||Andrews Performance Hall
||Hill Country BBQ
||The Coffee Gallery Backstage
||New Orleans Jazz &
New Orleans, LA
||Montreux Jazz Café
||Bar de la Ferme
||Caf' Conc' des 3 Frontières
||Café de Witte Bal
* Shows with John Fogerty
>>> Complete Tour Information
Reef, Roos & Blues (& Kiwis Too)
Australia-New Zealand Tour 2007
So there I was. Less than a year after my last trip there, I was once again landing at the Sydney, Australia airport. I found myself in this far-flung part of the world in 2006 to play just one blues festival (Blues on Broadbeach), but this time, I was about to embark on a full-blown tour. I really fell in love with this country when I had my first look, and this second visit did nothing to diminish that love, even though I got to know the place a lot more intimately. And as you know, sometimes intimacy can be the kiss of death. I think on this trip I got to know a little bit more of what they call the “Real Australia.” Oz, warts and all. The only fault I can really find with the place is that they smoke and drink a lot more than we do here in the States. Or, more accurately, they smoke and drink like we did thirty years ago. But then again, unlike we Americans, they are not angry and tense all the time. So I do believe we may need to smoke and drink more. After all, stress’ll kill you just as quick as a ciggy, a stubby, and a shot of Bundy. And you won’t have had nearly as much fun. Here are the highlights:
Day 1: After 14 hours in the air, I land in Sydney. My booking agent/promoter Baiba James has sent her husband Geoff to pick me up. We can’t find each other. I then try to call them on my cell phone, which, at great expense, I had activated to work in Australia. It does not work. I do eventually get in touch via pay-phone after fumbling jet-laggedly with gigantic Australian 50-cent pieces and strangely-small-by-comparison Australian two-dollar coins. Geoff and I find each other and we head back to Baiba’s, where I will stay the night before getting on a train to Newcastle and beginning the tour. Later that evening, we go to the Riverside Theatre (where I will be playing the following week) to see the Henson Puppeteers’ traveling road show “Puppet Up” – I think it is a great performance. Theatrical and comedy improv…with puppets, for Chrissake. As if it weren’t hard enough to do that stuff without the puppets. However, there is something strange about flying 14 hours from L.A. to Sydney to see a show by…a bunch of people from L.A.. I notice that my name and likeness are prominently displayed and backlit in the theatre lobby. I am pleased. And exhausted.
Day 2: I hop a train at 10A.M. and take the two-hour ride up to Newcastle, where for the next 3 days I will play the Newcastle Blues Festival. My driver for the weekend – Peter Quinn (known to his friends and ex-girlfriends as “Quinny”) – is supposed to meet me at the club where I’m playing that night, Wheelshop Blues, which, according to my detailed tour itinerary is “right next to the train station.” I promptly head for the wrong side of the train station, towing luggage and sweating profusely. Eventually, Quinny and I find each other. He turns out to be a great guy, and a fellow piano player. He is originally from Scotland, which means that for the next three days, I will only be able to understand about 25% of what he is saying. They say that the Scottish speak English, but I do not believe it. We immediately head to the local music store, where I am picking up a rented keyboard. After that chore is taken care of, we head for the Newcastle ABC, where I am scheduled for a live radio performance and interview in an hour’s time. Quinny knew exactly where the station was…twenty years ago. What he didn’t know is that they had moved to another part of town sometime around 1994. So now we’re late, driving around lost. I, of course, am not able to help in any way. Eventually we find the place, do the interview, and pile back into the van. The show that night at the aforementioned Wheelshop Blues, is not very well attended, kind of a depressing way to start the trip, but the people that run it are wonderful, and the food was outstanding.
Day 3: I awake in the truly awful Formulae 1 Motel on the outskirts of town. This is a motel chain run by people who got together and did a careful, scientific study of what amenities could be eliminated from a motel room until it was one small step above being a tent. In that, they succeeded spectacularly. I spent an hour searching for an outlet. There wasn’t one. The TV and alarm clock were bolted to a shelf and wired directly into the wall, and that was all the electric gear I was getting. I spent the weekend running my laptop on battery rations. Not that I could get online. I walked, in the rain, across a deadly traffic rotary, through a park (where I had my first sighting of this trip of a flock of wild Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos, that sure cheered me up), and three long blocks to a mall where I could get a pastry and a cup of coffee. My mood was bleak, but the girl at the counter was so sweet and kind and wonderful that I could not stay bitter for long. She convinced me with a great amount of charm and expert salesmanship to try the hot-cross buns. It was almost Easter, after all. They were delicious. I gained five pounds on the spot.
