We’re halfway there, livin’ on IPA

There was a time in my life when my taste in beers wasn’t limited to Tennent’s Lager and whichever box of branded bottles was least expensive in the supermarket.  For a while I liked nothing better than sipping on an IPA on a Saturday afternoon and thinking how superior my palette was to everybody else’s, then I bought a flat and became a single occupant and enjoyed nothing more than getting shitfaced on as much beer as I could for as little a cost.

My relationship with craft beers began in September 2014, when I travelled to Manchester with a cold to see Ryan Adams perform for the fourteenth time.  Most people liked to take long journeys with a companion, but I went along with a viral infection.  Ryan was playing in the Albert Hall, an old Methodist chapel which was built in 1908, and having known that the train from Glasgow stopped at Manchester Oxford Road station – less than ten minutes from the venue – I booked a room at the Premier Inn hotel, which was right in the middle of the two.  Planning a trip was often something which I enjoyed more than the actual act of embarking on it, and I took great delight in researching the area around St. Peter’s Square for ways of wiling away a few hours before the gig began.  Since there only appeared to be one bar between my hotel and the church-turned-concert venue, I knew that I was going to have to familiarise myself with BrewDog, the independent Scottish brewery that was rapidly opening bars all across the UK at the time.

When I got off the train at Manchester Oxford Road, nothing seemed familiar.  It wasn’t like when I had surveyed the area on Google Maps all those times in the weeks before the gig.  The deeper I ventured into the street, the less certain I was feeling about things, like every romantic relationship I had ever had.  It was when I noticed a poster in the window of one bar extolling the virtues of Wednesday night being leather night, and then further along the pavement stepping around a sandwich board advertising live drag shows that I realised I was in Manchester Gay Village.  It was a brief dalliance before I turned back and found my hotel but mere footsteps away from where I had disembarked the train.  Though the Labour Party was holding its Autumn conference in the convention complex across the street from the hotel, and it occurred that there were worse wrong turns I could have taken.

A selection of the beers I purchased from The Oban Beer Seller

 

I didn’t remember much about the Manchester branch of BrewDog, but then I was young and it seemed that a good bar shouldn’t be all that memorable after a few hours spent drinking there.  Despite feeling incredibly self-conscious when I tried to eat a twelve-inch bratwurst smothered in yellow mustard and ketchup while a group of young women sat at the table opposite me – as though they were somehow going to have nothing better to do than watch me attempting to eat a sausage while smearing as little sauce as possible on my stubble – I was immediately drawn to the names of some of the beers on offer, such as Punk, 5AM Saint, and Dead Pony Club, which tasted a lot better than its name suggested.  I marvelled at the idea of there being a menu of beers to choose from and that people would ask the bar staff for recommendations, like being in a fancy restaurant and enquiring about the specials.  They would even offer a little taster schooner to help you decide if you wanted to buy a full beer, though in future years I would never have the heart to tell a bar person that I didn’t like their suggested beer and I always ended up buying a pint of it anyway.

I liked the BrewDog bar so much that I returned there after the gig with a group of guys who I had met during the performance and who turned out to be the first people from Carlisle that I had ever talked to.  We were all standing at the back of the balcony in the Albert Hall, presumably because it was easier to reach the bars in the venue to top up our drinks from there, rather than it being a particularly good spot to watch the concert.  I never knew whether it was the way I was standing – drunkenly and likely at an angle, resembling a street sign which has been bent by an out of control car – the fact that I was on my own, or the way I was dressed – in jeans and a checked shirt, like everybody else at a Ryan Adams gig – but the man standing to my right offered me one of the plastic tumblers of Coca-Cola he had come back from the bar with.  “I have Bacardi in here,” he said holding out a Sprite bottle, the way someone might a strobe light at a more raucous gig.

It was a scene that would seem unthinkable in 2020, but in 2014 I had no qualms about accepting a drink from a stranger, especially when he had taken the ingenious measure of disguising the spirit in the bottle of a soft drink which was the same colour.  The libatious gentleman handed me one of his spare cokes and proceeded to unscrew the lid of the Sprite bottle.  His hand was large and beefy and somehow still red, even in the darkness.  For the first time, I began to feel nervous that I had never drunk Bacardi before.   It was a drink that was always in our parent’s alcohol cupboard, but I had never seen anyone drink it, let alone taste it myself.  His pouring was generous, like running the hot water tap on the bath a little longer than necessary because it’s been a long, hard day.  I thanked him, since that seemed the right thing to do when being handed a free drink, but when I finally brought the Bacardi to my mouth it put me in mind of the way I imagined a glass of paint thinner might taste.  I could scarcely understand how it hadn’t burned through the Sprite bottle it had been carried in, and it was with reluctance that I accepted the offer of a refill.

Back in BrewDog, we pored over the setlist while pints of craft beer were being poured for us.  It was a rare thing for me to have the opportunity to talk about Ryan Adams, and this was the first time I had been able to analyse the details of the setlist after a gig with another person since 2011 in Brighton, where I had seen him with a red-haired Welsh lass who was a real-life stranger but an internet friend at the time.  The man from Carlisle was unhappy that Ryan hadn’t played anything from his album Gold, and he couldn’t understand why he would have ignored his most successful record, but I was too giddy to care since he performed Anybody Wanna Take Me Home for the first time in seven years.  When he played two songs from the album the following night in Glasgow I thought about the man from Carlisle.  I felt guilty that I was hearing the songs he wanted to have heard in Manchester, but I was thankful to be paying £5 for a Jack Daniels and coke.

It was awkward to be tucking into a twelve inch bratwurst when I was aware of a table of women sitting nearby

 

After discovering that I had a taste for craft beers I drank them at every opportunity I could.  There was never a great variety in Oban, so I was forced to get my fix whenever I went out of town, usually to another gig someplace.  The first thing I did when I knew I was going somewhere was to scope out the craft beer bars.  Dublin, Newcastle and Brighton turned out to have some of my favourites, but it was in Glasgow that my heart was truly taken by hoppy beers.  Although Burger Meats Bun on West Regent Street was primarily a place where people went to eat burgers, I kept going back because I really enjoyed their selection of beers, and because I developed a huge crush on one of their waitresses, whose hair was the colour of a double IPA and had twice the kick.  They usually had something from the nearby West Brewery on tap, while they also carried cans from Cromarty Brewing Company and Camden Town Brewery, amongst others.  I would spend hours in their little diner, drinking beers long after I had finished eating my burger.  If I was fortunate enough to be seated close to the bar I would pass the time by talking to Johnny, the barman, while he was waiting for drinks orders to come in from the tables.  He was fantastically friendly, and it was always fascinating to watch him mix the cocktails he was curating for the place.  There was a time in 2015, a couple of months after I had been made redundant, that Johnny was being very helpful in my thought process with regards to the possibility of moving to Glasgow.  He assured me that he knew people and it wouldn’t be a problem for him to find me a job, and we discussed where in the city I might live.  I liked the idea of relocating to the city, but then fate dealt its hand and I stumbled into a job I enjoyed in Oban, though I sometimes wondered how different my life would have been if I had taken the chance and moved to Glasgow.  The people I might have met, and the ones I wouldn’t have.

I would order pint after pint just for the chance to talk to the waitress again.  I had a way of making her laugh, though there was no way of telling how much of that was heard through the haze of a high ABV IPA.  When I eventually left the place to make my way to whichever venue the gig I was attending on that night was being held, I was so drunk that I would either end up arriving after the main act had started their set or I would be incapable of remembering very much of the night by the next morning.  That was the case when I saw, or was at least present to see, Tweedy – the father/son act formed of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and his offspring – play at the Royal Concert Hall, perhaps the grandest of Glasgow’s music venues.  I had witnessed Wilco perform there some four years earlier and it was a brilliant night, but on this occasion the starry spotlights in the lobby were a blur as I was vomiting on the stairway, unable to make it to the men’s room in time.  Twice.  I had always put it down to some disagreeable ingredient in the burger I had consumed earlier in the night, but the truth was probably closer to the bottom of a pint glass.  The next morning, the Glasgow Herald review of the Tweedy gig gave it three stars.

By the time the lockdown of 2020 arrived, I had fallen out of the habit of drinking craft beers.  I was a single occupant with a mortgage to pay and I wasn’t travelling to places like Manchester to see bands as much.  Burger Meats Bun had closed years earlier, and it just seemed easier to drink Tennent’s Lager in Aulay’s on a Friday night.  When some of us decided to hold a weekly Zoom meeting as a means of recreating the experience of being in the pub, I was still drinking cans of Tennent’s, because that’s what I would have been doing if I was standing at the bar.  We were synching a collaborative Spotify playlist so that we were all listening to the same music, like standing at the jukebox but without a fistful of twenty pence pieces.  I was still turning up wearing the shirt and tie I’d been dressed in for work earlier in the day, and we were still having trouble finding women who were wanting to talk to us. 

