Monday, November 17, 2014

EU Tour: Manchester, England

-Pre Tour-
This weekend I went through my computer and watched videos of my love of 9 years, my band, Random Encounter. I watched our practices and shows from the early days, watched myself nervously take to the stage for the first time, head down, trying with all my might to play the right notes. Over the course of years (in the videos) I watched the membership of the band change and shift. I watched the band experiment and try to find its sound. I quit playing accordion in the band for a few shows. I watched the worst show that I've ever played, a show that only exist in the minds of those who survived it and in a folder on my computer labeled "2007 - the dark days" in videos casually named "delete me" 1 through 4. I watched as over the years members of the band got injured, improved some, quit, and noticed changes in myself as well. I watched the final show where the original band ultimately disbanded, and then found videos from practices that took place a few weeks later of a completely different band of the same name. 

Random Encounter, circa 2010
In these practices five youthful looking kids, who met purely by chance, were playing instruments with an utter lack of confidence. However, they put everything they had into what they were doing, which I admired. It was clear that we did not consider ourselves musicians. It was clear that we hardly considered ourselves entertainers but were striving to improve every weekend. Those videos of Rook, Moose, Kit, Konami, and myself are four years old now and in many ways, despite the added confidence that we can entertain people from time to time, there is still magic in everything we do. Every time we play a show to an audience that outnumbers us (and even if they don't) we're still genuinely excited and will do whatever we can to put on a good show.

Lots of looking down at our instruments
I'd written an article awhile back about our amazing journey with Video Games Live in Florida, and how incredible it was that Tommy Tallarico had allowed us to join him for it. What I'd omitted from the story was that at the end of the tour he'd given us an open invitation to perform with Video Games Live in the future. Moose and I noticed that VGL was putting together a tour across Europe and casually asked him if we could be a part of it. Each of the shows we wanted to play had a fairly special significance to us and if there was any way we might be able to make such a tour happen we collectively decided that we would do whatever it took to get there. To our genuine shock Tommy said we could join him so long as we made everything work on our own dime, and Konami and I spent the next few months planning the logistics.

Random Encounter does logistics
(Photo by Jeff Douglas Photography aka JDP)

I won't bore you too much with the specifics but I'm really good at finding cheap ways to travel (I have a reputation at work for regularly staying in the cheapest and most oddly pleasant hotels) and we were able to make the numbers work somehow by sleeping in airports, renting our instruments on site each night (to avoid airline baggage fees), and by spending hours of searching for the cheapest transportation options available in Europe. Even with these precautions this tour was still an extremely daunting prospect...
It was with the knowledge that this would be the single most expensive endeavor the band has ever undertaken, and with the realization that a single logistical issue could ruin any one of our six upcoming shows that Konami and I spent an additional few weeks checking, double checking, and verifying every possible aspect of the tour to the point where we had directions for every street we planned to walk down. We did this work between day jobs, recording the Big Blue LP, and recording two additional tracks for upcoming collaboration projects that would be due around the time we'd be on tour.

Manchester at night
-Manchester, England-
Tour began for me on Halloween with a panicked series of emails from the band. It seemed that while I was en rout via train to Camberley (to spend Halloween with Kaitin and her parents) the band, who was flying in from the US by means of Amsterdam, Detroit, North Carolina, and Florida, was stopped at the notorious UK security checkpoint and unable to get into the country without the address of where we were staying at. As we didn't have a hotel booked just yet they were trying to get my address in Camberly but somehow sorted it all out before their hour of free airport internet ran out and walked about five miles to a nearby hotel. That evening Kaitlin and I enjoyed a nice family dinner, a four story tall bonfire complete with an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and a fireworks display that would rival most 4th of July's. We turned in early, and I was on the train to Manchester by 6:38am the following morning.

Morning in Manchester
Oddly enough, despite living in England for a few weeks prior, this was one of my first experiences of being truly on my own. Traveling light, I had with me with my accordion and my trusty black duffle bag of 15 years, which Kaitlin had recently patched and which contained everything i'd need to survive the coming weeks. I switched trains at the Reading station without incident and slept for the better part of the journey to Manchester. In the moments where I was awake I occasionally caught people pointing at my accordion (which was on my lap) with interest, and I somehow got caught up in a conversation with the man who checked that everyone had train tickets. He was a self proclaimed "practicing pagan" who knew a surprising amount of occult-style lore. We chatted about this, laughing gas, and the finer points of cooking (he knew a LOT about what plants were edible and apparently has a massive garden behind his house) for awhile, and when he had to get to work again I watched the misty fields beyond my window. The only notable thing beyond the beautiful scenery of England was a field of goats in which I saw steam come from the butt of one of the goats. It was cold, I was tired, and I guess you can see more than your breath in those fields.

