It is March 2012 and I have received a plane ticket that will take me from London Heathrow Terminal 5 to Baltimore, Maryland, USA travelling on Thursday 03 May 2012. I am to return to the UK the following Tuesday 08 May. If anybody asks, I'm going to RoSfest, a three-day festival of progressive rock music in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. No US Border officialdom need be troubled with the detail that I am actually playing in it. Should be great, I said, when the lady at immigration did ask. Other questions followed, such as, Where's your wife at? Home, I replied. Who's looking after your son? My wife, I replied. You left your wife and kid at home while you out here playin? Yes, I said.
Playin... had she rumbled me? No matter, I was at the luggage carousel within moments, and out of arrivals a good half hour before the rest of the band. The band being Sanguine Hum, whom I met for the first time in January. All told, we have probably only clocked up a week in each other's company since then, and it is nice that we are about to almost double it. Our van trip to the hotel is one of the few chances I have had to talk at length with any of them. This is the curse of the hard-working band whose other members do not live round the corner. Almost everything I know of the history of the band I heard from Matt the keyboardist in the van. In exchange I scratched the surface of my own increasingly remote musical history.
We stop at a garage for snacks, our host and driver warning us there will be little at the hotel at this hour. It takes only five minutes before, By the sound of it I guess you boys aren't from around here...? A music festival...? What kinda music do you play? There is need to ask what kind he liked.
We arrive at the hotel to find members of DeeExpus, whom I know from having opened a bill for them in Darlington a few years ago with Mike Bearpark and the Aimless Mules. Guitarist Andy Ditchfield greets me saying, I recognise a drummer...! This is the exact opposite of what most people say when they find out I play the drums. Sure enough it was wise to stock up prior to making for the hotel. There is not a crumb. The bar is open though, and after umpteen hours in transit I demand beer. Only Matt has the same. Brad has a coke. Joff goes to bed. Thus ends Thursday.
Friday came. Our body clocks lagging some several degrees longitude in arrears, we were up early. Well I was. Off to explore the hotel, starting with the pool. Two of DeeExpus were in the water. It was to be possibly the last time any of that band were to be seen early in the morning having gone to bed the previous evening. Friday continued, but we went nowhere. The festival started that evening, but we had no passes. There was still the day to fill in, and the evening too, without passes. Personally I was happy. I was in a hotel. I was on holiday. There was a pool. There was a little light practising on the pad, or running through the songs in the room with Joff on guitar, when he wasn't folding his clothes, smoothing out his bed or ironing his jeans. But once rooms were tidied and compared, missuses skyped or face-timed, songs practised and the pool dipped-in, there was suddenly nothing left to do in the hotel. Nor any escape from it. Next time we do this, we will be hiring a car even before we have the plane tickets. For me this was proper downtime and I liked it. For the others it was exasperating. Whether or not all of us wanted to catch DeeExpus opening the festival, we were stranded at the hotel. Exactly as I remember the last RoSfest I attended. Friday went.
Saturday morning. For DeeExpus, freshly unburdened of the responsibility of having to turn in a tight set of mighty prog metal, Saturday morning is simply a continuation of Friday night, as Brad discovers when he heads out for an early morning light-up. Later Joff meets organiser Krista Phillips in the foyer and is promised passes. Possibly for this evening. Doesn't matter, we have to get out of here. We catch a lift to the venue in the gig van, and thus are introduced to the backstage area, and the backstage manager. All is slick and well-appointed, professional, a tight ship. There are two unknowns though. One is whether the Korg Trinity they have provided will read Matt's disk. Remember floppies? Yeah. The other is our merchandise. Three dozen-or-so copies of the re-released album Diving Bell, supposedly air-freighted from the UK by our record label. An unknown no longer. They're not here.
Forcing back the sudden unenthusiasm that descends upon us as we learn we have travelled three thousand miles to play one gig and sell nothing, we take the opportunity of taking at least one meal somewhere other than the hotel. Lunch in a French restaurant. Afterwards we wander back to the venue, pausing for photos of our name in lights on the cinema frontage. We hang around backstage for a bit, gradually becoming aware that our stranded status is resuming, just at different co-ordinates, but learn there is a bus departing imminently that will take us back to the hotel. Outside, I spot it and run. It is an imitation tram of some kind.
Later that evening Matt hitches a lift in the gig van back to the venue, so that while IQ are on stage, he can check that the Trinity will load his disk. Or spend the rest of the evening programming sounds. Turns out all was well. Back at the hotel, I go out for a run around what I suppose is the perimeter of the hotel. It is difficult to tell. However, this being the USA, the distance is plenty. I could probably make it round the perimeter of many a UK hotel without having to draw breath. Saturday draws to a close.
Sunday, gig morning. The festival promotion does its best to glamorise the slot as The Church Of Prog to which dedicated festival-goes will flock no matter what, and for which they shall be rewarded with something special. For me, it's too much of a rush. The earliest we can arrive at the venue and set up the band on stage is ninety minutes before showtime. Our thumbs are sore from having been sat on for 72 hours, now all of a sudden there is no time to settle and warm up before having to play.
