Tuesday, 28 August 2018

In Trondheim

On the 8th August my tour manager John and I checked into a hotel at Gatwick the evening before our flight to Trondheim in Norway via Oslo. We had intended to chill in the hotel, eat some dinner and sleep. We had only been in our rooms a while when we came to the conclusion that it might be cool to go for a drive rather than sit for a couple of hours in the Travel Lodge. Last year when we stayed at Gatwick, before a flight, we headed for Brighton where we had fish and chips on the beach. For a change I suggested we head for Devils Dyke not far from Brighton. This has many memories for me and was the site of a free EBB gig that landed us in court long a go.

devils dyke

We drove along the lumpy road that leads to a very ugly 60s built pub. It is a monstrosity which seems so out of place in the surrounding beauty of the landscape. John loves his geography so I knew he would be blown away by the huge expanse of chalk hills that rise up and then down abruptly to the valley below the hill we stood on. A skilled operator was showing off his drone which looked quite spectacular against the  fading light and dramatic vista. After the intense heat we had all been suffering from the wind was cold and so we left and headed back for dinner at the hotel.

The flight to Oslo was fairly uneventful though delayed but we made our connection for the flight to Trondheim. The waiting around and delays grow ever more irritating and debilitating so I won't bother recording the details here.  

The flight to Trondheim passed over some of the wild countryside I love and as we landed I felt already at home in my favourite foreign country. John had not been to Norway before and as always, he was devouring the sights and scenes with great relish. Our meeting at the airport was made extra special by the wonderful VW van that was to convey us to the Smeby home.

the edgar mobile

At this stage I want to tell you something about our hosts. Both Jostein and Helena Smeby were Ski Jumpers who competed in national and World championship events and at the Winter Olympics. This was very interesting for John and myself because John is an all round sport fan and I have always watched ski jumping in awe. It seems to me, to be a ludicrously beautiful and dangerous thing. Jostein, who has coached Helena, says he misses the rush and Helena is quite determined to make a return to to the sport.  Meanwhile Jostein is a teacher at a local school and is the leader in the band Arabs In Aspic. Helena is a lab technician at a nearby milk supplier. They have two of the happiest little kids I've ever seen. They are Wilma and Felix.

One of the special things about this trip was that we had been invited to stay for a few days. This is always special giving the opportunity to really engage with folk and get to know them. The next day was supposed to be about sightseeing or fishing but the rain poured down and we became more concerned about the concert in the garden which was to happen on the following day. I felt quite tired so a day lounging around in good company was  very welcome.

A succession of Jostein and Helena's friends came by and it was very convivial and very interesting. They all love 70s music and especially if it is on vinyl. A couple of the younger ones seemed to like some of the music since the 70s so that was cool.  At one point it seemed like every one had ski jumped or was ski jumping. One of the younger jumpers had named his son Edgar. I could never have jumped myself but I like the thought that there might be a ski jumping star of the future, named after me. I wish him health and happiness what ever he does.

After consuming considerable amounts of good cognac and good conversation on the previous evening and into the early hours, John and I cut back on the following evening before the day of the performance and retired a little bit earlier. The rain held off in the morning and by mid day in spite of the odd shower, the sun came out and it seemed we were set to have our gig in the garden as planned.

post performance

A pig was roasting and the garden was a hive of activity. Everyone was working flat out as they had been for many days planning and organising the event. After a sound check with Jostein at the mixer we were ready to roll. The weather stayed warm and bright and I played and sang my heart out. Simple as that. There was nothing left after one encore. The audience was as good as it gets. They understood me and that is the key. These people had only really known me through the EBB catalogue but they embraced the re invention with warmth and enthusiasm. Most importantly Jostein and Helena were very happy and satisfied so job done. Mission accomplished.

Later we all piled into transport to take us to down town Trondheim to a small club in a cellar where  Arabs in Aspic were to perform a free show as a rehearsal. Most of the equipment was set up when we arrived and Jostein set about getting his guitar gear together. Soon they were knocking out their contemporary version of 70s prog rock. The songs are sung in Norwegian as well as English. They have a tough core with tight arrangements and screaming keys with some great vintage style organ licks and impossibly high backing vocals. The drummer and the bass player have obviously been round and round their parts until they seem effortlessly smooth. The whole is not smooth. It has jagged peaks and fat blocky dynamic frequencies at the centre. The percussionist while new to the band has moments which are spell binding. With a little refinement it will be special and unusual.
Josteins guitar playing is unusual in that he rarely plays a double speed part. Actually I get very quickly tired of so much prog guitar that runs around at top speed with no emotional content what so ever. The guitar work is very studied, heavy and some times sweet and melodic and there is an emphasis on precision. This is true of the band in general but not to the exclusion of playing a bit loose in a good way. The lead vocals don't seem to be so importantly stated as the music but that works and the overall vocal delivery fits like a glove with the music.
In many ways their music would not usually be among my fave genres but the Arabs are not just another flabby prog covers band but are a well drilled outfit who love prog and believe in what they do. Back in the day I winced a bit when the term prog was mentioned in the same breath as the EBB. Having said that I can admire such commitment to a time and a vintage sound that stands up today, especially when so much hard work has gone into it all and it rocks. Arabs in Aspic rock.