It wasn’t until the local newspaper, The Oban Times, ran a story towards the end of April about a lady who had opened a new shop dedicated to selling craft beer the day before the pandemic forced everything to close that it occurred to me that there were other things I could be drinking during our weekly video discussions.  For a few months before the world changed, I had been noticing from across the street the striking yellow sign on the side of the old flower shop on Stafford Street that appeared to have the word ‘beer’ emboldened across it, but I never thought to cross the road and take a closer look, fearing that it was most likely a mirage in the desert.  It turned out that one of my wildest dreams had come true.

If reopening the bike shop six weeks into the lockdown, after everybody seemed to have already taken up cycling, was like opening a lemonade stand the day after a long heatwave had broken, then opening a craft beer shop the day before a pandemic would force a nationwide lockdown seemed to be like waiting all your life to get into heaven, and when the time finally comes that you reach the fabled pearly gates, Saint Peter scans his list – which is presumably stored on a tablet, or perhaps a Kindle – and welcomes you inside, before telling you that there is a strict no beer policy.

The Oban Beer Seller was still able to operate her business on a delivery basis, though, and our group took motivation from the arrival of proper craft beers in town to start mixing up our usual Friday nights.  It wasn’t the vaccine everyone else was looking for, but it was the cure for our ills. We started by sampling some of the different IPA’s available from the local supermarkets, and myself, my brother, the plant doctor, one of Oban’s finest barmen, and Alan – who I didn’t know very much about, other than he had a lot of hair – attempted to discuss the beers in a serious manner.  Although we were five men who didn’t really know what we were talking about when it came to beers, we began to consider that if we drank enough of them we could compile our notes together into a book for people who didn’t like craft beer.  Sort of like a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) guide for idiots and losers.  When the best that we could come up with for some of the cans we had bought from Aldi and Lidl were that it “smells like a sock that has been stuck in the drum of the washing machine for two months” and one “tasted like if a unicorn had pissed in my mouth” we started to re-think our plans for publishing.

In the end, we decided that since we had been inspired by The Oban Beer Seller’s new venture, it would only be right if we bought some of our drinks locally from her, so we all agreed on one beer that we would buy for our Friday night group chat, while we each also purchased a ‘taster box’, which was made up of seven different beers selected by Karen herself to give an idea of the range that the shop offered.  The box cost £20, and while craft beers in general are more expensive than buying a case of Tennent’s or Budweiser, or even the IPA’s brewed specially for supermarkets like Lidl, the quality is noticeably so much better.  More than that, though, exchanging emails with Karen to place my order was like talking to a man from Carlisle in a craft beer bar in Manchester about the setlist at that nights Ryan Adams gig, such was her enthusiasm for her project, which had been a work in progress for more than a year.

My taster box had lasted longer than the others in our group, since I had gone quite heavy on the 6% Wolf beer from Windswept Brewing, which had kept me up until four o’clock in the morning with the plant doctor the previous weekend, when the various tastes and flavours from the beers we had been drinking felt like a technicolour yawn.  More recently, a weekend of warm weather had given way to atmospheric clouds and the sort of breeze that tickled around the hems of a man’s trousers.  The sea was tossing salt like a superstition, and I could taste it on my tongue.  Friday was a night for staying in, not that there was an option with the restrictions still in place.  I worked my way through the bottles and cans from the taster box, each one a reminder of why I loved craft beer to begin with, every mouthful a memory – until eventually I drank so much of the stuff that I couldn’t remember, just like always.  I do know, though, that not one of them tasted like Bacardi.

Oban, June 2020

 

Links & things:

The Oban Beer Seller reopens to the public on Thursday 11 June, selling happiness in a can.  The shop’s Facebook page can be found via this link. 

The setlist from the Ryan Adams gig at the Albert Hall in Manchester on 24 September 2014 can be viewed on setlist.com.

This week I have mostly been listening to…

The night I went solo

By the end of the week, the mild winter had been withered by a cold front which was sweeping through from the east.  On Friday morning, the pale sky was threatening to cough up a flurry of snow, though in the end it only amounted to a brief scattering of flakes, as though someone was furiously agitating a near-empty salt shaker over a plate of steaming chips.  As I was walking home from work in the early evening, a bitter breeze was wheezing in off the restless sea. It was the sort of wind which wasn’t respecting the boundaries of clothing, eating its way through my thick black overcoat and everything below it.

The preceding days had brought with them a sense of loneliness and an anxious feeling which was creeping through me in the same manner the icy wind had found its way past my woolen scarf.  In an effort to fill the void in my life with some kind of meaningful activity, I decided to reorganise the items which were pinned to the two corkboards residing on the walls of my kitchen. I dumped written reminders from May 2018 to check the process of changing to a billed electricity meter and a vegetable-heavy shopping list which kept me fed for a week in late November.  

With space freed up on the boards, I thought it would be a good idea to record words I hadn’t understood in books or articles I had read, or songs I had heard, and research their meaning to allow me to introduce them into my everyday vocabulary.  After three days I had noted twelve words, and I was beginning to question my methods, which were in danger of making me appear illiterate. I was studying my cards each night, with every addition leading me to think about how I was going to use my newly learned words,  It was proving more difficult than I initially thought it would be, and as the days moved on without me using any of the twelve words I had investigated through the week, I came to realise that with the type of lifestyle I live, there is never a situation that is practical for imprecation.

By the time I had defrosted after my walk home from work, it was becoming clear that my weekly visit to Aulay’s was going to resemble my love life and be a solo endeavour.  In the doorway of the lounge bar, a group of smokers had assembled, huddled beneath the edge of the building as they sought to enjoy their cigarettes shielded from the snarling face of the winter wind.  I walked through their clouds of smoke and entered the tavern in a more spectacular fashion than usual, though there was nobody that I knew inside to witness it.

As I was standing at the bar drinking alone, I became aware of a boisterous conversation taking place between the two tables behind me.  I continued to slowly sink into a pint of Tennents Lager as I became immersed in what sounded to be a happy meeting of two separate couples who were from the same area of the west coast of Scotland.  The most animated of the characters was a large man who had the pinkest cheeks I have ever seen on an adult.  His appearance was similar to that of a garden gnome who had recently learned that there is more to life than simply fishing all the time.  The second gentleman in the newly formed quartet was wearing a navy blue jumper which had a red animal motif sitting on the left breast, waiting patiently to be petted or fed.  It may have been a donkey or a horse, though I could never get close enough to properly examine the design.

The voices of the two men were much louder than those of their female counterparts, and I listened as they were discussing the part of the world where they both happened to come from.  The men were challenging one another on their memories of buildings, places they had worked over the course of their lives and bars they had drank in.

“If you were working in this job then you must have known that person?”

“You’ll know the place I’m talking about, it used to be next to the ethnic corner shop, though we can’t call it that anymore.”

“Did you know the big man?  It would probably have been around 1974 to 1983.”

Neither of the two men knew what the other was talking about, and there reached a point in the night where I was beginning to consider the possibility that they had realised this long ago and were attempting to one-up each other with improbable tales and recollections, knowing well that the other wasn’t going to recognise the people or the places involved.  It was the only explanation I could think of for the woman who had miraculously fallen pregnant following her first visit to the newly opened tanning salon in 1994, although I wasn’t hearing every detail of the stories.

After a couple of hours spent wallowing in my own company, the beers were only weighing my spirits down.  The random mix of music which the jukebox plays when nobody has paid for specific songs was leaving me apprehensive, so I decided to play a few of my own.  For my pound coin I was afforded three selections, and my third Ryan Adams choice was Nobody Girl, by which point the lounge bar was quickly emptying.  When I am feeling particularly low Ryan Adams is all I ever want to listen to, and Nobody Girl is a song which seems to me to be a lament to a lost girl, where the singer is trying to convince himself that this girl is a nobody who isn’t worth fooling his heart over, though he is conveying all of this in a song which is nine minutes and 39 seconds long.  After around seven minutes of misery, the track explodes into a Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street-like finale, but by the time this arrived there was almost nobody left in the bar to hear it.

In the meantime, a middle-aged couple from Hamilton had arrived, though they had presumably not come directly from the Lanarkshire town to Aulay’s Bar.  The man was mild-mannered and friendly, whilst his partner was a much more energetic and slightly older woman who spoke with an English accent and whose hair was as white as the icy winter air.    Although she was admirably balanced in her heeled footwear, her gait led me to suspect that she may have had a couple of coins trapped in her shoes.  The white-haired woman was querying why anyone would have filled the jukebox with so much sadness, and she immediately made it her mission to liven the atmosphere in the bar.  After a failed attempt at operating the digital jukebox, she called me over to assist, and I was forced to help her find the Marina and the Diamonds and the S Club 7 songs which were going to “get the party started.”  As Nobody Girl was nearing its emphatic climax and the numbers in the bar were diminishing, the woman chastised me.  “There isn’t going to be anybody left to hear my songs!”

Back at the bar, the mild-mannered man from Hamilton and I were bonding over a beer and our mutual disdain for his partner’s taste in music as she was dancing in a barren background.  He went into some detail about their weekend trip to Oban and the wider context of their relationship, which was only in its sixth year.  I could sense the regret in his voice that although they had known each other for many years, they had not gotten together sooner.  Before I could learn why they had not become romantically involved until six years ago, the white-haired woman with the awkward walk crashed into us and demanded to know where the best bar to visit next would be.  The most flamboyant barman in Aulay’s was standing nearby, and he insisted that if the couple wanted a true taste of Oban then they should go across the road to the Claredon, where Friday night is karaoke night.  A sense of dread imbued with my drunkenness as the woman shrieked her delight at the prospect of being able to perform her signature song.  Nevertheless, I agreed that I would show them the sights of the Claredon.

