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I wake up a worried man. I'm worrying about everything, but about one thing more than others, namely: Will the venue be too full and will the customers complain? No, hang on, there's a bigger worry than that: What if the Soft Boys don't turn up? There's no reason even to consider this eventuality, but people are travelling from all over the UK for this "secret" warm-up show and won't like it if they're disappointed.
Now, have I thought of everything? That thing with the bass amp last night was extraordinary. My friend Phil has agreed to lend us his amp, which previously belonged to the Joe Jackson Band. We have to load it onto a straw-covered trailer in the pouring rain in the car park of Fleming Park Leisure Centre. Why? No idea. The speaker is the size of the Empire State Building, housed in a flight case so gigantic that it barely scrapes through the Railway's door.
The Soft Boys haven't played in Winchester since 1978 and I'm so excited. They've re-formed and have made a great new album. Prior to their American tour, they need a warm-up show and somehow or other I've booked them for this tiny venue. The interest is high but the organisation is demanding. We normally put on much "smaller" bands and it's all done on a handshake, but here there is a contract involved and I have to be conscientious and responsible.
This is my first experience of purchasing a "rider" and it entails spending over two hours in Sainsburys. It's surprising how confusing your local supermarket becomes when you're buying unfamiliar things. There's a whopping great list of items such as soya milk, honey, olives and pitta bread, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, all specific brands. At one stage, I'm fretting about whether I'll get into trouble for substituting Sainsbury's own-brand vodka for the specified Smirnoff. Like I say, I'm a worrier.
The contract is full of all sorts of specific demands that we can't possibly fulfil. I have penned an addendum and made the agent promise to pass on all the details to the band, so they know what to expect. I've also Emailed a reminder with a request to pass it on to the band members. Principal among these is the vital information that there is no dressing room.
So Robyn Hitchcock arrives and his very first words are, "Hello, where's the dressing room?" He looks genuinely hunted when I say there isn't one. "I have to have somewhere to hide away. If I stay in the pub I'll be hassled." It's true that he has a disturbingly large number of obsessive fans, some of whom (inexplicably, really) are actually quite unruly. So I have a brainwave and ask my friend Hector, who lives just down the road, if they can use his house as a dressing room. "I'll have to tidy up first", he replies. What a hero.
They sound check for ever (part of the point of a warm-up show). Ben, the engineer at the Railway, displays the patience of Job as he assists the meticulously professional sound man the Soft Boys have brought with them. And then, would you believe it, apart from the drummer, they don't use the dressing room at all. Instead, they watch football in the front bar while Robyn disappears into town. He spent his teens in Winchester and wants to explore (not to mention being tempted by the Gurkha Chef).
Support artist Mark Andrews is performing solo for the first time in his life and is absolutely terrified. The audience receives his set of carefully-chosen covers warmly, but before long I'm worrying again. I've impressed on the Soft Boys that they MUST be on stage at 9.30, but Robyn has disappeared. It appears that he's managed to get himself lost and the rest of the band, while mildly concerned, can do no more than shrug their shoulders as if to say, yup, that's Robyn. As the clock ticks ever onward and the crowd starts to become restless, I'm almost on the verge of panic. It's nearly ten when I run down to Hector's house, where Robyn has somehow gained admission and is sitting in the kitchen. "Sorry, I haven't got a watch", he says.
Still, I've had a beer by now and have decided that at least it's another good Hitchcock story. A lifelong ambition is fulfilled as I push my way through the crowd, making way for the star. He towers above me, which rather spoils the effect.
All the effort has been worthwhile. The sound is perfect, the band performs sublimely, but still it's impossible to relax. There are a couple of annoying talkers in the audience, one of whom has sneaked in without paying. I have to tell them to shut up, and you never know how people are going to react. Worse, at the back of the hall is a group of extremely drunk blokes. Who knows why they follow Robyn Hitchcock, merely to shout out inappropriate remarks and stagger around, but they do. No wonder he's desperate to have a dressing room. I am nice to these guys, who are actually harmless music-lovers with a strange way of showing it. My magnificent wife, who has been acting as bouncer, charms them and keeps them relatively quiet. "I love you, door lady", announces one. "Is that your wife? Bloody hell", gasps another.
The gig is over. I've had to interrupt the band in mid-flow because there's a strict 11 pm curfew. Immediately, Robyn is at my shoulder. "I need protection, get me out of here." I'm beginning to enjoy my new-found "minder" role, so it's all back to Hector's house. It's all worked out, but one thing has been missing: enjoying the show. So, the next evening, I travel up to London to enjoy the Soft Boys as an untroubled audience member. There they are, playing to a large audience in a big venue. I like to think that the warm-up show has helped them. But, on the train back, I'm still worrying:
What the hell are we going to do with that whopping great bass amp, still cluttering up the Railway's back room?
I guess you're going to want to know how it all went last night...
Jim Davies, of feg fame, kindly gave us a lift down - he seemed to know the strange, twisty, turny one-way system of Winchester that seems to have most other people utterly baffled. Thus we found the Railway Tavern without any problem at all. It's a small pub in quite a tall building. In the brightly coloured bar there are a handful of people, watching a TV in the corner that was blaring out the national anthem. Matthew Seligman appeared and came over to say hello to Jim, then nipped off to watch the football (which by this time had kicked off on the TV in the corner).
