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A radio return

I appeared on the radio this week, returning to the airwaves in Gloucestershire for the first time in about 20 years.

Actually, I don’t think my last appearance on the radio in this part of the world can be considered countywide. Because it was hospital radio and I’m fairly sure that the signal didn’t go beyond the car park. I’m also fairly sure that no one used to listen. It’s not my first appearance on the radio in 20 years though, because I appeared as a guest on Radio Perth when I was performing shows in Australia.

I was on Radio Gloucestershire, which brings back memories of two things. Firstly, it was my go-to station when it snowed as they would announce the school closures. That was always filled with excitement.

And secondly, when I was 12 or 13 in the summer of 1997. My idol was Chris Evans and I was obsessed with radio. Most evenings and weekends, I would switch between Radio Gloucestershire and Severn Sound, trying to find someone playing Robbie Williams: Old Before I Die. It was in the days when I believed that to have a good summer, you needed an anthem and that was the song I’d decided it to be that year. Neither the summer, song nor idol that year turned out particularly well.

Anyway, my appearance this week came off the back of my spot at the 2000 Trees Festival. I tweeted about performing there and one of the radio presenters got in touch and asked if I’d like to appear on the evening show.

It was good fun. I enjoyed chatting with the presenter. I was hoping I’d get to pick the songs to play, but that’s not quite how it works. Most stations have a set playlist, So, I was asked to introduce three songs from that. Admittedly, I didn’t know any of them. I recognised some of the singers but had never heard the songs. Regardless, my old hospital radio show muscle memory – that definitely doesn’t sound weird – kicked in and introduced them as best I could.

And it was agreed on air that the first performance of Ross Kemp: The Musical will happen on 25 July 2023. If the pressure of a deadline agreed on local radio doesn’t get me working, nothing will.

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A new discovery, eight years late

I didn’t end up going back to the music festival last week as the high temperatures diminished the appeal of driving there. Even in the evening, the heat would make me feel ill. Instead, I went to the local brewery for a couple of pints and to stock up on beer to get me through the week.

I cannot function in high temperatures, which is just another reason that I hate climate change so much. With the heat outside, all the curtains are currently shut in my house and I’m sitting here writing while dressed in some baggy pyjama shorts and very little else. You’re welcome for the mental image.

Anyway, I wanted to write this week about a band that I did see at the festival last week.

I have been searching for my new favourite unashamed rock band for some time, but it doesn’t help that I’m out of the loop and mainly listen to music that’s at least 15 years old. As a student, I would find out about bands by reading Kerrang every week, then putting it back on the shelf in the newsagents. Then just down the road from my uni house, there was a great little venue that would often have bands playing. I’d sometimes take a punt on them and discover new music that way. Going to live music gigs, you discover other bands in the support slot and then start following them too. But once you’re out of the loop, it’s harder to get back into if you live – currently, anyway – out in the sticks.

These days, many of the new bands I discover and really like often end up splitting. I sincerely hope that my fandom doesn’t jinx their prospects.

I also think in this age of streaming and algorithms, plus the lack of Top of the Pops or similar shows, really makes it so much harder for bands to break through to the masses.

It might also be the case of what I’m looking for isn’t really how they make many bands these days. What I want in a band is a lead singer with an impressive vocal range commanding the stage and crowd, with solid riffs, interesting and witty lyrics, choruses you can sing along to, but above all else, must have guitar solos. So, my ideal mould is really based on Queen. See also The Darkness, My Chemical Romance, Pulp, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden.

And it would seem there aren’t too many bands that fit this highly specific criteria. And the ones I have seen that do on paper don’t have the songs to back it up.

Anyway, I am pleased to report that I have discovered a band that meets my unrealistic criteria. They are called Creeper and I saw them at 2000 Trees Festival last week.

I was finishing a burrito and a beer in one of the bars when they started playing on the main stage. I was drawn in by the riffs and theatrics and thought: “Okay, you have my attention.” So, I went and watched their set.

I would best describe them as a time travelling rock n roll band from the 1950s, who ended up in the 1970s and became obsessed with Rocky Horror, before travelling to the mid-2000s and fell in with the emo crowd and got into My Chemical Romance, with a bit of Meatloaf thrown in for good measure. But even then, I’m not doing them justice.

And my, do they have some bangers in their back catalogue. They have a showman for a frontman with an astonishing vocal range, sing-along choruses by the bucket load, catchy riffs, and embrace guitar solos unashamedly. Also, wearing black on a sweltering day in the sunshine takes a special sort of durability.

