Gig Journal 2009
How Not to make it as a Musician
By James Higgins.
Allied Arts Fair
Me and Donald were set to play then Dale showed up with his mandolin. So we had ourselves a jam.
I guess this was probably the last gig of the year. I think it was the quietest I've seen the fair yet. But 1pm on a Tuesday isn't an inspiring time of week.
Not much to say. It was enjoyable but non descript.
There was an odd moment when we played Fontainebleu. A woman came rushing up all excited, saying "Where can I buy this song? I want to buy it. Now! Who wrote it? Was it you? Do you have more?" She was all a-fluster. "I want it! I want it! I want it!" We were a bit taken aback because we'd just been mucking about. Dale had never even heard Fontainebleu before and I was calling out the chord changes.
In the end she asked us to play something from Driftwood. We played Chocolate Girl. Then she breezed out the door without buying anything.
A few minutes later a woman came up and said that she recognized me. Turns out that during last year's snow storms she'd picked me, Hil and Ronan up somewhere in the Happy Valley and driven us home. It was a pleasant surprise to see her again. I think her name was McBride related. Not only did she give us a lift last year but I think she even bought a CD this time round. Double thank you.
Dec 20, 2009
Allied Arts Fair
A casual hour trying out a few tunes with Donald, Jan and a friend of Jan's from her work.
We put the emphasis on the Irish and Scottish material like, Jock Stewart, I Will Go and The County Down. We even played my old nemesis, Whiskey in the Jar.
It was lucky I'd checked my email this morning. There was a message from Donald saying he'd see me there at one o clock. I'd thought we were scheduled for 3 o clock. It was a shock to the system because I was barely awake by noon. I have to admire how cockerels manage to get straight out of bed and start crowing every day at the crack of dawn? What I need is an old hand crank that cars used to have. Or maybe some Dr Frankenstein jumper cables.
Well our one hour set flew past and I think we all had a good time. Toes were tapping.
Cock a doodle doo.
Dec 18, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
The Honeymoon is not a sloppy drunk of a place. It has a merry rowdiness that resonates from a purring clientele who snack on platters of cheese and sip wine and mead. Their contentment rubs off on us musicians which makes this venue a pleasure to play.
We don't generally play our rockier material there but we do still keep things moving along at a fair clip.
Yan dropped in with his mandolin and jammed the last set. It was good to see him again.
We gave Cardboard Box its first public performance. It went down well enough but I still trip over the lyrics. I may have to edit them a little.
All in all it was a positive night considering our practicing has dropped off to a trickle since we voted to drop the unpaid gigs.Those freebie shows at least kept us tight, confident and in the public eye.
Fortunately, Donald, Charlie, Phil and Tree are all excellent musicians. Even on bad nights they can still pull off a good gig.
Hopefully we'll get back on track again. Charlie was really ill recently and the Donald has so much family and Christmas stuff to deal with at the moment. All the recent North West storms, gales and floods haven't helped either. I guess it's only natural that band practice drops out of life's priorities.
Thanks to all the friendly faces that showed up. We appreciate the moral support.
Special super thanks to Barb for taking some great band pictures for us. I hope we weren't too hard to work with.
Anyway, about the song, Cardboard Box.
Cardboard is a very useful commodity when sleeping rough. A simple layer of cardboard between your sleeping bag and the ground makes an incredible difference in comfort level. It forms a shield from the cold ground and stops the dew soaking the underside of the bag. It is cheap and easy to find. Thus it is also easily discardable: meaning it doesn't have to be carted about everywhere as perma-luggage.
Back when I was hanging out happily homeless in Annecy in the Alps, I always kept an eye open for a piece of cardboard for the evening.
When me and SJ had returned to "Our" (the Fox's) apartment that April from Scotland, the Fox was not pleased to have us move back in. In fact he'd already rented the place out in our absence. Well if that's not a hint, then what is? Looking back, I see his point but at the time, I was a bit angry and the whole affair almost turned kung fu nasty.
So we found ourselves back on the street which was nothing new. The real trouble was that it wouldn't stop raining. It had been pouring incessantly for weeks. It was very depressing.
We'd busk every day in the subway and then haunt cafes and bars till evening when we'd scurry around Annecy like rats, searching for some dry corner to curl up in.
One desperate evening we crept under the stage in the Rue Royal Park but the rain dripped through the planks till by midnight we were in an underground river. My cardboard floated off. I remember watching it going over the top stair of the park steps and down onto the Rue Royal like an unmanned kayak shooting a waterfall. The rain fell in sheets from the sky. Gutters overflowed. Streets became torrents. SJ ran off screaming into the night. All was despair. The flying hat was lost.
Later, in dire misery, I sneaked into the Fox's shared landing bathroom. He discovered me there as I was drying myself off on the shower curtains. "Ou est John", (Where's John?) he asked?
Shais pas", (Don't know.) I shrugged.
He shook his head and quietly invited me in. He had a good heart but next day I was back outside.
The rain continued without pause for breath. Day after day it rained and rained and rained. All we could do was live with it.
Late one afternoon after busking, I was squelching aimlessly up some medieval alley, when I found an enormous cardboard box. It was chest height tall and cubed. I looked into it and knew exactly what I was going to do. I quickly scoured the neighbourhood and filled the box with every large piece of cardboard I could find. This included a second box almost as large as the original one. Then I put my guitar and sleeping bag and groceries in it and began to push, shuffle and carry it through town. I wove through the crowded pedestrian zones all the way through the old town till I saw SJ who was busking under an archway.
He had noticed this enormous box coming down the street towards him and had been watching it warily through the corner of his eye. Then it stopped beside him like it was listening. He was a little apprehensive. Then my smiling face poked out from behind it. "What do ye think" I asked?
"It's a big box."
"It's a mobile home."
He laughed and then we both pushed it on out of town. We didn't go along the lake road past the Hotel Du Police. Instead we went uphill towards the Visitation church which overlooked the town. There was a small park enroute where we'd often eaten lunch in previous Summers. Across the street, lived an old man. He too frequented the little park. In Summers past, he'd often hobbled over and sat with us and spoke of his resistance fighting days in the war. One afternoon when we were sitting up in the park, two girls strolled by on the street; he pointed and said, "Hollandaise." (Dutch).
"How do you know? He made a motion with his forefinger as if he was wiping butter from his crotch. Then he sniffed his finger, pointed at the girls and said, "Hollandaise."
Yes indeed. A regular Dirty Old Man.
We parked our box at the park entrance and went in for a discreet smoke which gave us the giggles. Then we continued on up the steep hill, with big smiles on our faces; literally out of our box with a big box. The dirty old man waved out his balcony window and a few little kids buzzed around us but it was surprising how little attention anyone actually paid us. We were just two everyday, ferociously stoned, hippy freaks from Scotland, pushing a giant box up a steep hill in the French Alps in torrential rain.
Finally we arrived at our destination: a seldom trodden pathway just below the Visitation. On one side of the path was a high wall of perhaps 15 feet tall. On the other side were bushes. The path was unlit and formed part of a pedestrian shortcut up the Semnoz Mountain. As it was almost dark and pouring with rain, we figured no one would come by that night.
So we set to building our shelter. We placed the two biggest boxes on their sides with the open tops facing one another. Next we piled lots of the extra bits on top as waterproofing. We placed a lot around the sides to prevent the rain from turning the supporting sides all soggy. Finally we cut a little cat box door and we crawled in. It was pitch dark as a coffin, so we cut a letter box sized hole to let a little light come in. Satisfied with our little cave, we spread out our sleeping bags to sit on, and ate pate sandwiches and drank cinque etoile vin extrordinaire. We laughed and laughed and paid no more heed to the rain pounding angrily outside.
All that night, and all across the mountains, it rained and rained and rained.
For the first time in a month we were immune to the fury of the elements; safe and dry in our cardboard cocoon.
We awoke next morning and heard a gruff voice outside. Footsteps were shuffling nosily around. We sat very still till they walked off. Ten minutes later we emerged. The coast was clear.
"I think we'll just leave that there for tonight" I said.
We nodded in agreement and started heading into town. We were feeling good.
Then we saw the garbage truck at the end of the path. There were 4 burly unshaven, gauloise smoking, garbage men lounging around it. "Oh oh." Was this what was meant by a Visitation?
"Salut", we said cheerfully as we walked past. But we knew we weren't getting away that easy. The chief garbage man spoke. "Pas si vite" (Not so fast). He pointed back at our creation. "La France est pas une peubelle" (France is not a garbage can), he declared authoratively as he crushed an ironic cigarette underfoot. He ushered us back up the path and made us demolish our precious cardboard mansion and toss it into the truck.
Once again we were back on the street.
But it had stopped raining.
There was another irrelevant cardboard box caper some weeks later which I record here just for posterity…..
We'd found this latest box in town and dragged it to the same spot. Not wishing a repeat of the garbage men incident, we decided this time to hide it in the bushes and not on the path. It turned out that these bushes formed a perimeter around Annecy's official campground. Our friend Michael, the English violinist was staying there (on an official capacity). He'd invited us up for a big party. Not wishing to be homeless at the party's end, we'd cleverly brought along a box. Very smart.
There were quite a few folks at the party, mainly buskers and other street artisans but I really can't remember who. I remember an English speaking person laughing about our box idea. "Why don't you stay in a hotel?" he'd asked me skeptically.
"No money", I said.
"Don't you have a tent?"
"No. But I do have a sleeping bag."
"Where do you normally sleep" he asked?
"Sometimes in the woods by a fire. Which is nice. Sometimes by the lake. That's nice but not as nice as the woods. Sometimes at girls' houses. That's very nice. Sometimes I just fall over. Sometimes I sleep in a box."
"Ha! A box", He laughed. "That's crazy. That's dumb. Dumb and crazy."
I also recall a tall German one man band who kept talking about how Germans could hold their beer and how he challenged us to a beer drinking contest. He was still muttering about it just as he passed-out while we were carrying him back to his camper van. I guess he really could hold his beer; he just liked to sleep while he was doing it. But we've all been there, haven't we.
Since our original box episode, the weather had improved but on this particular night, the rain was lashing down again. We were determined not to let it ruin our evening. Michael cooked up a blood red Harissa noodle soup and we stood around it like double dipping cannibals and slurped straight from the pot.
The rain turned torrential. Even as we wolfed down the food, the pot wouldn't empty. It kept overflowing like Manna from heaven till finally with strained taut bellies, we gave up. Somehow it seemed hysterically funny. In the end the party fizzled out. The fire place looked like a tide pool. The rain hissed like white noise. The pot was abandoned. The soup turned to broth and the broth turned to water. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We slopped off, drenched, to our box in the bushes.
There were two problems with this new box. First we'd set it up on a slope. This caused us to keep sliding down to the bottom. Secondly, this box was oblong shaped like a giant cornflake packet. There was no headroom. The night turned into an uncomfortable, grumpy and bad tempered experience.
When a familiar English voice came staggering by and asked apologetically, "Excuse me, is there room for one more?" He was greeted with three short answers. "F@@k @ff."
"Who's laughing noo ya plonker?" And "Get yer own box."
The absurdity of that situation did make us laugh though. People have sought room at the inn or asylum from politics but a voice on a stormy night asking, "Is there room for one more in your box?" That's definitely different.
For a few minutes he continued pleading his soggy case. "My ride into town hasn't worked out as planned".
I could picture him bent over our box speaking to it. It would have looked crazy to a passerby. "Oh please Mr. Box please let me in".
"Not by the hair of my chinny f@@@ing chin chin" scoffed the box.
He gave up and wandered off.
Our final box mischief happened spontaneously one Autumn evening in Annecy's deserted old town.
In High Summer, Annecy is a carnival. The streets and terraces are packed with sight seeing visitors. There is street music on every corner. Fire eaters on unicycles singe waiters' waxed moustaches. Gypsies walk barefoot over broken glass. There is copulation of strangers in chestnut groves and gravel car parks. Ensembling orchestras gather to tune up in the park every available sunset. Boat loads of tourists patrol the lake night and day. There are fetes and festivals and parades. In short, it's a monkey house.
Off season, Annecy presents a different face. By 7PM her streets are devoid of life. This Jekyll to Hyde quick change occurs in a blink: like someone suddenly switched off a hundred radio stations.
Anyway we were walking along, minding our own biz, when we saw a fair sized empty box beside a garbage can. It was about the size of something you'd pack a large badger in.
We didn't have much to do so we climbed in and waited till a passerby came within range. Then we burst out with a yell and scared the hell out of them. The only hint that there was life in the box was a few wisps of smoke and much muffled laughter.
Not satisfied with that drama level, we then moved the box into the centre of the pedestrian zone where it looked like it had been blown there. Anyone coming along the street had a good long time to casually view the innocent box. Plenty of time to register it as non aggressive. When we jumped out, it made it all the more unexpected. We took shots each at leaping out while the other watched the victim's reaction from out of sight. Sometimes we'd pop out like we'd been just sitting watching TV or something. We wouldn't even look at the passerby but they still got a shock. It was all great fun till one victim threatened to punch our heads in.
The non Summer months of Annecy were very boring.
I think it was shortly afterwards that we set off for Amsterdam.
There were no more cardboard box adventures after that. Though there was the umbrella tent.
Small Notes about Boxes.
I wonder if anyone ever booked into a campground and set up a cardboard box. I imagine that an A frame bivouac would be quite east to erect. If a complete slit was cut down one corner of a large square box, then the 2 end parts could be placed under the sleeping bag while the rest would form an A frame. How to close the ends would be a problem but at least there'd be roof and 2 layers underneath.
I imagine the family deluxe model might be trickier.
I went to the Bellingham museum yesterday. There were plenty of "Artistic Chancer" pieces on display. They say art is never wrong. Well some of the pieces on display were stretching the boundaries a bit. Just because it has a frame around it seems to give something the right to be called art.
Back when I was studying SYS Art at school, I took an old car tyre and painted a section of treads various colours. While the paint was still wet, I rolled it across a piece of paper. The treads left marks on the paper which I proudly framed. I showed it to my teacher who summed it up in a word: "Rubbish." The experience stuck in my mind. So as I perused the Bellingham Art Gallery and saw a piece that was created by someone who'd put graphite on a rubber ball and bounced it on a page to see what mark resulted, my old teacher's word came back to me. "Rubbish."
Another "Artist" had stacked a pile of used tea bags in a long box."
But amidst this disappointing flotsam, someone had constructed a cardboard motorbike. A moped actually. This piece stood out a mile to me. There was nothing random about it. Hands and mind had been at work here. This was humour and skill blended in the act of creation. I'd suspected maybe there was a real moped encased within it but I was informed there was not.
It all brings me back to my Alpine Cardboard house. Was it art? It took time and effort, and imagination to construct. Was it art? Was it art through desperation as opposed to art for arts sake? It was practical art. In that respect was it architecture? Whatever it was, it was garbage in the end. But was it rubbish?
Dec 12, 2009
Allied Arts Fair
December 12 2009.
It certainly feels like a long time since I did a solo gig. I kept if folky with the emphasis on the Scots / Irish material. It was a casual hour spent dusting off a bunch of obscurities and rare oldies. The Cow Cow Hicky song hadn't surfaced in ages. Same with Cluck old Hen. I don't think I'd sang Peggy Gordon since I recorded it about 3 or 4 years ago. I even threw in The Star of the County Down and, Donald Where's Yer Troozers.
Someone came up to me later and asked, "What's this word you sing, troozers?" When I explained it, he said, "Ah, trousers", and then went off muttering, "Trousers, troozers, trousers troozers".
Dec 5, 2009
James, Donald and Jan at the Allied Arts.
A relaxing hour of eclectic songs. Some Scottish, some Irish, some original and some odds and ends.
This new venue up the Meridian feels less cheap and dumpy than last years place on Cornwall. Quite cozy actually. The people were friendly. Store detectives have always been some of my best audiences.
Nov 28, 2009
The 3 Ds at the Allied Arts Fair.
A sociable wee gig playing my washtub with the 3Ds. It definately feels like Christmas is looming. Everything seems to suddenly bloom very red. "Commercial Red", should be an official colour. (Trimmed by Furry White of course). Do decorated Christmas trees grow from little light bulbs planted on the third Thursday of November?
But anyway, It was an agreeable afternoon. I think the shoppers enjoyed it too. It's always nice to sit in (or stand on one leg) with the 3Ds. One day I hope to be able to connect the titles to the music.
Nov 21, 2009
3Ds at the Chuckanut Brewery.
As ever a pleasant night "Tubbing" with the 3Ds. These days they should be called Dale and the Denneys.
The place was quite busy and the 3Ds', Irish, bluegrass style really blends perfectly into the atmosphere of a lively bar without ever being obtrusive. I'd brought my guitar along as an emergency back up because Dale had hurt his hand and I may have had to croak out a few tunes. But it turned out well in the end with Dale picking away on his mandolin as good as ever.
I always enjoy playing with the 3Ds. Wash tub bass playing is a hoot. Seems the less strings I have, the better I sound.
Nov 18, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
Green Frog November 18
A gale has been on the rampage these past few days. Feels like it's blown the days of the week out of order. The neighbourhood lost power around 7pm. A tree crashed down as we were setting off for the gig. It landed across the drive way.
Charlie didn't make it to the gig at all. He was up at Gooseberry Point, being pummelled by winds, floods, falling trees, plagues of locusts and evil spirits.
Jason never made it either. Not sure why. Perhaps he was up at Gooseberry Point, spooking Charlie.
So it was a skeleton crew of a Muddy Boots Band who blew into town. Me, Donald and Phil.
The gig went fine. We tried out a couple of new songs and some oldies. Dandelion made it's first appearance. Can't Keep Me was resurrected.
There were a few rusty moments but overall we were on good form.
There'd been another beer fest closing down when we showed up. Donald staggered out at the end looking a bit rough. Phil kindly gave me a lift home. (Thanks Phil).
The house was still standing when I got back. I'm not sure though if it was in the exact same spot where we'd left it. At least I had a home to go to.....