We finished our drinks and headed into the vast darkness, where plumes of alcohol bellowed from our mouths like great chimneys.  As we were walking the short distance across two roads to reach our next destination, I thought it would be best to paint the couple a picture of what they should expect when we reach the Claredon.  I asked them to recall the 1972 film Deliverance, with the greatest difference between the two being that instead of duelling banjos there would be karaoke in the Claredon.

The blue doors to the bar swung open before us, and as I led the couple from Hamilton on their first foray into the Claredon bar we were greeted by the sound of what could only be described as being an imagining of a scenario where Bryan Adams had been captured and held hostage by two powerful men, whose giant bear-like hands were wrapped violently around the singer’s throat as they threatened him with the death of everyone he loves unless he performs their favourite song in the style of a nervous baboon.

On the far side of the room, close to the stage, there were around six or eight – maybe seven – balloons of different colours which had been tacked to the wall and were visibly sagging.  They surrounded a short but cheerful blue banner which was wishing an unidentified person a happy birthday.  The white-haired woman was eager to perform a song, and she approached the hostess to request that her name was added to the list of people waiting to entertain the bar.

Meanwhile, at the bar, I was standing with the mild-mannered man, trying my best to make sure that my tan shoes weren’t sticking to the floor.  His face was contorted with the sort of confusion a dog would display when its owner pretends to throw a toy.  Over my right shoulder, I could see the Subway girl with the smile, and I excused myself to go over and talk to her, though the conversation was brief as her group was leaving.  I returned to the company of the couple I had come with, when the gentleman asked me if I ‘like’ the sandwich artist.  I questioned why he was asking, and he responded by telling me that it was “written all over my face”, like in The Smiths song, I assumed.  The couple enthusiastically suggested that I should leave and pursue the girl, the white-haired woman’s enthusiasm so strong that she grabbed a hold of my arm and tried dragging me towards the door.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have such resistance to leaving the Claredon, but on this occasion, I dug my heels into the syrupy floor and advised the couple that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  I was reluctant to tell them that I had already twice tried and failed in my pursuit and was now in a Wile E. Coyote-like loop, and instead left them with the fleeting hope that I might one day succeed.

The white-haired woman with the coins stuck in her high heels was growing impatient as a succession of terrible crooners stepped up to take the microphone, and when her name once again wasn’t called she claimed a conspiracy against visiting karaoke artists, insisting to her partner that it was time they left for their accommodation.  I finished my Jack Daniels and walked back along the seafront to Markie Dans, even the addition of a navy v neck sleeveless jumper to my attire struggled to keep the vicious cold wind from attaching itself to my body.  I took a seat at the bar as a band was playing to an empty dancefloor, presumably out of contractual obligation rather than enjoyment.  If only the Marina and the Diamonds enthusiast could see this scene, I was thinking.

As the curfew was approaching after midnight, a series of stragglers were beginning to arrive from the Oban Inn, and the bar was looking a little more healthy as drinkers were indulging in their unhealthy pursuits.  The Subway girl was amongst them, and after some time her acquaintance slid onto the barstool next to mine.  She observed that I appeared to be miserable and was curious as to why.  I was struggling to conjure an answer to her question before she amended her enquiry to ask if my sorrow was related to sandwiches.  The truth was that the Subway girl was only a very small fraction of the shape I was in, but to confess otherwise would only have led to more questions I wasn’t in a position to answer, on a barstool in Markie Dans with a Jack Daniels in my hand.  The acquaintance suggested that I should talk to the sandwich artist, advice which was proving difficult to refute when I couldn’t offer alternative explanations for my moping demeanour.

I peeled myself from the barstool in the way a plaster is pulled from a gaping cut and approached the Subway girl.  I had no idea in my mind of what I was going to say, and I was feeling as though I was carrying a comically large box labelled “ACME”.  Words began to fall from my mouth like snowflakes, melting as soon as they landed on the floor around us.  Just as I started talking to this girl who I have known for years, I realised how big the world is.  The box didn’t explode in my face, though I was searching for another word for melancholy.

The day the horse left the stable (aka Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead)


When I left Dublin towards the end of last week with the realisation in mind that I hadn’t engaged in a single conversation with another person I couldn’t have expected that by the end of my brief stay in Glasgow on Saturday I would have experienced a deluge of vocal interactions.  I talked to exactly as many people as Celtic scored goals against Ross County:  four.

I had hoped that my recent twenty-two hours in Belfast would have given me a greater capacity for understanding the accent of the Northern Irishman who sits two seats along from me at Celtic Park.  In the past I have found myself nodding along to his every utterance, trusting that he hasn’t been saying anything contentious that I’ve inadvertantly agreed with because I can understand only every seventh word he says.  I took my seat a few minutes before kick-off, sharing a nod of acknowledgment with the older gentleman as I passed him.  After some moments of silence he reached across the two empty seats between us and tapped me on the arm.  I turned my head in his direction and felt an anticipation I have rarely felt when waiting to hear what a man is going to say about a game of football.  This would be my moment of truth, the first test of my newly discovered understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  He said something about Moussa Dembele – that much I know – but I will never know what, for his accent remained almost completely indistinguishable to my ears.  I nodded and smiled.  It’s good to see him back.  I took a wild assumption that he wasn’t complaining about Dembele returning to the team from injury.

This scene was to be repeated often over the course of the afternoon:  him stretching across the empty green seats, his bulky hand crashing against my forearm with a force that would probably crush a grape if I was in the habit of keeping them in the sleeve of my jacket, me taking my eyes off the game to face him and eventually nod in acceptance of whatever opinion he was offering.  I began to wonder if his increasing act of striking my arm was in some way a recognition of my inability to understand his words and he was urging me to try harder.  You better understand what I’m saying to you or I’m going to keep hitting you.  In that event I had better bring padding to the next game.


As is usually the case the half-time break afforded me with an opportunity to escape my translation issues for at least fifteen minutes and I took my place in the queue for a pie.  For a change the food stall experience was relatively unchallenging and I got the pie I wanted with minimum fuss.  The real task at Celtic Park these days is finding brown sauce.  I ventured to no less than three condiment stations in search of the savoury accompaniment and found nothing but tomato sauce and sachet upon sachet of salt and pepper.  I wondered of what use pepper is to anyone eating the standard pie, chips or even pizza.  No wonder there is so much pepper; nobody needs it!  I cannot think of a single food on offer at Celtic Park that would be enhanced by a sprinkling of pepper, whereas a pie practically demands brown sauce.  I could tell that the search was once again forlorn and the pie was beginning to burn my hand – which at least reassured me that it was hot – and I resigned myself to a pie without brown sauce.
That evening I would find myself sitting at the bar in the Travelodge prior to meeting my friend with the pink hair, my arm suitably recovered from the football to hold a pint of beer.  My thoughts were lost in the blandness of the setting:  the decor which was more beige than beige, the mundane pop music filtering from a speaker over an otherwise empty room, the subtitled BBC News 24 on a television in the corner, an offering of Stella Artois or Bud Light on tap.  A curly-haired blonde barmaid appeared behind the bar as I was nursing a cold pint of soulless beer, looking entirely different to the balding middle-aged man who had poured me the pint minutes earlier.  

“What brings you to Glasgow?” I heard her say, and I automatically assumed that she was speaking to another guest, even though I knew I was the only person who would be drinking at eight o’clock in a Travelodge bar.  I looked up from my glass and, sure enough, she was looking in my direction.  My natural instinct is to answer such a question with a response along the lines of “the train”, but since this promised to be my first actual conversation with another person since I left Oban on Monday morning I decided that I would try to not fuck it up by being myself.  I assumed the unfamiliar role of a normal person and responded by telling her all about my trip seeing Ryan Adams perform seven gigs in six cities in four different countries, adding the usual caveat about him not being the Canadian rocker with the letter ‘B’ in front of his name.  This story remarkably did not cause her to lose interest and she continued to talk to me.  We discussed the iPod she received as a gift last Christmas but has not yet used and I noted how they are coming back into fashion like the vinyl record player, even though I have no idea how true that is.  We touched upon the way that Google Maps has taken all the fun and adventure out of getting lost in a city – a conversation I am certain I had in Belfast – and she told me all about her equestrian studies and her hopes to eventually earn a living preparing horses for shows.  She clearly enjoyed talking about horses and so I indulged her, and she talked and talked and talked — until eventually I asked what certainly ranks amongst the most stupid questions I have asked a girl.

Is there a drink riding limit the same way there’s a drink driving limit?”