It’s almost as if someone saw my previously unpublished criteria and created a band especially. But then if they are time travellers, I’ll know where they got the idea. I had to buy their album afterwards and have been listening to their music solidly ever since. I hope they become huge, they deserve to.

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Two gigs, a festival, and a book

This week saw my highest number of gigs in a single week since March 2020, with a dizzying tally of two.

Monday’s gig just reinforced how much I hate driving to gigs, particularly those in city centres. I was down in Bristol. And despite having driven there many times, driving through the centre still confuses the hell out of me. If you get in the wrong lane then it’ll send you miles away from where you need to get to and stuck on the one-way system. Even the SatNav refuses to intervene and leaves me to it. Fortunately, some ultra last-minute lane changes saved me from that fate thanks to a considerate lady in the car behind me.

The gig was great fun. There must have been about 30 people in, which is an incredible turnout for a Tuesday night in July. And they were the best kind of crowd, weird and lively but engaged and willing to let acts go off on a tangent, as opposed to sitting with their arms crossed waiting to be impressed. My set went well and people said some very nice things afterwards. I was trying out a couple of bits of material that I’d not done post-Covid to see if they still worked, and it just so happens that they do. I had intended to try out some brand new material for Thursday’s gig but bottled it.

I need to do more gigs in Bristol. In fact, I need to do more gigs. Considering Bristol is my birthplace and only 30 miles from home, I haven’t done anywhere near as many gigs down there as I should have done over the years. Very early on in my comedy life, as in 16 years ago, I had a psychological block about never doing well at gigs in Bristol and would loudly berate myself afterwards on the drive back up the A38. Thankfully, this has changed with experience, for the most part.

And doing another gig is precisely what I did on Thursday, at 2000 Trees Festival. It was both my first music festival and my first time performing at a music festival. It was also about 30 minutes drive from my house and I was performing, which meant I was also getting in for free.

The day started pretty cloudily, which I was pleased about because I cannot function in the heat. Only for the blazing sun to arrive an hour or so before I was due to set off. I made a last-minute decision to take a bucket hat.

I’d planned to drive there in shorts, then change into jeans before I went on stage. It just feels weird doing a stand-up set in shorts, so I try and avoid it unless the heat makes it physically impossible. And when I arrived at the festival and got out of my car, the sun was blazing down and it was sweltering. I thought there would be no way I would be physically able to perform in shorts. Also, grabbing that bucket hat was already proving to be a good move.

I parked up in the artists’ area. That’s right, I am an artist. It’s not the best sign-posted festival, so I didn’t know where anything was or when bands would be on. I only knew the time I was meant to be on and that it was in the comedy tent. So, I went on a wander and it was baking. I walked through the centre of the festival, looking at tents and wondering what was in there. I didn’t think I’d be on in the metal tent, although I would love to give it a go. After wandering around for about 20 minutes, I found the Word tent. Was this the same as the comedy tent? It would appear so. I sat on one of the deck chairs that passed for seating and saw a couple of people walking to the backstage area. So, I explained how I was performing and asked if I could come backstage and store my bag somewhere. Then I walked out the back and almost immediately saw that it was the same place I’d parked my car.

About 20 minutes before I was due to perform, it was time for the pre-gig ritual of a poo. Fortunately, there were some backstage toilets. I mean, they were still portable toilets, but there was no queue for them. Once I’d achieved what I set out to do, I left the toilet and realised that my flies were undone on my shorts. Only, I could not find the zip to do them up, because it was broken. I would have to perform in jeans after all.

I was performing at the Alternative Book Club, which I did back in a pub in Cheltenham about a month ago. When I did that gig, I didn’t have anything prepared as I was drafted in without much notice. Only this time, I was prepared. Or as prepared as I could be with doing a set that was half new material at a festival. The plan was to start with some tried-and-tested material, before going into talking about a book.

But it was okay because I would be reading extracts from Ross Kemp: A-Z of Hell. I’d had the book lying on a table in my bedroom for about 18 months, then suddenly realised it was a perfect fit for the Alternative Book Club. This was the material I bottled out of doing on Tuesday.

Not only did it work well and mostly get laughs where I planned, but I also think I may have some decent new material here on my hands that could serve me very well indeed.

After my set, I saw some bands. As the festival is only half an hour away, I may well go back this evening to see some more.

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No Fringe app

In August 2020, I did a very short-lived podcast called Edinburgh Fringe: The Year Off and asked my guests what they’d like to see improved about the festival when it returned. Because for at least a few years before the pandemic, the Fringe was getting harder mainly because it was getting so expensive.