Oct 17, 2009
The Honeymoon. Bellingham. (The Almost Rowdy Town)
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
The Honeymoon is a cozy little wine bar tucked away in an alley off State Street. We'd played in there a couple of times before and always enjoyed it.
Previously we'd played it unplugged but this time we set up my wee P.A. system with the volume down low.
The space quickly filled up with what proved to be a warmly enthusiastic crowd. They (and a decent sound check) put us on good form. At times the atmosphere was almost rowdy. But it was a sophisticated kind of rowdiness. We breezed through the evening playing mainly our more laid back stuff. When I looked at the set list, I realized there were 16 original songs written on it. Quite a lot. The rest were mainly old spooky blues.
It had been raining all day long. Charlie had had to detour to avoid flooded roads as he drove into town from Gooseberry Point. He could easily have cancelled but he didn't. Thanks Charlie. Phil made a last minute appearance too which filled out our sound nicely. So with Donald on bass and with Jan yelling encouragement we rounded off a great little night around 10:15.
We didn't mean to finish so early. Someone had whispered to me in urgent tones that it was getting late. I had no idea what time it was. But I got the impression I was being told to stop. Unfortunately it turned out we'd packed up a half hour too early. A shame really as I think we had been enjoying ourselves. So apologies to the establishment for the misunderstanding.
In the end though, a good time was had by one and all. Lot's of wines and cheeses were consumed. We were even invited back.
Scotland is not a country renowned for its fine wines. We probably have few true wine connoisseurs but we do have plenty of Winos. The word "Wino" sort of sums up Scotland's view of the grape juice. It evokes dour images of bearded hoboes dressed in filthy trench coats, passed out in Glasgow Central train station.
I'd never really drank wine till I went abroad. For us, as young men in Scotland, wine was not about taste, it was about price and alcohol content. My first few encounters with wine in France involved refundable bottles (Cinque Etoile) with plastic tops. We'd open these bottles, toss away the lids and go for a stroll. We'd swig that rotgut down like it was cola though it tasted like cold black sugarless tea. Unidentified things floated in its depths and it left a sandpaper aftertaste on the tongue. The adventure generally ended with me passed out on the street: face down, palms up. I guess I wasn't so different from the Glasgow bums.
I remember when my old Scottish friend Julie came to visit me and Hil in Regensburg, Germany. We went into a supermarket to get some wine. Hil said "Let's get a bottle". I said,"Mmm, there's three of us. Better get two". Julie said, " Mmm, three of us. Shouldn't we get three?" So we got four.
Then we went for a pint.
Sep 30, 2009
Green Frog Acoustic Tavern.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
The Green Frog was hosting a beer fest when we arrived. This was the busiest I'd ever seen the place. Plenty of beer was getting swigged and the place was loud and boisterous.
As usual it took us a few songs to come to terms with our sound check. With 5 of us playing, it was all a bit murky. There were amps all over the tiny stage in no particular order. The Donald's bass amp was sitting right beside me though Donald was off stage across the breadth of the room away. Naturally he couldn't hear it from that distance so he had it blasting. That drowned me out completely. I actually jumped with fright when he played his first note. Charlie's amps were set up right behind him practically in his back pocket while at the back, Phil had his amp wired up to be heard over the bass. He was behind Charlie's amps so he probably didn't catch much of what Charlie was playing. Jason was in the corner right behind me with his drum kit. He needed to hear the bass amp to give him something to groove with. I couldn't hear him at all but I bet he could hear the bass. So it was a confusing evening. As we stood amid the amps, it felt like we were in a fortress of noise. Or maybe more of a barnyard of din. Amp-Henge. Remember The Bashstreet Kids? All par for the course I guess.
As usual nobody in the crowd seemed to notice. Perhaps the alcohol had numbed their hearing.
Despite the mania, there were some good moments through it all. The slower songs had better resilience against the ragged sound check we'd cooked ourselves into. Chuckanut went well. So did Blowing Down the River, Spoonful and Smokestack Lightning. They were all a little faster than usual but still had a groove. Most of our endings were chaotic but at least we nailed the ending of Annecy. As shows go, it wasn't bad. Jason last played drums with us way back last year some time. We'd had a quick practice in the cabin on the eve of this gig.
Once again it was dodgy sound issues that marred the evening for me (and probably everyone else). Though it wasn't as bad as last time, it was still very distracting. Bad sound makes a gig too much like hard work. I want to ride the sound waves not be drowned by them.
Bruce Hendler dropped in and he got up and sang Dylan's, "It Takes a Train to Cry". He's a big Dylan aficionado who just wanted to sing a Dylan song. He did pretty good and seemed to enjoy the experience.
But my lasting vision of the evening must be while we were playing Wang Dang Doodle. I looked over at Donald who was on a stool by the front door. He was playing his bass but was simultaneously checking IDs and taking money from customers as they came in. He was haggling and giving people change while still keeping that pounding riff going on. I don't think he missed a beat. That's multi tasking.
I guess the Green Frog beer fest was some sort of honourary Oktoberfest. Most people are surprised to learn that the real German Oktoberfest actually takes place mainly in September. Shouldn't it be called Septemberfest?
Over the years I guess I've been there about 4 times. It was always a laugh but gets a bit repetitive after a few visits.
The first time I went to Oktoberfest I was coming from Venice on the 6 P.M. train North via Innsbruck, Austria. Oktoberfest was the last thing on my mind.
Stepping off the train in Innsbruck was like looking up in New York, except it wasn't tall buildings but towering mountains I was gaping up at. They hemmed the town in: ominous, jagged and already streaked with snow.
Back in Venice I'd exchanged the 100 pounds Scottish that I'd swapped with John B in Annecy a few days earlier. I thought I was doing him a favour but at the Venetian exchange office I was informed that my Scottish money was only worth 60 pounds. I'd given John a thousand francs. Now it had shrunk to 600. Well I needed Lire quick if I wanted to buy a train ticket, so I accepted their miserly exchange rate. That made a further nasty dent in my cash.
I was only in Venice for the day. After wandering around for some hours, I decided it was pleasant enough but kind of boring. I felt I was strolling through a still life painting. There wasn't even a busker. The old town had a sense of neglect. Plaster had tumbled from buildings like flaky skin. I was surprised by the amount of graffiti that tattooed the crumbling facades. Litter blew around the streets like flocks of dust devils till it finally gathered in corners where it accumulated in drifts of wrappers and paper cups.
It was all a little disappointing. Compared to Annecy, Venice was a dump. Here was a great work of art whose colours had faded and washed out into the elements. A trampled Mona Lisa with boot prints across her face.
Eventually I found myself seated on the front steps of the train station entrance watching the crowds and boats. The Plaza there seemed quite busy. I heard lots of languages and accents all around me on the steps. The biggest excitement was when a busker dressed in a black vampire cape set up to perform but was quickly arrested. He was literally picked up and carried off screaming by the police who appeared from nowhere like pest control. I guess that explained the lack of buskers.
As 6 PM approached, the entire population who were seated on the station steps, all got up at once and got on the Innsbruck train. Obviously they'd found Venice as enlightening as I had.
I spoke to a few back packers and the conversations were all the same.
"When did you get here?"
"When are you leaving"?
In Innsbruck I waited all night in the station. In the morning I caught my connection to the tiny German town of Mittenwald. The train burrowed through tunnels and chugged around mountains, perilously tracing the edges of narrow cliff tops carved out of the alpine rock. Looking straight out, there was often no sign of the land we were traveling on: just blue autumn sky and a few nosey clouds. There was nothing but thin air unless I glanced nervously down where far far below was the lush green valley floor spread like a live page in an atlas.
I crossed into Southern Germany, with no border hassles. Some hitching later, I found myself in the ski town of Garmisch. It didn't seem to have a pedestrian zone so I didn't try busking.
As night fell I was tired and weary. Apart from the remains of my currently useless Scots pounds, the only money I had was a 5 mark coin that I guess someone must have dropped in my case sometime during the Summer.
I was walking out of town to sleep by the roadside when I passed a gas station (Tankstelle). I went in and with the 5 marks I purchased 4 beers. When the attendant handed me my change he eyed me with distrust. I smiled and was about to leave when I realized I had money enough for one more can of beer. He fetched it for me and shook his head as I left. I guess I must have looked kind of bedraggled, shifty and suspicious. So armed, I went merrily down the road till I came to some tennis courts. There was a picnic bench under a tree with a beautiful view of the mountains. I parked myself and cracked a beer. Oh boy it tasted so good. What a long day. But now here I was happy as a tramp. Sunset, beer, tobacco and what looked like a quiet corner to sleep.
I sat lost in my thoughts and drew a sketch of the mountains. It was a peaceful moment, blowing smoke rings towards the peaks and enjoying the beer and the alpine panorama.
So, why was I in Germany and where was I going, I hear you ask? Yes there was method to my wandering. I'd recently left France where I'd been hanging out. I'd taken a night train to Venice just for a change of scenery. I had no real solid plan, but on arrival in Venice as you now know, I quickly deduced that Italy was not compatible with a bum like me. So I'd immediately headed North in search of cheaper climes.
There'd been a girl I'd met in France who had given me her address in Schwabisch Hall in Germany where she was studying. She'd said that if I was ever in the neighbourhood, I should look her up.
That now looked like a very good idea.
Meanwhile back at the beer.
I'd picked up a free map at the gas station and I located Schwabisch Hall. It was a kind of out of the way place to get to. From where I was, there was no direct road. I'd have to go past Munich then west towards Ulm, then North till I could weave my way towards Schwabisch Hall. After that I had no idea what my plan was.
I must have been about half way through my 4th beer when I sensed something wasn't right. Surely by now I should be getting a bit groggy and sleepy. I flicked on my lighter and studied the can. By its light I could read the word Alcohol. So far so good but what was that word that preceded it? "Ohne" what did that mean? Only alcohol? But then under it written in French, the dreaded word, "Sans". Sans Alcohol. No alcohol!
I couldn't believe it. My only coin in the world and I spent it all on 5 cans of alcohol free beer. Now I realized why the tankstelle man had looked at me so oddly.
I was mad. I drop kicked the can across the tennis court then with a sigh of resignation I laid out my skimpy sleeping bag and climbed in. Goodnight Germany.
In the morning I was up bright and early. At least I didn't have a hangover. The day was mild and sunny but hitching was hopeless. I stood beside a noisy secondary road with a lot of construction work going on. The Autobahn was still some miles north so I walked and walked till finally a green Volkswagen bus pulled over. I was about to ask the driver where he was heading when 3 tall policemen burst out and formed a tight circle around me facing inwards and downwards. I felt like I'd suddenly fallen down a well.
"Wo hin gehen sie?"
"Wie lang bleiben sie in Deutchland?"
So many questions and I never understood a word of it.
Fortunately this routine was very familiar to me as in the past few years traveling it seemed I'd gotten frisked every second day. In fact I'd just been frisked in Italian a few days earlier and now I was being frisked in German. The words were different but the subtitles would have read the same.
When they realized I didn't speak German they switched effortlessly to English. "Palms against the car and legs apart". Electing to take the path of least resistance, I complied. My only worry was that they'd deport me for vagrancy without even drinking a proper beer.
They found my tobacco.
"Do you smoke hashish?"
"How much hashish do you smoke?"
"Open your back pack"
They put my back pack in the side door and we examined it together. Then they searched my guitar.
"Where do you buy your hashish?"
"Have you ever smoked hashish?"
"You look like you smoke hashish?"
Now they wanted to strip search me but there seemed to be some protocol about this. They couldn't do it in the middle of this construction and traffic jam.
"Step into the car".
I ducked into the side door and they all tried to fit in with me. The scenario was getting comical. Heads bumped and eyes were poked. I started to smile at the idiocity of the scene. They got as far as taking one of my shoes off then they kicked me out and drove off. The moral of the story? Always wear your socks for a week or two before a strip search.
What pissed me off most was that the van drove off in the direction I wanted to go.
Eventually I got a lift from a young man about my age. He was a cheerful kind of guy, driving to Munich to meet a friend he hadn't seen in years. He mentioned something about having lived in Peru. He was no longer sure if he'd even recognize his friend. They had arranged to meet in the Munich Bahnhof (Train station) that day at a certain place and time. They were then going to the Oktoberfest where I was welcome to join them. When I explained I was broke, he reached in his pocket and handed me a token. He said it was worth a half chicken and a stein of beer at the fest. "Well" I said, "looks like I'm going to Oktoberfest.
At the Bahnhof we met his friend and went straight to the Fest. It was quite overwhelming. A carnival with huge beer tents and lederhosened oompa bands pumping and oomping. Glazed eyed revelers stood on tables and sang. Big bosomed waitresses carried ten huge overflowing beer mugs at a time. We sat ourselves at a long wooden table and were soon chomping chickens and slurping huge frothing beers held in two hands. My companions were chatty and amicable and at the beginning spoke English. A second round of huge beers appeared. I thanked my new friends. Soon they drifted into speaking about old times in German. I spaced out and began to think about how to leave town. I decided that when that beer was gone, I'd head for the Autobahn but they insisted that I stay for one more beer. I really had to go but they had been hatching a plan. They wanted to find some hashish and wondered if I could help. I said I didn't know Munich very well but had heard that the English Gardens might be as good a place as any for a stranger to start looking.
By the time we left the October Fest we were all completely fried. We crumpled unconscious on a lawn near a subway station. I don't know how long we lay there and I can't even remember if we went to the English Gardens.
Next I recall it was night time and I was getting off a train in Ulm, a town some distance west of Munich. I turned left outside the main entrance. Then immediately turned left again. There was a motorway bridge. I crept under it without hesitation and was asleep instantly. I guess I must have changed some more Scottish money somewhere. I can't recall.
I never saw those two guys again. T'was an exciting day though. My first Oktoberfest.
For the sake of tying a knot in this story, I made it to Schwabisch Hall. It was a beautiful little medieval town, all timber beams and cobbled streets.
I met the girl I had sought and I stayed in her student house, communal kitchen thingy for a week or so. She was studying German as were all the people there. They came from all over the world.
There was an elderly Chinese man named Dr Woo. He was a traditional noodles, raw fish, sake and ping pong kind of guy but by the time he left town he was strictly Pizza, beer and cigarettes.
One afternoon he saw me juggle 3 potatoes and he asked "can you do this with eggs?"
I said "No, I'm not very good. Maybe if they were hard boiled, I'd try it".
He said "you must try it with raw eggs. I have some". He fetched three eggs from the fridge and insisted I juggle them. I said that I couldn't but he had an impish grin on his face. "Go go go", he said.
"But I'll break them".
"No problem", he laughed. "Have many eggs".
So with a sigh, I began tossing them in the air. 1,2, 3. Splat, splat, splat. Mr. Woo howled with laughter.
It turned out that the potatoes belonged to an American named Jim. He appeared later in the communal kitchen. We got talking about how he'd searched the town for cooking oil to cook his potatoes in. He'd had no luck and was annoyed and hungry.
"…So now I've got this big bag of useless potatoes", he says to me.
"Why don't you boil them" I suggested?
"Boil them? What do you mean?"
"Just stick them in a pot and boil them till they're ready"
"Boil them? You can do that?"
"Boil them" he mused. I could tell this was big news to him.
"Then just add some salt for flavor and there ye go."
"Salt? Do I have salt? How long should I boil them?"
"How will I know if they're ready?"
"Just poke them with a fork. If they cry out then they're ready".
"What about the water?"
"Make it into potato tea".
No. Just joking. Pour it out".
"Oh". Then he laughed and said, "That's so funny".
I doubt he understood a word I said.
He told me that he'd just been to the October Fest.
"Me too" I said.
"Boy that beer is powerful stuff", he said. "Just about felled me. Went straight to the head. I thought I was going to throw up."
"Jeez I know", I agreed. After three I was seeing double."
"THREE" he cried out in disbelief "I only had one!"
Sep 1, 2009
The Green Frog Acoustic Tavern.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
The Trouble with Tripling.
The sound guy was doubling as the bar tender and dishwasher. Or is that tripling? He came over as we were plugging in our stuff and asked us what we needed. He had a little note pad where he jotted a few things down. He looked like he was taking our order at a pizzeria. Which may have been of more use. I think we ordered too much of all the wrong stuff. Sadly after setting us up, he was too busy to alter his original mix. He did occasionally step out from behind his counter and tweak a knob on the mixer but we were lost in a sea of random notes. At one point I think Donald was playing a different tune than me. His bass had the weirdest sound check I'd ever heard from him. It was as if the entire bass end had been removed by suction. Each note sounded like clogs tap dancing on a wooden floor. I don't think my guitar was in tune all night. I wish I could blame that on the sound guy too but sadly that was completely my fault. I could hardly hear Charlie's guitar at all. But he seemed fairly oblivious and happy. Phil just kept his head down at the back, astride his electric chair. I can't read crowns very well, so I don't know what he thought. Slowly though we all began to realize that something was amiss. We were under attack from a shaky Steam Boat Willie sound check.
Fortunately the Mudman Mark Flanders dropped in and on witnessing our floundering confusion, came smartly to the rescue. When the sound guy returned from a world record cigarette and telephone break, Mark, fine politician that he is, shook his hand, had a word with him and the mix was thus improved slightly. If only congress moved so quickly. Thanks Mark. Thanks to the sound check man too. He really was run off his feet. I guess he did his best. Last time we played there though, he did a lot better.
But that's the trouble with tripling.
So it was kind of an indifferent gig. We thoroughly massacred Michelle Shocked's, Old Woman but did get to test drive Blackberry Pie and we tackled Creeps in a new key.
A harmonica player got up too and played along on a couple of blues tunes. His efforts got lost in the mix with the rest of us but he seemed to have had a good time.
I believe his name was Feron.
I guess we were kind of on a bit of a low when the gig was over. I counted the dollars in the spittoon tips jar. There were 12 bills in it. Eleven 1 dollar bills and one 100 dollar bill. Whoa….. What was that? Yip. A hundred dollar bill. Well that brightened up our night pretty quickly. For sure it's not a lot, but it's a hundred dollars more than what most bosses give us. I don't know where it came from (Maybe the boss) but we quickly exchanged it for four 25s. Thank you mystery donator. And if you're reading this, you are welcome to come to all our gigs.