I don’t know why I wanted to know the answer to that question, and quite naturally it seemed to be something that had never occurred to the barmaid.  She did her best to try to formulate some kind of response but it was evidently a subject that was yet to be covered in her equine lectures.  I left the Travelodge bar to meet my friend with the pink hair and I couldn’t help but sense that my interaction with the barmaid would have ended better had I not introduced the idea of riding her beloved horses whilst intoxicated.  I suppose it could have been worse and I might have suggested getting the horses drunk prior to dressage.  This was all on my mind when I entered Variety and considered the etiquette of sitting at a booth when your friend has already arrived.  Is it appropriate to sit on the cushioned area next to them or is it more polite to sit across the table from them?  I bought a beer and sat on what appeared to be a miniature representation of a stool which, upon glancing around the bar, seemed to make most other men who were sitting on similar stools look like giants.  I suspected that to them I would look like I was afraid to sit next to a girl.


I returned to my hotel some hours later and, safe in the knowledge that the equestrian student had finished her shift at eleven o’clock, I headed to the bar for a nightcap.  This seemed a particularly questionable decision considering that I was scheduled to be getting on a train to Newcastle little more than seven hours later, but there reaches a point in any night when drinking Jack Daniels that any decision can easily be justified.  I found myself in conversation with another talkative barmaid and I can remember querying the spelling of her name on her badge; ‘Kaitlynn’.  I suggested that the second ‘n’ seemed unnecessary and I think she broadly agreed and blamed the whole scenario on her parents, which seemed reasonable considering she probably had minimal input in the discussion.  I asked her when they stopped serving at the bar and she informed me that 2am is the cut off, though they will sometimes continue to sell alcohol if it is busy and the guests aren’t too drunk.  I was the only person at the bar and my watch clearly stated that it was about five minutes past two.  Out of ten, how drunk am I?  I asked, hopeful of enjoying at least one more Jack Daniels.  “You’re definitely an eight out of ten.”  I accepted this score without dispute and suggested that we still have two points to play with, so she poured me another Jack Daniels and the 09.30 train to Newcastle was a hellish experience.

Conversation returned to being found at a premium in Newcastle, though I was able to share in the thrill one barmaid had in being handed her first plastic £10 note when I caught sight of her photographing it before putting it in the till.  I questioned whether she was some kind of currency enthusiast – perhaps hoping that she could help me identify some of the coins in my wallet.  She explained that she had not seen the new £10 note until being handed it by another customer now and I asked if it is the one with the face of Jane Austen on it.  She didn’t know and handed the note over to me to examine.  I realised that I don’t know what Jane Austen looks like but didn’t want to admit this to the barmaid.  Oh yeah, that’s the one with Jane Austen on it alright.  I noted that the plastic money is supposed to be practically indestructible but she claimed that she can tear the £5 notes.  How?  “You just have to keep trying…they’ll tear eventually.”   I felt both impressed and suitably threatened.


Ryan’s set at The Sage was another unique occasion on this tour.  He was feeling sick and therefore was “low energy” which seemed to contribute to the set being at least a couple of songs shorter than previous nights and to him indulging the audience – which was entirely seated – in far more inter song banter than elsewhere.  He acknowledged early in the night the awkward nature of playing a rock show to a seated crowd, and it was certainly a strange experience.  His humour added a different dimension to the show compared to the rest of the tour, and his theory that the couple he spotted leaving on an upper tier were “probably away to make out while listening to KISS — though hopefully pre-1982 KISS” was joyful.  That he and the band played Tired Of Giving Up – one of my favourite songs from his eponymous album – for the very first time anywhere made this a memorable night.

Bars visited:
The Raven – 81-85 Renfield Street, Glasgow
Variety – 401 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
Nice N Sleazy – 421 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
The Union Rooms – 48 Westgate Road, Newcastle
Bacchus – 42-48 High Bridge, Newcastle
The Bridge Tavern – 7 Akenside Hill, Newcastle
The Head of Steam – 11-17 Broad Chare, Newcastle

Next stop:
O2 Academy, Bournemouth – Tuesday 19th September

Final scores:
Celtic 4-0 Ross County
JJ 0-6 Ryan Adams gigs

The night I ate dinner (aka Ryan Adams @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)


It occurred to me as I was leafing through the menu at The Beer Kitchen on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road that I would shortly be eating my first proper dinner of the week – assuming that regular people still aren’t considering a cup of dry roasted nuts a proper meal.  It’s not that I have been avoiding food:  I have eaten the occasional portion of chips at a couple of bars, and I did once enjoy a delicious breakfast at the Art Cafe in Dublin.  It’s just that generous servings of food aren’t really compatible with pre-gig drinking.  That is to say that I often forget to eat.

I have been wanting to dine at the Innis & Gunn owned Beer Kitchen for some time and made a point of remembering to eat on this night of the tour, given that the restaurant is but a stone’s throw away from Usher Hall if you have a really strong arm and a precise aim.  I would consider it to be a stone’s throw followed by a few paces.  I had made a reservation for 7.30 and in keeping with that I was directed to a table in the corner where I was seated as the hostess began to clear away the second place setting in a manner which was considerably more emphatic than I would have hoped.

I sat with the palm of my hand drumming on my knee under the table – not to any particular beat or rhythm, I just didn’t know what else to do with my hand as this table for two was transformed into a table for a single person.  The hostess gathered up the side plate, the cutlery and the empty water glass in a fashion which suggested she had done this before.  Then a knife fell from the side plate in her arms and clattered against the table, making what was surely the loudest sound ever to have been made in that particular restaurant, certainly, and perhaps anywhere ever.  It felt like every eye in the place darted towards my table.  Why couldn’t she just leave the cutlery where it was?  At least that way people might assume that I am waiting for someone:  a friend, a date, even a Tinder date.  I appear anxious enough for that.


She muttered an apology and once again picked up the knife.  She asked me if I would like a glass of water and I intimated that a pint of beer would be fine.  Even if she had left the place setting as it was so that I could look over at it longingly every so often, then at my watch, and then again at the lone place setting, as though I had been stood up.  At least then I might get sympathetic stares rather than glances of pity.  I wait for my beer to arrive and consider resting my denim jacket over the empty chair opposite me so that it might appear that I am anticipating company returning from the bathroom, but I quickly realise that ruse would be quite ridiculous when I am still waiting an hour later without a hint of concern on my face as to why my company still hasn’t made it back to the table.  Has she done a runner on him?  People would naturally think.  I wonder what he said to make her lock herself in the toilet for more than an hour?  I bet he made some really laboured play on words and he was on his final warning for it.  They would speculate in hushed tones.  He probably listens to Ryan Adams.

A pint of Innis & Gunn promptly arrived at my table and I ordered some food as a small tealight candle flickered like a beacon drawing attention to the fact that a single man was sitting and dining by himself.  I pulled my notebook and pen out from my pocket and placed it on the table next to my right hand, as though to suggest to anyone happening to notice that I could at any moment open it up and write some words of world-changing significance, rather than the reality of it being some pun I had thought of.


The Ryan Adams set proved to be a unique night on this tour when his pedal board malfunctioned after three songs and he suddenly decided to ad-lib a mini acoustic set of five songs while engineers desperately tried to solve the technical difficulties.  That he was able to do this off the cuff and to such a high standard was most impressive and it allowed the Edinburgh audience to hear what will surely be the only performances on this tour of Ashes & Fire and Jacksonville Skyline, which was worth the price of admission alone.

Bars visited:
The Advocate – 7 Hunter Square
Brewdog – 143 Cowgate
Shakespeare – 65 Lothian Road
The Beer Kitchen – 81-83 Lothian Road

Next stop:
The Sage, Gateshead – Sunday 17th September

The day my flight was delayed (aka Ryan Adams @ O2 Apollo, Manchester)


I had done everything right in my preparation for flying out of Dublin on Thursday afternoon.  Following on from my security faux pas when travelling to the north of Ireland the previous week I ensured that my socks were fully functional in keeping my toes covered and that I removed all illicit items from my possession prior to going through security.  I timed my departure so that I would reach the airport just short of the two hours they recommend, because nobody ever truly needs two hours in an airport lounge.  I was cleared through security leaving exactly the right amount of time to order a Guinness at the bar.  I wasn’t drinking Guinness out of any great love for the beer – though it is abundantly true that it tastes superior in Ireland – but moreso because I knew that it would take longer for the barman to pour and so would assist me in wasting a little more time before boarding my flight.  Everything was going as smoothly as the rich, creamy head which had settled on the peak of my pint.  There was even a surprising and pleasing absence of a hangover from the previous night.

My last night in Dublin felt like an exercise in solitude.  There was no Ryan Adams gig after his two exemplary nights at the Olympia Theatre and as a result I found myself chasing the ghosts of past experiences and emotions.  I booked myself onto the literary pub crawl I had so enjoyed the last time I was in Dublin, partly because I had ended up so drunk on that occasion that I couldn’t remember much of what was discussed, but mainly because I ended that night in the company of three women from Boston and I was hoping that my luck would repeat itself – and indeed better itself –  this time around.  I spent a considerable part of Wednesday afternoon revisiting some of my favourite bars in the city, in complete contradiction of my vow to not drink before four o’clock.  Though I felt greatly vindicated by this decision when a tremendous rain shower pounded the streets no later than around three o’clock, a sight which I enjoyed with smug interest from a barstool in Brew Dock as hapless pedestrians sprinted by seeking shelter, like the Rolling Stones song.

