditorium. A beer bottle lands across my shoulders, the contents spill and seep through the gown causing me to shiver. More faces glare at me. I can’t look at the expressions no more. I put my head down and shove my coach to hurry. He takes the hint and pushes the way through.

Another bottle is shattered.

We reach the exit. The old boy pushes me along the corridor to my dressing room, the noise of the crowd dimming as we go. We finally enter the dingy room. The door is closed, the crowd shut away. I lift my head again.

“You’re gonna have to be more careful in future. Think a few people are turning wise.”

I say nothing, just stand there holding the towel to my eye.

My trainer leads me to the bench in the middle of the room. I drop upon it and he rips off my gloves. My sweating hand reaches for the half drunk bottle of bourbon I left here. I pull off the lid, the top still moist from the swigs I took before the bout. I knock the bottle back and swig some more.

“Don’t reckon you can be fighting here for a while, there maybe a few folks on your back. We best not kick around too long.”

The old man tugs a pack of smokes from his jeans pocket. He pulls out a cigarette and lighter and ignites it, before handing the butt to me. Tobacco mixes with liquor. It is glorious.

“No, no, no. May have to think of another way for money. I’m not so happy with our situation here, it’s turning too risky. And I never can stand using that blade.”

He crumples up the cigarette box and launches it towards the bin in the corner of the room. The packet hits the side and drops to the floor.

“I need more smokes. A night like this is no good for an old fella like me. No good at all.” He heads towards the door still mumbling and opens it, the crowd return to the room. He looks back at me. “Seriously Frankie, I still agree with what the others say. Always have done. I still don’t know why you chose this.”

My trainer leaves the room. The door closes and a silence returns. I drag hard on the cigarette. I don’t see why the old man complains, he gets a cut of this. He’s doing better now as a result. There was no hope with the old way, in our former way of doing things. In his old heart, he knows that too. Promises kept.

And what harm is it doing anyway? A favoured few make some extra bucks from others who don’t deserve them. I’ve been in this game too long, I’ve seen what it can do to a man. Best make your money the best way you can then get out. Use the smarts that suit you most. For a person like me it’s the throw. Sure there may have been a time when people spoke of me fondly. Spoke of a future for me. Spoke of my promise. But they didn’t realise something I did. That wasn’t a future. I was always just a round away from a proper beating. Best jump out while I could. Turn to the moneymen. Take some chosen blows, then go. Best way for everyone.

I swig upon the bottle again and place it beside me. On the end of the bench lies a crisp brown package. Must have been left here during the fight. Promises kept.

I drop the damp towel, reach for the envelope and rip off the top. Crumpled notes are stuffed within. I pull out a wedge and begin counting. Blood spills over the money as I rifle through the stack. My eye. Must still be bleeding. I wipe the notes on my shorts, smearing blood across the faces of dead ex-Presidents. Another man would probably find something poetic in all this but nothing’s quite that beautiful in my world. All I care about is figures.

I finish counting and return the money to the envelope. The figures add up. Promises kept.

Down the hall I hear celebrations. My opponent no doubt. The champion. With his team. They’ll be basking in his triumph. I know what’ll be said. I’ve been there, seen that. The boxer will raise a glass and dedicate the victory to those who stand around him. He’ll say there’s no way he could have done it without them. He’ll give them thanks. The team will smile, pat each other on the back and declare the fighter – their man – the best they’ve ever worked with. They’ll hoist him on their shoulders and tell him the big time beckons. It’s inevitable for a man of his skill they’ll say, there won’t be no one he can’t knock down. There’ll be more cheap toasts and more cheap liquor will flow. And then it’s into town for yet more. The group will grow. Various broads, various fellas, various hangers-on, all leaching on to the champion and his winnings. Finally they’ll head to a cheap motel, a band of peddlers, pushers and prostitutes all keeping tow. And the fighter will wake the next morning, bruised, bloodied, and significantly poorer.

Oh yes I’ve been there, seen all that. But little do they know. Little must they realise their role in this farce. I sit by myself in a dingy room supping hard liquor and dragging on tobacco. I’ll sleep alone tonight, probably passed out across a mouldy couch in the condemned apartment I call home. And yet I’ve tripled my victor’s earnings. No more needs to be said. The victory becomes shallow. I know who the real winner is.