Well that gig was yesterday. Right now it's September 2nd.
That date sticks in my mind every year…..
Once upon a time, as we all know by now, I was a bit of a wanderer; I travelled aimlessly across Europe with my guitar. Mostly I was alone in my misadventures but from time to time I was joined by my old friend and nemesis, John Brown.
As in all genuine artistic relationships, our friendship was a pendulum of musical highs and pointless punch ups.
We were in fact from the same tiny village in Scotland yet we never actually met till we were about 17 years old. Sometimes I think it might have been better if we hadn't crossed paths. We weren't good for each other.
When we began playing music together we had all kinds of delusions of grandeur. We dreamed we'd go to Chicago and make it big playing the blues in smoky bars. If we'd known that Chicago was a cold and windy city and that (more importantly) the legal drinking age was 21, we wouldn't have entertained that scenario so enviously. Fortunately John had some kind of criminal misdemeanor on his record which forbade him entry to the States. So instead we dreamed that we’d go to the continent and be discovered on some street corner by Bob Dylan himself, who would invite us on a world tour as his backing band. We’d live the rock and roll dream and be filthy rich. It was a compact little dream but friends told me we'd "end up in the klink".
Well, we got as far as the continent but Dylan didn’t show up. Thus began my career as a street musician. I was not destined to be filthy rich. Just filthy.
If there was an autobiography of John's life, the jacket notes would read, "Based on fiction". For sure John had a natural talent for exaggeration. He also wore the biggest shoes I have ever seen outside of a circus. He used to say, he could swim at over a hundred miles an hour. I don't think he exaggerated that one. Generally though, he wore steel toe capped work boots. Theoretically he could walk with great purpose underwater, which was handy in an ambush.
But maybe most of all, he was just a dreamer who craved a constant change of mentality with never a thought for the future. It was genetically impossible for him to save a penny overnight never mind to have anything as grand as a bank account. He would have been a hopeless squirrel. As for me, I wasn’t much better but I had a tiny grain of prudence which John often found unforgivable.
There came a time in Annecy when I hadn’t seen John since he'd returned to Scotland the previous year. Together we'd busked up his fare for a local Crolard Bus. I'd elected to stay on in Annecy for that Winter.
So one summer day in the alpine town of Annecy, some months after his departure, suddenly there was John, staggering towards me like a rubber tightrope walker down the Rue Royale. Blitzed out his head and dressed all in black in an under takers suit. Top hat and tails and a pair of steel toe capped industrial boots. His dented top hat looking like someone had pried it half open with a can opener. He carried a guitar case in one hand and a half empty bottle of five star vin ordinaire in the other as a counterbalance. We came face to face in the crowd and he grinned and greeted me with a cross-eyed, "ahright brer", and we passed the first of many bottles of that Summer.
Between passing bottles and pipes and passing out, we spent that tourist season playing music with a little street band we'd assembled the previous year with some fellow down and outs.
Artistically John and I worked quite well together. He was a natural born rhythm guitarist whereas I was more of a doodler. I don't recall any disagreement ever on who should play what. We were able to nudge each other's songs just enough to bend their shape from straight lines into more interesting depths. Usually all it took was a change of one chord or one lyric. Simple things that we'd never have noticed on our own. But really what I remember most fondly about our sessions was the helpless laughter we often descended into.
Unfortunately throughout that French Summer, our amicable musical ESP did not spill into our social lives. Outside of music, we would disagree on any topic. Much of it was plainly due to our overly indulgent homeless bohemian lifestyle. We had everything but a castle. But really the lesson here was that you should never travel, live, or work with your friends. Follow that advice and you’ll remain friends.
One evening, whilst chatting up two girls in Le Munich, we degenerated into a particularly drunken argument which culminated with a guitar being hammer-thrown into the lake. The girls wisely left us to it. The guitar never resurfaced but I always wonder if anyone ever found it. I recall we'd abruptly stopped fighting to watch it sink, as if it was the Titanic or an unexpected holy moment. Then I believe that we actually laughed.
By the end of August we were sick of one another. Thus once more, we were shortly to be going our own roads. I was heading to Italy and John was going to pick grapes near Lyon.
With the arrival of September, the tourists fizzled out and a sense of tranquility descended on Annecy. With new adventures on our horizons, a ceasefire was declared.
Well a friend of ours was driving a delivery truck through Switzerland to Lake Constance in Germany on business. He offered us a free trip there and back (1000km?) if we met him promptly at six a.m next morning at his house. We jumped at the chance. We knew we had no hope of being up at that ridiculous time, so we decided to stay awake all night. We wandered up into the forest. Then we meandered around town like ghosts, chain smoking till towards dawn we found ourselves perched on a wall beside the big "Visitation" church that overlooked Annecy. John asked me for a scrap of paper. I handed him my little sketch pad. For ten minutes he scribbled inside it till it was time to go and meet the truck driver.
Our trip was a disaster. We got strip searched at the Swiss border and then kicked straight back out of the country. Our driver drove off without us. We’d only gotten forty kilometers down the road. Now we had to hitch back to Annecy. We sat by the roadside, too weary and grumpy to put our thumbs in the air. Finally we decided to split up to hitch. I got a lift back by a driver who was the first person who ever mentioned the name Andre Brugiroux to me. By evening John and I were both back in Annecy where we'd started.
Yup. A great day out.
My memory of September though, is not really of that day. A few years later I was working on the Isle of Skye up in North West Scotland. One quiet afternoon, I was sitting in my room tinkering with a tune I had been working on. I’d found some lyrics in an old sketch pad. The words were not in my hand writing but they fitted perfectly with my tune. At the bottom of the page there was a signature. John Brown. September 2nd 1986. I glanced at the calendar on my wall. September 2nd 1988. It was two years to the day that we'd sat on the wall overlooking the dawn roofs of Annecy. I was bowled over as the memory rushed back. Such an odd magical coincidence.
Every time that date comes round now, I think on those two Septembers and I wait for something supernatural to happen, but it never does.
I haven’t heard from John Brown in a few years. We are still friends. I think he is on a fishing boat off the West Coast of Scotland. Maybe he’ll call me up next September 2nd. Maybe I'll call him. Maybe we'll have a jam.
Hell, maybe even Bob Dylan will show up.
…….September takes the rope
And then she takes the strain
How I hope we blow along
Till September comes again.
Aug 22, 2009
Paso Del Norte
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
A good enough gig but nobody there. Hugo wanted us to play till 1am and we obliged even though by midnight the Paso Del Norte was just about empty. Earlier, the place had been quite lively with some imaginative rubber dancing. The Muddy Boots were in good form but empty bars really sap the energy out of musicians.
Blaine seems to be such a ghost town. We arrived on the main street around 8:30pm and even then the streets were deserted. No pedestrians. No cars. Not a squawk. The view across the harbour was very picturesque but we had it all to ourselves.
We'd have been in Blaine at 8 but en route to Donald's house I realized I'd forgotten the bass amp. We had to go all the way back and get it.
Stephanie was filling in again on drums for us and she did a great job. We even managed to have a bit of a practice before the gig.
Not much to say about this night. In short: a long gig in an empty bar. Not too inspiring. There doesn't seem to be enough people in Blaine to fill a bar. On the positive side, we did get to try out some different material like Michelle Shocked's "Old Woman".
The Paso Del Norte had 3 TVs on. All were featuring different channels. The one directly ahead of me was showing an old "Saturday Night Live" show. We were singing "Tramper Ticket", when a comedy sketch began which involved a pregnant white trash girl in a bar trying to pick up some cowboy guy. Somehow the whole skit fitted perfectly with the song lyrics. Seems only me and Donald noticed but it cracked us up. A few minutes later the Saturday night Live news crew were dressed as Eskimos and dancing in perfect sync with Chuckanut Drive. They were so unbelievably in time that I dragged the song out a bit longer just so I could laugh more.
Aug 18, 2009
North West Washington Fair.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots
Stephanie was sitting in on drums for us again. She hadn't played or practiced with us in over a year. There'd been no convenient time to get together before this gig at all so we literally did the rehearsal in the car during the 20 minute drive north to Lynden.
We played at 4:30 for 45 minutes and all things considered I think Stephanie did a fine job. As did Charlie and Donald as ever. (Phil sat this one out). We played some originals, some blues, and a Scottish one. Unfortunately we'd had to leave a few songs out due to lack of practice.
The gig was quickly all over. With a pat on the back and a "Next please", we were suddenly on the road south again to Bellingham.
It was quite enjoyable though. The fair is very family orientated. There were rides and games and llamas and tractors and food and drink. Loads of everything you'd expect at a fair on a massive scale. Even a ferris wheel.
Was it a good gig? Not our best but it was definitely "fair".
Aug 14, 2009
Majestic Inn Anacortes
In the Beer Garden.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
By the end of the evening, this had turned into a great little gig, but by the time people began shaking their hips we'd already been going for three hours.
The trouble with this gig set up is that I think passersby thought that it was a private function. The Majestic Inn looks very formal: somewhat ritzy and a trifle aloof. I saw a lot of people come in and stand nervously by the gate as if expecting to be ejected at any moment by angry bouncers.
I saw the bbq chef trying to encourage them in but he was too far away from the gate. He explained later that they'd once had a sandwich board outside on the sidewalk advertising free live music open to the public. Unfortunately someone had stolen it. Maybe they misread it as a free sandwich board.
But to the gig…..
We began at 6 o clock. The garden was fairly empty so we played a half hour warm up set of our lesser well known stuff. An old friend of Charlie's from his early hippy days had come up with his wife to visit from Oregon. He had some pictures of them in a band back in the 60s. There was Charlie framed for posterity, looking very much a folky. He even had a mandolin in his hands. I didn't know he played. A man of surprises is Charlie.
After a break, we upped the tempo a tiny bit but still held back because by now it was only around 8 o clock. The garden had become a few bodies busier, but not much.
As dusk and alcohol settled in we began an extra long third and final set where we played all we had left. Sure enough, toes began to tap, fingers twitched and strangers snuck further into the garden.
But it was the first few catchy notes of Chuckanut Drive coinciding with the birth of the Bus Stop Shuffle that finally brought the crowd to the dance floor where they stayed for the duration.
The Bus Stop Shuffle is a dance invented especially for the shyest and least accomplished of dancers. (Such as myself). Its simple steps are based on my casual observations of bored peoples' actions at the bus up at Whatcom Community College. Here's how it goes. First slide your hands into your hip pockets with thumbs outside. Take one step forward. Lean slightly outward and look left. Then take one step backwards and check wrist watch. Replace hand in pocket. Repeat until song is over.
I guess this was a gig of two mentalities. The first half was played for a crowd who were either eating or digesting their dinner. The second half was for a crowd who had been on the town and had stumbled upon a good time. Then both camps united and it was all fun, fun, fun.
So I'd say that in the event of further gigs there, we need advertising in the papers and around town. Also a new sandwich board. Place it outside with an armed guard on duty for the night of the gig. Let the sandwich board clearly state that the garden is open to the public and that there is no cover charge. Kick off shouldn't be till about 7:30pm instead of 6pm.
Let's see what that accomplishes.
Another odd thing about this night was the date: August 14th. It occurred to me that it was upon this date many miles and Earth orbits ago that I set off from Scotland in search of nothing in particular. If it was fortune I sought then I can officially state that I definitely did not find that. Not fame either. I guess I found a whole pile of mixed up junk and underneath it somewhere I found some interesting jigsaw pieces of myself.
It seems to me that I have been penniless my entire life. My entire existence has been hand to mouth. Some moments have been slightly more affluent than others but the breadline has never been quite as distant as I would have liked. Not that I regret or hate my circumstances but I can safely say that money is not attracted to me.
I've never been happier though than when I was homeless and sitting under a shady tree on a lazy afternoon with nothing to do. As I write, I have my life savings in my pocket: one crumpled 20 dollar bill and a few coins. So right now life is pretty good. I guess I've never been richer than when I had nothing at all.
As a young man, I think my biggest dread of all in life was the thought of a meaningless job where I would get comfy and find myself still doing it 50 years later. Perhaps I've spent my life running away from that scenario. In Scotland there is a serious pressure on a 16 year old to get out and work till you drop. I remember an uncle telling me that if I couldn't find work that I should turn up at a building site and work for free. This would supposedly impress the gaffer so much that after 6 months he might hire me.
So I have always found my self lurking around the fringe habitats of various international societies. I have worked a bunch of part time jobs over the years, usually in bars, restaurants or building sites but I never committed myself to anything remotely permanent. My reasoning was that the terrifying 5 day work week was surely the curse (and maybe the saviour) of modern society. Who was the Smart Alec that worked out that by devoting five 8 hour days to a job earned a man the privilege of 2 days off? If a further 8 hours sleep and a 2 hour commute and two hours for cooking, eating and bathing, are subtracted, that only leaves about four scrap hours a day that could be squeezed in as leisure time. Keep the masses busy and they'll have no time to revolt.
The sacrifice to me was not my labour for a wage but my precious time on Earth for something I was never destined to have vast amounts of anyway. But still, for many people this system is a blessing. It offers the promise of a financial safety net, food on the table and the comfort of a routine. In those terms it is in fact a sweet deal which definitely beats freezing in a cave. At times it might even be better than busking on some desperate Winter corner. I guess it could be argued that the five day work week is in itself a form of social security.
Sometimes I wish I was greedier on the material front. I have never really wanted that much. It's a sharp stick of an existence. Security versus freedom. If you can balance both at the same time then you are a lucky spud. I think I was greedy for freedom. Freedom was my addiction and I still can't seem to shake it off. Music unexpectedly gave me a chance to enjoy liberty on a level I would not have imagined. In the end, freedom comes down simply to being self employed and working when you feel like it.
In many ways a street musician has far more freedom than a bar musician. A bar musician expects more comforts. In return he has dates and schedules and must sacrifice his time. A street musician's schedule is dictated by thirst, hunger and weather. Winter and Summer are vastly different seasons for a street musician but for a bar musician there is often only night or day.
It's not that street musicians love hard times. Winters can be horrible but a trip to Spain is just a hitch hike away. I'm a lot older now than I once was. Tales of hard times on the road are great for a laugh once they've safely passed. I think most of my busking tales are now done.
Was it Andre Brugiroux who said, "The road is just a street"? I'm not sure but I have come to believe that "The Road" is in fact a roundabout.
It was probably Mr. Springsteen who best summed up playing music for a living. "Beats working".
It was raining torrential in the West of Scotland that August night. My brother Gerry was on his bed reading the newspaper. He looked up just as I was closing the door and said, "See ye in 2 weeks".
I was traveling light: a tiny backpack containing a sleeping bag, some underwear, a spare T-shirt, a pair of socks and a toothbrush. In my pocket I had 20 pounds from a welfare check and some money from selling half my scratchy record collection. I also had a little guitar. Hardly a toy. My good friend John Bee was bringing a much larger backpack. It had a metal frame and a million pockets. He too had a cheap little guitar. I guess in the back of our heads we must have been planning to busk at some point.
Two buses, a ferry and a day later, me and John Bee, were in Calais, France, trying to hitch a lift vaguely South in search of grape picking work. But the first car to stop was heading North into Belgium. Calais was flat, sandy and desolate with no sign of the actual town. An old lady trundled by on a clunky bike. We jumped into the car.
The driver was a black man from Louisiana whom we'd met earlier on the boat. His car was some kind of Porsche. His name was Dave. He was in the US army and he was stationed in Prum in Germany. His car tore off up the road like a rocket.
The windows were open and the wind whipped noisily through the car like a gale. "How fast can this thing go", yelled John in awe?
"Hell Ah don't know. Jist bought the thang", laughed Dave.
Dave dropped us off near St Vith in Belgium where the road suddenly changed into a motorcycle race track. We camped there a few days. There seemed to be a big racing event going on. We didn't know it, but during our first night there, a fence had been erected around the area. We were in the inside. Thus we had gotten ourselves accidental free entry. We wondered freely around the bike pits for a couple of days till one morning we were asked for our passes. We were then swiftly booted out.
We found ourselves hitching through some picturesque rolling hills on one lane roads where we got a lift from an Asian man who stopped at a farm full of rabbits and he did an operation on a sheep's hoof while we watched. It was quite gory. Blood was spilled. Back in his car afterwards I said conversationally that I'd once wanted to be a vet. He said, "I'm not a vet".
Later we found ourselves in the little town of Coo. The scenery had turned a bit alpine which was a bit unexpected. I'd never heard of any Belgian highlands. We lazed in the town square in the late afternoon. Some local kids were pouring washing up liquid into the fountain. Soon clouds of soap suds were blowing all over the town. By now after a few days on the road, we were getting fairly ripe. I guess we could have used a few of those soap suds.
By twilight we were on another deserted highway with dark forest pressing in all around. We were just plodding along looking for some shadow to sleep in. Soon the Milky Way was spread out spectacularly above us in our ribbon of visible sky. We had no idea where we were. Then a van pulled over. We dived in and explained where we wanted to go. The driver spoke no English. We tried our hysterical French. "Je cherche travaille" and "Il est quelle heure?" Comment tu t' appelle".* He got his map out and pointed here and there till we figured out that he hadn't stopped for us at all. In fact he hadn't even seen us. He was lost too. We piled back out and the car did a u turn and disappeared. We plodded on. Clueless, in more ways than one.
(* I look for work. What time is it? What is your name?)
A while later we heard a moped approaching. We'd stopped walking and were just loitering aimlessly in the leafy shadows. The moped came closer. We stuck our thumbs out jokingly as it passed but it slowed and spun in a wide arc and stopped beside us. The driver was a girl about our age. She introduced herself as Lolita. We asked her where Luxemburg was. She said it was all around us. She told us there was a small town just down the road and offered to bring us there on her moped. So one at a time she took us into town. John went first. Being more experienced with motorcycles than I was, he shouldered my small pack and took a guitar in each hand. Off they zoomed with a whoop. When Lolita returned about 20 minutes later, I hoisted John's pack onto my shoulders. I swear that at first I couldn't get it off the ground. It was so heavy that it felt like someone had nailed it down. I had no idea what was in it. Perhaps a slab of tarmac. Anyway I heaved it on my back and staggered to sit astride the little moped. The poor little thing spluttered and gasped as we set off, involuntarily wheellying down the road, heading for darkest Luxemburg.
