The tennis racket reservation dispute (aka Brian Fallon @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)

I always like to make a great drama out of taking my seat on the train.  Even if nobody is watching the scene as I unload my vast supply of travel companions into the small space before me, it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose.  On this particular morning, I was experiencing an exuberant rush of energy, which was supplemented by the session of yoga I had been able to get out of bed for, and the power walk to the train station I had been forced into when I once again mistimed my morning, despite living closer to the station than ever before.  I expect that my cheeks must have taken on the appearance of undercooked bacon with the physical effort exerted and from the frosty February air as I plonked my baggage onto the empty seat next to mine.  From the bag I extracted a silver flask which had been filled with approximately a cup and a half of coffee, an A3 notebook and a pen to record any observations I felt I had to make, a set of earphones, a Tupperware box which was packed with two bananas, two small oranges and some broken up pieces of rye crispbread, and an empty sandwich bag which would be used to discard of the loose peel.

I was feeling pleased with my organisation, and when the train pulled away from the pale platform and Pearl Jam was playing on my Spotify playlist, I opened up the Tupperware to eat the first of my bananas.  The oranges rolled out of position as I removed the greenish-yellow shape, and it took me a few attempts to snap each of the four latches on the sides of the lid back into place along the lip of the container.  Across the aisle of the carriage, I could see the young woman who was seated opposite me shudder with each failed attempt at securing the snacks.  Her face contorted into a soft fury as she glared at me from the corner of her eye.  I was beginning to feel anxious that the box would never be properly closed, that the woman with hair the colour of a late winter afternoon would erupt into a volcanic rage by the end of the journey, and that the crispbread would become soft and inedible.  Eventually, the lid was fastened safely into place, and the woman opposite me alighted from the train at its first stop in Connel. Commuters hardly ever get off at Connel, and I wondered if the woman had decided on a different mode of transport owing to my lack of tact with the Tupperware.

The snow-peaked fields on the west of Scotland had given way to an icy fog which was leaking profusely by the time I arrived in Edinburgh.  It seems that the city’s cobbled streets are always slick with rain, which really makes a person think when they are leaving a bar after wiling away a few loose hours in the afternoon.  As I was sitting in the corner of Brass Monkey reading the last couple of chapters of A Confederacy of Dunces, I studied a young university-type as she approached the bar.  She enquired to the barman who, according to the observations of native drinkers in the pub, had recently had a haircut, about the possibility of reserving space for seven members of The Fresh Air Society, who were due to meet at 7.45 the following evening.  I kept my head in my book, but my eyes were straining upward towards the young woman.  I found myself hoping that the society’s fledgling meeting would run late into the night and I could chance upon them after Brian Fallon’s performance at the Usher Hall, for the woman seemed to have a quality which I couldn’t quite describe.  She appeared to be a very new and welcome vision.

I was still thinking of The Fresh Air Society on the day of the show when I returned to Glasgow to meet with my two gig-going friends.  We arranged to assemble for drinks in The Ark, a bar which is close to Queen Street station and seemed reasonably priced.  I was the first of our trio to arrive, and although the place was remarkably busy for four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, I was able to find a table.  All of a sudden a great sound could be heard rattling against the roof of the building, like handfuls of gravel being tossed against the window of a lover to attract their attention.  I turned to look out into the beer garden, where hailstones were furiously lashing the canopies.  A sense of relief that I had made it into The Ark when I did flooded over me as I watched the hail continue to fall.

The girls were running later than planned following an incident where a loud-mouthed woman fell up a flight of stairs in a piercing studio, and I went up to the bar to order myself another drink.  I removed my black leather jacket and folded it over my stool to indicate that the table was occupied, giving the seat the appearance of a sloppily dressed child.  When I returned with a beer in hand, one of the other stools around my table had been furnished with a rucksack which had the handle of a tennis racket protruding from it.  Soon a young lady appeared and informed me that I was sitting at her table.  I told her, with great pride, that I had been sitting there since before the flood, and the look on her face implied that she didn’t know what I was talking about nor care for my sense of humour.  I lifted my buttock to show her the leather jacket I had used to mark my territory, an act which seemed to speak more honestly to her.  I apologised and claimed that if I had not been waiting for two other people I would have gotten up and given the table to the girl and her boyfriend, though I wasn’t sure if I was saying that to make her feel better or to absolve myself.

I could sense the cold stare of the couple from somewhere else in the dimly lit bar for the entire time I was sitting at the table by myself.  Even when the kaleidoscope of hair arrived and vindicated the story I had told, I felt unable to put my jacket back on, despite the increasing chill around the place.  It was the penance I had to pay to make it clear to all onlookers that my jacket was a legitimate placeholder.

After a series of drinks which increased in strength over the hours, from beer to wine to Jagerbombs, the three of us split a bottle of pink gin between three bottles of Sprite and took the train to Edinburgh.  We arrived at Usher Hall pleasingly intoxicated as Brian Fallon was taking to the stage, where the frontman of The Gaslight Anthem was performing a solo acoustic show.  His ninety-minute show spanned the majority of his career and was enjoyable, although some parts of the set left me feeling underwhelmed, like a steak dinner you have been looking forward to and it is only after eating it that you realise you have forgotten to cook the onion rings.

The night ended in Shakespeare’s, where the answer to the question was to beer, and we enjoyed a final drink before the girls with the spectacularly coloured hair caught the last train back to Glasgow.  The rain had stopped by the time I left the bar, though my black leather jacket was still wet and my stomach was in ropes.  My day had been riddled with an anxiety I couldn’t understand, and the walk along Princes Street to the hostel I was spending the night in took more than an hour, according to phone records.  By the time I had reached the other side of the city it was too late for me to venture to Brass Monkey as intended, and the chances are that no responsible bar person would have served me anyway.  It was a sorry end to the night, when all I had been looking for was a breath of fresh air.