I hoped that the year off would give the organisers the time to have a rethink about ways to make the festival better for performers. So, I was a little surprised to find out today that the organisers have scrapped the official Fringe app.

Actually, I wasn’t really surprised at all. I don’t know who the organisers run the festival for exactly, but it certainly isn’t for the performers. The official Fringe app was a really useful tool in getting people to come and see shows. It let the users know what shows were starting soon and where to find them. For many performers, it provided a lifeline. While it’s easy for shows to get lost in that massive brochure, having your show pop up on an app may help people find your show.

While some of the other promoters up there have their own app, having one with all the shows on really makes a big difference. It was a leveller. While the glossy shows with all the huge posters everywhere are certainly better funded, they may not have as interesting ideas as a smaller show with no budget.

For three Fringes, I refused to go in the main brochure and chose to save myself £300. That was until I decided to go in again during 2015 and ended up with packed rooms every day. So, being listed in the brochure definitely helps get an audience. But well done to the organisers for now making it much more difficult.

Another factor here is the cost of living crisis. I do wonder if people can afford to go up to the Fringe this year. As I said, the number of punters going to the Fringe had been in decline pre-Covid. And in 2019, the Military Tattoo was struggling to sell out. When that’s happening, you know there’s a problem. Then there’s the spectre of Covid still looming and infection rates are rising. It’s all made me quite glad I’m not taking a show up this year but also concerned because none of this bodes well for the future of the Fringe.

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It’s a miracle

Just two weeks in, applying Miracle Grow to my hops every Sunday is fast becoming one of the highlights of my week. Crucially, I said “one of the highlights of my week”, implying that there are other high points.

And there are. The others mainly involve looking at the hops throughout the week to watch how much extra they have grown as a result of the Miracle Grow.

After a period of stunted growth, they are growing again thanks to artificial intervention. I only started two weeks ago, but am already seeing progress.

Plot 1 was well out in front back in April and by this point, I thought it’d easily have reached three metres by now. But like me, it struggled to grow taller than 5ft 8.5in. Not that I ever expected to reach three metres in height though. And now unlike me, Plot 1 is growing again. While some of the leaves are falling off, additional shoots are coming off the vine.

Meanwhile, Plot 2 started quite a bit later but is growing a lot more quickly now. And the tallest vine is now about six inches away from surpassing the tallest in Plot 1. In fact, Plot 2 is looking like the most promising destination for hop flowers, with about six vines all at various stages of growth.

There is a Plot 3, but there is one solitary vine that looks a little anaemic. Still, there is time for this to improve. Or die. One of the two.

I’ve been looking back at photos from last year and it’s still doing much better than then. And with another two months to go before the harvest, I’m still confident that I’ll do much better than the 1.5 hops mustered last year.

Hops are fascinating plants to watch, especially if you don’t have much else to do.

Onto gig-related matters, it turns out that my run of one gig a week could not be sustained. But next week, I am going crazy and doing two entire gigs in one week for the first time since March 2020.

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Another gig

I had another gig on Thursday, although my record of gigs in consecutive weeks won’t last much longer. That could change.

Anyway, it was back to Cirencester, keeping with my unintentional new policy of only doing gigs fairly close to home and within the same county. The last time I performed at the venue was my first gig in ten months at the end of August last year. Back then, the room was packed, and people were spilling out of the back of it.

But this time, it was a fair amount quieter. Traditionally, the summer months and lighter evenings are bad for comedy, which thrives on the darker nights. When it’s hotter and gets darker later, people either want to go to beer gardens or just drink anywhere outside. And I suspect that was very much the case here. There were about 12 people in. But then, I have always preferred playing to smaller rooms as there’s no real pressure and I have greater freedom to piss about. And that is exactly what I did.

I was on first and successfully tripped up on the small stage I didn’t see as it was a very small step off the ground. Fortunately, it was just a small stumble. They were a really friendly crowd and laughed loudly despite their small size. Ultimately, I think I probably enjoyed it far more than they did, given said pissing about.

I even found someone in the audience who also used to be a reporter for the same paper as me, albeit some 25 previously. Still, he knew my former editor and another ex-colleague. It is a small world, with the world of local papers far smaller still.

I now don’t have another gig for a couple of weeks, but may try to make that change.

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A booking

I had my second gig of the year on Wednesday. It was at an alternative book club night in Cheltenham, where comedians do material specifically about books.

I’d like to say that I didn’t have time to prepare anything because I was only drafted in a few days before. But the reality is, turning up unprepared is familiar ground for me even if I have been given enough notice.