The rain subsided and I sauntered along to the Black Sheep on Capel Street, where my confident attempt at ordering my favourite IPA on this trip – Full Sail by Galway Bay Brewery – was halted by me both forgetting its name and having my attention stolen mid-sentence by a glimpse of a grisly feature on the ceiling above the bar.  How many flies are up there?  I pondered as the barmaid presumably began to consider that I might be some sort of incompetent.  I didn’t know they still made flypaper.  What kind of fly would choose the sweet fragrance of sticky killer paper over the sweet intoxication of the killer drip tray under the beer taps?  The barmaid looked at me as though I was someone who had completely forgotten why I was there; which I was.  What’s the name of that IPA?  I eventually asked as I looked down and to my right and saw it looking back at me.  She poured me a pint of Full Sail and I considered whether or not it would be appropriate to ask her about the fly paper.  It almost certainly could not be translated as being some kind of a crude pick-up line and she would surely see it as the genuine human curiosity that it is.  I settled into my barstool as she continued her duties and I stared up at the fly cemetery which was not entirely dissimilar to some of the exhibits I had seen at the Museum of Archaeology the other day.  I’ve heard about flies on sheep, but flies in the Black Sheep?  I began to count the number of flies on the paper and the barmaid cannot fail to have noticed my interest in the ceiling.  Eighteen, I counted.  Though some of them are quite close together.  It could be twenty.  I glanced around the bar to ascertain whether anybody else had taken such a morbid interest in this memorial.  It was just me.  How many flies do they want to catch before somebody takes it down?  Is it there as a warning to other flies?  I decided that the barmaid wouldn’t have any interest in answering these questions and so finished my pint and left.


Suitably lubricated, I went to the Duke Pub for the literary pub crawl in good spirits and with high hopes.  The tour was busier, perhaps even busier than when I first went on the crawl seven weeks earlier.  There were various different groups of people swarming around the tables and none of them immediately offered any encouragement that the wonderful night I previously enjoyed would be repeated.  There were Americans, of course, but they were older and much too dignified to enjoy the drinking aspect of a literary pub crawl.  And there were Germans who appeared intelligent enough to recognise that talking to me would only result in awkward issues of translation – them speaking fluent English and me talking some drunken, mangled form of English.  I drank alone for the duration of the tour, learning far more about Irish literature than I could ever care to know whilst indulging in my own self-defeat.  At one bar I ordered a single Jameson as I sought to rekindle some of the memories of that last night.  I handed over €4, believing that  to be what the barman asked for.  “You’ve only given me €4,” he noted.  “How much is it?” I asked with some trepidation.  “€8.50,” came the response.  I wondered how much I had spent drinking doubles in July.

There was little evidence of a hangover as I approached the gate for my 13.50 flight to Manchester.  I had finally mastered the timing of travelling by air.  I began to consider all the things I would do with my time when I arrived in Manchester when it was announced that the flight would be delayed by an hour.  I stared at my shoes for a while and then back up at the board, hoping that they might have realised that they had made a mistake and removed the red text stating that the plane would be “delayed until 14.50.”  They hadn’t.  People began to leave the boarding line in search of food or simply a more comfortable place to wait for an hour.  I was reluctant and unwilling to give up what I felt was a pretty good spot in the queue, knowing that I could get on board early enough to fit my bag into the overhead locker and be able to reach my window seat without having to suffer those arduous few moments waiting for the two people already sitting there to puff their cheeks and stand up to allow me in.

I glanced around the gate and considered whether it would be worthwhile giving up my fortuitous position in the boarding queue to go and sit next to a young lady who appeared both alone and alluring.  I thought about how I struggle to even start a conversation with the person next to me on the plane and imagined it would be significantly more awkward if I ignored scores of empty seats around the lounge to sit beside this sultry solo traveller.  How does THAT conversation start??  I concluded that with the enhanced security around airports these days it would be preferable for me not to be the source of some tense scene, and I realised that I was leaving Dublin without having talked to a single person.

My flight eventually arrived into Manchester approximately 102 minutes later than scheduled and I decided to forgo styling my hair into an acceptable appearance in favour heading to the bar closest to my hotel near Piccadilly Station.  It was here that I encountered further farce with my currency as the more familiar Sterling coins became mixed with some rogue Euros which I had forgotten were still in my wallet.  I fumbled blindly with my fingers and hoped for the best, the coins being offered an insight into my romantic techniques, until I was finally successful in paying for my beer.  This scene would be repeated often over the course of three hours, even when my favoured Shindigger IPA ran dry and I was forced to scramble for an alternative.  What would you recommend?  I asked the barmaid, more in the manner of hoping to appease her disappointment at disappointing me than anything else, because no matter what else you drink it is never the same as the beer you really wanted.  


Even with the curtailed drinking hours prior to the gig I felt myself a little unsure of which way I should be walking when I left the O2 Apollo afterwards.  I knew it wasn’t a particularly challenging route and that the venue wasn’t far from my hotel, because I had walked it without hesitation no more than two hours earlier, but I felt uncertainty as I surveyed Stockport Road.  After some hesitation I decided that I would  simply follow the cars travelling in the direction away from the venue, because surely they must know where they’re going.  It proved to be a logical logistical solution and within fifteen minutes I was standing at the hotel bar wondering why, in a certain light, the boots I believed to be black now appear to be blue.  Maybe blue or navy blue?  I pondered this over an expensively poured Jameson and wondered how this establishment deals with their flies.

 

Bars visited:
The Duke – 9 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
O’Neill’s – 2 Suffolk Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
The International Bar – 23 Wicklow Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Davy Byrnes – 21 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Piccadilly Tap – Piccadilly Station approach
Motel One – hotel bar

Next stop:
Usher Hall, Edinburgh – tonight

The day I realised that I don’t want my bones to go on display in a museum (aka Ryan Adams, two nights @ The Olympia Theatre, Dublin)


It has been nigh upon seven weeks since my last visit to Dublin, a trip which left me with a warm familiarity with the city and the things that are possible here.  Of all the stops on my manic journey to see Ryan Adams perform seven times in twelve days it was probably the three nights in the Irish capital that I was most looking forward to.  There were bars I wanted to drink in again and places I wanted to see between the two performances at the elegant old Olympia Theatre.  So it was perhaps a little disconcerting to find that staying in a slightly different part of the city from my previous two visits would completely throw off all my bearings and cause me to lose all familiarity with the place.  I felt like a baby who is learning to walk, finding myself wandering across bridges without knowing it and down unidentifiable cobbled lanes, leading me to places I had no idea of.  And it was even worse when I was sober.

I have developed this remarkable knack – in cities and in life – of having no discernible idea of where I am going but yet still finding my way to where I need to be.  Part of the trick to this in a city is to pinpoint a landmark or a memorable place of interest in your mind, so that when you see it you know that you are on the right track.  Mine was a brightly coloured building on the opposite side of the River Liffey from the Custom House building which in the map of my mind appeared to resemble a gay jigsaw puzzle.  The Spire also proved particularly useful for this purpose.  On my first two trips to Dublin I could not see the point of the Spire, and I thought that was a pretty good joke as well as a pertinent observation, but it turns out that the tall phallic landmark does have a very good and important purpose:  it is essentially a 4million homing device for drunks.  Because at night, when the sky turns dark (or at least darker than during the grey, rainy day) the point of the Spire will glow, helping even the most inebriated of people to see it from almost anywhere – and when you see the Spire you know where to find O’Connell Street, from where you can find your way home.

The point of the Spire tells me exactly which way I should be going


I wanted to use my time in Dublin differently from when I was last here.  That is to say I wanted to stay out of the bars until at least four o’clock.  This was partly out of a seemingly noble sense of actually wanting to do something useful and also because, at a minimum of £6 for a pint of beer, I would otherwise have to re-consider my 100 daily food and drink budget.  I was successful in achieving this exactly one-third of the time, and on Tuesday I embarked on a three-hour walking tour of the city and followed that up with a wander around the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, having been told that they had on display 2,000-year-old human sacrifices and thinking that would be a cheerful way of spending an afternoon before a Ryan Adams gig.  

Observing the well-preserved religious artefacts from Celtic Ireland along with the books and the tools from Medieval Ireland was an interesting and thought-provoking way to pass a couple of hours before heading to the bar.  I thought about the type of museums people would be visiting a hundred years from now and what kind of displays they might have.  There probably won’t be physical museums, as such, and we’ll only have to push a button on the microchip implanted in our wrists to bring up a virtual reality vision of a ‘museum’ in our minds.  Instead of books and important religious documents they’ll display kindles, and there will be iPhones from the age where we had to actually dial numbers or send emojis to communicate with another person.  There won’t be plaster cast representations of how a mummy might have looked, but instead you could swipe through an array of selfies.  And there will, of course, be digitally stored Tweets from the time when people used so many characters to express an opinion.  They might showcase a pen as a token joke exhibit and still nobody will make the suggested donation.