Shortly, we came screaming downhill like a runaway hairdryer into the sleepy little village of Goovey. Lolita was steering crazily, trying to keep the moped upright. Suddenly directly ahead there was an abrupt left hand turn and a looming high wall. We didn't turn as abruptly as the road and my right shoulder slammed into the wall even as I was already leaping backwards off the wobbling moped. I found myself clattering wildly down the street, bouncing erratically off the wall, while Lolita wrestled her jelly bike back to her will. We all came to a halt outside a bar. John was waiting and he was doubled over laughing. Quite an entrance. We must have woke the whole country. Welcome to Goovey.
With tearful goodbyes to Lolita and her friends, we tumbled blearily out of that bar in the wee hours and went to the train station. Via Luxemburg City we arrived in Metz, France. I recall that as we crossed the border from Luxemburg to France that John had had a piece of very illegal hash in his tobacco tin. A roving band of French border guards appeared from nowhere. They ignored everyone in the busy carriage except me and John. They put our hands up against the wall, legs apart and frisked us top to bottom. At one heart stopping point a guard held the tobacco tin in his hand whilst groping in John's jacket pocket. He examined various pieces of scrap paper then stuffed the tin back in the pocket without opening it. Then they swarmed off. That could have been the end of our wee trip right there.
We found ourselves heading slowly South. Hitching was diabolical. We weren't really sure where we were. At some point a map came into our lifes. A map is a useful thing. Each new day we passed through a number of its towns. Macon, where John left his hat in a car and by a miracle got it back. Dijon, Langres, and Vaucaleurs where the natives spoke in awe of an eerie cult figure known as John Dark.
In the middle of one balmy night we came into Lyon, the second largest city in France. The Autoroute was hemmed in by high rise apartments. Our ride sped between them like a tiny boat caught in the rapids of a canyon. I remember a window blind not 2 lanes distant being lifted and 2 frightened eyes peering out. We flashed past as it snapped shut. Then our road flowed underground like a vast rumbling torrent, directly below Perrache Train Station where we were spat out into the bowels of Lyon.
By now we really were francless. Busking time had arrived. The sun had just risen and its heat was instant. We decided to split up and see if 2 pitches were better than one. So I went into town where I found a pedestrian zone. I guess I did my very first official solo busking pitch there. It was terrible. Talk about stage fright! I was like a deer in the headlights. I was terrified but I survived. John seemed to have taken to it a bit easier than me. We stayed there for about 2 weeks and fell in with a band of English Dickensian rogues about our age. We busked on the underground trains and slept in the park or below bridges. But Lyon was too big for us. Sleeping rough was too dangerous. John had his hat stolen off his head but others weren't so lucky.
It took us 3 days to hitch out of Lyon. Between us we'd busked up a 200 franc nest egg. Things were looking good and we had no regrets about leaving Scotland. We lit a fire one night near the roadside where I ceremonially burnt my old shoes. They'd been falling apart anyway so I'd bought a pair of really cheap sandshoes.
We finally got out of town and got stuck half way to the Alps in a place called Coirainne. A couple returning from India picked us up and drove us to Aix les Baines.
We did a little busking and camped outside a camp ground where we sneaked in and used their showers and toilets. Till one morning the boss discovered us and made us empty our pockets.
Now we were flat broke. But as we were being yelled off the premises, a camper came up and kindly gave us 50 francs. A gesture that was much appreciated.
So we found ourselves walking along a pleasant country road. We came to a crossroads where a small river bubbled under a quant little stone bridge. It was decision time. Where to now? Having used our map up as toilet paper with each passing mile we now had only 2 squares left. I guess that ruled out going back. I studied the tattered remnants. On the one square was Annecy. On the other was Grenoble. I disappeared behind a bush where after an intense period of meditation, I returned but Grenoble did not. As I mentioned earlier, a map is a useful thing. We were off to Annecy.
A car pulled over as I returned to the roadside. I swear Albert Einstein was at the wheel. He drove us all the way to Annecy and on the way there we discovered that he really was a scientist. He dropped us on a corner near the pedestrian zone. We didn't know it then but our fortunes were bound up with Annecy for the next few years.
From time to time after that day we'd run into Einstein. He always had a smile for us. He'd shake his head and laugh. I think he found it hilarious that he had picked us up and set us down where and when he did: like he'd set in motion a Big Bang Theory kind of event. Well maybe it was more of a random fizzle than a huge boom. But in youth, nothing seemed important but everything was relevant.
Aug 2, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
La Bella Strada. Arts Fair Bellingham.
This was a great morning and a thoroughly enjoyable gig. But before I tell you about it, I want to waffle off track about what makes bad gigs bad.
Though I love playing live music, I am amazed how often a gig can be more negative than positive. Or at best a "so so" experience. The most common failure is the bad sound check. But there are often other factors such as empty bars and grumpy bar owners who seem to think that live music should be a miracle cure for their ailing business. And when it doesn't help, they blame the musician. It's like blaming a doctor for the fact that you have a terminal disease. Which isn't his fault unless he did actually give it to you directly.
Too often, musicians and artists must bare their souls to the wrong people. Bar owners are not necessarily music lovers, they are business men. They see music as a commodity. Usually it's the people around the musicians who are making the profits. People selling instruments, people renting equipment, selling records, making movies etc.
I believe I mentioned before that if a musician is making money, you can be sure there is someone in the background making a whole lot more.
So why do we do it? Sometimes I think we're afraid to stop. We fear that if we cease to play, then we lose part of our identity. All those years of practicing and learning are engrained into our being. if we were to forget it, it would be like a slow leak in a boat. Imagine a musician who knows 500 songs: that's like memorising a novel by heart. Well that isn't easy info to retain for years without reciting it regularly. No one likes to lose pages from their book.
What are musicians looking for? I don't know. But me, personally: I'd just like to be able to make a humble living doing what I enjoy. It would be nice to tour through some scenic places and play music with friends in venues to audiences who are there to enjoy themselves.
Not that much to ask really. I don't have to get rich and famous. I just need to get by.
Throw in a bit of hiking, camping and skeching and I'm happy as Clamland. I guess I'm really still a bum at heart.
Anyway. Please forgive that little detour. Let's get back to the gig.
This was a great day. The outdoor stage was erected at the end of Cornwall Avenue. Stalls displaying local artists work were set up the entire length of the street. The sun shone. Kids were chalk painting on the sidewalks and there was even an Art Bar.
Scott Peterson and his assistant Bruce Hendler did an excellent sound check and it was a pleasure to play. We did a tight hour and a half of our greatest hits. In fact it was such fun, we could have played longer.
As we were the opening band of the day, there wasn't a huge crowd but there was a pleasant atmosphere. Those folks who sat around did seem to be quietly enjoying themselves. We were done by 12:30. Who would have thought people would be grooving to Smokestack Lightning at that unearthly hour? In fact the organizer said that she wished she'd booked us as a later afternoon band. She'd had no idea what we sounded like. I think it was Beth at BIMA who had suggested us. Thanks Beth.
I'd been a bit apprehensive about this gig because my guitar has been so temperamental recently. It's been crackling and distorting at some gigs yet perfectly fine at others. I think it is allergic to certain PA systems. Whatever the problem is, it wasn't a problem today. In fact we had a great sound which was inspiring. I think we were all on good form. Maybe the morning gigs suit us better. Just being able to play and be assured that we're sounding good to the listeners is like luxury. Or to be able to hear each other clearly too is as rare as monkey tusks. As rare as a smile from Tree. An eye-witness reported that he was seen smiling during this gig.
Anyway, today was a very positive experience which restored my sometimes shaky faith in live music.
What makes a good gig? Good soundcheck. Monitors. Low profile bar owners or organisers. Pay. Good music. Receptive crowd with a high percentage of couples or women. (seriously, almost without fail, it is always women who instigate dancing.) Good musicians. Alcohol and good luck.
Aug 1, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
Bellingham Saturday Market.
This was such a short notice affair that we couldn't rouse any drummers from slumber. So me, Charlie and Donald set up with my little PA at 1pm and played about an hour and a half. It was just our luck that the one time they wanted us to play loud, my PA system refused to be cranked up. I don't know what is going wrong with it but it distorted the vocal mics while my temperamental guitar seemed fine.
The gig was fair enough but no great shakes. We played about an hour and a half on a stage area outside the Boundary Bay across the road from the actual market. Thus with the low volume and distance issue, this gig got walked past by a lot of people going somewhere else. But I was pleasantly surprised to see some faces from the Anacortes gig show up. Unfortunately, they went into the Boundary Bay for lunch.
Donald tweaked away at the PA for the whole gig but could not get it to behave.
Not to worry. I'd say it was a good little gig but ultimately an anonymous performance.
Jul 31, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
Anacortes Majestic Inn.
Nice place. Immaculate and a bit more upscale from our usual haunts but the staff were helpful and very friendly and seemed very down to earth.
We played out in their manicured beergarden on a permanent stage built of stone.
The crowd were a bit sparse but quite chatty and sociable. They were an older crowd and they seemed to be mainly there to enjoy the comforts and healing magic of the inn.
We were scheduled to play 4 hours. That's a lot of music. Understandably some of our repertoire was a bit rusty. Most notably, Wang Dang Doodle and Comes a Time which went way off track.
But in general we got most of it right. We were fed, watered and fairly payed for our troubles.
Anacortes seems quite a pleasant town. On all my previous visits, I'd been en route to the ferry or heading down Whidbey Island. People there (Anacortezians? Cortezones? Tezies?) were talking about "Island Time". Which seems to be a slower pace that approximizes and decelerates the time zones around it. A definate "Manana" attitude. I can live with that. From the outside though, this building didn't quite ooze good gig vibes. But it turned out to be a good night.
The place kind of reminded me of a gastehauf I played years ago in Bad Kissingen. The Izzy Skint Band were in one of their latter day formats. Me, Rick and Roman were the featured artists this night. Izzy Skint had changed their style a bit since their early more riotous days. Peter, who had sang most of our songs had headed off to Spain and Rick had banned the use of capos from all songs. He also banned B minor chords from the song, Knocking on Heavens Door. And I quote;" There is not, never has been and never will be a B minor chord in Knocking On Heaven's Door", unquote.
Thomas, the drummer had also disappeared somewhere. He had the most unfortunate last name I'd heard in a while. Fischdick. "Oh come on", I hear you say! Yes indeed. Thomas Fischdick. No wonder he disappeared. Actually I hear from Thomas now and again. I believe he is living and still playing quite happily in Vienna. He was an excellent drummer. I don't know what he was doing with izzy Skint.
So the band needed reshuffling. Roman was borrowed from his band the Travelling Beerbellies and we didn't bother with drums. Previously I'd been the bass player but now I was suddenly elevated to guitarist and singer. In this new esteemed position, I found myself attempting (and failing) to sing ridiculously inappropriate songs for my limited vocal range. Run to You by Brian Adams comes to mind. What were we thinking? And another one; Run Like the Wind by some guy called Christopher Cross. He sounds like a war medal. I should have been awarded one too for going beyond the call of duty. Either that or I should have been shot. We certainly played some serious crap. Izzy Skint had been a semi punk Irish folk band of dubious musicianship but good craic who had a reputation for just being nuts. Now we were just going through the required motions as we waited to fizzle and die. We'd not cry on our death beds. We'd just say,"Thank f@@k.
Rick had a strict rehearsal policy that he stuck to religiously: Namely, that the band will practice but once in its lifetime. Whatever gets played at that one and only rehearsal is the set for the duration, no matter what. Hence the pile of slop that I was forced to dredge through every gig. To be honest though we did play a few good songs that I enjoyed. None spring to mind though.
Well we turned up at this Gasthauf place and the crowd had paid to see a different band who had cancelled. I don't think the management had broken the news to them yet. They were expecting reels and jigs and bluegrass music. Instead, they got me, Rick and Roman. Most of the crowd were middle aged Bavarians dressed in their traditional Sunday bests. Ruddy cheeked and plump as dumplings, they sat at two long banquet tables and glowered at us as we set up.
We found ourselves outside pre gig, muttering and whispering. I thought Roman was going to pee his pants in fright. Rick strutted about sniffing and saying, "I knew it man, I knew it. We're doomed."
I racked my brain in desperation and had to agree with Rick's analysis: we were indeed gef***ked.
When we were set to play, the Bavarians hushed one another to silence and I timidly said hello.
In fairness, they did listen to us for a few songs then the talking volume rose and we began to get drowned out. The boss scowled from the kitchen. It was time for some drastic action. I knew a bunch of Irish stuff so I just started singing it acopella. That got their attention and suddenly they were all engaged again.
At one point I was singing Jock Stewart and I got to the line, "I took out my dog and him I did shoot", when a little Jack Russell dog leapt out of the crowd and started snapping at my ankles. The crowd thought it was the funniest thing ever. They were roaring with laughter.
By break time we were all feeling more relaxed and relieved. Taking to the stage again I remember saying, "Wir sind …Verrucht." The crowd lapped it up and guffawed heartily. For non German speakers "wir sind verrucht" translates as, "we are mad." I must have been getting the hang of the German language stuff. The joke being a play on words verucht (mad) and zurueck (Back). I think it was funnier too because I believe the audience had quickly deciphered that we were not the Irish band they'd hoped for but were doing their best. They found our struggles to come up with appropriate songs hilarious.
Afterwards the boss was happy that the crowd were happy but he was disappointed that we weren't the complete authentic Irish band he'd hoped for. Rick was blind drunk by that stage and waffled away to the poor guy for about an hour about the pros and cons of Irish music in a post war economy. "Hey man, it's prostitution of the arts."
We were given rooms for the night. I went to bed with a bottle of beer. Rick and Roman went out looking for some entertainment. They ended up in some disco and by 4am Rick was standing gloriously naked outside on his balcony, addressing the town with an old Hitler speech. Something about "Ein reich, ein volke, ein land." A man a plan, a canal, Bavaria.
Stepping out of the Irish scene we found an unexpectedly enjoyable gig. Though we were never invited back. So Anacortez was a brief step outside of the Bellingham scene. They asked us back too. In fact some of the crowd even showed up in Bellingham the next day.
I must say though that Bavarians have consistantly proven to be good audiences. I lived and worked in the Irish pub scene for a long time. Those gigs payed low wages but were regular work. Most of those Irish pub gigs were fairly average: probably because I'm an average musician but they definitely weren't very spiritually rewarding. Outside of that bubble of gossip lay the continent of Europe. Here lay the international cultures I'd left home to discover. I'd never even heard of an Irish Pub till I met my good friend Peter Jordan from Dublin. Once I got in on that scene it was easy to become musically complacent. Most of those gigs fell into the same category of blandness but whenever we ventured away from the Irish circuit, this was when the real stimulating gigs were to be found.
Jul 10, 2009
Lummi Island Arts Festival.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
I'd forgotten we'd played this gig. Not that it was particularly forgettable, it was just that I went home afterwards and we (me, Hil and Ronan) started packing for our trip out to Montana.
The gig went fine. I always enjoy going over to Lummi Island. It kind of reminds me of my time in Scotland working out on the Isle of Skye. The Ferry trip over was about the same length of time too. A quick five minutes.
On arrival at the gig site, even before we were unpacked, a woman came up saying, "You look like you need a broken clarinet." A beer would have been better but she only wanted 50 cents for it, so I took it. We haggled over the price and I talked her up to a dollar. She also had an ancient yellow racer bicycle for sale. It was so heavy, I could have sworn it was constructed of granite. I didn't buy that. I'd have needed a squad of workmen to carry it home for me.
We set up and played a half hour then there was a brief outbreak of Highland dancing. When that was over we played another hour and departed.
All in all it had been a happy family day out. We'd perused the stalls, walked on the beach, checked out the beer garden, sampled the food and bought some junk.
Next stop Montana. Or thereabouts. Hil's Mother and sister were off to Europe to cruise the Mediterranean, so Hil wanted to visit them in Montana before they headed off.
Monday morning, we set off down Interstate 5. At Seattle we turned left on to the 90. At the Columbia River in Vantage we picnicked up at the petrified tree monument park. From up there we could look across at the wild horses statue on the far side ridge of the canyon. Then on we went across treeless Eastern Washington and into Idaho, We spent the night in a motel behind a dive bar in St Regis.
We'd also stopped earlier in the town of Wallace for dinner. Strangely, a few years ago I snapped a random picture in some anonymous little town we were passing through. I don't know why. Anyway it turned out it had been Wallace. Thus we had an unexpected moment of déjà vu and we found a great playground there for Ronan to enjoy. All the stuff was made up from old mining equipment. It was sort of half playground, half museum exhibit.
Wallace boasted 2 motels; both apparently owned by the same guy. One was far too expensive and the other looked rancid. So though it was getting late, we decided to drive on.
The room in St Regis was compact, but cheap and clean enough. Ronan slept on his camping mat on the floor and despite the oppressive heat we slept well enough. Before we turned in for the night, we relaxed on the creaky old cowboy deck and had a midnight picnic of Bread, cheese and fresh Rocky mountain air.
Last time we'd been in Missoula we'd had Huk the dog with us. Missoula still had its big M on the hill. We'd climbed up there once with Huk. This time we stayed in the lower elevations where we tracked down another play park for Ronan to climb about in. We realized traveling with a little boy wasn't much different than traveling with the dog. Instead of looking for walking trails en route we now looked for playgrounds.
"What does the M stand for", I asked Ronan. "Monkey" he said.
We drove past a couple more sweltering towns. One had a big F on the hill. I had a few suggestions what it stood for but kept quiet.
We arrived in Bozeman the following evening. The heat was ferocious: a merciless arid fury that pounded down like a red hot sledgehammer on our dehydrating craniums. Shade could be auctioned in this state as prime real estate.
