Tales from the Rails – repainting stripes once earned

It’s just as well I’m currently reading Amanda Palmer’s ‘The Art Of Asking’, otherwise I wouldn’t know what I was doing here. I’m in Cromford (“Not gonna lie, sounds grim”, someone texted me on my way). In fact, Cromford is far from it – a beautiful sleepy village close to the peak district with one of the most amazing book shops in the country. I had agreed to play at The Boat Inn, which is a pub. Although my last gig at The Boat Inn was five years ago, the walk from the train station to the village centre was intuitive, as if it were a daily excursion, rather than one I had done once in a different life time. Let me just say, it’s been a very long time since I’ve done a pub gig like this. The prospect of poring my heart out into a microphone standing listlessly in the corner of the room falling on the ears of un-expecting patrons, the majority of whom are sceptical (at best) to live music mustling in on their Friday evening, brings me war-like flashbacks. As I strolled into the Boat Inn, my old battle wounds flared up. Don’t get me wrong, playing these shows is part of the education, but my ego was screaming, telling me that I’d graduated with flying colours at least three years ago and why was I doing this again?! I did know why I was doing this, really.. I was super flattered that the promoter (thanks Ted) and his friend Nigel (who had kept in touch with me throughout those five years and has come to other shows and supported my album) had been persistent in asking me back. I definitely wanted to do this for them.

I was asked to play roughly 2 x 45 minute sets, the pub was pretty much severed in half – those who were sat facing me, listening, and the rest, lovingly called “bullshit corner” by some of the patrons in the listening section. The key is of course to get them all. I had forgotten how much I used to enjoy that challenge. These kind of gigs can be super fun and exhilarating in one moment, soul destroying in the next (so a micro cosmos of any singer songwriter’s universe I suppose!).

When the pub got really noisy, I had a moment of playing odd cover songs just for me (The National / Anais Mitchell). At one point, when I put my guitar down and sang unaccompanied, the entire place, bullshit corner and all, shuts up for the duration of the song (“I’ve never seen that happen”, the girl behind the bar says to me after).

There are plenty of people who tune in and out. There are folks at the back who could not have cared less, who shouted loudly throughout, who walked right passed me and didn’t make eye contact. There is a man who wipes his eyes when I play Run. There is another, slightly older man in the front row, hanging on every word for the full two hours (he had also chimed in during soundcheck, telling the promoter that he should turn the bass up on my guitar in a classic mansplaining moment…I chime in to say, actually, there’s plenty low end on this, thanks). There’s a young couple who strolled in, hearing that there was live music on and who sat in the front row, singing along, laughing and buying a CD for twice its price at the end of the night (“Please keep the change, that was really great”). There’s a woman I thought wasn’t particularly into the show, who bounces straight towards me from her seat at the bar as soon as I pack my guitar away to thank me. She too buys a CD. With these people, I share stories reserved for friends (they tell me about recently departed friends and family, about our childhood, about their trip to Berlin and about Brexit). There are two people who buy a copy of my album who had sat silently, on their own much of the night. With a simple “thanks”, they head out into the atypically warm October night.

It was great timing, reading Amanda Palmer’s book – I think I needed a reminder, or at least someone to explain to me in a logical and concise way what I’ve been doing intuitively all these years. It’s this part, after the show that’s just as important, if not more important. If I can play in a tiny pub and make a couple of friends who will keep in touch and come along with me for part of the way at least, then that is amazing.

After the show I go back to Nigel’s place to hang out with him, Susie and Paul. Five years ago, Nigel was one of those unexpecting people in the pub. Tonight we’re friends, sharing stories, snacks, lots of whisky and listing to show tunes (it’s a Cromford thing, that..!). So here’s a special thanks to Nigel for having me, for all the support and for getting me back to that tiny, weird place called Cromford, which isn’t grim at all.

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