It was the room dedicated to the Vikings which really had a profound effect on me, though.  The very first display houses a skeleton from an excavation of an 11th Century site in Dublin and staring down into the glass case of this brutal warrior brought me to the realisation that, at the end of the day, we’re all really just a bag of bones with a very big fucking sword.  I looked into the hollow eyes of this Viking and decided there and then that I do not want my skeleton put on display in a museum.  The thought of tourists in the future standing around the exhibition of my skeletal being and criticising my bone structure filled me with dread.  I could hear them commenting on the state of my tibia and how “I’m surprised he managed to go as long as he did with femur like those.”  Women would question the need for preserving my penis when surely museums should only exhibit items of usefulness, and there would be a general consensus that “his ribs are surprisingly bony, considering…

The only natural place to go after viewing an exhibit of a skeleton is for lunch, particularly if for some reason my posthumous orders are to be defied and my bones will be put on display for ridicule.  I’d better get some more meat on those things.  Down the road from the archaeological museum is K.C. Peaches, one of those self-service canteen style restaurants.  It is the kind of place which encourages the most ridiculous food combinations a person can think of.  I scooped pork cheek marinated in red wine onto my plate, alongside a helping of spicy Malaysian chicken and lime with some white rice and peas and dropped on some cold Japanese noodles with celery.  I walked around this island of various hot and cold foods and simply piled everything I could onto my plate because it’s food and it’s available and you can.  There is no consideration for diet, taste or aesthetics.  So I took this plate of multiple ethnic cuisines to the counter where as I approached the young woman behind the desk remarked:  “That’s a large plate,” and I wasn’t sure whether she was making an observation or a judgment – she would have been correct either way – so I panicked and ordered a medium cup of coffee (what else would you drink with spicy Malaysian chicken?) in an effort to relieve the stress of the situation, hoping that she might recognise that even though my food order was large my drinks order was medium, so I can’t really be that much of a sloth.

It wasn’t just canteen style hostesses who I was struggling to communicate effectively with.  By Tuesday evening I had reached the point in my interactions with the various barmaids in town where the only banter I could engage was some arduous routine whereby I would empty all of the coins from my wallet, as though to imply that I couldn’t tell the different denominations of currency apart.  Of course, the more I tried this ‘bit’ the more I realised that I really couldn’t tell the coins apart.  Nevertheless, I would count through the coins in my hand, trying to make up the 6 whatever cost of a beer and I would apologise and say something like:  “Sorry, I’m struggling to make any cents (sense) out of this.”  Which was invariably met with stony silence each time, or occasionally a “don’t worry, take your time,” at which point my faux stupidity had been translated as actual stupidity.  One time I repeated the joke, hoping that I could make the North American barmaid laugh, or at least crack a vague impression of a smile in recognition at my attempt, but there was nothing and I would eventually just hand over a twenty and add to my collection of coins.  


Being that my decision not to drink at the concert in Belfast on Friday worked out pretty well in terms of remembering details of the gig, and indeed remembering actually being at the gig, I resolved that I would do the same in Dublin and conduct all of my libations before and after Ryan’s set.  I was pleased that I came to this decision, as the two nights at the grand Olympia Theatre are almost certainly the best I have seen him perform.  To date this tour seems to have found him in a very focussed place where he is intent on playing the best two hours of his life every night.  His band is great and the set lists have been perfect.  I counted seven changes from the first night to Tuesday’s show and on Monday he played Love is Hell – which he had performed for the first time this year in Cork on Saturday night and I had feared I might have missed it.

Night one at the Olympia Theatre – though Magnolia Mountain was replaced by Shakedown on 9th Street


My relative sobriety did come with a downside, however, and that was my increasing disdain for the couple standing in front of me.  Firstly I failed to understand why a couple would even go to a Ryan Adams show together, and this question weighed on my mind as I watched them dance along to lyrics like “anything I say to you now but goodbye is just a lie” and “you and I together, but only one of us in love.”  But not only did these people have the gall to be happy in a relationship – they (more so he) also had to record every other song and upload it immediately to their Instagram account.  They didn’t want just me wallowing in their happiness; the entire world had to.  I think the true source of my irritation was the fact that they were filming only the more recent material, indicating that they have perhaps only been fans since the last album or two.  Which is fine and I would actively encourage anybody to listen to ‘Ryan Adams’ and ‘Prisoner’ – but when he put his phone back into his pocket and left for the bar when Ryan started to play Dear Chicago that got on my goat.  If you’re going to insist on taking your partner to a Ryan Adams show, at least stick around for the most depressing and miserable song in his back catalogue.

Night two at the Olympia Theatre


Bars visited:
The Black Sheep – 61 Capel Street
The Porterhouse – 16-18 Parliament Street & also Temple Bar
Beer Market – 13 High Street
Brew Dock – 1 Amiens Street
J.W. Sweetman – 1-2 Burgh Quay
Bad Bob’s – somewhere in the Temple Bar
Bad Ass Cafe – somewhere in the Temple Bar

Next stop:
O2 Apollo, Manchester – Thursday 14th September

Twenty-two hours in Belfast (Ryan Adams @ Ulster Hall, Belfast)

img_1598
Overlooking Belfast, Cavehill was imagined by Johnathan Swift to resemble the face of a sleeping giant.


In my experiences I have found that there are many ways to see a city.  You can visit its museums and galleries and become immersed in its culture.  You can study its architecture and walk amongst its people for a flavour of the life.  Or you can spend twenty-two hours in a panic-striken haze of beer, excitement over seeing your favourite singer-songwriter and the anxiety of making an early flight home on Saturday morning in order to attend a wedding reception you had absent-mindedly double booked yourself for.  I chose the latter because I’m an idiot and that’s the sort of thing an idiot does.

Matters of timing aren’t the only way I know how to make a trip unnecessarily difficult for myself, and flying to Belfast proved more of an arduous affair than waking up for the return flight would be.  I was already running a little later than I had anticipated due to a hangover weighing me down in my bed and clouding my judgment, and all I could think about was how I could possibly make an 8.20 flight from Belfast the next morning when I am struggling to reach Glasgow Airport in time for a 9.15 departure.  I went through the process at security of transferring my liquids (but not all of my liquids, as I could still feel quite a bit of Budweiser in my system) and gels into the clear plastic bags they like these things to be kept in and I unbuckled my belt and placed all of this into the dim grey tray.  As I walked away towards the scanner I had the realisation that I had forgotten to take my phone out of my pocket and the watch from my wrist.  I stopped in my tracks, sighed and cursed my ineptitude and decided that as my tray was already gone I would carry on and walk through the scanner with these forbidden items upon my person.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The scanner immediately went off to alert everybody that I am some kind of idiot and without hesitation I handed over the contraband like a naive criminal who has been caught red-handed in his heinous deed.  I was certain that owning up to my mistake straight away would let the security officer see that I had recognised the items which had set off the scanner and we could both move on with our lives without further incident, but he frowned as I placed my phone and watch in his hand then asked that I take off my shoes.  I am unfamiliar with other people asking me to take items of clothing off my body and it was in this moment that I remembered that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be requesting the removal of clothes on this trip either, and more specifically I wasn’t expecting that anybody would be looking at my socks.  I contemplated suggesting that he should at least buy me a pint first, but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would appreciate sarcasm in this situation and I was probably going to have to come to terms with the knowledge that my socks are not suitable for public viewing.

I tried to plead with him with my eyes, as though to say:  Please don’t make me take off my shoes.  I’ve already owned up to my crimes and you can quite clearly see that I’m just a hung over idiot.  My socks are the clothing representation of what it would look like if there was a gathering of every Pope from history and Mother Theresa and Bono – very holy.  But there was no way I could actually say those words without drawing further attention to my socks, so I silently untied my laces and removed my shoes one at a time.  First the right shoe, and I felt a pleasant relief when I saw that my black sock was fully intact.  Then I slipped off the left boot and handed it over to the officer.  This sock initially seemed fine too and I was feeling quite good about myself, until I was directed to stand on the spot where two painted footprints suggest I should be standing and I noticed that the fourth toe on my left foot was attempting to make a break for freedom from its cotton prison, just this little pink blob wanting to take advantage of the slight glimmer of light seen through a gap in the material big enough for a sneaky toe to bundle through if it really tried.  Then the security officer consulted the picture which has just been taken of my insides and he confirmed that I’m just some idiot who forgot to take off his watch and hand over his phone and I’m left standing in my socks, one of them with a small hole in it, waiting for at least two minutes for my belongings to appear on the conveyor.  Now there’ll be an attack.  This is when those bastards will hit Glasgow Airport — when I’m standing here wearing socks with holes in them!  And this is how my body will be discovered and I’ll forever be remembered as the man they found with a hole in his socks.  He couldn’t run away because he was wearing his socks, they’ll say, and what’s worse is that one of them had a hole in it and a little pink toe was poking through it!