Hil's Mother lived up near Peet's hill, near the big water tower. From up there we could look across Bozeman and the see the whole valley. To the North there was a Hill with a big white M near the top. I was expecting a B but there wasn't one. So I guess M stood for Montana. Or M for mountain.
Before we'd even reached Bozeman, our car CD music selection was just about exhausted. We noted too that that same country singer was still haunting the radio airwaves after all these years. So for stretches of time we drove in thoughful silence. Hil had told me she'd had a musical education on road trips with her parents. As an impressionable kid, she'd been introduced to John Denver and Simon and Garfunkel on those outings. Now she hoped to give Ronan the same "captive audience meets omnipotent front seat D.J." treatment. So far, he hadn't really shown much interest in music. His teachers at school all say he loves to sing but I guess he doesn't bring it home from school. He has actually made a CD with his classmates. His teacher, Steve, recorded the kids singing a bunch of children's songs. So at the age of 5, Ronan has already released his first album. He's way ahead of me.
First up in the car stereo, he got the usual kid's stuff about animals jumping on beds and honking in farm yards but then as night fell he graduated onto Tom Waits. That was too much too soon. So we eased back a bit on the scary pedal. It was time for Simon and Garfunkel. "Hello darkness my old friend…." Aha. That got his attention but it only held it for about 3 songs. Off went the CD player. Down went the windows.
We spent the next few days enjoying the town and surrounding valleys. Hil did some cycling (I even did a little too). We did some hiking but it was really limited by the heat. We visited a few lakes and went to the Museum of the Rockies. We went to the Bozeman Ale Works Bar and to The Leaf and Bean coffee shop where I'd played a gig a few years back. We also found a swing park for Ronan to enjoy where he had his first real tree climbing experience.
And of course we went to Yellowstone National Park where despite the vast herds of free ranging tourists, it wasn't quite as claustrophobic as I'd expected. We managed to find a few quiet corners for picnics. We saw some buffalo, some geysers and some elk. We didn't see Yogi but we did see a black bear with cubs.
Yellowstone though feels more like a safari park than a National Park. I guess when the busy loop roads are left behind, the sense of wilderness intensifies. For me, the best corner we found was up in the North East in the Lamar Valley. Here was a huge wide valley with a slow moving river lazing through like it wasn't going anywhere in particular. As far as the eye could see, it was devoid of tourism except for 2 fishermen. We sat on a rock and while Ronan skimmed stones, we had a coffee from our flask.
The return trip back to Bozeman from Yellowstone was long and hot. I looked through all our CDs and put on the only one we hadn't played yet. From the first note, a slow unstoppable smile spread like an incoming tide across Ronan's face. I knew he was hearing magic. The song? "It's a Long Way to the Top if you Want to Rock n Roll", by AC/DC. From there it was but a small jump to "TNT". Within 45 minutes, Ronan's musical education was complete. The transition to Neil Young's "Live Rust" would be child's play.
I guess by now I've been in this region of the States several times. The first time was back in 1994 when we'd come over from Regensburg with Michael and Zigi. We'd stayed with Hil's cousin Gardener and family on Malcolm Forbes' ranch of all places because Gardener had gotten a job there as a caretaker. We'd had a great trip, spending most of our time on the south side of Yellowstone, in the Tetons and around Jackson Town. I remember a great hike to Phelps Lake where we saw a moose. We also got stoned one night and went hiking around the Forbes property in the moonlight. "Reckon you'll scare up some big critters", said Gardener. He had quite a sense of drama. We did scare up a large lumbering shadow which shuffled off grumbling across our path. It may have been a bear. It may have been a drunk. It may have been Malcolm Forbes. I don't know. We forded that river twice in the dark. It was only knee deep but it was wide and deceptively powerful. One slip and a person would be tumbling head over heels down stream. We braced ourselves against the current as we crossed using branches as improvised walking sticks.
Back on dry land, I remember some plovers on the pebbly shores. I guess I'd accidentally flushed out the mother bird and she ran off to one side. I walked in the opposite direction till she came and stood in front of me again. Then I'd repeatedly walk away from her in the opposite direction (the same distance) till each time she grew closer and closer as I neared her unseen nest. It took me about 10 minutes of zig zagging till the Mother bird was standing a mere arms length away and I was suddenly looking down at her tiny family of plover chicks. They scattered off with their heads down in all directions looking like a troop of feathery pebbles. Their fight or flight distance wasn't far though and I knew that their mother would soon have them rounded up again. It was kind of magical. Such perfect camouflage on the run. Such tiny wildness. I stroked one on the back of its head then I left them to regroup from my intrusion.
Between Jackson Town and the Teton Park entrance back in 1994, there was a bar called Dornan's. I don't know if it's still there. I recall it had huge windows that looked out at the magnificently in your face, Teton Mountains. On Tuesday evenings, Dornan's had what was known as a Hootnannie. Here in Bellingham we'd call it an open mic night but a Hootnannie does sound like a lot more fun. Somehow I got talked into playing a slot. Typically it turned into one of those long hanging around nights that involve too much pre-gig smoking and drinking. By the time I went on I was having trouble seeing my guitar. I think I was having trouble standing up too.
I vaguely remember playing a Leadbelly song then I staggered off babbling into the Wyoming night. Luckily the crowd seemed as wasted as I was. Sure, what else would they be doing out in the Wild West?
Over the years, I've collected a lot of fond memories of that valley: camping, white water rafting, hiking, sketching, playing music, encountering wildlife, drinking, walking with Huk the dog, hanging out with Nina and Peter. It makes me sound like a real outdoor sports guy but I'm not. I feel no urge to scale peaks or hunt or hurtle down hills on snow boards or skis. I am an outdoor guy but without the sport part. I'd rather sit under a tree than a roof. I'd rather sketch a moose than shoot it. But that's just me.
I don't know what Jackson Hole is like now. We didn't go there this time round. I hear it's become all private property and very elitist. I guess it was always heading that way. Shame.
Nice place though. A nice place to be Rich. Can't blame wealthy folk for moving there. The Tetons are a spectacular back drop to any postcard. They'd look good in Paris.
I remember years ago, watching an old movie about the Lewis and Clarke explorers who mapped much of the North West and traveled all the way to the Pacific. Charlton Heston was in this movie. He may in fact have been on the original expedition too. Each scene from their departure by canoe (Missouri?) to their arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River showed the same backdrop scene of the Teton Mountains. No matter if it was South Dakota, Wyoming or Oregon. That's artistic license I guess. The world was bigger in the 60s. Didn't Shakespeare write about the dark stormy mountains of Denmark? The world was even bigger back then.
I always thought it was fortunate that Lewis and Clarke had such photogenic names, especially as they named a bunch of places after themselves. Imagine instead of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, it had been the Sparky and Fleishman expedition. There'd be towns like Sparkytown and Fleishman's pass. Not quite so poetic really.
Meanwhile back now in 2009 Bozeman, we decided that before we left town we had to climb up to the big M on the mountain side. We weren't sure if Ronan would be up to the task. At the bottom we spoke to a hiker who said there was an easy way up and a hard way up. We opted for the easy way up which apparently offered more shade. A few minutes later we realized we'd accidentally taken the more difficult route. We were making good progress though so we decided to forge ahead. But the terrain steepened and became more scree than solid. Ronan began to tire so we set ourselves small goals and stopped at every 20 metres or so under whatever shade we could find.
Each time we stopped and looked down, it became more apparent that the easiest way back to base camp was to reach the M and then descend by the easy path. We staggered on. Poor Ronan was such a wee trooper. He was obviously suffering. His legs were tiny and sometimes the hillside was so steep he was using his hands and feet. I had to walk behind him in case he fell and just kept tumbling all the way to the bottom.
Finally we made it to the big white M. It was an incredible achievement for a 5 year old. In blazing heat, at altitude and scrambling for footholds on slippery rubble for over an hour. I was very proud of the wee man. We stayed up there for a half hour or so singing, "It's a long way to the top if you want to reach the M". His face looked beat but he was smiling.
The view was spectacular. That's not unusual for Montana. We took the easy way down which proved to be almost as difficult as the other way.
We went into town and rewarded Ronan with a cool refreshing treat.
"What does M stand for?"
"M is for ice cream".
Jul 4, 2009
James Higgins and The Muddy Boots Band
4th of July Tour.
Three gigs in one day.
The first gig was at the Saturday Farmers' Market.
We started around noon and played till 2. Chuck and Chris both played drums with us which produced a great stereo shuffling backbone that chugged us along nicely. Between them they had all kinds of implements: wash boards, cow bells, tambourines, wood blocks, road blocks, and even some drums. They made quite a spectacle.
As for the gig itself, I think everyone had a good time. This was the biggest Muddy Boots ensemble to date: two drummers plus Charlie, Donald, Phil and Myself. Having never practiced in this particular line up, there was obviously space for plenty of spontanious musical moments. We mixed it with humour and soaked it in sunshine which resulted in a heap of fun for crowd and band alike. This was a very organic performance which was apt for a farmers' market.
The second gig was at Zuanich Park down by the marina. Mr. Tree was back on drums for this one.
This show was a little jinxed. After just one song, I had to mic my guitar as it began to crackle. Unfortunately the mic failed to give the guitar any volume so in the end I gave up and played my guitar totally unplugged. It wasn't any more that a prop really. Just to rub in the bad luck, I accidentally left my plectrum in the house. I had to borrow one off Charlie. Then the plectrum broke. Understandably I didn't put my heart into this performance. I lost track of the times I messed up the lyrics while concentrating on not bumping into mic stands and mics. Fortunately, this gig was only an hour long.
As often happens in these Gremlin matters, nobody in the band noticed except me. According to Hil, the crowd never noticed either.
This gig was some kind of Haggen Supermarket 4th of July celebration. Haggen had provided no pay for any of the bands so Hil had campaigned for tip boxes to be set up around the park for people to donate tips for the music. We thought this would make it easier for listeners to casually tip as they left the area or moved around.
After I completed a pre-gig tour of the vicinity, I saw only one donation box. It was set up in front of the stage. We might as well have just brought our own. It was opened and emptied after each act. It even had a key. After our set, Beth from BIMA opened it up. Inside was one crumpled dollar. Twenty cents each. We're living the dream. Almost enough to get Donald a cheap cigar.
The strange thing was that the box seemed brand new: hand crafted from solid shiny wood inscribed boldly with the word, "Donations". I heard that local school kids had constructed it as a community project. I guess Haggen couldn't even be bothered paying for that either. I bet the materials cost more than a dollar. Even the padlock must have cost a few dollars.
So, I don't feel so bad about messing bits of this gig up because in the end, you get what you pay for.
The 3rd gig was at the Paso Del Norte up in Blaine.
Other than constant arrests at the border crossing, not much seems to happen in Blaine but it does seem a pleasant enough little town. A few years ago there was a movement to change its name to Blaine Harbour. The idea being that it sounded a little more inviting than Blaine. The motion failed but I think the idea was good. The word "Blaine" conjures up other words like, plain, bland, bla or bleak. Not very romantic.
But on the night of the 4th of July, Blaine had a spectacular fireworks display at sunset.
We started our gig around 9:30 and took a break after 45 minutes to let people go watch the fireworks. I'd never seen Blaine so busy. It was a warm still night. The sidewalks were bustling with families. The Café Del Norte's terrace was full. The fireworks went on for about an hour. After a while they all began to look like exploding dandelion pollen.
We started up playing again around 10:30 till after midnight. For this second set we threw in some better known songs like Cocaine and Heaven's Door. The place actually got quite busy and there was a fair bout of dancing. One woman played a set of spoons and she spoon danced everyone in the room which was fun till she stood on my cazumpet whilst trying to kiss the whole band.
On the whole this was probably our best gig up there so far. I guess Hugo had never seen the whole official Muddy Boots Band play. He seemed happy enough though understandably frustrated by the turnout. It was heartening to see customers in the place at last. Once again the dancing mood was set by the women in the house.
I doubt Hugo made a profit from this venture but it couldn't have been a complete disaster either. It is sadly ironic that Haggen the chain store wouldn't pay us but could easily afford to, yet the Paso Del Norte did pay us though it must have hurt.
It was a long day for everyone. I bet there were some sore fingers in the band. Our songs tend to be a little longer now that there are several lead instruments at large. We'll be keeping Tree fit.
Jun 30, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots
June 30 2009
Me, Donald, Charlie and Phil went on stage about 9PM. We played Who'll Rock That Cradle, Spoonful and Holy Smoke.
I think it was a solid enough little performance. My guitar developed a crackle during Spoonful. I'll need to get it seen to. It has been acting strange recently. I played the 3rd song with it actually turned off. There's always something to go wrong in this 15 minute slot. I guess if it was a full length gig then we'd call this a sound check which we'd have sorted out by the first 20 minutes.
Anyway, it was still a good night. Often it's more sociable than musical.
Jun 27, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band
June 27 2009
Paso Del Norte
Going through the motions. That's how I'd describe us at this gig. At its busiest there were perhaps 10 people. Most of them were lined up at the bar with their backsides facing us. We played 2 one hour sets which were devoid of any real enthusiasm. In fact some of the songs almost died in their sleep. I can't really blame the Boots for this. I reckon it was my fault for watching TV whilst singing. The television was directly in front of me and constantly distracted me from the job at hand. Once again Rodeo Riding and Ice hockey were the TV choices. Obviously the television was offering more than we could give.
It is an odd mixture: live music and television both competing in one room. I mean who would listen to the radio and watch TV simultaneously at home? Obviously one or the other would be better switched off. At the Paso Del Norte, the clientele chose to watch TV whilst The Muddy Boots Band were condemned to be muted.
I guess our performance wasn't helped either by the fact that I was up till dawn the previous night for no other reason than insomnia. Then I spent the afternoon, renovating my cabin studio space.
I felt a bit disjointed and seemingly incapable of playing in time. It was annoying and exasperating. But you know what they say…? A bad workman blames his television.
On the bright side, Hugo was his usual ever helpful self and had us all set up and sound checked in no time. Alas it was all in vain.
But the experience did spark some debate: whether it would be better to die death by cricket chirps or death by lonesome tumbleweed. This gig was death by over exposure to Bar Stool Butt Crack Syndrome.
So what is the secret of a good gig? It's simple. No TV and more women.
As an afterthought, I find it fascinating that the highway I 5 travels 1381.29 miles from Mexico to Canada and runs right past our house in Bellingham. A mere 5 minute walk and I could hitch all the way to Central America. It's kind of ironic that the very last eatery before the Canadian border should turn out to be a Mexican restaurant. I wonder if the first Californian eatery down by the Southern border is also a Mexican restaurant. Maybe it's called the Paso Del Sud. Or maybe it's a Canadian restaurant. Wonder if they have live music?
I guess that after the rousing stuff at the Green Frog gig the other day, this gig was always going to be a let down. It's funny how gigs can be so different in short succession.
Years ago I played a gig in an enormous circus sized tent in Straubing in Bavaria. It was for a volleyball tournament. People came from all over Germany to compete. In the evening there was live music. That's where I came in. I'd gotten this gig one day when a man approached me in Straubing as I was busking. He gave me the details and said be there on a certain date at a certain time. I remember I'd been playing a Dylan song at the time when I'd noticed him looking at me. I saw him nod to his companion and they came over and offered me the gig.
On the appointed day I showed up and was shown to the beer tent which was empty but filled with beer hall benches and tables. Now the organizer put his arm around my shoulders and with a dreamy look in his eyes he recalled previous evenings here with people dancing on the tables and in the aisles and singing, drinking, clapping etc. …"So James", he said. "I want you to have these people up on the tables and dancing and singing. You can do this, ya?"
Well what is a poor penniless busker supposed to say? "Eh? What? Me? Ya. No problem."
Then he left me to my sound check: me, my guitar and then 1500 thirsty Germans.
Thirsty for beer or thirsty for blood?
Never underestimate the power of a stein of German beer. The crowd filtered in. The organizer joined me on stage and introduced me to the crowd. "Mein Damen und Herren…James Higgins. I gulped and stepped up to the microphone. Somehow I knew that Bob Dylan wasn't going to win the day.
So in desperation I launched into every conceivable rock n roll standard I could think of. Within 3 guitar strums, the folk were already on the tables. Obviously they'd played before. The organizers could have put a monkey on stage with a rattle and the masses would have danced to it.
I must have played 2 hours of songs I didn't know I knew. I did Bobby McGee, Johnny B Goode, A Horse with no Name, Country Roads, Ticket to Ride, Get Back, Get up Stand Up, The list went on and on. The people danced and prosted and sang their hearts out until out of the blue…. TWANG. What the… Disaster struck. T'was the dreaded broken string. I was in the middle of a rocking version of If I had a Hammer. The crowd was at the sing-along bit and they just kept singing. They probably hadn't even noticed I'd stopped playing. So I looked for a spare string but couldn't find one. I should have been singing," If I had a String". Then I found an old rusty one. I hastily put it on and it snapped. Jeez. I'm up on the stage with 1500 Germans all singing and I am on my knees like a surgeon sewing up a patient. I sensed the singing begin to ebb. Then I heard a drum beat. I looked behind and it was the band leader from the headline band stomping on the bass pedal of the drum kit. The crowd were rejuvenated and got into the song again. Meanwhile about 15 minutes had passed. The string was finally tied. I'd discovered I had accidentally put the wrong string on. I now had 2 Ds. There was no time to change it now, even if I could. I got up, went to the microphone and we were off again. There was a huge cheer. Maybe it was a sigh of relief. The crowd was rowdier than ever and so, with the drums and sing-along we carried on happily for another ten minutes.
When that escapade of a song was over, I still had to keep the crowds adrenalin flowing. So I played Hey Jude. I skipped the verses completely and went straight to the catchy sing-along bit. That kept them busy for a few minutes while I racked my brain for something else. Just in time, I switched over to Sweet Home Alabama. By then I was mentally exhausted. All that thinking on my feet. Rockin' All over The World morphed into the American Pie chorus. Then it was all over. Everyone was happy. I was even invited back for next year's tournament.
It had been a helluva night. Obviously it wasn't that I played that good, it's just that the crowd were that drunk.
