Plenty of goings-on in the weeks before this show. The day after the Coventry gig we were in the middle of Birmingham along with Daz, Jordan, Sally and my mate Dick to see Tony's side, Beorma Morris, perform in the middle of the city along with many others. It was, as I'm sure you are aware, the Blessing Of The Plough, which I took to be the beginning of the process which ends with the Harvest Festival. We thought it counted as a gig. There was music and dancing after all. Doesn't that make it valid? Even though it was in the middle of the precinct on New Street.
The week after that, we were at Leeds Town Hall to see another "gig", this time by The Halle Orchestra. Mozart Symphony Number 41, Strauss (Richard) Horn Concerto Number 1 and Schumann Symphony Number 4 in D Minor, if you're taking notes. We went along with it all, but we would struggle to hum any of it to you.
After that there were a couple of trips to Sheffield. First off was to catch Shatner who were playing in town to an empty room except for Karen, me and the brother of one of the guys in the band. A week later we saw Trainspotting 2. Much hyped, and rightly so. Well, we thought it was good. Decent soundtrack as well.
I also found time to attend an event featuring Simon Wolstencroft, aka Funky Si. He's been on a bit of a musical journey. He was a schoolmate of John Squire and Ian Brown and drummed with them in the embryonic days of The Stone Roses, but left them behind before they went onto major stardom. Similarly with another band from round that way. He drummed with Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke before they drafted in a singer who was a bit too maudlin for Simon. Enter Mike Joyce and The Smiths were on their way. Meanwhile Simon headed off to join The Fall for a decade. The event I attended was plugging his book, You Can Drum But You Can't Hide. Looking forward to reading it, but for now it is in a massive backlog piling up on my stairs.
We didn't realise this until afterwards, but Karen and I may not have taken the most logical route to Bilston. We each got trains to New Street, and then got on one to Wolverhampton before getting the tram to Bilston. We lack the local knowledge, but perhaps it would make more sense to get the tram direct from Birmingham to Bilston. Not sure where the tram stop is in the big city though. Will have to consult with Tony or somebody who knows, for next time.
Alighting in Wolverhampton, we bumped into Postman Tony on the platform. He was stopping in town and had arranged to meet up with other fans for a pre-gig curry. That was a tempter, but we had other plans. We were stopping at the excellent and (it must be said) cosy hotel next door to the venue. After checking in, we headed back into town, with Jay who was also stopping there. He was looking for mid-afternoon pub action. We were more interested in the exceptional offerings at The Major. We are both open to suggestions, but I in particular need to be told if there are better fish and chips on offer anywhere on the planet.
During a spot of wandering we were pipped by John and Elizabeth arriving in their car. We also spotted a poster advertising An Evening With Jelle Klaasen in the town. And Hazel O'Connor is playing at the Robin 2, in amongst all the tribute acts that they have lined up. I bought a copy of The Express And Star. No mention at all about the HMHB show. So, in the absence of a media blitz, we had only two sources of information for the show. It featured in the glossy Wolverhampton What's On with a prominent place for a photo of Ken and Nigel doing the Parfitt/Rossi routine. And there was also this from The Robin's own Club Magazine And Gig Guide... "Famed for making ill-tempered music with a social conscience, Birkenhead band Half Man Half Biscuit formed in the early eighties, 'merely as a way of getting through the day'. Quickly picked up by the angst-ridden youth of the eighties, their punk-driven, lyrical rants and protests against all things celebrity and fake, became the unofficial anthems of the underground." And there was even a bit about Sonnenberg, tonight's support... "Indie folk with a twist... it's all intimate without being cloying, pleasurably nocturnal and more than a little bit wonderful." That set us up nicely.
With only stopping next door, we were able to witness the soundcheck, along with Jay. Carl's testing of the drums was a bit like fifteen minutes of mantra filled oompah. But these things have to be done. Neil tested his bass out with Dead Souls and Ceremony. I don't claim to understand the technical side , which explains why Neil and Nigel appeared to be signalling no balls and four byes at various points during the soundcheck and the actual performance later on.
For the record, HMHB played three tunes while checking. Joy In Leeuwarden, A Lilac Harry Quinn and Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride. After they had finished, I asked Nigel for the logistics of who picks up whom when they make their way to their shows. It seems that Neil liaises with the van hire company. He drives to Little Sutton near Ellesmere Port where they are based and collects the van. He then picks Nigel up. After that it depends whether they are travelling north or south, as to whether they get Carl or Ken first. On the way back, usually in the wee small hours, there is the tricky (and presumably, quiet) manoeuvre for Neil as he leaves his gear at his Mum's before heading back to Nigel's and returning the van later in the morning. More importantly I asked Nigel what he thought about Tranmere's chances of promotion. "Lincoln look good," was his response.
I also asked a favour. This show was thirty-one years to the day since I first saw HMHB play live. 2nd February 1986 at The Leadmill in Sheffield. I told him that the very first tune that they played that night was Busy Little Market Town. I wondered if there was any chance they could play it tonight. Sure enough, they did. Just for a couple of minutes I was that angst-ridden youth once again. Thanks, Nigel.
Later on, we were back downstairs queuing up waiting for the doors to be opened for the evening's entertainment. I made a note of the sign outside. "Please respect the artist on stage and the customers around you that have come to listen to live music. Loud chatting is not permitted whilst the artists are on stage." Same problem the world over. I wish Sonnenberg could have been afforded some of that respect when they were on.