The Harland and Wolff crane dominates the Belfast skyline


I arrived in Belfast on Friday morning with no firm idea of what I was going to do before the Ryan Adams concert that evening – a feeling I am familiar with most days of my life.  I have prepared a Google Document outlining at least three pretentious hipster craft beer bars I would like to experience in each of the places I will be visiting during this Ryan Adams tour (eight towns and cities, seven gigs) but I knew that ten o’clock in the morning was much too early to start drinking IPA when I was hoping to be vaguely sensible on account of the early flight on Saturday, so I stopped off in an average-sized local coffee shop and ordered a large cup of caffeine in the hope of stimulating my mind and kicking the hangover.  It was because of this coffee that I was able to recognise that I could get myself onto the free walking tour of the city which began across the square outside City Hall at 11am.

A free walking tour (or, more accurately, a “pay what you want” walking tour) is a fine way of seeing the points of interest in a city if you are short on time and can’t decide which of the sights you would like to visit.  The guide on this particular tour, Gavin, was an engaging retired school teacher who spoke with a Northern Irish accent that was much easier to understand than others I have encountered.  He weaved a story of how Belfast became the city it is today as we walked around various streets, all while I was considering how best to strike up a conversation with one of the American girls in the group.  If there is one thing I struggle with it is walking and trying to think (or perform any kind of multi-tasking on the move, really.)  If there are two things I struggle with it is that and trying to talk to girls; so I was confronted with two of my greatest difficulties on this walking tour of Belfast.

I found myself walking alongside this American girl (who was presumably raised on promises and couldn’t help thinking that there’s a little more to life somewhere else) between several points on the two-hour tour but I never knew what to say to her.  Every time I tried to speak the words would become caught in my mouth like a little pink toe in a small hole and I would remember how I had already once been shown to be an idiot today and thought better of it.

I heard you’re from Tennessee.  How about that Elvis guy?”

“Shame about all those sectarian bombings Gavin has been telling us about…but you have such pretty hair.”

“Those knee cappings sound brutal, but on another note, I really like the way you walk.”

Nothing I could think of seemed right, so naturally I waited until the end of the tour when a handful of stragglers who weren’t sure how better to spend their afternoon – maybe six or seven of us in total – were invited to a nearby pub to buy Gavin lunch.  At least I knew that with the walking tour finished if my haphazardly blurted question about the American girl’s travels failed miserably and resulted in the peace wall being closed I wouldn’t have to endure the awkwardness of walking around the city with a group of strangers whilst feigning interest in this or that.

‘The Big Fish’ – the salmon of knowledge


In the end, after a couple of hours in this pub sheltering from the rain and talking to the American girl, and long since the remaining members of the group had left, I found myself wondering why I have spent much of my adult life as a man scared to talk to new people when there is so much to be learned.  Before yesterday I had no idea that the Belgian city of Gent produces exceptional mustard or that many mountains in Germany will have huts halfway up them that sell beer.  Nor did I know that the female outfit traditionally worn at Oktoberfest is called a Dirndl or that some people in the southern states of America will hunt frogs for fun.

With much newly acquired knowledge to ponder I reached for my phone and consulted my Google Document and Google Maps in an effort to locate some of the craft beer bars I had noted.  It struck me that even ten years ago this trip would have been all the more difficult to co-ordinate without so much information at my fingertips, but that after a couple of pints of Maggie’s Leap the night becomes a little less easy to co-ordinate and beer acts as a kind of counter balance to technology.  I didn’t get lost on that point for long (or at all, thanks to Google Maps) and worked my way back up Great Victoria Street towards Ulster Hall.  I had resolved to stop drinking beer before the gig in order to give me half a chance to wake up in time for my flight in the morning, but I had miscalculated the time it would take me to walk from The Garrick to the venue and ended up with too much time to wait before Ryan Adams was due on stage at 8.45pm, so I made a stop in The Apartment for a Jack Daniels Honey and lemonade.  At £5.60 I was convinced that this would be my last drink of the night.

Ulster Hall


It had been two years and two months since I last saw Ryan Adams play live and Ulster Hall seemed like an ideal venue for my twenty-first time seeing him, with its long history including the distinction of being the first place in the world where Led Zeppelin performed Stairway to Heaven.  It felt small for a ‘hall’, in a good intimate kind of way, and there was some kind of incense burning in the room which smelled exactly like I remember from attending mass as a child.  For the first few songs all I could think about was the memory of going to church on a Sunday with my mother and brother and sister, and I got to thinking about how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to listen more to the teachings of the Catholic church by Father MacKinnon rocking out on the altar like the KISS demon.

Without a plastic tumbler of Jack Daniels in each hand the gig going experience was a little different, and remains more fresh in my memory today.  I think I enjoyed the music more, although perhaps not as exuberantly as I might with a bellyful of whiskey, and I could become immersed in the emotional aspect of the event – especially when Ryan took the opportunity in the middle of the set to play a rare song with a happy, positive vibe:  “This is Stay With Me.  It’s about wanting someone to stay with me…and make my life miserable.”

After setting twenty-seven alarms on my phone in an effort to make certain that I would wake up for my flight to Glasgow at 8.20 on Saturday morning I found that one would have sufficed, as the anxiety of missing the wedding reception coupled with the unusual sensation of being not entirely drunk on a Friday night meant that I didn’t really sleep much at all.  I arrived at Belfast City Airport with more than two hours to spare and I wondered why I couldn’t suffer a security scare now.  With time to kill and socks which were fully intact this would have been the perfect opportunity for some security officer to find that I am an idiot.
Bars visited:
Unknown bar – unknown location
Bootleggers Bar – 46 Church Lane
The Dirty Onion – 3 Hill Street
The Garrick – 29 Chichester Street
Apartment – Donegall Square West

Next stop:
Olympia Theatre, Dublin – Monday 11th & Tuesday 12th September

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Courtesy of @TheRyanAdams, set list from Ulster Hall

What Ryan Adams’ songs mean to me, part two: When The Stars Go Blue

There are not many things in life that disappoint me; I’m a relatively happy-go-lucky kind of guy.  I can sometimes feel a little disgruntled when I can’t find a shade of socks to entirely match the colour of my tie, and there’s a certain kind of sadness when a pair of boots I particularly enjoy wearing are cracked right across the soles (although this experience did very recently aid me in getting the most wonderful laugh out of a barmaid when a random stranger I was conversing with decided to reveal to her that he works as a shoe repair man and I was at the ideal level of drunkenness and boldness to comment:  “A shoe repair man?  That sounds like the kind of job that must be great for the soul [sole,]) but other than that the greatest disappointment I tend to feel is when I step into the shower on a morning and realise that I have forgotten to replenish my Nivea facial scrub, which happens once approximately every seven weeks.

One moment in my thirty-three-and-a-half years outside of the womb has stuck with me as being a poignantly displeasing experience, however.  It was the time that one of the most iconic performers in the world, Bono, covered a Ryan Adams song with The Corrs.

I love U2.  Somewhere on the internet in the dense scrap heap of discarded blogs written by me there is a series of posts detailing my adoration for Bono and the lads.  And The Corrs are a quite inoffensive pop quartet.  Indeed, probably the only offensive thing attached to the family foursome from Ireland is the pub question popular amongst groups of men who have nothing better to discuss:  Would you fuck Jim Corr in order to sleep with the rest of The Corrs (particularly, although not limited to, Andrea?)

I would like to state for the record that my answer to this brain teaser is typically no.  Not out of some overtly masculine fear over my sexuality being brought into question.  Nor is my answer negative due to some vague form of chivalry whereby I refuse to have sex with a prospective lover’s brother.  I generally answer no to the question of whether I would have sex with Jim if it meant I could have relations with the other members of The Corrs because I cannot help but imagine how awkward the subsequent family dinners would be.  The trembling in my hand as I pass the gravy to Sharon whilst trying to avoid eye contact with Jim.  The silence that would wash over the room when Andrea asks her brother if he would like more meat.  It would be too much for me to bear.  And there is certainly no way you could have a meaningful relationship with Andrea Corr after such an inglorious courtship.

I cannot remember where I first heard of Bono and The Corrs covering When The Stars Go Blue.  I have a suspicion that they performed it at a large benefit concert that was televised in the mid 2000’s (I’m thinking a Live Aid or something similar?) and I felt this palpable excitement when it was announced that one of my favourite artists would be covering a song by my absolute favourite musician.  I couldn’t wait to see it.

Then Andrea Corr called it “Stars Go Blue” (fair enough, hardly the greatest crime ever committed – especially when you consider the things her brother does) and Bono pranced onto the stage wearing those purple shades and with a yellow rose in his hand.  Everything about how they made this lonely and miserable song an attempt at upbeat beauty made me cringe.  By the time Bono and Andrea finished up dancing I could not think of a musical performance I hated more.  There should have been a benefit concert for the tragedy of this song.

It has taken me a long time to get over this disappointment.  Ryan recently (in the last three or four years) reintroduced When The Stars Go Blue into his live set and it still makes me feel uneasy, although my intolerance of it has cooled the more he plays it.  It is a lovely, melancholic song and I would kind of like to like it.  Maybe this year he can reclaim it.