I hear a knock at the door. I’m not used to visitors. It can’t be my trainer, he walks in as he pleases.

I say nothing. I’m basking in my own glory. I prefer doing that alone.

The knock again.

“What? Get outta here!” I reply. I hurl a glove at the door to emphasise the point. I don’t care for visits at this time.

Despite this, the door swings slowly open. A man stands in silhouette in the hall. He steps forward, the light catching elderly features. A man enters a room. Nothing strange about that.

But this is a visitor I was not expecting. This is a visitor I don’t care to see. This is a visitor who ruins my victory.

The visitor looks at me through sullen eyes. He walks towards the bench.

The envelope falls from my hand, the money spilling across the floor. My eye begins to throb and I feel a pain within my chest.

I lower my head.

A Promise failed.

The Village Green Festival

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The Lucky Strikes were privileged to play the Village Green two years ago and it remains one of our favourite festival experiences, mainly because we felt at the heart of our community. This year we were invited to play by the local Arts organisation Sundown, who put on great events in Southend throughout the year.

 

We arrived on site late morning, excited to be part of the proceedings. My first job was to drop off my kit but the Sundown tent was too busy to get in! I decided to while away some time at the fantastic Polyvinyl Craftsmen Tent as they spun their records. The Festival was much bigger than the previous one we played and there seemed to be much more on offer with a cool marketplace, fun activities and art installations.

 

The crowd was diverse with families mingling with the hipsters and the glorious weather meant people were setting up picnics all over the site. I played my solo set mid-afternoon and was honoured to have so many friends and family watching. My set clashed with the excellent Quirkish Delight Improvised Comedy show, which was a shame as I had wanted to check them out.

 

I had four hours to relax before the Strikes show so mingled over a picnic and caught the Wilko Johnson set before nipping into the VIP area to check out the bar. 

 

The Strikes took to the stage at 7pm and were excited to see so many people gathered to see us. I heard people were sneaking in under the sides of the tent! Ably assisted by Troop Davidson on the sound we played one of the best shows we’ve played for a long time.

 

For me festivals have always been weekends of mud pits, dubious sound checks, frantic efforts to keep your guitar clean and a general hankering to be somewhere just a little more peaceful and quiet. Village Green is not like that; it was calm, it was genteel and it had a whole lot of soul. Here’s to next year!

Festival Time 2012

Summer is upon us once again, which means the band are busy with festival dates. We had a fair run of shows this year starting off with the Big Sessions Festival held near Matlock in Derbyshire. I have vague recollections of Matlock from a road trip I took with friends many years ago. Back then it was an endless summer day which fuelled a lot of the songs that ended up on a collection I recorded known as ‘The Post Traumatic Dream’, which I recorded under the monikerBlueVinylIsland.  But that was then. Now, as we arrive on site, the clouds are already forming above the brightly coloured banners and tents of the camp site, ready to poor rain on proceedings.

 

It was to be the first festival gig since the previous year for us and we were excited to be playing, if not a little nervous. Festival gigs are like no other. Gone are the meticulous sound checks and isolated back stage green rooms. Instead you are expected to get up, plug in and play without checks, let alone entice a crowd who can dip in and out of a performance like a tea taster.

 

Festival gigs are something we are good at doing. We’ve always gone with feeling and passion rather than the technics of a flawless performance, (Manmade is better than machine made!) so the quick sound checks are OK with us. Festivals too have a great effect of making everyone equal. Performer and audience alike are together, enjoying (or braving the elements in most cases) a unique experience.

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I am not a great fan of festivals and have never attended one as a non-performer. I tend to hang back from the crowds, enjoy the rider and read a book. Yet, Big Sessions was purely and simply different and much better than all my other experiences. A small festival, the site had three major performance tents ranging from the boozy bar tent to the impressive Catton Stage. The market place was small and contained all sorts of festival bric-a-brac. The crowds were impressive for a small festival and were appreciative and respectful of all the performers and acts. The toilets were clean and usable which went down well with the whole band. Will is a bit of a connoisseur of festival loos and told me earnestly that these were the best he’d ever experienced. Good work Big Sessions!

