Newsletter June 2001
Does it sometimes seem as if the really awful weather never fully manifests until you're finally due to go out in it? It certainly began to look like that earlier this year. Standard, everyday conditions, for the entire northern hemisphere apparently, were washed out grey skies and persistently mizzling rain, but the minute I shouldered a guitar and began to load the van temperatures plummeted, the sullen skies thickened up and snow would come whirling in from every point of the compass. Endless queues, numerous minor smack-ups and infinitely extended travelling times are the immediate result of such conditions, while physical exhaustion and mental lassitude follow hard on their heels. Whether driving south to Switzerland, and Ljubo's studio, or northeast, past Leipzig, to a concert at the warmly welcoming 'Kultur Scheune' in Delitzsch, an average of two extra hours effortlessly accreted to both journeys, in both directions.
At the beginning of March Gabriele and I attended the famous Basler Fasnacht (Basel Carnival) which takes place during Lent. Precisely as the clock on the mediaeval town hall strikes four in the morning all the street lights go out, stars brighten overhead and an unbelievable cacophony of squealing piccolos and thundering drums commences as grotesquely masked troupes wheel huge, painted lanterns through the steep streets and narrow alleys. The caterwauling and pummeling never lets up for the next two days.
Rappen (confetti) whitens the pavements, processions and music-makers meander to and fro, sweets, flowers, oranges, and even pineapples, sail through the air and, on the second day, deliberately rough-edged brass bands join the mayhem, thumping and parping out their blowsy 'guggemusig', a tradition imported from Luzern half a century ago. Shepherded by friends we stayed awake, sampled the traditional onion tart, cheese tart, and a surprisingly tasty soup of roasted flour which requires six hours to prepare. Oddly enough it didn't snow during our overnight homeward drive.
A day or two after our return I was away to the Frankfurt Music Fair, chasing hither and yon to meet with friends and hustle for contacts. Frankfurt is a world centre for international trade fairs, and this is one of the largest. I caught up with Woody Mann, Peter Finger, Michael Langer, Claus Boesse-Ferrari and Tom Kleemaier, had a chat with Steve Baker, listened to Preston Reid; and all within a few hectic, jam-packed hours.
Time, meanwhile, was characteristically fleet of foot, and the following day I made the thirteen hour treck across land and sea to north Somerset, where I spent a week tutoring the annual Creative Music course for schools. It might not be a bad idea to market a small audio implant for the over fifties which, from time to time, murmurs softly, 'Remember thou art mortal.' Certainly, I'd temporarily forgotten that candles only burn brightly at both ends when there are roughly thirty, or less, on your birthday cake. Returning to Kenton to visit Mum I promptly developed a fizzy head, trickling nose and foggy throat. My tongue, which I'd bitten ten days previously, refused to heal, I had a stye in my right eye, the countryside was languishing under the curse of Foot and Mouth, and life's bowl of cherries had apparently fallen victim to some nit-picking eurolooney packaging directive. Selecting the simplest option I collapsed.
Thanks to a stubborn constitution, and several gallons of Gabriele's patent chicken and ginger soup, I was just about fit to go weaving off the flight deck several days later, plotting a course to Tooting Bec, where Project Adorno were hosting a musico-poetic 'Dialogue of Civilizations.' After the performance I drove up to Oxford with Laura King, organizer of Poetry in the Park, returning to London a few days later, just in time for a tube strike, plenty of foot-slogging and appearances at the Kashmir Klub, Bohemian Voices and Taking the Mike. (Apologies to anyone who went to the 12-Bar Club on April 4th, expecting to see me. The show was cancelled, and even I didn't find out about it until the morning in question. Unintentional managerial muddle.)
To prevent ennui and ensure life remained bracing I had a, mercifully, minor accident with the van, which entailed much to-ing and fro-ing in Kent; but repairs were gratifyingly rapid and I was back behind the wheel in time for the April gig Laura had arranged in Oxford, where it rained unstintingly. There were forays into darkest Sussex, where Dave and Gilly Dyke were wonderful hosts for two great concerts at The White Horse, Bodel Street, and The Six Bells, Chiddingly; but I was obliged to drive directly from Chiddingly to Harwich after the show, sleeping in the van en route, in order to be onstage at Mulligans in Amsterdam the following evening.
In Holland the train drivers were on strike and the roads were chocabloc, but I made it to my agent's house in Alphen an der Rijn just in time to share a wonderful dinner with her, and to meet Kieron Halpin and family who were on their way home after a successful tour. Amsterdam is a bit of a monkey's breakfast at the moment, due to excavations for the new Metro, but it's a parking nightmare at the best of times so I was more than happy to pitch the guitar into Lisbeth's car and let her do the driving. A concert in Uithoorn followed, after which Gabriele arrived and we drove all the way back to Devon for Easter.
Five days later we were back in Aalsmeer. Gabriele immediately headed down to Frankfurt, while I reclaimed the van and scorched up to Friesland, and a wonderful concert at 'Fiddler's Green', a charming and hospitable club way up in Schildwolde, near Groningen.
Denmark was next on the schedule, and I intended to continue northwards, spending a night or two with Klaus and Claudia Doll and giving Klaus a chance to satisfy himself that I remain worthy of his lovingly handbuilt guitar, However, business in Queen Margaret's realm was slack, so I arranged to skip that weekend, drive back to Frankfurt, and return for the three remaining pub gigs in ten days time. I'd happily knock all such tests of spiritual stamina on the head, but, needs must ..... etc. As it happened Mum gave us all a bit of a shock the following weekend, so I ended up cancelling the whole Danish trip in order to be with her in Kenton, but I'm happy to say she made a full recovery and is now back to her normal chirpy self.
Disaster struck again when, a week or so later, the Austrian tour was drastically curtailed and it looked as if I wouldn't be able to economically make use of the few gigs which remained. However Tom Kleemaier, with whom I was due to make a short tour in Croatia and Slovenia ten days later, came to my rescue by inviting me to stay with him and Hannelore in Traun for the intervening time. I imagine that having Cowlan in one's house for ten days is no sinecure, but thanks to them I was able to make the best of what was left, and thereafter Tom and I headed over the mountains and down to the Dalmatian coast to darken the doors of our agent Berislav, who had set up three great gigs in Opatija, Karlovac (my sixth appearance there) and Novo Mesto. There was sweltering sun, and there were dramatic thunderstorms, interspersed with pastime and good company; and our last night in Croatia was spent in the wonderful old Dubovac Castle, just outside Karlovac.
After a great final concert in Novo Mesto I scooted back to Frankfurt in eleven and a half hours, dropping Tom off in Austria en route, and am now busy with finalizing arrangements for the new CD.
Time is whistling by at an unnerving lick, and although all the contributions are in; from Chris Leslie (fiddle and mandolin); Sandro Friedrich (assorted wind instruments and percussion); Geoff Palmer (cello), and Ljubo Majstorovic (Electric guitar, bass and synth effects - not to mention recording, editing, mixing etc.), it's now likely to be a summer, rather than a spring release date. I'm often assured good things are worth waiting for, so the challenge will be to match the quality of the aforementioned contributors in order to confirm the truth of it.
Watch this space.