This was the Charlie Morris Band's first tour of the UK, and we were determined to do it right. We started on the South Coast of England and made our way all the way up to the Orkney Islands Blues Festival. On the way we dipped our toes in all four seas bordering the Sceptre'd Isle: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic.
New bass player David Clarke, of Sussex, worked out very well. Not only is he a fine player, but he was a great help in organizing the tour. Transport, lodging and equipment all worked out smoothly. Every gig went well, and several resulted in repeat bookings, as you will see. We made a lot of new friends, including an impressive number of good musicians. We ate and drank our way through the local specialties wherever we went.
We started off at the Half Brick in Worthing. This classic pub sits right on the seafront, and puts on Blues every week. Landlord Bob Brooks is a mean harp player and singer himself (with several CDs out), and sat in for a few tunes with the band. An enormous plate of lobster pasta filled the belly, and the local South Coast posse filled the room.
Next up was the Blues of the Month Festival in Cleethorpes (or Meggies), another pretty English seaside resort town. We went on first, and played an hour set to a packed house. Following us were Ian Siegal and Marcus Malone, both great acts. After the show, we had a nice curry and a couple of pints.
After a drive through the beautiful Lake District, we were in Barrow-in-Furness. The Duke of Edinburgh is a classic old Victorian-era city hotel, which must have been bustling with mustachioed, bowler-hatted gentlemen who sat around saying "I say, old chap. Capital port, what?" back in the day. Nowadays, however, the talk was of a couple of big plants that had recently closed, and how half the town was unemployed. They hadn't forgotten how to drink, and we had a warm and enthusiastic crowd.
As I add this bit years later, I can tell you that this was one of the lamest hotels of my (30-year so far) touring career (for even worse ones, see my travel blog). This hotel was obviously quite posh at one time, but that time was when Victoria was still queen. The classic central atrium was quiet and seemed haunted, as most of the floors were uninhabited, and the ornate old plumbing fixtures were gray with grunge. The boys' room had a broken window, which let in the rain and cold, and bloodstains on the sheets. Speedy bounded into his bed, and it collapsed on the floor, just like in the cartoons! It was the only time in known history when the Tigress wanted to stay in the pub for another round or two, rather than go back to the room.
The two things I miss most about the UK when I am elsewhere are Indian food and British ale. True, many bars in the States and Europe serve various English and Scottish brews, but the true hand-pumped Real Ale does not travel well, and can be properly enjoyed only in its natural habitat. A nice fresh pint of bitter in a pub is perhaps the beer connoisseur's ultimate experience. To say nothing of the joys of a nice cool pint of Guiness. Cheers, Chris!
In Glasgow, we played at Studio One, a bar housed in the Hilton Hotel where they have Blues every Monday night. Here we had an excellent crowd, who danced, sang, bought CDs, got us drunk and just had a big time. Of course, we could hardly understand two words they said, but who cares?
The Loft at O'Donoghue's in Aberdeen is a great concert venue: a really nice medium-size hall with a wonderful stage, sound and lighting. The promoters and staff treated us great. There was only one tiny thing: the audience. It was a Tuesday night, and only two guys and a dog showed up. Fortunately the dog was drinking top-shelf stuff.
We paid a visit to the Glen Moray Whisky Distillery near Elgin. The first stage of making whisky is just like making beer: malted barley is fermented, converting sugar to alcohol. Next the mixture is distilled to make whisky, which is aged in carefully-prepared barrels for up to 25 years. The longer in the barrel, the more pronounced the woody, smoky flavor.
Despite the tour's title, we assure you we did not drink any cheap scotch on the trip (it's not called "scotch" here anyway), but only fine single malt whisky. Every bar worth its salt in Scotland has a large selection of single-malt whiskies, which they drink in wee glasses with just a drop of water to bring out the flavor.
Here Speedy gets a whiff of the malt as it's brewing.
Our next gig was at Carnegie Hall. Actually, we played in the bar, not in the hall, but close enough. The Carnegie Lodge is a very nice small hotel and restaurant with a beautiful ocean view, in the wee town of Tain. Lodging and food here were tip-top, and the audience was excellent. We hung out with some local musicians (of the Dreadful Grate band), and had a great time. Devin ended up staying up and jamming with them in the bar until 5 AM, trading off Celtic and Bluegrass tunes.
The next day we saw the most spectacular scenery of the trip, as we crossed over the Highlands to get to Ullapool. A single-lane road through high moors, treeless but green and lush, streams and small lakes everywhere. Lots and lots of sheep. Yes, we got tired of sheep jokes.
Ullapool is a quaint town in a spectacular natural setting, on a bay surrounded by mountains. The Seaforth is a homey restaurant and hotel where they serve a variety of excellent seafood and a huge variety of single-malt whiskies. A mixed crowd of locals and tourists started off mellow, but were having a great time once they got a few drinks in 'em.
The next morning, it was time to head to the end of the world. A spectacular drive along a rugged seacoast brought us to the ferry terminal at Scrabster, whence we took ship for the Orkneys. Our sturdy Panther Van was still running like a champ.
The Orkneys are a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. They have a stark beauty - not many trees, but very green, with loads of spectacular ocean vistas. There are plenty of touristic points of interest, including prehistoric sites and lots of maritime history. Stromness is a quaint wee town, with a few pubs salty enough to warm an old seadog's rum. Aye, aye, hearties!
The Orkney Blues Festival is a four-day scene that takes place at different venues all over the Islands, a mix of concerts, seminars, master classes and open jams, not to mention plenty of casual barroom playing and singing (what we Southern boys might call parking lot pickin). We were right in the center of the action at the Stromness Hotel, and got to hear and hang out with a number of great musicians from all over the UK and beyond.
Dining and drinking were of the finest. Charles had what just may be the best salmon of his young life. He also, after much build-up, got to try the dreaded Haggis, and was somewhat surprised to find that it wasn't at all bad! Kind of like giblet turkey stuffing. The tigress got to try her pickled herring, which was also quite nice. A variety of tasty salmon spreads and local cheeses round out the fun. The Orkneys have a fine brewery, whose wares we sampled liberally. Our favorite was Red MacGregor. There are also two local distilleries, which produce whisky as fine as any in Scotland.
Charlie gave a bit of a seminar on Blues lyrics (sadly neglected by many of today's crop of guitar-slinging Bluesmen), giving examples of the evolution of Blues words through the Delta and Chicago eras. He also discussed his own lyric-writing techniques, pointing out the ways in which he draws inspiration from the old masters. This was an acoustic performance (thanks very much to Roy Mette, another fine musician and songwriter at the festival, for lending Chuck his guitar), accompanied by Devin on harp.
The first night, the band played a set in the bar at the Stromness Hotel. The second night, we played in the larger concert hall. Both shows were to full and enthusiastic houses, making an excellent climax to our tour. On the bill with us were the Spikedrivers, a trio of excellent musicians who have a totally unique, acoustic-oriented sound featuring lots of slide guitar and percussion. Guitarist Ben came up and played a couple tunes with us during our encore.
The ferry ride back to the mainland was mighty rough. Aaar! I been at see for forty years, an' I seen many a stout sailor yaaaaarfin' o'er the side! Old salts that we are, we all hung out outside in the fresh air and told each other stories to keep busy, so we managed a yarf-free passage. Then we had to drive the van the entire length of Britain, back to Sussex, to grab a few hours of sleep then climb on a plane at Gatwick. What did we have to say after such a grueling road trip? Let's do it again!