When is a music tour not a tour?
When the band’s not all there. Great as it was exploring the sights, sounds and (frequently garbage-tinged) smells of New York, it was never going to feel quite right without the rest of the band there. It came as some relief, then, when another expensively-crafted text message manifested itself to say that Caleb and Paul had arrived and that Sheena and Lorraine were eager to experience all that New York had to, er… sell.
Whilst Doug and I had been picking up a few essential supplies, such as inoperative voltage converters (more on that to follow) Caleb and Paul had been trying to find the seediest bar near their hotel. They’d done a reasonable job, too. No matter, once Doug and I had struggled through the downpour and had a beer in our hands, all seemed right with the world again and we felt like a band.
I’d been vaguely concerned that Doug might feel like an outsider - in himself and to us. Roo has always been such a big part of what we do and who we are and we knew that the trip wasn’t going to be the same without him. One beer was enough to allay my fears; whilst we still missed Roo’s presence and energy, Doug was very much a part of the band, taking the piss and joining in with the good-natured character assassination, persecution and verbal belittling that is The Layers on tour. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
It as an early exit to New Jersey for the two of us, as we’d vowed to spend a little quality time with Jeff, our host. We purchased some imported English beer and got in just in time to watch the Olympic gymnasts defy logic and gravity and not have one single inappropriate thought about the young ladies in the spandex outfits. Not one. No siree.
Finally it was gig day. There was a touch of tension in the air. Doug and I said goodbye to our hosts and made our way into the city. We’d decided to splash out on a hotel for this one night - easy transport and a comfortable night’s sleep would be much needed. We couldn’t find anything in reason on the island but found that the hotels in Brooklyn were strangely affordable. It was with some trepidation that we made our way there - only to be immediately upgraded to a rock-star suite (had the heard of The Layers?) in the Brooklyn Bridge Marriot. It was huge, folks. We immediately ditched our afternoon plans in favour of a swim, spa and power nap. Then, pausing only to hurl a tv through the window, it was time to get to the gig.
Bar M1-5, in the Tribeca neighbourhood, could well be mistaken for a shithole from the outside. Half-way down a grim, graphitised street adorned with skips and piles of garbage. Inside, though, we were pleasantly surprised to find a lively, friendly bar.
Jigsaw Soul were already setting up on stage - a great bunch of guys, as it turned out, and a fantastic band. They put on a performance quite unlike anything that we’d ever seen before, complete with dance, special effects and some great music. Clearly local favourites, they were going to be a hard act to follow.
With the stage very much set up for the preceding band and only a rudimentary PA set up, we had some struggles with this one. Some songs were pretty good, others sucked. The sound on stage wasn’t great and we had trouble hearing each other. We came off stage not dejected but very much aware that it wasn’t the greatest gig we’d put on. Typically, that was the gig that we were having filmed by Caleb’s old friend Meredith - who’d come all the way from Washington DC to do the filming. We knew we had better in us and so we did what any great band would do and went drinking.
Dawn broke over New York… we completely ignored it, having only got out of a burlesque bar in Greenwich Village an hour or so previously. Noon broke and found us stumbling about our rock star suite with the stoic and uncomplaining Meredith, who had decided to surf the couch (which, as we discovered, folded out into a full-sized bed - seriously, we do highly recommend the Brooklyn Bridge Marriot. You could get six people in that room easily)
A traditional American breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, syrup, burgers, corned-beef hash, more pancakes, sweet potato fries and we were ready to… well, sit around and belch, really. Then we had a last day in New York before reconvening and heading to Kenny’s Castaways in the heart of Greenwich Village.
Kenny’s is an entirely different set up, a quality sound system, manned on the night by Zack, who demonstrated great finesse on the sound and was a huge help. It’s much more a dedicated music venue with a touch of our ‘home’ venue, The Vaults about it, and we immediately felt more at home.
Still, some concerns raised their heads. A little like the evening at the Moira in Utrecht, the preceding acts were all pretty laid-back. First Soren Anders - theatrical, soft-spoken and quintessentially Greenwich Village, played piano with a cello accompanist and treated us to warm, witty songs with immaculately matching intros. Then it was Radio Free Carmela and the Transmitters - acoustic Americana. Very easy on the ear. Carmela herself is fantastic - friendly and energetic and delighted to meet other musicians. Finally Darren Ockert - an Englishman in New York himself, treated us to a set of slightly theatre-influenced songs, full of clever lyrics, piano, bass and drums.
We took the decision to chill out the set list a little and hastily rearranged it with the light, acoustic material at the start and some semi-acoustic, laid-back versions of some of the others gradually leading up to the ear-bleeding material that we usually inflict on our audiences. It was a gamble…
…that paid off. We got a warm reception and the set tied together beautifully. The acoustic start was relaxing for us and the audience alike - a good thing, because the lead up had been a panic of missing equipment (thanks to headline band Furmurthur and to Zack for helping out with that) and inoperative guitar effects. In the end Caleb had to do without his usual computer-controlled, liquid helium-cooled, turbo-driven effects unit and go old-school with nothing but a borrowed distortion unit. He was, as ever, brill, of course.
This time we were tight, the sound on stage was good and we got into our groove. We really felt that this time we did ourselves justice and warranted the invitation to play over in the US. It was a great experience and, as an added bonus, Meredith had delayed her trip (in her hangover-addled state it took little in the way of arm-twisting) home to film again, so there is actually some footage of us playing well.
As Furmurthur did their thing we were congratulated, hugged, slapped on the back and generally approved of by the other artists, the crowd and even Zack, the engineer. Praise from a house sound man is always a good thing - these guys get to see the best and worst of live music.
Then it was time to piss on the dogs and crawl in the fire (I’ve never understood that expression) as there was a jet being filled up with aviation fuel, piss-poor meals (and infectious diseases, as it turns out) and whining children at JFK. Caleb and Sheena displayed the patience and tolerance that will surely see them through a hundred years of happy marriage by allowing me and Doug to shower in their hotel room and then, still slightly pissed and very tired, it was back to the airport.
As I tried valiantly to sleep through the whiny little arsehole kicking me in the back on the way over the Atlantic, I had some time to reflect (in a sleep-deprived, mildly hallucinatory fashion) on the week. It was a very different experience to Europe. Perhaps if they had allowed us to fly the aeroplane ourselves under the command of a bossy sat-nav unit… It was less of a road-trip and more of a holiday with a couple of gigs. Not a worse experience but a less intense one. Certainly the gigs themselves were different; the crowds were less focussed on the artists and more there to party with their friends - a more similar experience to playing in the UK. New York, too, for all of its pace and strangeness, is obviously not as foreign as the places that we drove through in Europe. It was different without Roo and different because we weren’t so dependent on each other. Nonetheless, I dozed off with that familiar, dopey smile on my face. We are still The Layers, even when we have to fill in again, even when we’re hit with adversity. We can still rock, we can always laugh.
Next? We’ve got the UK gigswap, songs to finish, songs to record and Carmela really wants us to go and play in Florida in March. Sounds like a pleasant alternative to the early spring drizzle of the UK, I have to say…