8 o'clock swung by and we thought we'd go and see whether they were letting people into the music room - the support act was just finishing off his soundcheck. It was a very small room - the hundred people would later on fill it pretty much to capacity - small and quite cosy, soft seating around the edges, the odd table here and there and a real feeling that this had been a music room for a very long time, despite the fairly-recently-done tasteful decor.
So, the support act, a shaven-headed bloke sitting on a stool with an accoustic guitar. He bangs out a Van Morrison song, then turns his attention to Tom Petty. I'm stood at the bar ordering some drinks when he introduces the next song saying something like "this is a song by a band from the sixties that recently reformed because the singer, called Albert or Alfred or something like that, recently got out of prison. Anyway, this is their only good song..." I could have marched to the stage (when I say stage, I mean area at the front raised up about 3 inches) and whacked him around his shiny head with his own guitar, but the soothing tones of his busker's version of Alone Again Or calms me somewhat.
I've seen better buskers. This bloke certainly falls into the great tradition of Robyn support slots.
It seemed to take an age for the Soft Boys to appear. We were stood at the front, Chrissy just in front of me facing the central mic stand. It was somewhat densely, and quite uncomfortably packed. Kimberley appeared almost from nowhere and started checking the guitars. Morris appeared, and I couldn't see how he had made his way through the crowd so unnoticably, especially wearing that long creamy-colour mac (Mac-nolia?). Matthew appeared, just as stealthfully as the others and stood at the front talking to the fans. A bloke came up to him to get him to sign a vinyl copy of UM. Chrissy leaned forward and said to Matthew "Give Robyn a pair of glasses!". Matthew smiled and drew spectacles on Kimberley.
Robyn eventually arrived, in a shirt of psychedelic patches and a long red scarf. The band launched into Kingdom Of Love, note-perfect and played with gusto. I should mention here that each of the SBs are looking very good - Matthew still looks half his age, Kimberley retains his timeless quality, Morris' blokish charm and eye twinkle are still very much in evidence, and Robyn looks lean and healthy as if he's been on a diet of tofu and yoga for the last year or so.
Queen Of Eyes follows - is Robyn contractually obliged to play it? Still, it's another good version, you can tell they're having fun. Someone in the audience shouts, unkindly, "you're tired". Robyn says "no, we're not tired, we're just old!". Ugly Nora bloke (the last time Robyn played Winchester, there was a bloke who, throughout the gig shouted for "Ogly Nooora!" - he was there again this time) shouted "Ogly Nooora!". Mr Kennedy was played with more confidence than some of the dates on the last tour, though perhaps (and this could have been 'cos we were right by Robyn's monitor) Kimberley was a little quiet. It was very much as it is on the album, no less enjoyable for that fact.
Robyn points out that Winchester has never had a tramway, but that there used to be a disused railway line there years ago, so that one could run along the line pretending to be a train - "that's how I spent the 60s". A cracking version of Sudden Town follows. Next a very familiar, snaking introduction that, while familiar, takes a moment to identify... no way... Hear My Brane! I can hardly believe it, it's only a little less driving and intense than it was 24 years ago, and the guitar duet is, for me, a highlight of the gig.
Syd Barrett is acknowledged as being an important influence by Robyn and someone calls out knowingly "Astronomy Domine", but oh no, they play Vegetable Man. By this point I'm just blown away. Yet again, they treat us to something I thought I'd never hear them play. Robyn tells us how, all those years ago, although there were telecasters, mobile phones didn't exist, except for Roger (Jim) Mcguinn, and that (in a roundabout story) is how he found out he should change his name (to Roger). Bells Of Rhymney follows.
Pulse Of My Heart is next. This song has really grown on me, and last night's rocking version surpasses that of the album. I Love Lucy is just after - I still can't say it's much of a favourite, but seeing Robyn & Kimberley swapping melodies, it makes a little more sense.
I don't know what song came next. I was using a mnemonic (sp?) technique to remember, and it fell down a bit here...
After the mystery song (it'll come to me) was a great version of the Soft Boys' When I Was A Kid (as opposed to the Robyn version). I could have closed my eyes and convinced myself it was 1981, but perhaps that's down to my uncomfortable shoes... Robyn tells us it'll be Ok, once Blair/Bush have renamed Baghdad Blairbushdad everything will be just fine. There is more than a trace of irony in his voice... Strings. The best live version I've seen - this was a little ropey and unfinished when I last heard it, now it shines. Another song is dedicated to Blair and Bush (mostly Bush, Robyn says) - I Wanna Destroy You.
Underwater Moonlight marks the end of their proper set, yet again, another fine version. The central spoken section is taken up entirely with addressing a bloke called Mr Rattigan, unclear whether he means Terrence or someone else. It would have been ridiculous for the band to have fought their way through the crowd to go and stand in the corridor, so they launch straight into the encore - a fine version of Narcissus, with, ISTR, a whole new section to the version I last heard in Evershot. It's gelled a bit more, it's walking around on its own now. The promoter works his way to the stage with his finger in the air - one more song... gah... they have to strictly finish at 11, apparently. I was wrong to feel disappointed at Unprotected Love being the last song as it was a highlight of the set and had me humming all the way up the A34.
Prepare yourselves, ye Americans - you've got a treat in store!