DATE: January 11, 2007
Happy New Year to all our friends and followers around the Globe. I am chided for my failing to keep this road ‘diary’ up to date, and I have to beg the usual litany of excuses: laziness, overwork, lack of time, bereft of inspiration, few wildly-anecdotal happenings, and a general malaise-de-travel that catches up with you after a hard run of sequential tours as we had this past six months.
It was a funny old time for a lot of people I know. Opportunities arose, took off, then slid into the abyss; relationships formed, foamed then fumed and quickly foundered on the rocks; too many good people departed us to join the ‘Choir Immortal’, and by the end of it all, I felt distinctly faint. Thankfully, the second half of 2007 shaped up magically, after a relatively threadbare start, for us AWBastards; if I’d had to write a report in, say, May, it might have read: “..and nothing happened”, which would, of course, be woefully inaccurate as a hell of a lot did eventually happen in our particular orbit.
It began, as you may remember from earlier white pages with the unlikely, and somewhat surprise invitation to perform at The South Atlantic Jazz Festival in Cape Town, South Africa at the end of March, a pretty mouth-watering array of World artists among whom it was a rare privilege to perform and to socialize for 4 days and nights of sheer unbridled bonhomie and belly-up to the bar around the clock. Funny how the old tick-tock has absolutely no relevance in a foreign hemisphere; it might have something to do with the disorienting fact that the sun is NORTH of you, as much as the staggering time-difference for us occidentals, but it certainly brought on a state of suspended termination to all the proceedings & shenanigans. Reality was put on hold that week.
At this juncture, I need to belatedly thank Dave Love, the president, CEO and general mainspring of Heads Up Records, surely the most energetic and eclectic jazz label in the world nowadays, who made the connection with the South African organizers and generally brokered things along. I can’t think of another label in this era which can garner the amount of Grammy nominations (and winners) as they do, and whose catalog runs the gamut from Michael Brecker to Ladysmith Black Mambaza with all the dots joined, and every conceivable box ticked in the snaking jazzy procession in between. Would it surprise you to know that he is of Scottish heritage? I thought not – he can pass for a native Glaswegian if he wants to, though born in New Jersey and brought up in the ‘soccer-pit’ of Kearney. About as close to Govan or Parkhead as you can get in the USA. Dave, lang may yer lum reek, pal!
From there, things slowly got back on track in the Americas and we had a fruitful if different summer of festivals and concerts which took us to Vancouver in the north and Texas in the south for the first time since 2004; likewise back to New Orleans, a much-changed and severely-emptied city from that which we have always known and loved, and which I have eulogized in these columns in the past. I would say that about half the places we used to visit are closed and shuttered in The Quarter, and lord knows what might be the case with most of the joints in other wards that we would be dragged to late at night in years gone by to see the local hotshots perform. Suffice to say, we were relieved to have the chance to get back to the House Of Blues and give the hard-core of our faithful the dose of AWB funk they had been missing, and they gave back their love in bucketfuls. Onnie and I were having dinner after sound-check in the restaurant, when a beaming lady came up to our table and said how glad she was that we were back, and she had her ticket. She then reminded us that the last time she had seen us was up at the Riverboat Casino on Lake Pontchartrain. “…. ’course that’s all gone,” she said, “…and so’s my house, but I got me a ticket and that’s all that matters right now”
Texas had a mini-tour feel to it, even though we only played the three cities: Dallas, Austin, and Houston, as we teamed up for all the dates with a fine bunch of Houstonians for the entire time in the Lone Star State, a neo-funk band called Fondue Monks, who are a charismatic and fun bunch of people to be around. Denver, their singer, gave us all genuine AWB Stetsons on the last night of the run, in Houston, and of course we all wore them for the encore. Talk about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - (no whistling the theme tune, now.)
There were of course other memorable moments in 2007, some good, some bad and some ugly. First, the ugly: A stage collapsed on the drum-kit moments after Rocky had finished sound-check in Riviera Beach, Florida, back in April; five minutes earlier and there would have been no 2007 for us! Then a surprise in Louisville, KY when we played a downtown street fair for the first time (4th Street Live), and had a ten-thousand strong audience virtually accompanying us in every word we sang; a festival in San Jose - Sly Stone’s return to life, where we played special guests, and where we then waited about an hour for The Fabled One to appear - for all of 10 minutes - before they pulled the plug, shut the park and almost locked us in! A fab visit to the Stax Museum in Memphis (built on the site of the old studios and encompassing a reconstruction of the famous room itself), and of course our annual visit to Seattle for most of a week in the autumn. Seattle has always had a special place in our hearts, since that’s where the first rumblings of success for Pick Up The Pieces came from, back in the days when small markets created ‘breakouts’ for records via local and independent radio. We still get to do live interviews on-air in Seattle, something that the Clear Channel radio monopoly has all but killed off nationwide in the USA. We didn’t visit them, needless to say, at their Texas headquarters. Anyway, they were probably out shooting with their pal, that nice Mr. Cheney.
And so to Japan. After a wonderful ten days in Nevada and California (including visits to beautiful San Luis Obispo, the Amazing new ‘Anthology’ in San Diego, and the awesome Cerritos Arts Centre), we boarded a flight to Nagoya where we began our sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun - although it was setting as we landed, over snow-dusted mountains. I find Japan today to have great spirit, and some of the new architecture in Nagoya, and in Tokyo, takes the breath away for its sheer audacity and aesthetic. It is fair to say that the US, and certainly the UK are lagging way behind The East in planning and creativity. Even a small, box-like shop front will be so cunningly and well-lit as to create instant invitation, and clothes and design stores are not punishing in their choice of (or volume of) music – a welcome-mat alone to us musos & artists who are driven screaming out of about 90% of Western stores. At the Blue Note in Nagoya, then in Tokyo, first at The Cotton Club and then The Blue Note, we were given the most appreciative and welcoming atmosphere to perform in. Everything from hotels, the transport, the waiting squad of helpers to aid in carrying instruments, garment bags etc. into the club each night, and the fine food and drink in the dressing rooms – what a cool and professional bunch they are. We were treated like royalty (which, of course we should be in the Next Life, so it’s good to get a taste for it now). They even made me a special cocktail, which I named ‘The Heartwarmer’ – vodka, white wine & grapefruit juice, on ice - NICE!
The one bum note, if you could call it that, was in Tokyo, where the monolithic building across from our digs, the Hotel Okura, was not allowed to be passed without first crossing to the other side of the street; I don’t know why this ominous hulk took me so long to identify: It was The US Embassy! I walked past the Saudi, The Swedish, The Iranian, The Canadian - you name it….no problem, but the American Embassy has demanded that the Japanese police divert anyone from passing on their side of the street. It really felt ominous, and a manifestation of this administration’s arrogant and menacing global stance. They even engender paranoia in their allies, for chrissake!
A small cavil, however, amidst all the good things that we shared this past year. The music has been a revelation and the energy at its highest for decades. A special thanks to all the promoters who made us ‘stars’ again, and, to the one or two who made life bloody difficult (you know who you are) – we succeeded despite you. A new season starts up this week with a trip to The Montbleu Resort in Lake Tahoe, and I am waxing my skis as we speak – HA! – an unlikely tale; my knees aren’t fit for anything more than Scrabble. As for the rest of the year, already some of our perennials like The Birchmere and The Keswick are in place and we have our British tour arranged (sorry we missed you in ’07 - we got busy beyond ourselves elsewhere). We are planning one or two tricks & surprises to keep ourselves amused and to keep you lot on your toes. So dress warm, watch crossing the roads, and we’ll see you soon, in Happy New 2008.
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