But I do just so happen to be an actually published writer, aside from on here. So, I rehashed my reporter material and made it relate back to books as much as possible. My main excuse was that my former editor at the paper was colleagues with Terry Pratchett when they were both press officers for an old group of nuclear power stations. Possibly, but they were definitely colleagues somewhere.

I tried a few new bits, some went really well, others not so well. The first seven minutes of my ten-minute set went very well.

What didn’t work was a bit about something about the book I carried around in my bag for silent reading in English lessons in Year 8 and 9 at school. It was a tie-in to the 90s TV show The New Adventures of Superman, and it was called Deadly Games. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was about, as I never actually read it and only pretending to read to smash the system. I once had to describe it to the class and much of my description was about the front cover. I tried comparing the TV show to a microwavable carbonara I’d often be eating while watching the show on Saturday evening. None of this material worked.

Regardless, it was a fun gig. The room had a really nice atmosphere and I had the freedom to piss about, which I always get the most enjoyment out of. I have another gig on Thursday.

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Stunted growth

After getting a little too cocky with my hops growth, the normal order has been restored. In a month, my largest vine has barely grown three inches.

Looking at pictures of them, they were a lot happier last month. Then again, April was a much sunnier month, then there was a wet May, and June looks set to continue with this.

The people growing hops up the road started slow but are now almost double the height of my lot.

Arguably mirroring my progress on the comedy circuit, the hops reached a certain level and then got too comfortable and stopped growing or developing any further. Then others who started the same time later have gone on to comfortably surpass this.

Thus far, anyway. I’ve added some fresh manure to the soil and I’m watering them regularly. You may continue the metaphor if you choose to.

Fortunately, I have a couple of other sites for the hops and the middle one is quickly making gains on its taller neighbour. I’m just saying, I have other projects on the go too, and I will keep telling myself that.

But it is a reminder that comparing yourself to others is a fruitless task, or perhaps flowerless in this case. Regardless, I’m still beating my progress from last year when I was spending most of the time trying to encourage the vines to grow on an obelisk I’d assembled.

In gig news, I have another gig this week. It was a fairly last-minute edition and is also in Cheltenham. It’s an alternative book club night, so I am going to have to try and write some literary-based material.

Then the following week, I have another gig in Cirencester to maintain my unwritten requirements of only performing at nights close to home. And I’m fairly confident that I haven’t done gigs in consecutive weeks since January 2020. Later in the year, the plan is for this to be a regularity. And with any luck, I’ll have a decent amount of hops by then too.

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My Chemical Romance: I’m not MK

This week, I went to my first music gig since… Well, I couldn’t actually remember when. I’ve just checked and it was in 2018 when I was still living in Manchester. Although I found that particular night pretty underwhelming, it wasn’t enough to put me off going to another gig for four years. I don’t quite know why I didn’t go and see anything for the next year, but then everything shut down for two years after that.

And it would have been longer still if I hadn’t had a sudden change of heart this week.

I was going to see My Chemical Romance, for who I make no apology (it’s death or victory) about bloody loving. They used to be something of a guilty pleasure that I wouldn’t openly discuss on social media for fear of being mocked. But I stopped caring about being cool way before even the pandemic.

I discovered them in 2005 in our uni house as I’m Not Okay was regularly on the music channels. I initially dismissed them as another generic emo band. Then I heard the guitar solos and that got my attention, as I instantly have more interest in any band that deploys guitar solos. In fact, that is also what attracted me to The Darkness – another widely dismissed band I have a strong fondness for. When it comes to guitar solos, I am like a moth but only attracted to the widdly-widdly sounds.

Unlike many other bands from the same genre in the mid-2000s, MCR write great songs with interesting lyrics and are rarely formulaic. I don’t know how you could accuse any band of being generic if they ask Liza Minelli to guest on one of their tracks.

The Black Parade is quite possibly my favourite album ever, which I instantly connected with when it was released in Autumn 2006. I like to think of its influences as being somewhere between Queen’s A Night at the Opera and Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. There was something about the uncertainty in my newly post-uni life when it was released that obviously made me gravitate towards an album about dying and coming out the other side. Little did I know that this was a handy metaphor for my comedic activities, where I died multiple times.

I originally booked my MCR ticket on my phone using the dodgy Wi-Fi at a dodgy hostel in Perth in January 2020. And the show was rescheduled twice since then due to the small matter of Covid. I had half-forgotten that I had a ticket and even a couple of days before, I didn’t think I was going.