 

We made camp in a small village called Wirksworth in a large, Victorian style mansion with our team. Ambrose and Wild Jim preferred the full festival experience and pitched their tents in the campsite. We spent most of the Saturday lurching from one tent to the other listening to some great folk music and milling around the book tent. Dave managed to pick up a book called, ‘The Art of Fielding’, which had been tipped as the next great American novel, while others headed for the face painting tent!

 

Our first gig of the festival was acoustic and we played to a packed beer tent at 11pm. We were all fairly exhausted but Will and Dave’s energy was second to none and lifted the group for the performance. We finished to a great reception, which we were so very grateful for and headed back to Wirksworth.

 

The Sunday was a nicer day weather wise but the rain and people the day before had ensured that the site was muddy and in parts, hardly navigable! I played a solo acoustic performance in the afternoon followed by our full live set in the River Tent in the late afternoon. We had a fantastic show and really enjoyed playing for the people. Dave was so excited he jumped into the crowd and did a lap whooping and cheering before coming back on stage to jump on me as the boys rang out the final note. 

 

All in all, Big Sessions was a genteel and warm hearted festival, one that seemed to take us to its bosom – Thank you to all who came and made us welcome.

 

It was barely a week later and we found ourselves in the beautiful town ofWallingford, Oxfordshire for Rugfest. A much smaller affair, the festival was already in full swing when we arrived, littered all around by adolescent youths! We took to the stage as headliner at 11pm to find that the sound man was the same guy who did our Tingewick show with Danny and the Champions back in November 2011. The world just keeps getting smaller!

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The audience were crazy and kept calling for me to either take my top off or shave my beard off. I politely refused to do either. We got people waltzing to ‘Ghost and the Actress’, which was a mighty fine sight. There were also lots of rugby lads there and instead of boogying like the rest, they would enact rugby scrums and lifts to the music. It was bizarre to see.

 

We headed back to our base in Newbury and spent a relaxing morning over fried breakfast. The Sunday brought the Leigh Folk Festival to our doorstep. Leigh on Sea is our home and we were honoured to be invited to play one of the bigger stages this year and also to appear on the festival CD with ‘Romans 8’.

 

On the Saturday I used some of my rare free time to catch Martin Carthy play the local church (St. Clements, named after the patron saint of sailors). As I waited for my guest to arrive, another friend of mine caught me sitting on the bench and chatted a while about the recent Southend Thames Delta exhibition that he had curated and that had included some fantastic memorabilia (including some Strikes stuff too!). This friend used to be the road manager for Procol Harum back in the day and has some great stories. As we chatted, Wilko Johnson walked past and had a brief chat.

 

Martin Carthy was excellent and mainly sang songs about the sea and the iron gangs. Great, evocative music. Martin was also a nice guy and we chatted after the performance as we packed away.

 

There was word of rain for the next day of the festival but after a blustery and damp start the day brightened and I was able to play a good solo show in the Scout Hut for my good friends at The Sundown Arts Organisation but also on stage with the band later in the afternoon. The stage itself was the back of a lorry, which rocked and swayed as we played. A fantastic experience to play to our friends and family and also our community.

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So that is our festival season pretty much done. We still have the charming Village Green Festival to play next weekend with Wilko Johnson headlining. Always a sweet festival held in a local park near where we live. And then we shall pack away our wellington boots until next year….

 

See you down the road.

 

Matthew

June 2012

Tour Diary – February 2012

The Railway, Winchester, 22nd February 2012

‘Oh to be happy, oh to be free’ I once sang in a song called Mountain Sickness, which never made it beyond a rough hewn demo recorded with my friends Bryan Styles and Oli Howard in between our renditions of Neil Young and Flying Burrito Brothers covers about a year ago. But the lyric jumped into my head afresh on the Wednesday Will came to pick me up for the start of our mini tour. There’s nothing quite like being on the road with your band – it’s a spiritual thing to make music with people and to stand together, with your backs against the wall, delivering to audiences in foreign places, be they good or bad experiences – all are welcome and all develop you in some way.

Will lives in a suburb of Southend called Westcliff-on-Sea which has quite a unique and particular architecture about it. It’s hard to explain but it’s kind of a post war, terraced, pseudo turreted affair- very affecting stuff if you find yourself there for prolonged periods. It was there that we made our way to meet with the rest of the band and to check out, for the first time, our new touring van, compete with tables, chairs and DVD player. It’s fairly safe to assume we fall under the category of ‘hard working band’ and usually our tour transport is far more basic but this time we lucked out when the economy vehicle we had booked was not ready in time and we got upgraded.