In Manchester I was about to get off the train (which was considerably packed) with my gear, caught in a crowd of people both behind and in front of me when the train door I was passing through started to close. Unable to move forward or backwards (I tried pushing my way through the crowd to no avail) my leg and my accordion both got crushed by the door along with my morale. It was crippling in many senses. What hurt most was the sad noise that the accordion made as it broke. I had literally just spent hours repainting it, making it extra pretty, dropping money on new internal microphones, and otherwise preparing for the most important two weeks of my life as an entertainer only to have the opening seconds of my journey seemingly be the last. I hobbled out of the train, literally limping from the pain, set my accordion down and surveyed the damage.

A sight no musician wants to see
Beyond my paint job being scratched up the damage was fairly minimal. Still, it seemed that i'd effectively broken two keys, which rendered the instrument useless as it made unwanted noise akin to a donkey's call without me pressing any of the keys. I'll admit I was fairly distressed by this so when I asked for directions and people shamelessly gave me bad advice I walked about a mile in the wrong direction before getting my bearings, pulling out my map, turning around, and limping back to the station. By this point one of the wheels on my rolling duffle bag had broken off and the dragging of the bag had created a hole in the bottom of the bag I didn't notice for a day or two. I lost the majority of my personal hygiene products and the AA batteries my accordion needed. With no means of contacting anyone (no WiFi, no cell phone service) it took another 40 minutes of aimless limping until I finally arrived at my first destination, the 02 Apollo in Manchester!

First impressions of the 02 Apollo
Walking into a venue that the Beatles have played at really boosted my spirits! I quickly met the VGL crew, who helped me find a pair of pliers. It didn't take look for me to determine that the damage to the accordion was too severe for me to fix. The metal inside of the keys had actually bent, not allowing the reed to close. Armed with WiFi I did a quick google search, made a skype call, and found the only accordion repair shop in Manchester, which happened to be in walking distance. I'm not sure what the odds are for such a thing in England, but I assure you that it's extremely slim that a shop would happen to be open, that the tech would be in, and that they'd be willing to accept a "walk in" accordion repair!!! So I immediately walked to a place called the Hobgoblin and met with the repair techs. They worked really quickly and were able to fix my accordion in under an hour! One of them wore a Ziltoid tee shirt, and as Ziltoid fans are a rare breed we chatted about Ziltoid's coffee fueled conquest and our mutual love of video games while the repairs were under way. By sheer happenstance the main tech mentioned that his favorite video game of all time was Earthworm Jim, which was composed by Tommy Tallarico, the guy in charge of Video Games Live. It felt like my civic duty to get the techs tickets to the show, so I did. I surmised that if I lived in Manchester these guys would probably be good buddies of mine. In exchange for me playing the theme to Game of Thrones on the accordion for them (which they recorded to advertise the shop) my repairs were unexpectedly on the house!

It got dark pretty early
I got pizza at the shop next door, bought 2 boxes (the minimum required to pay on credit card), ate on the walk back to the venue, and met up with the band (who was happy to see me for the first time in a month AND that I'd brought pizza). This is where I discovered that we were missing cymbals, distortion pedals, a drum rug, and guitar cables due to a mix up with the first rental company. Thanks to the magic of Skype I was able to get the owner on the phone and got the issue fixed (via delivery) with 5 minutes to spare before our sound check. Since part of the mistake was my fault I really have to credit them for going above and beyond. Once we could breathe again we took a moment to examine our surroundings. It was good to be in the presence of Video Games Live again and after our sound check I sat in the audience, still in genuine awe watching the orchestra work their magic on some of my favorite songs of all time. Just like with the last time I'd been with VGL I got super nostalgic and teary eyed, and enjoyed what felt like a performance made just for me.

I'm the guy in the middle (JDP)
Our green room was three stories up and my knee really wasn't doing well the second or third time I had to go up and down those stairs. My limp got more prominent (the less I bent my knee, the less it hurt) and I started to wonder how badly I had damaged my knee. In an effort to recover I slept under the table in our green room from the end of sound check through when the house doors were being opened. I hobbled down the stairs with Moose and was shocked to see a person in a Random Encounter shirt! I did a double and triple take at this, sure that my eyes were deceiving me. It seemed that somehow, all the way across the Atlantic ocean, in ENGLAND someone had heard of us! His name was Liam and he'd driven over 200 miles with his father from Scotland to see us! Moose and I got a photo with him (the pleasure was genuinely ours), chatted for awhile, and got backstage before the show started. 