When we were allowed in, I said Hello to Mick. We were both featured in Peter's article in The Big Issue the previous year. Mick told me the tale about his story there, where he was driving along and heard HMHB for the first time, putting his arm out of the window to act as an aerial so that he could listen to the song. I told him similar tales - that first gig in Sheffield, the early days of hearing them on the John Peel programme etc. etc.
Pausing to catch up with Lee, spotting a guy wearing a Crispy Ambulance t-shirt, wishing Jordan a Happy Birthday and getting a second opinion from Andrew, who confirmed the quality of the chips at The Major, I returned to my usual place at the front, ready to see Sonnenberg. There were just the two of them tonight, Zinny and Saul. Tony pointed out that Zinny was playing a twelve-string guitar, but only had six strings. It must mean something. I didn't recognise any oldies among the songs that they played. They could all be from their new CD, due out around March. I had heard We Don't Need Another War previously, and possibly one called Better Together. "This is all very positive stuff, given the way world politics are," said Zinny. Hear, hear.
More Hellos to Pete, Daz, Gomez and Howie, and HMHB were ready to go. Start times vary. Tonight's was 8.45. Normally if HMHB are on before 9 o'clock it's because the venue has a club night lined up afterwards. It wasn't obvious, if this was the case. The band walked onto stage to the sound of Requiem by Killing Joke. Unusual choice? Well, there was an explanation. "The CD player in the van wasn't working, and that was on it," Nigel pointed out, before continuing, "it's all downhill from here."
He said the journey to the gig had been "A41. Door to door." They had stopped off for kettle crisp sandwiches and he had read the previous day's Metro. Unfortunately I didn't catch the location of this quality stop-off point.
"Anybody here from Ballymena?" asked Nigel. When there was no reply, he turned to Ken and said "Told you." There was a question from the audience, asking Nigel why he wasn't wearing a jumper, as he had apparently worn one at the previous show here. Nigel replied that if so, he wouldn't have been wearing it for long. The conversation turned to the 1923 FA Cup Final. "David Jack got two medals at that match. One for being on the winning side and one for scoring the first goal at the new Wembley Stadium. This then evolved into a quickfire quiz round with Nigel asking away. "What was the name of the white horse at that game?" (Billie. Note the spelling according to the FA site.) "What was the name of the police officer riding the horse?" (George Scorey.) And then the killer question. "George Scorey was supposed to be taking his fiancée out that night. But he was waylaid at the match. What was the name of his fiancée?" (Kitty.)
Ken was the first man in Wallasey to eat Yakult. Nigel claimed to be the only man to be stuck in a submarine with Libby Purves and Roy North. We'll have to take his word for that. He also explained that he hadn't written Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus on the set list, but they played it anyway ("it's where it all started for me and Neil").
When we saw Postman Tony at Wolverhampton station earlier, he had told us that he was taking an inflatable seal to the gig. In due course, that found its way onto the stage, and Neil put it on top of his amp. When told that its name was Ron (Ron Seal), Nigel said "This is now officially The Grumbleweeds show."
"This is a curveball," he announced before the band played It's Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas. "We forgot to play it at the Christmas gig." This was described as "post modern" by a voice in the crowd. He also changed the line towards the end of the song. "I saw Kate Bush with the ICF." He also fitted in the joke about the cinema manager dying, and his funeral being at 1.30, 4.30 and quarter to eight. The cabaret continued when he said "This is a bird impression" when taking a swig of water. "Swallow."
There was the usual talk about Nigel's shoes. He said it was the first time that he had colour co-ordinated his shoes and socks. Before 27 Yards Of Dental Floss he said "We wrote this years ago in Ullapool." And Ken and Neil swapped instruments for three songs: 27 Yards Of Dental Floss, The King Of Hi Vis and Bane Of Constance. Needless to say, the playing of The King Of Hi Vis met with the approval of John. "Who needs T Rex when I've got TV," said Nigel. There was some talk about recent deaths. Ken mentioned Maggie Roche. The guy from Can was referred to. And Kevin Ravenscroft's grandad. Must be one of Nigel's mates. After A Lilac Harry Quinn, Tony leaned over and said that when he was studying for a degree in Theology he would never have thought that one day he would be joining in with a chorus about Sturmey Archer and Campognolo.
There was a lengthy chat about walking in Wales. Sorry, I couldn't keep up with that. There was an extended pause during Lark Descending while Nigel stuck a plectrum to his forehead. And at the end of that song, they burst into the "Cresta" chorus from The Unfortunate Gwatkin. During Joy Division Oven Gloves he pointed in the general direction of the Quantocks when mentioning them.
When the band came back for the encore, Nigel struggled with his guitar strap. So what's new? He said they had just learnt Busy Little Market Town in the dressing room. The cover was a Pere Ubu song. I don't have a great knowledge of their work, but must put that right soon. Here is the gig in total.Joy In Leeuwarden
And in the encoreRestless Legs
Afterwards I chatted briefly with Graham and the other Graham, as well as meeting two members of Beorma Morris (Tom and Kiera) who were at their first HMHB gig. Then in the morning we were having breakfast with Ian from Lichfield. We reflected on the current state of live music. About how audiences favour covers bands above people who perform their own songs. And I was sorry to hear from him that JDs in Dudley had closed down many years ago. We'll continue that discussion sometime in the future, Ian. In the meantime I am delighted to report that Karen has sourced a bargain ticket for the journey in a southerly direction in the middle of March. Worthing here we come.