The van was a dream and having picked up Ambrose on route (another denizen of Westcliff) we settled down for our drive to Winchester. Talk came easy and we were all excited to be playing Winchester again. We had played the year before at the South by South Coast Festival and had enjoyed it immensely.

Winchester is a beautiful place and the Railway it is not your usual dirty, back alley venue. Winchester used to be the capital of King Alfred’s kingdom and the Treasury was kept there for centuries afterwards. I keep meaning to find the statue of Alfred in the city centre but as always with touring, we don’t get the time to visit it this trip. Maybe next time…

The gig goes well and despite a few stage problems (mainly Dave’s piano stand collapsing twice) we enjoy ourselves. I always enjoy meeting people after the show and Winchester does not disappoint me and I manage to cover a whole plethora of topics from Tottenham Hotpsur v. Arsenal (I’m not a football fan) to the current state of Southend Pier (alas a boat hit it last week, again, so it’s not in the rudest of health).

Dave, myself and Will are interviewed by Aline, who is studying for a PhD in the popular culture of music. It’s an interesting subject matter that gets us talking about what constitutes the ‘cannon’ of music for our generation. Aline suggests that the reality of musical culture in Britain resides in the regional bars and clubs where people go to listen to people like us. It does not reside in the Brits or the playlist of BBC Radio 1 or 2. It’s an interesting premise. When historians consider reading fiction to better understand the nineteenth century, for example, do they turn to Austen, which has stood the test of time, and affords us a glimpse of how society worked, how it consumed its fiction. Or perhaps, we are better served through the everyday pamphlets that would have had a larger readership but dealt with lower brow topics. Either way, both types of fiction would offer different perspectives. There is a whole sub-genre of music in magazines, fanzines, bootleg discs, forums, websites and weekly music nights in local pubs that attract dedicated and informed support. The reality of musical culture in Britain is unseen and I hope Aline can shed some light on it – Good luck, Aline! In the van on the way home we decided that we were happy for the Strikes to be pamphlets, although we would not complain if we were to become Austen.

The Greystones, Sheffield, 23rd February 2012

Following the Winchester gig we stayed in Newbury with one of Dave’s relatives. It has almost become a ritual part of touring now that at least one night we will all huddle cold, tired and expectant around the kitchen bar as warm homemade chicken soup is poured until our bellies are filled. It’s like Oliver Twist but with more swearing and Kentucky Colonel bowties.

We set off early for Sheffield on the Thursday, a beautiful day. Everyone was upbeat because we were due to see friends and there’s nothing that makes you feel more at home when you’re far from home and that’s your friends. I lived in Sheffield for a number of years and was expecting a few old faces to turn up. A musician friend of ours (the extremely talented Neil McSweeney) had also invited us around for dinner which meant an awful lot. The food was amazing and well received after a day’s travelling with only service station supplies to keep us going.

The Greystones is a great venue and we love playing it. As soon as you walk in you are hit with Martin Bedford posters plastered over the walls depicting Wilko Johnson (Dave’s neighbour!) and Eddie and the Hotrods…it’s like you’ve just entered Chinnery’s or the Kursaal Rooms back home! Simon, the promoter, was also very kind to us and gave me a book, recently published, which collected photos of all the gigs that had occurred in the first year of the venue re-opening. The Strikes featured!

Backstage at the Greystones has got to be one of the best. The flat above the pub is converted for use by the bands and you can see the whole vista of Sheffield, nestling on top of its seven hills, turn from daytime splendour to night time magic, orange lights twinkling from the Hallamshire Hospital and Endcliffe to the city centre. There’s a bed that inevitably at least one Lucky Strike ends up having a doze on.

Our pre-gig rituals are fairly standard for five men, although we tend to vary between each other. Will likes to go out front of house and stand in the crowd, watch the support band and generally get a feel for the place. I used to do this but now I prefer to sit away from the noise and collect my thoughts for the show ahead. Jim is far more relaxed and tends to have a cigarette and a few beers, Paul the same. Dave is the dynamo and tends to get everyone up before we go on stage, like a rugby team. We need to get that energy on stage.