There'd been 1500 people there and incredibly they really did dance on the tables and had sung every song. I never would have believed it. It made for a good memory.
The next evening I played at a venue called the Alte Malzerei in Regensburg. I stood on the stage and looked out at the room. Not a soul was in sight except the barmaid perusing a magazine at the bar. But even if I didn't play If I had a Hammer that night, I did play another song that would set a strange chain of events in motion.
Jun 26, 2009
3 Ds at Stewarts
A pleasant little gig. Dale, Donald, Chris and myself meandered our way casually through some Irish tunes and some bluegrass tunes. Sitting in with the3Ds is always a very relaxing event. Very informal and chatty.
Someone had left an armchair on the stage. Donald sat in it during the gig which made thinngs even more casual than usual.
Jun 22, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern.
I think I speak for everyone in the band and in the audience when I say that this was a very satisfactory episode. A very enjoyable evening for one and all.
This gig wound its way from Ronan's favourite school song, "Ain't No Bugs On Me" and culminated deep within the psychedelic intensity of Hawkwind's "Orgone Accumulator". Mmm. Sounds like a case for Kermit the Freud. It certainly was an interesting trip.
On the night, the band comprised of Donald, Charlie, Phil and myself. We decided against drums as the Green Frog is such a small venue.
When we showed up, the place was almost empty. Out of the house PA, some finger picking Appalachian mountain music was lulling the darkened interior of the Green Frog into a lazy hilbilliac stupor. This was pleasant enough, but a hard act to follow without fair warning to the public.
Thus, we eased gently into this gig: ingratiating ourselves into the bar's atmosphere like an anonymous car merging with traffic.
Instead of starting with the usual bluesy Baby Please Don't Go, we played an old spooky Appalachian tune ourselves. "Who'll Rock that Cradle". We continued in a folky vein with "In the Boardhouse and Bootlegger Blues. Then we baited the waters with something more adventurous; Blowing Down the River. The signs were encouraging and we carried on taking two cautious musical steps forward then one small step back. We may have tiptoed our way into this gig but we charged out.....
By the break, the place was brimming with keen and friendly faces. At this point in the tale, I should say a big thank you to all those kind souls who showed up to give spiritual support to The Boots (even generously paying the 2 dollar entrance fee).
It's a well known fact that musicians rely on the positive vibtations generated by audiences in order to exist. This is the oxygen that artists breathe inside the vaccumous limbo of society where they dwell. Without this life force (also known as feedback) they would swiftly turn blue, then black, then shrivel like old potatoes and fade. Tips help too.
We started the second set and the Muddy Boots really hit their stride. Charlie and Phil began to swap solos. The Cazumpet was out, the harmonica was blowing. Even I did a guitar solo (golly). We were finishing up with a Vampire Blues / Tears Tears Tears medley complete with Donald's bass solo when we unexpectedly thrust ourselves into the suicidal overdriven chaos of the Orgone Accumulator. This song is like a mix of Booker T's "Green Onions" and The Dr Who theme tune. It can go on forever and often does.
Earlier on, I'd seen one of the local musicians walk in during our sound check while we were playing Ain't No Bugs On Me to an empty bar. He'd given us an odd look, then turned swiftly around and left. He returned a few hours later and seemed somewhat taken aback to see the place had transformed into some kind of psychedelic heavy grooving mayhem. Yes it had been quite a subtle trip via the likes of, Enjara, The Henhouse, Smokestack Lightning, La Ville D'Annecy, Good Morning Little School Girl, Chuckanut Drive, Chocolate girl, (Hi Maggie), spoonful, Any Old Time.
We put a lot of energy into this one.
Anyway thanks to everyone who turned up and tuned in. We had a blast.
The quote of the night? "Here's 5 dollars. Go buy yourself some Lego".
Ain't no bugs on me.
Jun 13, 2009
The Band Currently known as Bob's Yer Uncle.
This gig was a lot of fun. Really I just plucked my washtub bass and enjoyed the novelty of listening to great musicians play around me. Chris on her drums, Phil on guitar, Donald on bass and mandolin.
The Bagelry is a café on Railroad Avenue. They sell bagels. Before I came to the States, I had no idea what a bagel was. I'd heard Bob Dylan sing about them in a song from the 60s. "He's eating bagels". That was the lyric. I'd no idea what he was talking about. Was it something celebritys ate? Then I saw one. It looked like a doughnut and tasted like plain tasteless bread. Such a disappointment at the time but you get used to them. Cheese ones aren't bad. Or warm with melted butter dipped in coffee works too. As long as your not expecting excitement then they suffice as a chewing exercise.
We set up outside on the pacement and played from 11am till 2pm. The sun was shining like a big friendly bagel in the sky. A lively ambience wafted down the street and a general good mood was abuzzin' round downtown Bellingham.
We started off with some Irish jigs followed by some bluegrass tunes. Then me and Chris sung a few before we took a break. The second half was the same format.
Song flavour of the month seems to be the ditty, "Jump at the Sun": a very odd jiggy tune that Donald dug up somewhere in his basement. It actually reminds me of the first few notes of the theme music to Roobarb the cartoon. It also seems to be public domain. I wonder if we could record it and incorporate it into ,"Living in a Trashcan" or something?
Like I said, this little gig was a lot of fun. Very relaxed and sociable. The day was warm, the boss was unseen and we were left to our own musical discretion. Very good for the brain. Let's do it again.
Jun 5, 2009
University Faculty Gig.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band at the Boundary Bay.
This was a bit of a short notice gig which left us scrambling to scare up a drummer. Finally though we got through to Tree and he agreed to do it.
When we arrived at the Boundary Bay Beer Garden, the sound man had left us with a semi assembled pile of gear while he went off to mix another gig. This wasn't a good sign. But somehow Tree and Donald doggedly sorted out the flotsam of cables. An unpredictable crosswind was blowing feedback around while my guitar stubbornly refused to stay in tune. Thus it took us the whole first half hour of the gig to iron the gremlins out of the mix. It was a nervy period of knob twiddling until we emerged suddenly from the swill and hit our stride. I guess the upward turning point came when we played Bootlegger Blues and Rock That Cradle. At this juncture we began to enjoy ourselves. And that's what it's all about.
It was great to have Tree back on drums again. It's been a few gigs since last he played. There is something reassuring and familiar about his beat.
This gig was an End of Year party for the university faculty staff and students. For a laugh I changed the words of Factory Girl to Faculty Girl. When I spoke to one of the organizers later, she mentioned this song and how she identified with the lyric "Back Country Girl. Another faculty guy spoke up saying he had understood it as a "Fat L.A. Girl". This is the frustrating curse of the Scottish accent. This problem of misunderstanding is partially why I am reluctant to tell stories at gigs. People just hear an undecipherable mumble whereas I think I'm speaking clear English. It's comical but sometimes a little disappointing to realize no one has caught a word you've said. Maybe it's just as well. That'll teach me to be a smarty pants.
So the evening was very sociable. The people were entertained. The sunset was spectacular. Me and Hil shared some delicious fish. Ronan ran around all night. I don't know where he gets the energy. He leaves a wake of exhausted kids slumped in his wake. He'd leap on stage again and again then race across with his fingers in his ears before exiting stage left. When we got home about ten PM, he wolfed down toast and cheese, apple juice and ice cream. Then he finally collapsed into bed. I think we'll need to get him a giant hamster wheel.
There'd been a 3 piece punk band on after us. They played about a half hour and were very good. Very polite and well dressed for a punk group. Friendly too. I think D.I.A. was their name. I don't know what that stood for but there was something philosophical about it.
Jun 3, 2009
Fairhaven Wednesday Market Opening Day.
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots.
What a scorcher of a day. Luckily we had a tent canopy to provide some welcome shade.
Today's band comprised of me, Phil and Donald. Maybe we should just have called ourselves, a half of Whiskey Galore.
It was a solid enough light hearted little gig. We had only had one practice in preparation, so we kept things simple. Most of our stuff is simple anyway. We played about 2 hours with an emphasis on the bluesier material. I notice that my wee P.A. system still seems to distort even though we weren't playing very loud. Donald tweaked a few knobs and it seemed to settle down.
Enjara was the highlight song of the day in my opinion. Phil pulled off a couple of great slide solos that hit the spot. I am constantly amazed how so many musicians can put their own character into this song and still keep it rolling along within the spirit of the tune. When we introduced Steve to Enjara, a few weeks back, he and his drums brought a space and depth to the proceedings. Tree gave Enjara its original rock beat that dictated that this was to be a serious song. Charlie put his blues and backing vocals into it. Donald gave it motion and I guess I gave it a spark of precious life (and 42 dollars). I guess you could say it's jammable. No better compliment than that for a song.
The market vendors were really appreciative too. We had offers of teas and salads and sandwiches from various stalls. We all got bandanas too: gift wrapped. The tips weren't bad either though no one was tossing jewelry. Rick said he'd gotten a little money together for us and a wee check would be in the mail. That'll be useful.
There were more stalls than usual this year. Some were set up on the stage area behind us. I didn't get a really good look around the market as I had to pack up in a hurry and fetch Ronan from school.
There is a festival atmosphere to this little market: something alternative. Perhaps a little hippyish. Whatever it is, it makes for a very relaxed and sociable day.
The other market on Saturdays takes place in a downtown concrete car park. It's definitely a lot busier than the Fairhaven Wednesday Market. But the Fairhaven Wednesday market is set up around the village green which is flanked by cafes and gift shops. This lends an aura of tranquil antiquity to the afternoon which the bustling Saturday Market lacks.
A very pleasant summer's day.
May 23, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band
38th Folklife Festival in Seattle.
Judging by the enthusiastic crowd (275,000 people over the weekend) and countless performances at the Folklife Festival, I'd say folk music is alive and well. What a sensory overload. There was just too much to take in all at one go. It was a bit overwhelming at first but what a beautiful day.
I'd forgotten there were so many ways to make music. Seattle was shaking with everything from cardboard boxes and bagpipes to plastic tubes, wooden crates and …well…shakers! Every second person seemed to playing a home made instrument. It was nothing short of a free-for-all carnival.
We shuffled through the crowds with no real plan of action. Every few paces there was some new spectacle to see. Belly dancers swirling to the beat of a garbage can. I saw a kid play a drum kit made of buckets. Wash tub basses were everywhere. A man on stilts was playing a squeezebox. Someone was pounding a suitcase with a drum pedal.
Our humble gig was indoors in a space called The Shaw Room: a stark windowless room with carpeted walls. At first glance, a little intimidating but after the claustrophobic sideshow frenzy of the great outdoors, this venue was somewhat soothing. We took to the stage and played a tight little set to a very appreciative audience.
We kicked off with No Hens in My Henhouse. I know that's a bit ambitious but there was no time for warming up. We followed that with Can't keep me, Hedgehog Song and Annecy. Then we finished off with Enjara. For the first time ever, at a gig, no one really saw my cazumpet as a novelty.
It was an interesting performance. The Audience was all sitting on rows of chairs like in a theatre but the room quickly filled beyond its seating capacity. Everyone stopped talking when we started playing. It was one of those do or die gigs. All too often we play in half empty bars or rowdy drunken dives, so it came as a shock to suddenly be expected to do something more than go through the motions. This audience of about 200 even looked sober. They regarded us as if they'd paid to be there and wanted their money's worth too.
It was fortunate that I'd had some previous dodgy experiences in similar situations in the past. Most notably in a tiny kitchen with a bar near a tiny town in Germany called Windisheschenbach. This Brig O Doon of a place was at the end of a dirt road somewhere in the Bayerish Forest. To be honest I have no real idea where it was. It was dark when we arrived and darker and somewhat fuzzy when I left. But anyway in this lost kitchen, a table was set up. On the table was a stool and above the stool was a spotlight. I wasn't really aware of my impending fate when I took that gig. I was a busker at the time. Passersby were my usual audience. Suddenly I'm sitting on this coffee table looking out at perhaps 40 Germans crammed in all around me. They're staring up at me and they're expecting entertainment. But me? To quote a phrase, "I gat Nothin". It was a sobering moment but by no means a sober one.
As sometimes happens in these crunchy situations, I forced myself to rise up and talk crap for two solid hours. By the end of the night we were all friends. I was speaking fluent whisky/Weisen influenced German. Not exactly Hoch Deutch: more like Hic-cup Deutch. I even had the audacity to ask if there was any song anyone would like to hear. Someone piped up with Knocking on Heaven's door. No problem. Must've been my lucky day. The stars were in alignment in the black sky outside the cosmic kitchen. The moon was passing through Jupiter and the Sun was shining out Uranus. Then some smart Alec mutters, "Play Green Sleeves". Oh oh. Sharp intake of breathe. The crowd gasp. They shuffle their feet. They know Higgins is busted. The stars stop twinkling. So near yet so far. But wait…Hold on. What's that noise? It's a miracle. Can it be true? He's playing Green Sleeves. And he plays it all the way through. He's not even strumming it either. It's the real thing. Finger twitching and all. There is weeping, hugging and ticker tape. A marching band bursts in the door playing, "Green Sleeves Reprise". Well okay maybe the marching band was pushing it a bit, but the rest was true. But how? Well, that's another story.
And for readers just joining us……
Meanwhile back in Seattle at the Shaw Room. Our half hour of glory was over. I Saw some familiar faces in the crowd but never really got to speak to anyone. Everyone was shaking hands and talking just as we were coming off stage but we were dismantling our gear and the next band were going on. Too much jostling. We were saying goodbye even as we were saying hello. We met Joe's pal, Fae. But in our confused tumble off the stage, I forgot to ask her if she'd played yet. It would have been great to go and listen. We also spoke with her friend, a film maker called Captain. Captain who? I don't know. Cook? Kirk? Coconut? Then I spoke briefly to Reuben Banjo from Whiskey Galore. I also encountered our two favourite girls from Bellingham who kindly show up regularly at many of our gigs.
And that was that.
So with our one official piece of business over with, Me, Hil, Ronan and Charlie had a picnic and wandered round till about 4pm then went home. Donald and his clan had disappeared after our show and we never met them again that day.
I left Folklife in awe of the inventive determination of human beings to create music or racket. I guess the roots of folk music can be dug out of the heart of Africa where Primitive man bashed upon logs with bones through the millennia right up to modern man plucking on a kitchen sink attached to a stick and a piece of string. Yes, plumbing's come a long way but musically we're still hooked on the same free swinging jazz of the jungles. You would imagine that with such an acutely instinctive gift for music, that Nature would have provided us with elephant sized ears and incredible hearing. But I guess she didn't and that's why we are so easily entertained by loud thumps, bumps, hoots, twangs and rattles.
Folk music travels well. It was born to wander. In many ways it is affected by travel in the same way as people. It can adapt to any culture but remain the same entity. It will take on the mantle of its environment but retain the essence of its original melody.
Omnivorous Folk music's ability to befriend new instrumentation, language, tempo and audiences is the secret of its longevity. This rich soil of creativity is what makes the North West Folklife Festival what it is: an intense magical pool of unquenchable, living, ingredients that never lies fallow. To stand in its midst, is to hear the history of civilization presented as a cacophonous immortal waterfall. Yet it's really all one song of countless strands and verses.
As songwriters, we only write one song in a lifetime. Our one song is barely a petal on the eternal beanstalk of folk music but I am honoured to be part of it.
May 9, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band at the Paso Del Norte.
The small seaside town of Blaine is truly the last stop on the map in the North West USA. We could not be further from Florida if we tried. The Canadian border guards could probably hear us play. The US border guards were probably in the building.
Blaine was in the middle of a beautiful sunset when we drove into town. The main street was eerily silent and deserted. The view out to sea was crimson and it was all ours.
At the Paso Del Norte, we were plugged directly into a disco PA system by Hugo who seemed to be the man to talk to. He couldn't have been more helpful and he really made the evening go smoothly.
We set up on a tiny raft of a stage big enough for Steve's drums but not much else. We had to place the mic stands on the dance floor which was marginally bigger than the stage. Donald stood offstage to one side.
We rattled through 2 one hour sets and were done by 11:30. The crowd, such as it was, had more interest in the ice hockey on TV. Thus we basically did our thing and left with a minimum of fuss.
Thanks mainly to the mind bending powers of the Hens in the Henhouse song there was a mild breakout of dancing at one point but it was short lived. I figure this could be a useful song to play in an enemy sniper zone. It would only require a few notes of this ditty to set the bushes rustling. Curtains would twitch, and floorboards would creak. Any neighbourhood snipers would quickly give away their positions: and when finally they'd been rounded up, they'd be placed in padded cells and forced to listen to it till they went insane.
Musically we played fine but with no great inspiration. There was a hush in the room and I also had a feeling of trying to behave myself. I guess it was the proximity of the border. Borders are tense, volatile places of strip searches and frayed nerves. Armed smugglers and families wait in anxious queues while border guards treat them all as equally potential threats. It's not an area conducive to musical appreciation. I also had a feeling that half the audience consisted of plain clothed border guards. They possessed those dead pan features that suggest they couldn't spot a joke in an ID parade even if it had neon flashing arrows pointing at it. The uniforms were a dead give away too.
Only joking, but No-man's-land is no place for a gig. (No-Gig-Land). Maybe we should broadcast the Henhouse song across the barriers.
Over the years I have become traumatized by border crossings. So many times I have been minding my own business just trying to get from A to B and found myself being suddenly interrogated by uniformed strangers. It wasn't so long ago that Europe had border crossings every couple of hundred miles. As a street musician, I was constantly moving from country to country and thus I came into regular contact with all nationalities of border patrols.
Often I wouldn't even be at the actual crossing when I'd be intercepted by overly frisky friskers. Once upon a wander, me and an Italian friend called Nicola were hitching out of Geneva. It was just before Christmas and freezing cold. The airport was nearby so we walked over to stand in the arrivals lounge for a quick heat. It only took about 5 minutes before we found ourselves in separate rooms, stripped to our underwear and being questioned by Swiss officials. I remember one guard rummaging manically through my affairs. He scrutinized every lining and pocket. Finally he said "remove your underwear". And here was where I got the last laugh. As my underpants dropped to my ankles and I stepped out of them I saw a look of sudden alarm cross his previously smug features. I had been a quite a few days on the road when we arrived in Geneva and thus my underwear had not been overly spoiled with soap. Even now it gives me a warm glow just thinking about that little dictator's defeated eyes as he stared helplessly down at my crumpled underwear and then up at my triumphant smiling face. I could have stashed a gold bar in there and he wouldn't have touched it.
