It’s an overcast Saturday afternoon en route to Cologne - the first gig we’ve done in the western area of Nordrhein Westfalen - the most densely populated state in Germany. I see green fields and at least 50 giant wind turbines. Germany are heavily into the green energy - since typing this sentence there’s another 100 more in the distance on either side.
We’re in great spirits from our gig last night in Kassel (gig 22 of 28) where we played a fancy jazz club with impeccable sound, live-streaming cameras (the family was watching back home which made it extra special) and a great engineer called Rolf who toured with synthman Rick Wakeman in the 80s.
Rolf had a vintage 70’s Fender Rhodes available that I played all night with a big smile on my face - if you don’t know what it sounds like, think the intro of ‘Riders on the storm’ or ‘Still crazy after all these years’ - it sounds like sunshine. Ironically, lots of older German men who come to our shows look a bit like Rick, and my expanding multi-keyboard setup has started to resemble his a bit.
Yesterday was a bit of a disaster pre-gig, we rolled back into a car (no one hurt, minimal damage) that happened to be driven by a German Army man who had to call his superior and we were left waiting for ages beside a busy road. A few pre-gig OHM breaths and we were grand.
Today Lisa’s brother is making a surprise visit to Cologne - well it’s a surprise for Lisa, so we left our lush 4-star hotel early today under the guise of trying to arrive early to see this mega music store in Cologne, truthfully I can’t wait to try out some guitars in that store.
[Nerdy aside: I’ve been using my computer as a mixing hub for the different sounds that I need, but I’ve realised I could use a sweet new guitar - for some reason I’ve never invested in a really fancy instrument as I’m usually more focused on the group experience rather than being seen as a ‘guitarist’. Now I’m using Logic MainStage to process my dry DI guitar sound (yuk) through a convolution sample of a Taylor guitar (€€€), so it’s a bit of revelation as the sound is extra lush. If you want more info on this just ask I’ll explain what works for me]
We’ve had the audiobook of the story of Ernest Shackleton playing in the van - Kildare-born Shackleton spent 3 years enduring incredible hardship with his men ensuring they got home safely after his expedition failed and the ship sank in antarctic ice. Comparatively, this epic level of endurance has provided considerable strength to the band whenever we have to drive for a few hours without food - we’ve taken to narrating our own scenes in an audiobook voice to stave off feeling sorry for ourselves.
The best part of this whole experience is the joy of playing every night after barely playing for 2 years, it’s put so much stuff into perspective. I'm starting to believe that when we start to analyse or judge music as a thing and not as an experience it ignores the feeling of exponential energy in a room, the congregation and shared journey that many of us live off of. Is shared connection the most powerful human force? It feels like it at the end of every show because even when it’s not our greatest night there’s always people who are ecstatic to have been there. Good times
Another joy is that every night I play an African instrumental tune that I used to play a lot and it's given me the freedom to accept a younger version of myself. I'm probably guilty of taking the writers advice to kill your darlings too far, having drawn a line around some things that I used to love playing but didn't fit the new brief.
Stylistically, this gig with Lisa Canny is so varied but, it doesn't really matter, just like borders on a map look like like definite hard boundaries different genres can seem opposed: rock vs country vs RnB vs traditional - we're playing all of those things. As long as there's a tiny bit of context it doesn't really matter what you play! Anyway, did you know that the banjo originally came from Africa? I invite you to expand the definition of yourself, soften the edges and let some stuff in that feels good.
"Call me Ishmael"
I type hunched in the back of a volkswagen van on the autobahn in between Coburg and Hamburg, touring in Germany with a paired down version of the Lisa Canny Band. This means just the 4 of us: myself, Lisa, Tod and Niall. We're playing Lisa's original music and some Irish traditional songs & instrumental tunes.
Lisa is a former all-Ireland champion on banjo, harp & voice, she's a fair 'beasht' capable of putting on a show anywhere or anytime. She also raps and sings like.. well, imagine a princess lamenting her lost love at the climax of a Disney movie, sung by Mariah Carey. Lisa tells a great story and the Germans absolutely love her - although audience faces often don't give much away right up until the moment of thunderous applause.
I'm on keys/piano, acoustic guitar and backing vocals, and sometimes at the edge of my comfort zone (which is a good place to be as an artist to be fair) which is particularly felt after not playing much. More on the tech another time.
We've been here just over two weeks, playing about 12 gigs so far, another 15 to go. It's full on with a gig almost every day; there's a lot of sitting, then hurriedly assembling gear for sound-checks, hastily eaten meals and a rake of beers, unpacking and repacking for the next day. We might drive north to south, French to Austrian border in one day. The roads are good.
Germany is a fantastic country, systematic, logical, pretty, optimistic, sometimes funny, passionate and often very funny. Daily misunderstandings are good fun. We find that they often interpret the Irish need to keep a conversation flowing as an opportunity to get stuck in the mud on how you could do a thing better or quicker. My two months of daily German tapes helped get through a few situations but I'll need about two years to be able to keep up.
German sound engineers are a curious bunch - one night they will happily put you in your place for setting up your gear in a certain way, the next night another will contradict the first lad. They are usually right in some sort of way and also wrong in a dogmatic kind of way. Humility is rapidly becoming the most important quality on tour, flexibility the second.
Gigging after corona has made me think that we have all put up boundaries and our instinct to survive has blocked potential light entering. We have to remove some of those boundaries one by one and music is a way to do that, as it catches you off guard and delights you despite your best efforts. I still find myself assuming the worst just as a natural reaction to the daily onslaught of negative information and unpredictability that the past year & a half thrown up. If you have any ideas about dismantling these boundaries I'd love to hear them.
I sent my finished mixes to master last week from this same spot in the van - in common parlance this means my album is almost done. Yeay! I'm considering calling it 'White Whale' in a nod to Moby Dick, in a nod to my 16th century Dutch ancestors who were whalers.
Messy business it was, but fascinating considering they would voyage for 2-5 years, returning home with whale oil that would go on to power the industrial revolution and thereby end any need to hunt whales, though unfortunately that didn't happen until much later, anyway, I digress - there's a nice metaphor in there for the blind ambition of captain Ahab and the madness of the creative struggle.
I've been working on a playlist of songs that influenced the songs on White Whale that you can check out here
Here are a few shots below from our gig in Graben by a nice man called Hans.