I play one of the best shows I’ve played for a long time and the audience appreciate our quiet tunes, which makes me happy. Jim has a bad gig.

We head for the hotel in the centre of town and are blessed with a Best Western with comfy beds and warm pillows, heaven! (Thanks Martin!). Having promised myself to behave I end up in the hotel bar with the others drinking until the wee hours. Will befriends some guys who design I-pad computer games while I get into a heated debate with Ambrose about the cultural worth of pop rapper, Example. It ends with Will picking Ambrose and his chair up from the table and depositing him outside the bar.

Day Off, Sheffield, 24th February 2012

It’s lovely to wake up in a warm bed with a full English breakfast waiting for you. I may have overdone the drinking and I stumble about the hotel room getting ready. After breakfast I take Will and our friend Martin into the city centre where we visit the Winter Gardens and Millennium Galleries. The Galleries have not changed since I lived here and I have great pleasure in showing them the cutlery gallery – spoons through the ages! Will and I watch video footage of a man making silver spoons (which Will informs me some people suffer from being born with). The whole spoon making process seems incredibly detailed and complex – I am humbled that I take such an everyday item for granted. I once read that it would have taken thousands of years for man to fully harness maize so that it was edible and didn’t kill or make you very ill. I put spoons in the same category – how long must man have slaved away with fingers and hands before the spoon was fully functional. I digress. We pass the morning in pleasant idleness and having pulled a bewildered and hung over Ambrose from his hotel room, we set off for the final show. Newcastle.

The Cluny 2, Newcastle, 25th February 2012

Newcastle surely has to be one of England’s best kept secrets. An American friend once told me that one of the greatest sites he had ever seen was on the night train arriving into Newcastle and looking out across the Tyne as its five bridges align. Newcastle is pretty and clean and like Sheffield, it has a friendly air that always makes you feel welcome. Within Newcastle itself the Cluny 2 is an inspirational venue offering some of the best food we’ve ever eaten on tour.

We are unsure of the reception we will receive but the night proves to be one of the most memorable gigs we’ve ever had. About 150 people dance away the night to Jim’s sawing fiddle and Dave and me get into the swing of things trying to push each other over. A great moment for me at these gigs is to watch Will and Dave jump into the crowd with washboard and accordion respectively and lead them into a dance. So many people had been talking to us on Facebook and Twitter from Newcastle that we felt like we knew half the audience. A fantastic night and thank you to all who came. We love you for it. Until next time…

Matthew Boulter

February 2012

Matt’s Solo Record – The Whispering Pines

Matt will be releasing a solo record under the moniker, The Whispering Pines, in the very near future. The record will be put out by Stovepony Records. The songs were put together and recorded over a year ago and features fellow Lucky Strikes Dave Giles and Wild Jim Wilson. It’s a lo-fi country kind of affair and expect lots of pedal steel, hammered dulcimers and chiming guitars. We’ll keep you posted.

A Travelogue – The Lucky Strikes Tour Diary – Mama Rosin January 2011

Friday 21st January 2011 – Colchester

The first date of our trip across the United Kingdom started off fairly close to home. We were cut loose, wild eyed for the week as we headed up to Colchester (the big smoke as far as Essex county goes). This was the warm up before we hooked up with Mama Rosin in Newcastle, where they would meet us after coming down from the Scottish leg of their tour. But tonight was ours and we were headlining at the Tin Pan Alley bar with two sets supported by our good friend, Owen Williams, who we knew from back home.

The venue was an incredible place boasting over five hundred years of history. Doug, the bar owner, took us on a tour and showed us the haunted gables and timbers that made up the interior. We were told the place used to be a brothel a hundred years ago and the booths, which were now decorated with pictures of Stevie Ray Vaughn and lined with sleek vinyl sofas, was where the ladies would ply their trade. He pointed up to the crucifix etched onto the beam above the booth entrance, ‘the punters thought that when they left the booth under this arch’, he said, ‘God forgave you of your sins’…I never knew God could be so convenient.

