John French has kindly sent along his account of the Magic Band’s recent UK tour.
The Magic Band’s “mini-tour” went well.
We stayed in Basingstoke, England at a friend’s house to rehearse. It worked out perfectly for us, as we were able to rehearse in the living room for three days. I had gone over a day earlier (November 24th) and sorted out the backline with Malcolm Mills, the owner of Proper Music, who put out my last CD and published my book. Malcolm let me stay at his beautiful home with him, his wife Miriam, and sister-in-law Hillary.
Upon arrival, I realized I hadn’t uploaded my work permit number to my new Kindle, and was in a panic. I had been kicked out of the country when I was nineteen for not having a work permit. Things have changed a bit in the way they’re handled. It used to be a piece of paper. Then, it was a form you printed on your computer. Now, it’s just a number. Well, in my last minute rush, I had forgotten to write down the number. The immigration office took down all my information, asked me extensive questions, and then directed me to sit in a detention area, kindly giving me a piece of paper stating that I was “being detained.” He also warned me that I could be refused admittance to the country.
It was Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Two ladies, who looked and sounded Filipino, were also seated in this area a few minutes later. I decided to search my bag, just to keep my mind off the situation. Again, no luck; I had NOT put anything in my paperwork containing my work permit number. Soon, I heard the immigration officer’s voice… “Drumbo?” He asked. I whirled around smiling. He said, “my boss is in a good mood today, because it’s a weekend, and said, ‘let him through’. He said to tell you he has… oh, something about a fish…” I said, “Trout Mask Replica!!” He replied, “Yes, that’s it.”
Sometimes, it’s a good thing to be a bit well known. Our first show was at the Scala in London. I announced to the audience that the last thing a band wants to do is initialize their tour in a big important city with lots of critics in the audience, so I was relieved when I found out we’d be playing in a small town called London. Though the show was rough, it went off well, and we received a wonderful review in a jazz blog. Afterwards, I went out to sign books and CDs, and security had a really tough time getting people out of the place. It was flattering and troubling all at once.
The lineup of the New Magic Band is:
- John “Drumbo” French — Vocals, Harmonica, drums.
- Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston — Bass
- Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley — Slide Guitar
- Craig Bunch — Drums (from my Drumbo group)
- Eric Klerks — Guitar (also from my Drumbo group)
Musically, this band is a very strong group. Craig has been able to master my style of drumming to the point where we can play together and it sounds almost like one guy. We’ve spent quite a bit of time together, and it shows. There is a YouTube video of us playing drums to one of the compositions (Hair Pie, as I recall).
Eric uses a similar style of playing that was used on most of the Beefheart stuff. It is a finger-picking, Delta Blues approach, mixed with country and Cajun styles. Eric was featured in “Alice in Blunderland” (an instrumental piece I drum on during the center section of the set) and magnificently caught the spirit of the original solo while still making it his own.
Our second show, after a night off, was in Dublin, Ireland. At the airport my carry-on was searched thoroughly as I had forgotten and left my shaving kit in it, with nail-nippers and (gasp) a ‘gel’. The hotel was within walking distance of the venue in an old part of Dublin with Cobblestone streets. Mark and I had dinner at the “Bull and Castle” – a pub that was highly recommended by the local merchants. We sat by the fireplace and across from us sat a mother and her daughter. I ordered Fish and Chips, and when the waitress served, I noticed there was no ketchup and asked the waitress who was already several steps away if I could have ketchup. She didn’t hear me, and I turned to Mark and said “maybe they don’t have ketchup in Ireland – to which the lady and daughter burst into hysterical laughter saying to each other “no ketchup in Ireland… ha ha!”
The Following afternoon, the promoter of the Dublin show, Paul Timoney, worked with us all day to get everything just right. The sound crew and lighting man were great to work with. The sound check was one of our longest. Afterwards, Paul walked Craig, Eric, and myself to a Japanese restaurant, where I ordered Sake and a Veggie curry dish. It was a small, crowded place, but with a lot of happy laughter, giving it a great atmosphere.
The show in Dublin went well, and an added benefit was that we actually had a second smaller drum kit on stage, which allowed Craig and I the chance to play together. I had to work on the floor tom for about an hour to get it to work, but managed to secure the leg into place. So, we drummed together on “My Human Gets Me Blues.” After the show, I went out again to the merch table and met a lot of the audience members. Also, I ran into my great friend Michael Maksemenko, who told me what I already had realized: “This is the BEST band yet!” I told him I felt it was more of a teamwork thing, as the egos were laid on the table at each show, and we just worked as a unit.
I may be the “front-man” of the group, but that doesn’t make me any more important than anyone in the group, and there was a common bond between us that I have never felt in a group since High School garage bands. We had reached that point of camaraderie that makes a group work. After each show, there was a lot of laughter as we recalled our blunders of the night.