A day in NYC’s Flatiron District

Day three:  Wednesday March 9th:
I had heard a local in Alewife on Monday night say that there would be record temperatures for March this week, but I didn’t know what that meant and put it down to drunken bar talk.  Today I would find out that not all drunken bar talk is fallacy.

Tonight I had tickets booked to see Brian Fallon (formerly of The Gaslight Anthem) play Irving Plaza, so I planned a simple light day in anticipation of a heavy night and following yesterday’s busy day.  I started with a great coffee and pastry at Birch Coffee on E29th before setting out to explore the Flatiron District, following the route suggested on Trip Advisor by another poster (again, apologies, I forgot the name!)  The architecture between 27th & around 18th on Fifth and Sixth Ave is just magnificent.  Last year I came here just for the Flatiron Building, but there is so much more of interest to see throughout this neighbourhood.  The cast iron buildings are special.  I continued through Madison Square Park – which was absolutely teeming with people because, as anyone who was in the city this particular week will know, the drunk guy in Alewife was right and the city was baking in spring sun – and over onto Park and down to Gramercy Park.  I’m so glad that I knew to look out for the Chrysler Building through the gates of the private park here – I loved photographing that building from all angles.

The impressive Flatiron Building

I continued down to Union Square, where again the knowledge I had acquired from my first visit paid off and I was able to see some sites I had missed last year, such as the Metronome clock and some of the statues around the square.  It is here that I witnessed probably the most incredible and bizarre thing during my time in New York.  To the naked eye what I saw was a bunch of colourfully/oddly dressed men and women screaming and chanting and writhing on the pavement, singing and dancing and everything in between.  It was equally interesting as it was utterly bizarre.  A plea for information on Facebook led to an event named “Looping For Democracy” and it eventually became clear that they were trying to encourage people to register to vote.  And here was I thinking that the searing heat had gotten to them.

“Looping For Democracy” in Union Square

Along the way I enjoyed one of my favourite lunches in New York at City Bakery.  Their cakes and cookies looked very appetising too, and if they were anywhere near as good as the food on offer then I’m sure they were wonderful.

My hunt for good wings took me to the Old Town Bar prior to the concert at Irving Plaza.  Very good, sticky Buffalo Wings, although behind Alewife in that particular pecking order.  This was a busy wee place with a very old-fashioned traditional feel.  The service could have been a little faster, but you do feel like you are genuinely drinking in the footsteps of history in this place.  A little across the street sideBAR was useful for Irving Plaza but it wasn’t particularly my scene.

Irving Plaza as a venue reminded me a little of the Barrowlands in Glasgow, one of my favourite gig venues.  The stairway up to the main hall, the layout of the bar, the tight intimate atmosphere.  Seeing Brian Fallon play here, in what was pretty close to a hometown show for the New Jersey native with a good portion of the crowd seemingly having made the trip across the river, was a tremendously fun experience.  The sold out audience was super into the performance and the new songs from his forthcoming album were almost instantly old favourites.

Best tip today:  It’s a good idea to have at least one day where you can be loose with your plans.  While I had an outline of what I wanted to see on this day I wasn’t bound by times and schedules like yesterday or future days.  It’s nice to be able to take things leisurely and explore anything interesting which may come up – like that Looping For Democracy thing.

The Revival Tour

The Revival Tour is a collaborative event formed by Chuck Ragan in 2008 with the intention of returning to the traditions and spirit of folk music.  It’s the concept of friends and families and communities coming together to share music.

Joining Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music) on the 2011 tour are Brian Fallon (The Gaslight Anthem), Dave Hause (The Loved Ones) and Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio).  Each artist was given a thirty minute set to perform their own songs, often joined by one or two of the others, with all four combining on songs between the sets.

Upon entering the ABC it quickly became evident that this was going to be quite a spectacle, with a range of guitars and violins and harmonicas and a double bass lining the stage.  Each of those instruments would be used to full effect over the next two and a half hours, and the first highlight of the night came a couple of songs in when the four men performed The Gaslight Anthem’s Great Expectations.

I don’t think that in my wildest dreams I could ever have imagined Gaslight Anthem songs being played in such a folk setting, with three acoustic guitars, a violin and a double bass, but that’s what happened last night, and it worked.  Great Expectations, American Slang, The ‘59 Sound, Old White Lincoln and Boxer all took on an entirely different meaning last night, and in a Brian Fallon set which also included my two favourite songs from the Horrible Crowes record – Behold The Hurricane and Ladykiller – as well as a beautiful performance of the old-school Blue Jeans & White T-Shirt and a couple of new songs, Fallon was elevated into iconic status.

Fallon aside, Chuck Ragan’s talent stood out amongst the group.  That was always going to be the case from the moment he took an harmonica to his mouth.  His voice was probably the strongest of the group and his harmonica playing was as good as I’ve heard live – and that includes the likes of Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen and even Neil Young.

Dan Andriano was probably the most utilised artist of the night, playing a role in (I think) everyone’s set while Dave Hause had a boundless energy.  I’m definitely keen to hear some more Loved Ones material.

This was a non-stop, foot-stomping experience.  There wasn’t the usual lull between the support act and the headliner, no breaks between sets.  It was two-and-a-half continuous hours of acoustic folk music.  You didn’t know who was going to play next, who would collaborate with who.

It was a brilliant gig.  It honestly might not be a stretch to declare it the best of the year.  And the really great thing about it all was seeing how much the musicians enjoyed playing their music.  They were having a great time, and the audience were too.

A truly great night.  If The Revival Tour is coming to a town near you in the following weeks, and you have any love for music at all, then you’ll go and check it out.