Following a meal and an in depth debate about the value of modern art we took to the stage. Dave had a bad cold but after sleeping in his car he came back fighting and did a sterling job on the night. In honour of that great man of Celtic rock, Phil Lynott, who died this month twenty five years ago, we played a cover of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ with Owen. Owen was the wrong side of a few beers but we encouraged him to join us and he attacked the tambourine and vocals like a mad man.

After the show each Lucky Strike seemed to embark on his own little adventure, Wild Jim found a friend amongst the skips out back while Ambrose met some older companions who seemed to take him under their wing. As for me, I spent some time with Nelson, the guitarist from New Model Army, who caught the show. He is a lovely gentleman and it was good to meet him.

The Colchester crowd were manic and ever so slightly crazy (or perhaps drunk) but then I think that old building could tell us young ‘uns some tall tales or two.

Sunday 23rd January 2011 – Essex to Newcastle

Sunday morning found us outside Ambrose’s flat throwing stones at his window. He had overslept and both Dave and I had to go round his flat to raise him. After some tribulations with opening the door we found him prone on his bed but Dave made sure he was up and ready within minutes. Poor Ambrose, I don’t think I have ever seen a man look so bewildered in all his life. He also missed out on morning coffee.

It took some six odd hours to reach Newcastle where we were staying with some of Dave’s folks out in the country near a place called Kirkwhelpington. We were met by a gargantuan feast when we arrived and with satisfied bellies and light hearts we went to bed.

Monday 24th January 2011 – Newcastle

I went for a walk in the morning to clear my head and get some country air. The company was the best it could be and early on in the walk we were able to look upon the hills of Durham while standing on a farm gate. It was a lovely sight to see the green slopes of the Cheviots and Kirkwhelpington nestled in the valley. The conversation was great and ranged from extra terrestrial life to the state of England under the new Conservative government.

The Cluny, where we were due to play, was a great venue. It seemed to be an old factory building, lots of straight brick work with harsh corners and girders everywhere. We met Robyn, Cyril, Xavier and Poomey from Mama Rosin and we could not have asked for a warmer welcome or for a greater or friendlier bunch of travel companions. The concert area was strange, with a bank of chairs in front of the stage and another bank of chairs to the right but it felt good in that place, a real positive atmosphere.

Disaster struck pretty early on. While loading the equipment from the van I slipped off a concrete ramp and badly twisted my ankle. I thought I had broken it. My ankle swelled to impressive proportions during the gig but we put in a good performance which the Geordies seemed to appreciate. We drove back to our lodgings after Mama Rosin’s set where I packed some frozen peas around the offending foot.

Tuesday 25th January  – Newcastle to Essex

Driving, smoking, driving, smoking, eating junk food, driving.

We stopped off at some services in Lincolnshire. I find most services depressing – it’s the whole intransience of life when you’re there. There is no attachment to anybody or anything. Just musicians and travelling salesmen – God bless them all! This particular services was empty, which made it even sadder. We sat by a window and looked out onto the car park, tired, listless, nothing to say. Geraint, our PR agent, rang while we sat there to inform us that Q had reviewed the album and described us as ‘The Waterboys on trucker pills’.

We were all pretty excited and rushed to the magazine stand, whooping and cheering as we read it. I think the staff at the coffee counter must have thought we had gone stir crazy. Ambrose missed out as he was trying to retrieve his pound coin from the Noddy toy machine. Thankfully he was successful.

Wednesday 26th January 2011 – Bristol

I had a telephone interview with Malcolm Dome from Classic Rock Magazine in the morning then we headed off to Bristol to play the Thekla, an abandoned boat which Will informed me had once belonged to a guy from the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. We whiled away the hour pre-show at an inn near the centre of the town where Robert Louis Stevenson had frequented as had Daniel Defoe. Supposedly both authors had drawn upon the tales of the pub to write Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe respectively. Bristol was the nicest city for me on tour – it is clean and all the buildings of the city centre curve into each other like a giant puzzle for the eye. We drove along the waterfront and I was transfixed by the cathedral which dominates the skyline. It was cold and it felt strange to be playing on a boat – like some sort of illicit live version of Radio Caroline. The rest of the guys were looking forward to the gig but everyone seemed on edge and the sound check was fraught. We were keen to improve a few things from our Newcastle performance and I think this was the reason why the boys were on edge, me included.