The next day was one of the most difficult. We had to fly Ryanair to Liverpool. This was one where we were dreading the flight back on Ryanair, because they were famous for charging ridiculous rates for luggage. Before leaving, I had to spend an evening at the “mansion” (we call it Maggie’s Farm) building a cardboard box lined with bubble pack to take over my combination harmonica-case in-ear monitor system. They charged me extra for it, because harmonicas are “musical instruments.” But they would have charged way more had we not complied with their 15 Kilo weight limit. Ironically, the flight to Liverpool from Dublin took nearly as long as Denny’s flight from Atlanta to London — NOT in air time, but in all the fiddling around and waiting at the airport. Seven hours later, we were finally in Liverpool, after a 30 minute flight from Hell. A LOT of chatterbugs on the plane made the flight crazy.
The Kazimir is a small venue, and right behind it was our hotel; one-half block down the street and through a parking lot and you’re there. But, it took quite a while to find the hotel due to the confusing layer of one-way streets so we were late for soundcheck. Sound check was a little rough as the main soundman does everything — monitors and mains — and the system was limited. I basically couldn’t hear the band in my monitors, so I had to turn down my voice and just go by the leakage. It worked, and after a while, I felt comfortable. The whole time, the room was freezing cold. Hey, I’m from the Mojave Desert.
The guys in the warm-up group, “The Wicked Whispers” brought us some GREAT food. I had veggie curry. It was delivered to the hotel, and I sat in my room, having a fabulous meal.
We had a heckler in the front of the crowd – an older alumni from the early days. He kept saying to keep the sound down and was VERY adamant about this. I finally got him to calm down, as it was very distracting when doing the last minute checks before beginning to play. The last thing you need is someone trying to strike up a conversation with you.
The audience went crazy, so it was a wild and wonderful night. The merch booth was actually a booth (usually, it’s a table) and I signed, again, a LOT of books, CDs, and a few T-Shirts. In the dressing room, Michael Murphy (the promoter and lead singer of Wicked Whispers), brought his fiancé, Tasha, and her mother and father in to meet us. Tasha was a beautiful girl who had tested out potential suitors by playing Trout Mask Replica for them… And if they liked it, she would consider seeing them again. Michael was won over, but I must say that this girl could win anyone over; she was a real winner in all ways — great personality, beauty, and intelligence. He parents were Beefheart fans from years ago, and they were so happy to hear the music again. So, thanks to Michael Murphy and “The Wicked Whispers” it was a very enjoyable evening.
The next day, we drove to Bristol to play at the venue “Thekla” which is an old cargo boat docked on the river. The load-in was difficult, as the venue was in the hold, so it was all stairs. I noticed a mildew-like smell and it reminded me of the time I caught a terrible lung infection by breathing the air in a tunnel in Serbia years before. Needless to say, I was concerned. You could see bits of the metal hull of the ship and it was evident that there is a slight bit of leakage. I put that out of my head, and we set up the equipment. By this time, I’m noticing the same thing as in Liverpool: it was FREEZING cold in this venue. They don’t bother to heat it up until the folks arrive.
Well, we had a better sound system, but still no on-stage monitor guy. The soundman got us a great sound, and everything seemed to go well — until the actual show. The sound was totally different, and all night the band fought with monitors that were too loud, or unbalanced in what was coming out of them. We try to avoid thinking about this during a show, and have to use our imagination a lot to think about what it might actually sound like out front. I looked down at the audience and recognized a FaceBook friend standing right in front — and I even remembered her name! Christine Barfoot — for some reason that name sticks in my head when all others dissipate into oblivion and beyond. I had the pleasure of meeting with her and her significant other — Jeff Marauder Preece – after the show
I had mentioned during the set about my first experience in 1968 of having John Peel announce our show. Our first song was “Electricity” and so before the song I announced it. Actually, if memory serves, I may be wrong, as it may have been “Abba Zaba.” Anyway, a fellow came up to me after the show, introduced himself and said, “I was there for your first show at the Middle Earth in London. It’s moments like these that are equally as rewarding as all the musical experiences. The faithful followers of the music that still turn out for shows is something that I deeply treasure.
The following night, we played at the Princess Pavilion in Falmouth. Between sound check and performance, we went back to the Villa Capri and I went on FaceBook using my Kindle, kicking my feet up on the radiator and sitting by that lovely window to hear the ocean. Suddenly, I woke up – I had fallen asleep – and I had absolutely no idea who or where I was. It was very distracting. When it all came to me, I finally realized I had less than a half-hour till show time. Having no time to warm-up my voice I just dressed and did partial packing for the next morning’s drive.
It was a Monday night, so we didn’t expect much of a turnout, though it was better than I had imagined it to be. On the drive there, we had run across Christine and Jeff again – who were on their way to Falmouth to hear us again. The sound check went well, but again, there was only one soundman and after the warm-up group, our sound was again completely different on stage and I would label this as “the most difficult show.” In “Floppy Boot Stomp,” we actually became completely lost and there was just a moment when everything stopped. I’d love to see a video of that moment when we all just kind of skidded to a sudden and momentary halt. The soundman had tweaked the knobs differently for the warm-up, and we suffered for it all night.