There are more drums and cymbals than I have requested, nonetheless I stick to the plan and arrange the kit in a way I quickly regret. There is a gaping hole where my left hand should have something to hit. It never properly warms up in the entire set.
Showtime. We launch into The Trial, the first song I auditioned for the band, a song we have gigged already and rehearsed aplenty. I am gripped by the familiar seizure and paralysis now that I suddenly have one chance to do what I have always wanted, and do it very well. The song feels fast. One missed snare beat and my confidence has taken a whack in the first 20 seconds. My usual thought in this situation is, lucky the music is fairly simple. Quite categorically, that does not apply to this band. The second track, Cat Factory, is mine to count in, so at least with my metronome I can be confident with the tempo. But it's a pure funk piece, and I am rubbish at it. The third song, The Ladder, is a bit more of a favourite and I'm starting to settle down. Four songs in and it's Before We Bow Down, one of the fairly difficult ones. As such it has required a lot of preparation, and again it is mine to count in and play to the metronome. It's absolutely fine, for the first few seconds. Somebody adds a 16th note during a tricky bit of syncopation. We recover immediately. This is a good band. Earthsong follows, with its impossible-to-remember intro bar lengths. Probably the highlight of the set, with Joff's terrific guitar solo near the end stirring up applause during the final mammoth bass and drum stabs that bring the song to a close. Son Of Cheese is lined up to be a fairly lightweight addition to the prog set, but surprises with two stunning sections, namely Joff's vocal soaring from about three minutes in, and Matt's super-lush keyboard outro. Dark Ages feels like it runs well, but the guitar tuning is starting to slip, and later analysis reveals that our performance is not at all special. My intro into the ballad Nothing Between Us is unnaturally prolonged while Joff tunes up.
My trusty metronome is starting to flake out, as if the battery connection is intermittent. When we get to Circus for a Dying Race, it registers 120bpm but sounds wincingly slow. I honour the tempo and count in, but the track is a disaster. I later listened back to the recording and the tempo was bang on. A little later comes the hardest piece of all, Derision, whose backbone is in 17/16. This is bad enough, worse is that the one is a beat after where you would naturally assume it is. It has troubled many a rehearsal, and we are gigging it now for the first time. It is surprisingly good, though a planned switch to ride cymbal to trigger an uplift at the beginning of the second verse fails to happen. This is because I have trouble pinpointing the beginning of the second verse. Next is a basically correct if not mind-blowing version of Double Egg. And then, having done famously up until now, Joff snaps a string, with no spare guitar. Off go he, the guitar and a stage technician for immediate remedial actions. There is a shout for a drum solo. I hate drum solos. Matt launches into a solo Fender Rhodes piece from one of the band's earlier albums. I swish with cymbal mallets for a bit before sitting back to listen. On Joff's return it is Diving Bell, the piece for which I have undergone extensive learning just to be able to play at all, and it comes off well. In a later video Matt made of the tour, it took me several seconds to realise it was the RoSfest version I was hearing, though that says more about Joff's perfectly poised vocals than anything I had to do with it. Coast of Nebraska, the finale and possibly the least interesting track in the whole set, actually contains my favourite section from the show. When the second verse begins, I clatter on the top rack tom while Brad slaps the bass and Matt widdles out some atmospherics. It's not that tight, but it feels simultaneously frantic and spacious, and gives me the thrills each time I hear it. The live recording also contains an amusing trivia item. Showing signs that he has had a hard gig, Joff announces during the ride cymbal intro that this will be our last song tonight. It is 12:25 in the afternoon. He's either still on UK time, or dearly wishes to get back to it.
At the airport for the return flight, I am now at liberty to associate with my associates. In symmetry with the endless waiting around in the days leading up to the gig, there are several hours to burn before we have a flight to board. A good chunk of this time is killed by Joff and Brad racing their luggage trolleys down a gentle slope connecting one check-in area with another. There is plenty of wandering around the airport do be done, in search of anything at all to do. Later, once finally through to the departure lounge, Matt and I celebrate having finally found anything decent to eat, and accompany it with a beer. I'm wondering whether this is only my second of the entire trip.
By the time we were at the airport we had long since stopped discussing the gig. Though not one of my best by several miles, what saved it for me was having to do something intense, that had to have been the product of weeks and weeks of preparation. I can listen back to the fairly flattering recording of the gig and find many delights. The drum sound is poor, especially the snare, reminding me to think very carefully in the future should I ever be confronted with the temptation to buy a Yamaha kit. But the balance of the band is excellent. To hear it as well-recorded quartet is quite a nice counterpoint to the awesome new album scheduled for release next month, so while you wait for the main course, I recommend checking out the Live in America recording as an appetiser.
So I look back at it now with fondness, even if I did come off stage underwhelmed. But then I wasn't the only one. Even Brad, who is a touring bassist, told me afterwards he had not felt comfortable either. Perhaps I have this affect on people. And I swear I heard mention that even the normally unflappable Matt slipped the odd finger here and there. Maybe that was just at the audience.