The stage was small but we played a great gig to an appreciative audience. Following a hard dance to Mama Rosin’s set we headed off to a cottage in Berkshire for some relaxation. We all managed to secure a bed, which is a bonus always.

Thursday 27th January 2011 – London

Home from Home. The London Borderline is one of my favourite venues and I have seen some of my all time heroes on that stage. To play there was such an overpowering sensation, really mind blowing. I was excited to see some of my friends from London and others who were travelling up from Essex and elsewhere. There was a weight of expectation upon us, this was our home turf in effect and we needed to come up trumps. Mama Rosin were feeling that pressure too and the atmosphere was tense.

We accessed the venue from a lift at the back. Me and the boys all crammed in with our equipment, on our return back to the surface later that night I felt the need to drum our way to the top using Dave’s floor tom, which he uses on ‘To be King’. Happy times.

Taking to the stage at 8 o’clock we jumped through the set pretty punchy like and I was bowled over by the reception. By the end of the show I could hardly speak for my life…we just bowed. My fondest memory of the whole tour happened on that night. As we reached the crescendo in ‘The Devil Knows Yourself’ and the crowd were baying for more, I turned to see Will standing proud behind his kit smashing his cymbals– it’s never been so good to see a friend smile like that.

The whole night was quite emotional and I would be lying if I said it didn’t drain me. I met Xavier in the street as we left and if I had not been so drained I think I would have hugged that man there and then.
Saturday 29th January 2011 – Oxford

The Friday off was not a relaxing one for me so I slouched into our final gig at Oxford with heavy bones. It was my first time in Oxford and I was a little disappointed not to catch a glimpse of the dreaming spires. We were situated on the Cowley Road, near the old British Leyland plant. Cowley Road reminds me a little of Brick Lane in terms of it’s general down at heel manner and the human traffic that shuttled endlessly across the pavements, going somewhere, someplace.

Soundcheck was troublesome but there was a nice big stage to stamp my newly mended foot on and the final gig of the tour went down well. Cyril had fallen over in London and hurt his knee so we sympathised with each other over a few beers after the show. It was good to spend time post show chatting with Mama Rosin and we left them a little tired and tipsy to head back to Berkshire in the wee hours. And so we came to the end, we had made some new friends and met a whole lot of nice folks.

Alas, the road still calls so I’m going to lay down this here pen for now and go join the others. See you out on the road….

Matthew Boulter
January 2011

Gabriel Forgive My 22 Sins…So What’s the Story?

We often get asked in press interviews what the stories are behind our albums. With the release of our new record in January 2011, the boys thought it would be a good to give you all an idea of what the heck ‘Gabriel Forgive My 22 Sins’ is all about. Now, don’t worry, we’re not going to spoil it all for you, so you’ll still have lots of digging to do for yourselves. Now settle down, I want to begin….

The album is about a boxer, that’s simple enough and he was a real person called Frankie. He was a good fighter but wasn’t going to set the world alight or hold the title belt above his head while flash bulbs sparkled all about the ringside…but he was good enough to attract the betting men and the promoters who hawked the shows from the back of truck trailers and on street corners. Now for whatever reason (we didn’t quite manage to get the full reason), Frankie threw a prize fight for some people who held the purse strings for other shady ventures. Despite the money in his pocket this did for Frankie’s honour and he ended up getting into a bad way. He felt sick to the stomach that he had let himself and his family down. It was a slow slide but a slide nonetheless and he ended up using the money for drugs, booze and good times that lasted until the hang over the next morning. Soon there was none of that throw money left and he ended up thieving, robbing and such. He had a partner in crime as far as we can glean from the people that knew him at the time. By trawling the microfiche in a dustless basement somewhere, we found out this partner was shot dead in a bungled hold up in which Frankie was also involved. Frank seems to have escaped the scene and ended up in some roadside restaurant. We tried to find where this restaurant was and if it still existed but we could find no trace of it.

Frankie was never seen again. The shop keeper swore blind to the papers that he shot Frank too and there was talk amongst those we interviewed that he was seen in the company of two men shortly after the robbery. One wore a mechanic’s overalls with a name tag of ‘Louie’ stitched into the top right of the vest. The other was dressed in a fine suit. We wrote what we heard, what we think may have happened and where we hope Frankie ended up.