It looks like we might be rocking together if plots and plans come together for a festival appearance in the winter where it is intended that I sing a couple of songs with them.

our captain

The next day we went on a boat trip to a little island that used to be a prison holding the more notoriously dangerous criminals. From the fort we could see where the old viking strongholds had been situated and why they were there. The rain fell a little on the way back but it was a pleasant change from the excessive heat of recent weeks. The buildings along what is essentially a canal are beautiful and protected by law. 

along the canal

After the boat ride we went on a guided tour of an alternative community in a largely industrial area. 

recycled housing

An old German submarine pen dominates the scene on the other side of the community by the water side. Most of the housing in the community is built from re cycled/ up cycled materials. There is a communal garden and a free shop where people take stuff no longer needed and others take it for their own use. There is a cycle repairer who fixes up and build bikes from bits and pieces. The local authority planned to trash the whole area including some old workers housing with a view to housing more industrial facilities. This was overturned and the community arose out of the decision. Can we have more of this please?

After some refreshment at the community pub we headed off to meet with Jostein for dinner at the top of the rotating restaurant that dominates the sky line a mile or so from Jostein and Helena's house. This was so cool watching the city go by as we ate. Eventually we could see the island we had visited by boat earlier. The light is special as the evening wears on. It never really gets dark in the summer unless it is very cloudy.

in the rotating restaurant

Julia is a Polish woman who is an accomplished artist. She had been visiting for the concert and is working on the sleeve design for the new Arabs live album She has made previous art works for Arabs records and is a good friend of Jostein and Helena. Julia was always asking John and me if we needed anything so often that she decided she would be our new "Mom". She was concerned when we told he she could have a day off and then we decided it would be Mothers Day so she could have a day off with a good conscience. It was all great fun. Late one night she began to tell John and I something of her life as a child in Poland and then she told us the story of her grandmother who survived Auschwitz. I have been working on a song and now I had a story which inspired a lyric. We discussed a series of paintings that Julia might make around the story and we both agreed we had provided each other with something to make as creators. Win - win! 

I mention this because this is an example of how travel and engaging with new people can bring great creative possibilities. I have a couple of ideas about re working some of Jostein and the bands work and if all of it comes together in any form this will have been a very productive as well as very satisfying adventure.
We had spent some great days with lovely and clever people. The kindness and hospitality shown to us by everyone was overwhelming at times. Of course our special thanks go to Jostein and Helena for inviting us into their home and for looking after us so well.

Helena, yours truly and Jostein

Arabs in Aspic are
Jostein Smeby: Songwriter/composer, guitarist, vocals and mixing
Eskil Nyhus: Drums
Stig Arve Jørgensen: Keys and vocals
Erik Paulsen: Bass and vocals
Alessandro Elide: Perc

Thanks to Julia for being Mom. Thanks for the boat trip to Boatowners: Thor Erik Larsen and the man with the lamp, logo and everything, Otto Johnsen.

Thanks for the great welcome at the airport with the man with the van local drummer and teacher Trond Bernhard Olsen, who is also the drummer for 5 local bands.

I look forward to the next episode of our adventure.

The Switzerland adventure post will follow in a day or so.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

A working, living church

pic by dave randell

I think I have found my current favourite gig and it stands high among the truly great venues I have played. St John's church in Farncombe is a working, living church and well loved judging by its condition both inside and outside.  We arrived in good time for a sound check. The sun had been punishing in the south for days and only now did a little rain begin to fall from the leaden skies promising some cool relief from the grinding heat. This was another support gig for Focus who I am really warming to, both as performers and people.

As soon as we entered the church it felt very welcoming and it was obvious that the assembled crew and helpers were well used to putting on gigs here. Julian, the promoter has been putting on shows here for 11 years which amounts to over 200 shows.  That says a lot for the church and relationship between the organisers, church and community. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this gig. Everything was well honed and my sound check took little time at all. I was very happy. As soon as the sound check was finished it was outside in the cool air in the midst of a soft cool shower. Getting a little damp was a pleasure. The high temperature began to slowly drop a little and I think all in attendance were thankful.

The dressing room was the vestry in the church and was filled with the trappings and garments of the clergy. This was an indication of the kinds of acts playing at St John's and the respect and trust shown by all to all. I must admit I have come across a few acts who might not have shown the same respect in such an environment. Perhaps I am being a little harsh. No I am not. I have just thought of one hooligan band I would be reluctant to share any space with.

                                                            pic by dave randell

The church soon filled and what a delightful audience they were. There were a few of my fans there and a few more who might have heard something of me but I soon realised most had not seen me before. This always presents something of a challenge but one that I embrace. It is a good opportunity to test new songs as well as the few old songs I still play.
The sound in the church was simply perfect and I revelled in it. Everything sounded so clear and the natural reverberations in the building were exquisite. I played for 45 minutes and I think my only error was not playing The Sound Don't Come. The audience was so nice to me and I left the stage buzzing all over. Job done.

                                                            pic by dave randell

Focus soon followed and they were on really good form. The crowd loved it and I could see why. Actually they are a class act and better than all the other prog acts I have supported in the past few years. Most of them are like pale cover bands of themselves and one band I played with last year was just an hilarious parody of better days.

So time to hit the road and back to London with Ramblin' at the wheel. It rained some more but as we entered London it was clear no rain had fallen and another boiling humid night was coming. 

I really enjoyed this gig so much. It doesn't get any better and if you ever get the chance to get out to Farncombe for a show don't pass it up.

Since the gig I have been mostly recording and trying to keep cool. The recording is going well but I get blocks every so often and lose faith in things. It doesn't last. I know it is part of the process, for me,  so I quickly get back in the stream of things. I'm off to Norway at the end of the week for a few days and the from there to Switzerland for a couple of days. I must admit I am starting to look forward to everything these days. I don't want to miss anything.

Thanks to Dave for looking after me and for the photos.