They let us go in the end. I guess we had looked suspicious. Nicola was dressed completely in white. Must have been his Italian blood. (Leonetti) I was dressed completely in black like a chimney sweep. We looked like quite a pair. He was too clean and I was too scruffy. I bet I looked like his bodyguard. I was wearing a big heavy black coat like something that might shuffle around in a prisoner of war movie. The lining in the pockets was completely worn through. I could put something in my left pocket and pull it out of my right.
Not long after the Geneva incident, I was crossing from Germany into France at a small border post near Mulhouse. I had my guitar in a garbage bag and I was still wearing the black coat with the magic pockets (probably the same underwear too). I had some spare German change. So I decided to spend it before the border. I bought a bottle of chocolate milk and 3 leberkase sausages. The sausages each had different coloured wrappings. One was black, one was yellow and one was red. As I recall, one was made from mashed pig brains. Yea right. I also bought a loaf of bread and a small cheese. Thanks to my incredible pockets, I stuffed it all easily into the lining of my jacket. Thus armed, I marched boldly up to the border. The German guard didn't even look at me but the French guy demanded my passport. Lucky I had it handy….in my jacket pocket. I delved in but couldn't locate it fast enough for the guards liking. It must have seemed to him that I then suddenly started vigorously scratching my bum with my hands still inside my pockets.
Up went his eyebrows and once again I was ushered quickly into a generic bare room. "Empty your pockets" he ordered me. I sighed. Out came the cheese. I placed it on the counter. Next came a big black sausage, then a pencil, a loaf of bread, a penknife, some tobacco, another sausage, a sketch pad, a harmonica, a lighter, another sausage, a plastic bottle of chocolate milk, various scraps of paper, a crumpled map, a guitar strap, a harmonica holder, and some individual rusted guitar strings. A fair sized pile was amassing when finally my passport showed up in the procession. He examined it, asked me where I was going and kicked me out.
Once, crossing into Czechoslovakia with the Izzy Skint band, we rolled up to the border in a rented BMW. The guard asked us where we were going. We told him we were a band playing at a nearby festival. He asked us "What is the name of your band?" And we all cheered together, "Izzy Skint". He laughed and spread his arms. "Welcome to Czechoslovakia".
Why can't all borders be like that?
Nowadays the borders are all open in Europe. But at the moment I live in the States and sadly their borders are sealing tighter every day.
May 7, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band at the Back Porch Alley.
We arrived to play around 5pm. The gig was scheduled for 6pm but the place was deserted so we took the opportunity to have some of their delicious food. I think the Back Porch specializes in Cajun food: traditional dishes from the Deep South. It's addictive stuff.
At 6:30 we started playing. The place was still empty but we felt guilty sitting around. The owner Laine seems like a friendly guy. When we showed up, he greeted us openly and warmly. We were welcomed in and fed and watered and sound checked. Most certainly a nice change from some of the bars we've played where the owners barely acknowledge your existence.
In the first set we practiced a bunch of new tunes: songs like Desolation, Lean On Me, Comes a Time, This is Hip, and a few others. We eased ourselves into this gig but ultimately it was just another empty bar performance. I felt we were just warming up as we finished. I think there were 2 more bands to play after us. Must have been a late night.
The back porch Alley is still a relatively new place. It's still in Child Labour. I hope it works out for the owners. So many bars in Bellingham are stillborn. Their first and last breathe are one and the same. Well I hope this place makes it. All shall be revealed in the coming Summer months.
For us as a band, the gig went fairly well. Steve slotted in on drums and the sound was quite solid though it bounced around the room a bit. We never reached any great heights but had a few comedy moments, not least on Annecy when we tried our new ending. We must have crashed that plane about 4 times before it landed. But it was still a hoot.
May 1, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
We sat up at a high table in the corner by the window and rattled through a couple of hours of tunes. The evening flew past and I sensed that the small crowd was quite enjoying our unobtrusive wee acoustic repertoire (no drums). We tested out some new stuff and dredged up some oldies. "This Is Hip", "Play For Free", "Fontainebleau". We were spared playing The "Hens in the Henhouse".
This was more of a live practice than a gig. Still what else would we have been doing. We even made a few dollars. We felt like we were just jamming to ourselves and watching the sun go down on a beautiful evening.
I love acoustic gigs.
Apr 24, 2009
3Ds at Stuarts
Dale on the mandolin, myself on the washtub bass, while the Donald clan playing everything else. A pleasant night as usual filled with jigs and bluegrass. Charlie sat in for a few songs near the end. All in all a low key fun night with Bellingham's least controversial band. I must say though, it's amazing how stiff I feel after playing that wash tub for an hour and a half.
The wash tub bass is an unusual instrument. It's a three part affair consisting of a stick, a string and a large tub. Like swimming or deck chair wrestling, the playing of the tub demands the use of a combination of mismatched body parts. Most musical instruments take a small physical toll on their players. Musicians with stringed instruments develop calluses on their finger tips to protect them from the cutting strings. Trumpet players develop cheek jowels and often have sore lips. Bagpipe players probably go stone deaf, but the majority of their bruises come from being struck by projectiles from their neighbours who are trying to get some sleep.
But the wash tub bass provides the player with an unfamiliar array of unexpected aches. When first I played the tub, I had rope burn after a mere 15 minutes. This swiftly blistered and left me unable to play my guitar for a few days. To avoid future rope burns, I took to wearing a gardening glove on my twanger hand. Next came a dull throb in the upper arm muscle caused by balancing the tension on the wash tub stick all evening. This sets in about half an hour into a gig. Funnily enough, I've experienced both the rope burn and the sore arm whilst doing archery. I guess the action is similar. Could I hit a target at 50 paces with an arrow fired from a wash tub bass?
The third ache is a leg cramp caused by leaning on one leg all night. I'm sure herons are familiar with this one as they play a lot of tub. I wonder if I continue playing the tub, will one side of my body become more muscular than the other. I'll be like a before and after fitness ad. I could do with a few muscles right enough.
Apr 18, 2009
Farmers Market Again
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band
This time round, our canopy tent had been moved over by the goat statue on the pavilion corner. Rick, the market chief, who seems like a fair minded person, pointed to the vendor lady at the first stall. He said that if she gestured after one song that it was too loud then try to turn it down a bit. Then he disappeared into the crowd. I turned to Charlie and said, "Well ye know what means? We'd as well turn it down now." But I knew that even if we did, she would still signal to turn it down.
I remember Steve Shorrock playing in the Irish Harp in Regensburg, Germany one night. One of the bar's upstairs neighbours, an old lady, had recently taken to complaining about the noise levels. Every night, just as the live music started, she'd telephone down to the bar's public telephone to voice her grieviance. On this particular night, Steve was expecting a long distance call from France but the upstairs lady wouldn't stop phoning down. Each time the barmaid answered it, she'd yell across the room for Steve to turn it down. The evening began to follow a recurring pattern. Song, ring-ring, "Turn it down." Song, ring-ring, "Turn it down".
Steve was getting well pissed off. Shouldn't old ladies be hard of hearing? Then the phone rang for the umpteenth time and the barmaid picked it up and yelled across the bar, "Steve. It's from Paris!" And Steve yelled back, "Ah come on, It wasn't THAT bloody loud!
Sure enough after the first song the beacons were on fire and we turned our volume down. The oddest thing though is that we are not a loud band. My little PA system is incapable of extortionate volume. I think we look loud…. Or maybe we're crap. Not to worry. We were content to be a sideshow attraction. The market belongs to the farmers, not the musicians: otherwise this event would be called the Musicians Market.
We started around 11:30am and it was soon apparent that this was a cruel, windy and shady corner. We seriously struggled to physically play music in the morning chill. My hand muscles tensed, my nose dripped and my rhythm strumming was erratic. It wasn't so much a bitter cold day; it just wasn't a day for playing unpaid music outdoors in the shade. Nevertheless, somehow the situation seemed funny and I think we had a good solid gig. Despite the elements, we all enjoyed ourselves: vendors too. In fact according to Hill, Tree actually smiled. It may have been a grimace or a chattering of teeth but there did appear to be a brief cameo of the pearly whites.
We played about an hour and a half. The market was its usual lively self. Tips were exactly the same as last time which was fine but strange.
Songwise, we kept it simple and threw in a couple of kid's songs such as Ally Ballie and Old MacDonald.
"Old MacDonald Had a Farm. E,i,e,i,o.
And on that farm he had a wife. E,i,e,i,o.
With a "Wipe yer feet" here and a "Milk the chickens" there. Here a nag there a nag and "yer dinner's in the oven…etc." Then there was something about Fred Astaire. E,i,e,i,o.
Not sure how that went over with the pre-schoolers.
We played a little bit of something for everyone so it was rewarding to see quite a lot of people dancing. Perhaps they were just trying to stay warm. But just like Tree, they were all smiling: and I guess that's what matters.
Apr 16, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots at the Back Porch Alley.
This was a late night 20 minute slot at the BIMA annual meeting. We got on stage and after a non existent sound check we dived straight into, Baby Please Don't Go. Alas we were just too late to notice that no one was in tune. Amazingly though, a happy couple got up and started dancing. Then to complete my bewilderment, everybody cheered at the end. I could only conclude that the beer had been flowing freely before our arrival. I think we played about 5 songs and zigzagged in and out of each other's tuning like speed boats in the night. Fortunately by the miracle of alcohol nobody seemed to notice our discord.
As soon as we were finished our set, the male half of the dancing couple rushed up and warmly shook our hands. As it happened, he was the bar owner and he said he loved our stuff. He wanted us to come back and play again. We said we'd be delighted.
If my disbelief hadn't yet been complete, then that just put a lid on it.
Standing up on that stage, I had a brief flashback to the stage in The Dubliner in Seattle a few weeks ago. Both stages were of similar size, shape and height. Even the grey carpeting was the same. Both stages were about 2 feet high and set up against the window. This gives musicians a good view of the interior but from the outside, we look eerily like shop window mannequins.
Up there on the Back Porch Alley stage, in mid song, I looked over at Charlie and I looked at Donald and I wondered to myself, "How many stages have we stood on during our undulating musical careers."
I can't speak for them but for sure I've performed in some dubious makeshift podiums.
I remember in the Brookdorf Mull, I used to stand on the speakers. I'd place them side by side on the floor by the bar and climb up. They were big hefty things. Concrete shoes. From up there I could actually touch the ceiling. I'd point them at the ankles of the crowd and start bashing away on my guitar. Things got a little perilous after a few drinks. On stage and off.
Up in a tiny hamlet called Staalwang somewhere in the Bayerish Wald, I played a gig in a bar. The owner was a heavy metal singer name Ritchie Rocket and he had a demo to prove it. He informed me that Staalwang was very conservative and advised me that perhaps I shouldn't wear my hat. A bogard hat: nothing too radical about that, I thought. So I looked at him then and re-appraised him. He was a squat faced little rocker with dark curly permed hair, who had squeezed himself from head to toe into black leather biker jacket and trousers lashed on with a studded belt. He wore black cowboy boots on his feet and sported a Japanese red sun bandana upon his forehead. In Glasgow he would be termed a, "Bus Stop Biker": all gear and no bike. He obviously loved his heavy metal but he could easily have sung," It's fun to stay at theYMCA".
I decided I'd take my chances with the natives.
But anyway when we got to his bar, there was no stage to be seen. When I pointed this out to Herr Rocket, he directed me to an electrical output between two slot machines. These machines were side by side' against a wall and about 4 feet apart. This space between them was to be my stage. At first I was convinced that he wanted me to plug into a slot machine but somehow through the miracle of electricity and amnesia, I got connected into the house speakers where were suspended from the ceiling. Right in front of my "stage" was a pool table. Well it was a tricky situation but I was getting paid for my troubles.
It's a very odd feeling to be singing whilst almost face to face with two intensely focused slot machinists and dodging cue sticks and cue balls. Surely this is pure invisibility. At least there weren't any anti hat people in the bar.
Most of the clientele had gathered around the bar area. If I wanted to make any eye contact I'd have to lean out and look to the right. The slot machinists would growl at me and I'd jerk my head back in. Then I'd hear puzzled German voices over at the bar asking, "Did you just see a head poke out of the slot machine?"
Now Joeys Irish bar up in Furth; whoa, what a set up. Therein sat a stage about the size of a suitcase. Behind it there was a shelf. Upon that shelf, at ear level, lurched the world's largest amplifier. Let me tell you about this brooding implement of torture. He was a monster; shackled to the very foundation of the building. Like a mysterious pagan idol, he cast a shadow of delirium over all who dared come near. When first we met, I fought an urge to pick up a stout chair and point its 4 legs up at his three steely knobs. The first knob was marked "Volume", the next was marked, "Lots More Volume", and the third just said, "Fuck Off". Pre-gig, this angry slab of Stonehenge was plugged in and cranked from slumber by cowed native bar staff who stood back and chanted," Kong, Kong, Kong".
That beast would not be tamed. Not by chair or whip, nor soothed by Irish music. This abomination needed an immediate return to his natural habitat of inhospitable bogland and mountain before someone was injured. There in the wilderness he could roar his defiance to the cruel world far from human habitation. After a period of rehab, perhaps he could find a little female amp he could connect with and maybe start a new stack.
In Irish bars you either cross the noise barrier or die ignored. Ignored means sacked. So even though the Joey's amp was a mere six inches from the back of my skull, I was forced to raise the volume so that folks near the back could hear too. The feedback alone could have driven a man insane.
Yes, the first time I played there, the unsuspecting public fell over themselves as they stampeded to the back of the room. Tables toppled and people choked. I witnessed several bemused individuals moving straight backwards like they were on fast moving skateboards, straight out onto the street. I would have joined them if I could have, but I was strapped to that looming apparatus. Desperate clients were screaming: myself included. The beast roared. Hair blew away. Laugh lines and wrinkles were sandblasted from ruddy faces while a few determined dregs, (probably Scots) grimly refusing to surrender their drinks, left vain receding claw marks etched into the bar counter as they were slowly leveraged backwards degree by degree. Their ears wiggled as fast as bee's wings till finally with an audible "ping", they were pried loose like bent nails and shot out the door still clutching their Guinnesses. It was horrendous. And all the time Joey's Dublin accent yelling like white noise in my tortured ears, "Jaiz yer brutal James. Brutal so ye are."…
And all this ado in a matter of seconds.
Nobody knows where Joey found that unearthly amp. But legend has it that an angry mob gathered around his castle one night with pitchforks and burning torches. The place was razed to the ground. No trace was afterwards found of the demonic amplifier. Joey vanished too. But… some suspiciously Joey sized footprints were discovered that led directly from the ashes to a nearby insurance office and from there they faded into nothing.
But as I was saying, the Back Porch Alley had a real stage and the sound check wasn't too bad. It looks like it'll be a fun place to play. I guess the real problem was that there were no monitors. Donald actually got offstage so he could stand in front of the speakers to hear himself.
The sound check guy did his best in the short space of time allotted. I guess we should be grateful that at least there was a sound check guy. Up at the Alte Malzerei bar, in Regensburg, the mixing desk was situated behind the bar. If the sound engineer didn't show up, then the chef would come out and have a go. He did make some interesting mixes. A bit soupy.
Apr 10, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots at the Holy Smoke.
The Mount Baker is quite a touristy stretch of road. It travels from the Pacific coast up to a dead end on Mount Baker's volcanic slopes. In general it is well tended and pleasant to drive on.
From Sunset Drive, Bellingham falls behind. At Nugent's Corner, the highway crosses the Nooksack River, curves past the Mount Baker Vineyard and past the Eagle Park. The mountains gleam snowy and clean as the highway winds closer and closer towards their roots. Past the pizza Shrine restaurant and up to the Maple Falls Junction. Everything is beautiful. At the Junction, the highway turns sharply right and continues its tranquil path into higher altitudes of tall trees and long tumbling waterfalls. It's all so very picture postcard perfect. It makes me want to stick a stamp on it and address it to a friend.
The left fork of the junction turns away from the mountains and becomes the Kendal Road. Recently Kendal Town has been more famous for its meth labs and addiction than for its scenic attractions. The Holy Smoke is on the Kendall Road.
The Kendal road is an odd place. The homes along its sides have an aura of damp dilapidation and neglect. Untended front yards are strewn with broken appliances and rusted cars. There are hand written sign posts nailed to trees. One of them read," Giggles the Clown".
The Holy Smoke is a converted church now a bar. I guess alcohol was more profitable than preaching. The main room was divided into 3 distinct sections. To the left; two pool tables. In the middle, separated by a couple of old church pews, is the dance floor and bar counter. To the right: a sort of lounge area.
We set up to play in the middle section. The place was not busy at all but the scattered inhabitants were quite appreciative. The bar owner seemed a little perturbed when I asked for the TV sound to be turned down before we begun, but he complied. It was soon clear that the listeners wanted music they were familiar with or could dance intimately to. One elderly couple requested a slow blues. We played, It Hurts Me Too. They got up and danced a cheek to cheek. The only song afterwards that anyone showed any real enthusiasm for was "Knocking on Heavens Door". I felt like I was fly-fishing, using various musical baits to reel in the scattered audience. As the night progressed, I realized we were now playing to the backs of a short row of drinkers at the bar or saying thank you to the few people who remained far to the right hand side. Between songs, I was talking to myself. We become more insular and though we stuck professionally to the set, I think there were too few women and too many men to instigate enough of a dancing atmosphere. In fact when I think on it, I think all the women danced but the men generally hugged the bar or played pool.
This was an incredibly long gig. We played from 8:30 till 12:30. People came and went but we remained. My fingers were in bits and my brain was dead when we finished. It is impossible to maintain any sense of focused cohesion for that length of time especially in Terra Incognita. But I think we played well and quite enjoyed ourselves. Most of those who were present really seemed to enjoy it too. In fact I sold quite a number of CDs.