Album:  Gold
Album release:  25th September 2001
Also appears on:  VH1 Presents:  The Corrs, Live in Dublin

What Ryan Adams’ songs mean to me, part one: So Alive

This song does such a great job of reminding me that I am alive.  Not only because it is inferred from the title, or even due to it being one of the more anthemic Ryan Adams tracks in his catalogue.  So Alive is brilliant at reminding me that I am alive because it is one of those songs that, when it is finished, I immediately have to fish into my pocket for my phone so that I can skip back and listen to it again.  And anybody who has witnessed me walking to or from a particular location (for that is my primary reason for walking:  to get to or from somewhere) will attest that, if I am not reaching into my pocket for my phone, I pretty much resemble a mindless zombie with no awareness of what is happening around me.

Perhaps what I enjoy most about that moment of being alive, when you hit ‘back’ and the opening guitar chord blasts out through the earphones again, is the idea that passers-by probably think that I am reading an exciting text message or receiving another massively complimentary comment on the colour of my socks.  When little do they know that the reality is that I simply want to hear a rare uplifting song from this melancholic alt. Americana troubadour again, because I can never listen to So Alive just once.

Always on your side
I’m on your side
And so alive it isn’t real

So Alive isn’t the first song I heard by Ryan Adams.  It isn’t even the first Ryan Adams song that I loved or that I love the most.  But it is the song which made me fall in love with his music and sparked a fourteen year and twenty gig obsession.

Tuesday 25th November 2003 was the first time I saw Ryan Adams play live.  It was the first gig I would attend.  I still have the ticket and some cuttings of newspaper reviews in a scrappy old notebook alongside my own handwritten review of the night.  My piece is overly sarcastic and lacking in depth.  Thankfully I have matured out of that habit.


I don’t remember a great deal about the performance.  I was young – barely twenty – and had enjoyed some Jack Daniels, whilst my enthusiastic scrawling suggests that everything he and his band played that night was the best thing ever.  But it is So Alive that truly left a lasting impression.  Rock N Roll had been released barely weeks before the tour and this would be the final song of the night.  It was delivered with an energy and a passion that still resonates today.  I can remember him perched on a speaker at the front of the stage bellowing these words with every ounce of his being.  Probably with a bottle of wine in hand, such was the Ryan Adams of the early 2000’s.  I knew immediately that he would be my favourite musician and that I would see him again and again.

The next time I saw Ryan Adams perform – in Liverpool in January 2004 – he played So Alive early in the set, it wasn’t nearly as impactful, and towards the end of the show he would fall from the stage and break his wrist.  He wouldn’t tour again until sometime in 2005.

I was already hooked, however, and like that ridiculously big falsetto in the chorus my appreciation of this song goes on and on.

Album:  Rock N Roll
Album release:  4th November 2003

Calling Festival 2015 @ Clapham Common, London

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It has been two years since Calling Festival lost the Hard Rock sponsored monnicker and moved out from Hyde Park to Clapham Common, with the formerly weekend spanning event being curtailed to two days in 2013 (where it spent a year at the site of the Olympic Stadium) and now to a single sunny Saturday in 2015.  It would be tempting to suggest that the inner-city festival has fallen on hard times (sic); an event which can boast of past headline acts such as Bruce Springsteen (3 times), Neil Young, Aerosmith (twice) and Paul McCartney was this year struggling to sell tickets – even with the assistance of £10 “flash sales” – with Noel Gallagher’s name on the top of the bill.

Not that any of this was on the minds of the 15,000 folk who elected to spend their fourth of July on the couldron like Clapham Common, in spite of distractions elsewhere in London such as AC/DC at Wembley Stadium, the Wireless Festival and Andy Murray’s bid for a second title at Wimbledon.  The site, on the southside of Clapham Common, baked in an unrelenting heat – the sunshine like an extended guitar solo from the Gods.

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Early acts on the site’s two stages found themselves playing to sparse crowds who often seemed to have had the misfortune of a rock show intruding upon their picnic, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Elle King, whose bluegrass stylings and big voice evoked comparisons with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.  Over on the second stage young English rockers Vant proved to be more photogenic than musically memorable – although that may be enough to get them onto the cover of the NME.  Sunset Sons, meanwhile, offered a pretty fantastic slowed down version of the

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The layout of the arena and the stage timings meant that – if you wished – you could see all fourteen acts on the bill.  With bar queues growing through the day in accordance with the rising temperatures I elected to linger in the vicinity of the main stage, securing prime spots as the main support acts began to appear.

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First up were Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch swaggering onto stage with a tumbler of bourbon in hand, bowing to the sweltering conditions as his trademark black trenchcoat made way for a suit jacket and a zipped up jumper, his first act to demand a packet of cigarettes from a roadie before launching into Lips Like Sugar.  This was a stagger through one of the finest back catalogues in recent British music, performed through a cloud of smoke and a haze of whisky with a certain – earned – cockiness from the Liverpudlian.  Statements like:  “You can sing along to the chorus of this one – the only way you won’t have heard it is if you were in prison” while introducing Bring on The Dancing Horses; proclaiming The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” and The Cutter as the second greatest.  On this evidence, though, there could arguably be some truth in those claims.

There was no shortage of self-assurance in the next set either, though with The Hives a certain amount of it is undoubtedly showmanship.  The Swedish five-piece produced an outrageously energetic and enthusiastic set, their pristine white suits no match for the blazing mid-afternoon heat and their desire to bound and karate kick all over the stage.  The Hives put on a show quite unlike anything I can recall seeing, finally turning the picnic on Clapham Common into a bold rock and roll concert.  Despite being absent from the mainstream psyche for some time, songs like Walk Idiot Walk and Tick Tick Boom have endured.  They held a swelling audience in the palm of their hands with an entertaining blend of humour and hits, compelling an entire field of people to squat on the grass before bringing them to their feet in a frenzy with the opening chords of Hate To Say I Told You So.  It was quite a sight to witness.

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Modest Mouse were amongst my most anticipated bands of the afternoon, having never seen them before.  Unfortunately they were somewhat of a letdown – to me, at least.  I’m not sure whether they had simply drawn the short straw by having to follow the extraordinary Hives or if I was becoming distracted by the prospect of Ryan Adams – or if it was perhaps down to the story that they were playing on borrowed equipment with their own still stuck in France, but they were a little underwhelming.  Certainly their eclectic blend of styles is appealing, and Float On was a real highlight of the afternoon, but I left this set with the lingering feeling that it could have been so much more.

Though, as mentioned, the looming appearance of Ryan Adams on the main stage may very well have been occupying my thoughts.  This was the 20th time I have seen Ryan perform and I am convinced that he is on the best run of his career.  His new band The Shining click perfectly with him, and he seems so much more at ease now as the frontman than he did shouldering the burden of a solo acoustic tour.  This was a slick and professional set where Ryan’s guitar playing really shone.  There were moments – particularly on Dirty Rain and Peaceful Valley – where his solos produced actual gasps from people around me in the audience.  He was that good.  Kim and Shakedown on 9th Street – a Heartbreaker song I’ve been hoping to hear live for twelve years – have been recent additions to his set since the early Spring UK tour, while Come Pick Me Up (even minus the female backing vocal) remains a highlight.  To hear a good number of the 15,000 crowd singing along to the chorus of the harmonica-led Heartbreaker classic is something I never thought I would experience.

Fresh from their debut album charting at number two and a critically acclaimed set at Glastonbury, Wolf Alice found themselves top of the bill on the second stage, occupying the 45 minutes between Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher.  A generous crowd forwent the bar queues and crammed into the tight area in front of the stage to see what the fuss was about the much hyped North London alt-rock quartet.  There’s no doubt that Wolf Alice have a captivating sound, alligned perfectly with the charisma of lead singer Ellie Roswell.  The comparisons with Garbage and Hole have some merit, and it’s easy to see that they have the potential to go far.  Bros and Moaning Lisa Smile ae genuinely big songs. They’re touring the UK in September and are simply must-see in a smaller, more intimate setting.

And so it was on to the headline act of Calling 2015:  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.  After a full day of sunshine, beers and a fine collection of performances from the undercard, I would admit that I wasn’t particularly fussed about Noel’s biggest UK show to date; though it might be unfair for my lackadaisical approach to the headline set to colour the opinion of everyone else.  For me Noel is a decent songwriter (I disagree with Ryan Adams, who proclaimed him “the greatest fucking songwriter of our lives” during his own set) though his solo work will forever be overshadowed by his time with Oasis – and it was clear that’s what a sizeable element of the audience came to Clapham Common for.  They were in luck, as six Oasis songs made the setlist, most popular amongst them Champagne Supernova (which sorely lacks Liam’s vocals) and Don’t Look Back In Anger, which was the defining moment of the set.  In between times it felt like people were waiting for the next Oasis hit, and Noel, for all his charisma and arrogance on stage, comes across as a lacklustre frontman.

Calling Festival has changed drastically in its ten years and while Saturday – for me – ended in vague disappointment, it cannot be argued that the day wasn’t a great success.  The atmosphere was welcoming, the weather was exceptionally kind and there was a day full of quality acts on stage.  Considering that many venues were charging upwards of £65 for Noel Gallagher’s UK tour earlier this year, to see Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Echo & The Bunnymen and Wolf Alice – as well as Noel – for the same price at Calling represented excellent value for money.  This was one of my favourite days in a long time.