Much of the time, the audience doesn’t really realize that we’re not hearing at all what they are hearing. It must be a little disconcerting when the band sounds lost or becomes lost, as the audience is hearing a completely different mix. The lighting was also very obnoxious, and it was the only night I actually complained about the lights and asked if they had any other color besides “yellow.” They turned up some blue, and later some red, which helped a lot.
During “Suction Prints” I was able to secure towels for the band from the stage manager, who I wished had actually promoted the show, as he was very accommodating and understanding. The last half of the show went better, but at one point, Denny had so much of Eric coming through his monitor that he had to stop and ask right out “turn the other guitar DOWN, PLEASE!” – so he could hear himself.
All flubs aside, the audience was wonderful, very appreciative, and genuinely supportive of our slightly foiled performance. I would rate this as a six and a half out of ten, most of the problems being tech-related. The performance seems to come off well for the audience was happy and many congratulated us afterwards.
By the way, if you want a beautiful hotel in Falmouth, the Villa Capri was just down the road, and is a wonderful little Bed ‘n Breakfast actually. Loved the staff and the rooms were fantastic. I had an ocean view and went jogging on the beach in the morning – quite proud of myself until I spied a man swimming laps out beyond the waves at half-seven in the morning. Egad!
That morning we faced an entirely-too-long drive to Nottingham. When we arrived, we then had problems finding the hotel, as the GPS had a dead battery. Finally, we were settled in a nice warm hotel (actually, the lobby was FREEZING) and had a great meal. I settled in for a well-needed rest, and Craig and Eric both fought with colds I was afraid I’d contract – which would render me useless as a singer.
We have played the Rescue Rooms three times now – ’04, ’05 and ’11. This was the BEST we have done, and the whole thing can be viewed online from a balcony POV. I am very pleased with the night. We did have one small problem with the sound, which turned out to be simply a bad cable that Jonathan, the stage monitor soundman, was able to replace. My only problem was that I was wearing gloves, and when I went to play the drums, I was playing quite poorly until I removed them – then everything was fine.
Nottingham has a great staff, a fine dressing room, and probably one of the more appreciative (in the audible sense ) audiences one could play for. The catering backstage was fantastic. I had a totally vegetarian plate, and it was so good I just DEVOURED it and I’m not really one to eat before a show. Once we were onstage, I had the house lights turned up for a minute so I could see the crowd and it was stunning to see so many people squeezed in. It was also one of the only shows where we took a break mid set and so I got to meet folks back at the Merch booth. Our driver, Michael Kemp, is one GREAT guy who just about accommodated and foresaw everything problem and solved it quickly. What a gent! He was handling merch for the shows and quickly became one of the team.
That night it was a long time before we actually were able to load up the van. The up-side of that was being able to speak with so many followers of the music, having a few laughs, and freezing together in the cold, damp weather. The load out was surprisingly painless because just about EVERYONE in the staff and several in the audience, pitched in and carried something out. It was done quickly and then we had to find a secure place to park the van.
The next day, we drove to Leeds, our last spot, and our third time playing at The Irish Centre. There’s something wonderful and magical about the Irish Centre, and I was very touched to see two Christmas trees up on the stage in the two back corners. Steve, our soundman, had been our soundman on all three shows we had played in Leeds, and knows the music well. When he told me he could only give me a mono mix (no stage monitor guy again) I was really apprehensive that it would be difficult, but the stage mix was fantastic for me – through my in-ears – all night. It was an absolutely great way to end a tour. I was so happy; I hopped up on the large PA speakers for a time. John Keenan, the promoter was thrilled. His daughter did her impersonation of a US Valley girl, and I must say, it was really quite convincing.
We discovered that night, much to our dismay, that Mark had to be at Heathrow very early the next morning for the flight home, as he lives in Oregon and was not departing with the rest of us. Actually, neither was Denny, who lives in Atlanta, GA. What wound up happening was an all-night packing and preparing for the trip home session, with us getting absolutely no sleep and leaving at 4 in the morning. By the time we arrived at Heathrow around 8 a.m., we were all on our second wind, and basically walking zombies. We said our goodbye’s and went our separate ways – Eric, Craig and I having the longest wait for our return flight to LA – 6 hours until our flight loaded.
I went to buy some chocolate at a shop in the Airport for my wife and daughter and started to talking to a couple, who asked what I did. When I told them, a guy in the front of the line turned around and exclaimed “Drumbo!” quite loudly. I was very humbled to be privileged with such nice company. Special thanks to Maggie (in whose house we stayed), Mick (our wonderful driver), Malcolm Mills, founder of Proper Records (who helped with merch, backline and even picked me up at the airport!), and many more thanks to everyone who came out for the shows. It’s an honor to play for such wonderful people and couldn’t stop smiling through most of the tour. It has to be the best tour experience I’ve ever had, and the guys all seemed in agreement with that. Many thanks to all the promoters, soundmen, caterers and members of the audience who contributed to make this the best tour yet.