Once again advertising let us down. Due to miscommunication, neither the Herald nor the Cascadia Weekly printed our ads. As I mentioned, the Holy Smoke lies on one hell of a bleak stretch of highway. Looking up and down that road during a break, there was just overwhelming silence and blackness. I doubt many people would travel out there to see a well known band, never mind the Muddy Boots.
I rode in the back of the pick-up truck on the way home. It was quite cozy. I had a little nest in the midst of the gear. Charlie and Donald rode up front. Two seatbelts between three didn't feel very reassuring. I was content in the back. Lucky the roof was attached or it may have been less comfy.
Years ago in the town of Schweinfurt Germany I wrote a song called Holy Smoke. It's strange to find myself playing it 10,000 kms away in a converted church off the Mount Baker Highway. Naturally, we had to play it.
It feels like it was in another lifetime that me and Peter arrived in Schweinfurt in the wee hours. We shook hands with Vince and said goodbye then stepped into a bush to sleep. Vince seemed a bit perplexed by this. I don't think he ever knew quite what to make of us. He owned a bar in Bamberg up by the U.S. barracks. The Aquarium was its name but we referred to it as the Fish Tank. We used to pop in when we were in town and play for beer. That night at closing time we told him we were hitching to Schweinfurt in the morning. There and then he offered to drive us. So we all piled into his car and off we went.
Apparently Peter had used this bush before and thus with his gift of the gab and lashings of alcohol had elevated this bush in my mind up to Taj Mahal Gold Star Hotel standards.
Anyway we woke up bright and early beside a dead crow. While we examined it, an irate German business man began yelling at us from outside our bush. "Das bush ist privat". Our grasp of the language was rudimentary at best but it didn't sound like an invitation.
We set off busking and it went fine. By evening our pockets were jingling and we were content. We'd met an East German one man band that day called Des. He lived in Norway and was presently on a busking tour. He informed us several times that the price of petrol up there was extortionate. He invited us back to his van to smoke a pipe before he headed off.
His van was huge. Inside it resembled a barn. We sat on some low stools behind the driver seat and he introduced us to an interesting technique of hash smoking which involved a drawing pin, a beer deckle and a small glass. About ten rounds later, I had an unwipeable smile on my face. Des got out his camera and snapped a picture of me and Peter, side by side, grinning like chimps into the camera. Des's van made it easy to forget that we were actually sitting in a car park on a summer's evening. Instead I felt like we were in the belly of a cargo plane. We were certainly flying but we were on the ground.
I remember joking as we all sat there, "Hey, who's driving?" I think I accidentally set Peter's cogs working overtime. He suddenly looked very serious and stood up. "Who WAS driving?". He opened the side door and the last rays of the day came pouring in. The twilight seemed very bright to us. Peter stood framed in the doorway. "Don't jump", I giggled. But Peter was flying on a higher cloud than me and I think he was a little worried. He stepped gingerly outside like he was testing hot water with his toe. Then his face popped up at the back window. "Where's Rik" he shouted? Rik was back in Regensburg. I figured we should leave. We were both incredibly stoned. I can only imagine that Des was just as stoned. Clumsily, we hoisted our packs and asked Des if he'd like to join us for a beer. He declined, stating that he didn't drink and drive. Personally at that moment I was having trouble even walking.
So we left Des and we got ourselves lost on a zebra crossing. We decided it was best to search for somewhere quiet to try come down a bit. Thus we found ourselves in a city park called Motherwell Park. Motherwell is the name of a town in Scotland. It turns out that Motherwell is a twin city of Schweinfurt.
By now it was completely dark. We sat on the see saw for a while unable to figure out how it worked. We switched to a park bench which had more stability and got out our guitars. Slowly we mellowed out and began to drift back towards our rattled senses. That was when I wrote down the first draft of Holy Smoke: sitting on that dark bench in Motherwell Park.
Later we went back to the town centre and sat in a beer garden in the main square. The beer was served from a portable kiosk which seemed to be run by a 12 year old Italian kid and his little brother.
After about 3 beers we were back on the planet and feeling relaxed with just a comfy lingering hash buzz. I guess Des had just caught us off guard.
So we got a couple more bottled beers to take away and went singing down the road back to the bush.
"Oh holy smoke how fine you look. Tips my hat and tells me jokes. My holy smoke."
Apr 4, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy Boots Band.
Opening Day at the Market.
As if by magic the sun chose to shine on Bellingham today. The crowds were out and the market was buzzing. We set up to play under a canopy tent that had been erected outside the Boundary Bay Pub. Chuck from Band Zant was playing drums with us again. Since first he sat in with us, this was the first time he was actually allowed to put some volume into his drumming.
Donald had a nasty virus and was sick as a dog but made it through the gig. He had to be told about it later because he'd been so medicated. It had all been a foggy blur.
My recollection was a bit hazy too but that was just due to the shock of getting up early.
The morning was still chilly when we started around 11am. I had trouble holding my plectrum but we warmed up soon enough and breezed easily through an hour and a half set.
A few rows of benches had been set out for people to park themselves on to enjoy the sun and music. The whole market atmosphere was relaxed and easy going. Quite a festive occasion really. There were a few buskers about doing their thing. I don't think we drowned them out. Apologies if we did. They probably earned more than us anyway. I think that because we had amps, people assumed we were getting paid: which was not the case. With this economic crisis going on, many people are having money troubles. Charlie kindly offered to take some of that troublesome money off anyone's hands who felt they had more than they could cope with. Thankfully there were some folks who allowed us to share their burden. We were glad to help.
Buskers always amaze me at the market. Two busker bands will sometimes stand 20 feet apart on parallel aisles yet they seem to believe that because a flap of canvas separates them, their sounds don't merge. I pity the poor vendors with an act behind their stall and one in front: both playing completely different music. It must sound horrific.
Musically, we didn't stretch ourselves or go out of our way to play anything too heavy or new. We've barely practiced at all since about 2 months so we took no chances and stuck to a simple, tried and trusted set. We actually forgot to play a few of our regulars like, Please Don't Go and Annecy. We did play Driving Down Chuckanut at the end and I was quite amazed to see people singing along by the 2nd verse. The Chuckanut Highway is a local landmark. That means that singing along is obligatory. Support your local landmark.
So it was a positive experience. Tips were fair and I even sold some CDs. Roll on summer.
Mar 17, 2009
Two St Patrick's Day Gigs with Whiskey Galore.
This establishment has an odd setup. The people were 5 deep at the bar but due to a barrier that separated these people from the dance floor there was very little overspill onto the open space all around the stage. It presented a comical picture as I oversaw it from high upon the afore mentioned stage. All those people crammed elbow to elbow with their drinks clutched against their chest while right there beyond the barrier was the open range. That barrier may as well have been the Great Wall of China. Kind of reminded me of going to mass in Neilston where everyone was afraid to sit up the front. The first ten rows would always be empty while the back would be jammed. It was as if the congregation had a fear of the priest in case he put a hex on them. I don't think the Dubliner crowd had a fear of us. They had a fear of losing their grip on the bar counter.
We had a sound guy doing the mix for us. He done a fine job and thus we were all able to hear each other's racket quite clearly. Considering we had only had about 2 full practices in the past few months, we did remarkably well. Even the jig stuff worked out fairly well.
My problem with the jig stuff is being unable to connect the tune with the proper title. We are generally half way through it before I have isolated the melody. Then just as we are finishing, I finally have it worked out. Nevertheless I am making progress.
As gigs go, this was a lot of fun. Plenty of chaos.
I can't help wondering if this was the same bar I went to with Hil, Paul and Diane back in 1994. Me and Hil were on holiday and we'd all gone to an Irish bar that fitted The Dubliner's description. I remember we were playing pool and talking about the ridiculously cheap price of petrol.
It was getting late and someone yelled, "Drink up". We still had about a quarter of a pitcher of beer left on the table. Well everyone was saturated and we were being pressured to leave so I just picked it up in both hands and started glugging it down as fast as I could. It must be my Scottish heritage: can't waste good beer. Well I was swiftly down to the last drips and was staring across the bar through the blurred bottom of the pitcher when I saw a face fill the frame. I lowered the pitcher and I saw before me, a smiling Chinese man about my age. For a second I stared dumbly back at him then I realized what I'd done. "Oh Jeez" I stammered, "That was yours? I didn't know…I thought it was mine… I'll buy you another… ". But the guy just laughed and said he thought it was hilarious. I'm glad it wasn't Glasgow.
Back in present day Seattle, we finished the 3 hour gig and had to rush off to Mulleady's Irish Bar.
The Mulleady's gig was far more intense than the Dubliner. Probably because it is so much more intimate. The crowd was right there in front of us instead of fenced off like in The Dubliner. We'd played Mulleady's last year too. It is an incredibly dark bar but this time round, it didn't feel quite so dark. Perhaps they'd invested in a lightbulb. (I actually brought a torch with me.) The stage though was definitely just as cramped. I'd say Mulleady's is remeniscent of the Shamrock in Munich except with all the lights turned off.
This gig didn't start till well after 10pm. The crowd was well liquored up by this stage. They were in fine form and there was some fine imaginative dancing. This resulted in an unlucky staff member appearing like a war zone stretcher bearer with rags and mops to wipe up beer puddles whilst dodging the jigging masses who slipped and tumbled all around him.
Both gigs were a lot of fun. I'd say I enjoyed Mulleady's more than The Dubliner gig. It had a rowdier atmosphere which is where Whiskey Galore are really at their best.
Best fun songs of the night for me personally? Jack of Galway right at the end of the Mulleady's gig. I also really enjoyed Muirshin Durkin, which I can play slightly better than I can spell.
Mar 13, 2009
James Higgins and the Moonshine Combine.
13 and 14 March.
Paddy's Night Warm Up.
Poppe's gig 1
The Moonshine Combine was really an amalgamation of The Muddy Boots Band meets Whiskey Galore meets The Productionists, meets the 3Ds.
I'd never been in Poppe's before. It is a cocktail lounge attached to the Lakeway Inn. At first glance it seemed a little upscale. I haven't made my mind up yet.
The stage was at the far end of a circular bar counter. The lights were dim but the place looked well taken care of. The stage was inserted into the wall like a rectangular box alcove. We just managed to squeeze in. Tree was pressed into one back corner with his drums. Electric Eric was in the other back corner with his effects board and guitar.
The place was fairly hopping and there was a lively atmosphere though I don't think people were quite tuned into Paddy's Night mania yet.
Interesting to play for a crowd who were probably not going to be driving later on. I imagine a fair portion of the clientele were staying overnight at the Inn. They weren't shy about drinking.
Anyway musically we were on fair form and rattled through our first set like we almost knew what we were doing. The crowd were enthusiastic though a little distant. The second set began with a bunch of jigs. Janice got up and played her flute while Donald switched from bass to mandolin. Eric emerged from his corner and played rhythm. I got the wash tub out. Charlie and Tree took a seat. Unfortunately I forgot my wash tub glove, so I had to stop before I got rope burn.
By the third set the bar had calmed down a little but we still played for 45 minutes and put a lot of energy into it.
Slightly busier than the first night. A few more friendly faces and a few different songs but basically a carbon copy gig.
We strayed a little from our St Patrick's night styled set as the bar emptied. There were a few diehard revelers but the night had essentially fizzled out again after the 2nd set.
On the whole I'd say we played quite good over the two nights. Three hour gigs are hard to pace. Looking back I think we should have done a half hour set then some jigs. After that we should have either played straight through or made the 2nd set the real strong gig set followed by a half hour set for the stragglers. The moral of the story? Don't listen to bar owners: listen to your instincts.
Still, both nights were a lot of fun. Understandably there were a few hiccups but nothing catastrophic. Eric had his synth guitar making flute, violin and trumpet sounds. We had a couple of comical duets which, along with some cazumpet and harmonica solos, left the audience scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Funniest moment for me was when Donald turned to Tree who was crammed in the corner behind his drums, and asked if he needed anything. A sad little voice answered, "I need a hug".
My most enjoyable songs over the piece? I'd say," I Will Go" from the 1st gig. The second night I feel we were dragging our feet on it a bit. Ally Bally on the 1st night too was fun. Funnily enough, "Whiskey in the Jar" was quite enjoyable both nights. I never thought it would be possible to wring a further drip of enjoyment out of that song. But there ye go. Another unexpected hit was "Donald Where's Yer Troosers".
Vampire Blues was great with the Batman bass solo. Even though "Tears Tears Tears" is the same tune, both songs get great responses. I always consider "Tears" as a bit of a filler but I guess it should be a regular on the First Team.
So that was Poppe's. Maybe they'll have us back in a few months. The place really reminded me of Dinky Jones's place in Ingolstadt (Le Journal). Except obviously a bit bigger and minus the sexy waitresses. Well ye can't have everything.
Last but not least: well done to all the brave musicians who took to the stage and did such a great job at such short notice.
Feb 14, 2009
James Higgins and the Muddy boots
It was just me and Charlie at the Honeymoon for this gig. Donald was sick and the venue wasn't very drummer friendly.
So it was an all acoustic affair and quite easy going. We played from 8 till about 10:30. Nothing spectacular happened apart from getting paid. I guess these days, that's pretty spectacular.
Afterwards we sat up at the bar and had ourselves a cheese platter. I must admit I am a slave to good cheese. Move over Wallace and Gromit, there's competition in town. I should change the lyrics of "Play for Free" to "Play for Cheese".
I recall back in Annecy busking, I'd go shopping at midday before the shops closed for lunch. I'd buy a baguette, a beer, and a camembert cheese. I'd filet the baguette and insert the entire camembert in slices. Then I'd start chomping at one end and devour the whole thing. If I was in the company of any French people, they would shake their heads and say, "Les Ecossaise sont fou" (Scots are mad). To which I had no reply because my mouth was full. But they were probably right. How was I supposed to know that a camembert was supposed to last for a week?
End of the day it was a good little gig. Nice ambience. A loud audience but not obnoxious. It can't be helped that wine does make people naturally chatty.
Towards the end we threw in a few odd songs like Norwegian Wood and Singing in the Rain. No one looked too worried.
There seemed to be a lot of folks taking our photographs throughout the evening. Maybe they thought we were someone else.
Feb 7, 2009
Not much to say. We played without a PA system even though we had Chuck from Band Zant sitting in on drums. I think we underestimated the crowd volume. I ended up shouting to be heard. I guess we could have plugged a mic in but the owner was there and she seemed really stressed out about everything and anything. We thought it wise not to disturb her precarious equilibrium.
We first noticed her presence when Hil was backing the van a little closer to the back door so we could unload the gear. There was a sudden bang. We thought at first we'd hit something but it turned out to be the owner shrieking and pounding on the van window. Apparently she didn't want Hil to reverse and this had set her into panic mode.
Inside the place she insisted we not leave any stuff in the hallway. She didn't exactly welcome us to her establishment. Chuck sneaked his percussion in one piece at a time. It really was one of those gigs where a band can feel so restricted and barely tolerated. We've played there before and always had good vibes from all the staff but this time there was a streak of explosive tension running round the place. Sadly, bosses often tend to have this detrimental effect on their own establishments. A shame.
After Hil and Jan had eaten we were down 30 dollars. I've never eaten there yet. You'd think they'd just put the wive's meals on a band tab. Just give us an X amount of dollars band tab for food and let us spend it on whoever we want.
So the gig was fine. There were some fun moments as we pulled out some less played songs. Jenny Grey made a rare first team appearance. Tears Tears Tears was a good jam. So was Any Old Time.
I think we are growing weary of adjusting our set for every separate gig. (Though it's a luxury to have that ability.) We just want to turn up and say, "This is who we are. This is what we play. Like it or lump it."
It's not as if we are getting paid huge sums of money. Some of these venues are difficult to prise a tea bag out of. Hard times indeed. Gigs with pay are just drying up, especially for a 4 piece outfit.
I've enjoyed just about every gig we have ever played but this gig was just disheartening. A reality check. The dishwasher left with more profit than us. And he didn't look that happy.
There are some places in town that really shouldn't have live music. Quite a few in fact.
Regensburg was bigger than Bellingham but the live music usually took place in real designated venues. Very few bars had novelty music. Restaurants relied on good food to attract customers. Bars sold good beer and had unique atmospheres. This individuality kept everyone in the proper places. Food was great, beer was delicious and the live music was of a generally high standard.
Out here in Bellingham, just about every bar has some musician, crappy or excellent sitting in a corner playing for next to nothing. Beer is often mediocre, food overpriced and unimaginative and the overall atmosphere, overly neon and lacking at best.
The Chuckanut Brewery beer garden may be fine in summer but who wants a 4 piece band in their face during their dining experience inside a small restaurant.
The second last time I saw of the owner, she was running across the car park and talking frantically to herself. Then she stopped and ran back inside. After a moment she returned. We watched her as, still babbling, she fought her way into her coat and ran off into the darkness without even saying thanks or goodnight. And that was the last I saw of her. Presumably she had more important matters on her mind. I hope it works out well.
Feb 7, 2009
A quirky little lunch time gig. This event was a celebration of one of Bellingham's underappreciated attractions: the rain. Me and Donald stood on the Stage at the Fairhaven Green and played some incidental music while people paraded in turn of the (19th) century costumes. There was a "Raining Queen" who sat on a huge throne and oversaw the proceedings. There was a poetry competition, a fashion contest and some strange incidental music. No rain though. Maybe we should have had a rain dance.
It was all very casual. A small semi circle of maybe 50 people had gathered to listen and cheer the participants.
I shook my rain stick. Donald made rumbling bass noises. We probably sounded like acoustic indigestion but we forged ahead as ye do with an ad-lib version of Praying for a Leap Year and an instrumental version of Traveling Bag. It was all over in a half hour.
As the little cloud of people evaporated, we hung around and did some tentative busking. We played La Ville D'Annecy and practiced Singing in the Rain, which is very addictive and hard to stop playing. Doo de doot doo, doo de doot de doot do….