The only sleep I got in Manchester was under a table of guitar cases
The show itself went well. Being our first show of the tour, playing on foreign instruments, having not actually practiced as a band in about a month, having a bum knee, and with the others being generally insecure about playing in front of a huge audience in a different country we did fairly well. We gave it our best and I don't think we could have asked for a better audience. One unexpected treat of the tour was the addition of the extremely talented Riva Taylor to the show, a world class singer who I found to be extremely approachable. She contributed her considerable talents to a few songs throughout each night of the tour (Journey, Assassin's Creed, and Still Alive) showing a level of mastery over her voice that I have only seen one or two other people reach. She also had a really good sense of fashion, rocking a different outfit for each song. It was really neat getting to chat and hear about her life growing up as a professional singer. Another pleasant surprise was Austin Wintory, the composer of Journey, who conducted Journey for half of the shows that we played with VGL. I found Austin to be a pretty personable guy and while I didn't get to talk with him nearly as much as I wanted to, it was really neat to meet him!

Riva Taylor singing Journey
(photo stolen from this website)

Never a dull moment with Video Games Live (JDP)
After the show we quickly discovered that the rental company was not going to pick up our gear. In fact they were under the impression that we were going to transport it to London, which we were utterly unable to do. Fortunately the stage manager (who we became very good friends with over the course of the tour) was amazing and said she could fit the gear into the truck with the other VGL gear. This single act of kindness saved us from missing the London show.

Liam, our #1 fan in Scotland!
At the meet and greet we met with locals, Liam, and a couple from Madrid (who bought tickets to see VGL in Manchester before the announcement of the VGL Madrid show). We also saw the two gents who fixed my accordion and thoroughly thanked them. One of the accordion repairsmen we'll arbitrarily call "Josh" asked what we were up to and when we told him we intended to walk to the bus station and wait until our 6am bus, he informed us that the bus station was extremely cold and offered to take us pub hopping in the only parts of town that would still be open after 10pm. So we packed up our bags and went on a walk around Manchester with Josh and his friend in the one place that was open, the gay bars.

A walk with friends is rarely too long
In the dark and quiet walk from the venue to our destination we only saw one other soul, who happened to be a regular (a clarinet or sax player) at the shop Josh worked at. They chatted for a bit and we continued our journey. Josh was fairly chatty and enthusiastic around us, which kept our spirits high. Manchester was no longer a place of silent mystery and frigged wet cold, it was now a dark playground for five tired but enthusiastic Americans and our local friends.

All of the nightlife in Manchester
By stark contrast to the rest of Manchester, the area around the gay bars was colorful, bright, and full of life! There were so many amazing costumes (it was Halloween weekend) and friendly people. We literally couldn't fit ourselves inside of the overcrowded bars we passed. After nearly getting hit by a train (trains in Manchester don't slow down when passing through town as we quickly discovered) we came to a quiet pub just past the bustle. Literally the moment we walked inside and order drinks a fo-American cover band took to the stage and started playing any rock song with lyrics pertaining to America, including Born in the USASweet Home Alabama, and many others. It was pretty surreal, drinking "domestic" English beer from the tap that would normally have cost significantly more, and listening to a fake American band at midnight in England.

"Don't Blink. Don't even blink!"... or they'll throw you out of the bus station...
After an hour or two of the warmth of the pub we were forced to depart for the frigged bus station. The station was seemingly run by Severus Snape himself in the temporary form of a curt, balding, humorless muggle attendant who was offended by our very existence. He charged us 30p (~$0.55) each time we wanted to use the bathroom, insisted that we wouldn't be admitted onto the bus without a physically printed ticket (he was trying to encourage us to leave the station to seek a printer), threatened to throw us out if one of us fell asleep, and outright walked away from us any time we wanted to pay him to use the bathroom. Josh and his friend stayed with us until about 4am, after which point our time in Manchester became less enjoyable. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning we wound up chatting with a local man who gave us our quote of the day: "When I met my wife, it was supposed to be a one night thing, but it sort of became a forever thing." Somehow we managed to stave sleep off until our bus arrived at 6am and we slept through the 4 hour ride to London.


  1. your cool beans, careless. you are cool beans.

  2. You always seem to have the most interesting adventures. I look forward to hearing more about this oddessy you call a tour.