It was in Milton Keynes, which is a massive pain in the arse to get to from the south-west. Trains take far too long and I probably wouldn’t be able to get one back, so would have to stay over. Only, I’d left it too late to book anything and everywhere was fully booked. The closest hotel was about £180. Then I looked into driving and all the parking at the stadium was booked up. I asked a comedian mate from MK if he knew anywhere and he made a few suggestions, but it was all a bit uncertain. And if there’s one thing I really hate, it’s driving around in a rush and trying to find somewhere to park my car.

So, that was that. I wouldn’t be going. Also, I could only get a seated ticket that was right up in the nose bleeds. That barely even counts as a gig.

That was until I started listening to their albums. And the night before MCRmas, I decided that I would be going after all. I booked a Travelodge midway to avoid a two-hour late-night drive, which would inevitably involve road closures. And I’d park at the nearest train station if there were any spaces.

The drive there to MK was reminiscent of those horrible and sweaty drives on the A-roads through mainly Yorkshire in the summer of 2018 to perform comedy gigs.

Then, about eight miles away, traffic predictably ground to a halt. My Googe Maps said there would be a nine-minute delay. So, I waited for nine minutes. And there was still a nine-minute delay. This went on for some time. It turns out that the police had closed off the road ahead due to what must have been a nasty car crash. I saw a fire engine coming away from the scene and an ambulance heading in the other direction.

Still no re-routing from Google Maps. I had a quick look at the map and saw that there were some backroads I could take that should get me back on route. Surprisingly, my plan worked perfectly and I didn’t end up on a dirt track or in a stream. I was back heading where I need to go and there were plenty of spaces at the train station. Now, I had to rush to get there in time to see the start of MCR’s set.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the venue, the band appeared on stage. I couldn’t have timed it better. Well, I could. I could have gotten there earlier and managed to find my seat for when they arrived on the stage.

When the band started playing Helena and the stadium around me erupted in song, I realised why I had made the effort. I bloody love this band. And hearing a crowd all singing together again really made me realise how much I’ve missed this sort of thing during the pandemic.

I watched the first five songs while also looking around for where I was meant to be sitting. It turns out many of the stewards working at MK Stadium also have no idea where the stairs are to the upper levels.

I eventually found my seat after about 30 minutes into the show. And everyone around me was bursting into song, even on the upper levels. It was a great show and the band sounded like they’d never been away. I am so glad I decided to make the effort, although my vocal chords are less enthused. And I’m now weighing up whether or not to go to another show on the tour.

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Music festivals

This week, I added another gig booking to my diary and I will be performing at a music festival in July. The best part is that I get a free weekend ticket for doing so, and it’s only about a 30-minute drive from my house.

I have been to see many bands over the years, particularly when I was at uni. But I have never actually been to a music festival. I’ve always liked the idea of going to one, just never got around to it. There have been a few near-misses over the years.

When I was 15, I’d been planning to go to Glastonbury with my best friend for months. We had it all planned out and it wasn’t going to cost us a penny. It was a couple of years before the organisers erected those massive fences and back in the days when you could get to the site by walking through a few fields and stepping over the odd bit of wire. And that’s exactly what happened.

Only, I didn’t end up going. My friend had managed to get a lift down there a day earlier than we’d originally planned and tried to call me to let me know, but I was taking my dog for a walk at the time and missed my chance. I’ve always quite fancied going there at some point and told myself how I’d just wait until I’d get invited to perform in the comedy tent and I could go free. Let’s just say, I’m still waiting on that. Still, that plan has come to fruition for another music festival. The rest will now surely fall like dominoes.

I did buy a day ticket to Reading Festival in 2004, but didn’t end up going as I’d been to Paris to see The Darkness (who else?) a couple of days before decided I was too tired. Rock n Roll. Getting home again would have been difficult without a car, as I seem to remember planning on getting a train to Swindon around midnight, and then just hanging around at the station for about six hours to wait for the first train of the day.

I did get a press pass to Radio 1’s One Big Weekend I was a reporter, which I only went to as my colleague who arranged it couldn’t go. The highlight of that was finding a tenner on the floor and going out of my way to blank Vernon Kay in the VIP area. Regardless, the event wasn’t technically a music festival as there was no camping.

Of course, one of the main reasons I haven’t been to a music festival is the lack of access to a decent toilet for a few days, especially given my unfortunate history in that department. And because the festival is so close to my home, I am planning to make full use of the facilities and come and go between both locations throughout the weekend. It may not be an authentic festival experience, but I can live with that.