The gig that night was in a rural suburb of Newcastle called Minmi (the trick they like to play on out-of-towners is to send them to “Minmi Beach”). I was to play on a stage erected in the parking lot of the Minmi Hotel (and when they say “Hotel” in Australia, they mean “pub”) – decent size stage, decent lighting, good sound. The crowd was alarmingly drunk, but otherwise it looked good. I got on stage, fired up the first tune, and as if on cue, the heavens cut loose with a torrential downpour of biblical proportions. However, the crowd is really digging my set, the sound guy has me cranked to booty-shaking level, and it is looking like the makings of a memorable show. I keep the energy up and they are pressed up against the stage, beers raised aloft, asses swaying, hooting and hollering for more. Three songs in, we lose the power. Show over – gear off the stage. Shortly after, the roof of the stage begins to sag from the weight of the water. A while after that, it will collapse completely. We move the gig inside, where there is a small PA, and what was for a short time an outdoor festival show, becomes a gig in a small bar. But what the hell, it’s still the same crowd – or at least the part that could fit inside. So I fire it up again. Three songs in, a guy falls out the window, it is two stories down, he is knocked unconscious by the fall, and is feared dead. Show over. An hour or so later, he comes to, and had enough pints of VB (that’s Victoria Bitters, you Yanks) in him to have survived the drop unscathed. Presently, a really excellent bar band comes on to play a bunch of cool cover tunes and I end up sitting in – a great time is had by all…including me. Sometimes it’s a fun to be the keyboard player in someone else’s band. So liberating to be out of the spotlight! All in all, it was definitely one of those nights.
Day 4: I am supposed to do three shows today. The first being at a downtown outdoor stage at 10AM. Too early for me to be singing the blues, but the money was green, I planned to be there. It was not to be – it was still raining like we were supposed to build an ark. Show cancelled. Later on, Quinny picks me up and drives me back to Minmi Hotel for the afternoon gig. By now the whole operation, lights and PA and all, has been moved inside. The remains of the outdoor stage sit forlornly and soaking wet in the parking lot. I am hungry, and my nose leads me to meat that is being barbecued under an outdoor tent. Excellent. A sign nearby informs me that they are offering “snag sangys” – this turns out, in English, to be “sausage sandwiches” – it was tasty, in any case. And I learned some new Ozzy slang. The gig was fun, good crowd, significantly more sober this time. Sold some CDs, then we packed it up and headed across town to the Wallsend Diggers. A cavernous old hall with gambling downstairs and two stages upstairs. We humped the gear up the stairs, met the soundguy at the “B” stage, while another band played on the “A” stage, and got the keyboard set up. Poor old Quinny, I must admit, did much of the work, my ass was still dragging from the jet lag, and he was moving at twice the load-in speed that I was. A wonderful guy, Peter Quinn…I wish he were here right now. The set was great, a good old loud over-the-top barnburner. The punters went nuts for it. And I had a very fine time playing for them. Dutch Tilders, a real legend of Ozzie blues, was on later that night. He was just wonderful. One of the best I’ve seen. After the show, his manager drove me back to the dread Formulae 1 so I could drop Dutch’s guitar off in his room (we were all staying there, legends and non-legends alike). Dutch stayed behind at the Diggers to “play the pokies and have a few stubbies.” Only Australians can make getting drunk and playing poker sound that innocent. I believe it’s because they have no nasty, repressed puritanical hangover from their past to contend with, as we do. They were merely criminals, and mostly petty ones at that. And when you get right down to it, being a criminal is far more honorable than being a fundamentalist, don’t you think?
Day 5: Took the train back to Sydney. I was scheduled for more live radio at the Sydney ABC. Conveniently located near the train station. I had a couple of hours to kill, so I walked down to the waterfront and had lunch in the park with the ibises and cockatoos. I wish to boldly state right here and now that Sydney Harbor is the most beautiful city waterfront in the world. And I have seen a lot of the world. It just about makes you want to cry, it’s so wonderful. The Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, the way the Southern Hemisphere sun shines off the water. It is breathtaking. I could not believe how fortunate I was to be standing there at that very moment. Would I have ever even seen this if I had never taken that first piano lesson when I was nine? Who knows? All I know is that I had never been so glad to be alive.
I headed back up to the radio station and went up to the studio. This was the biggest public radio station in Australia and very well appointed. I waited in a plush lobby with a coffee that the receptionist brought me, waiting to go on and listening to the show in progress. I was on 702 Drive with Richard Glover – very popular, very prestigious. People like Woody Allen and Bill Bryson had recently been on this show. Baiba scored big with this one! So as I sit in the lobby, I hear Richard say on-air that coming up will be Bob Malone, followed by Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen! My God, a legend…they made the movie “Dead Man Walking” about her and her long fight against the death penalty. This was definitely a case of going from the ridiculous to the sublime. I got my wife on the phone (it was bedtime in L.A., but Karen is a big fan of Sister Helen). She was very impressed. I went into the room where they have the grand piano, got everything squared away with the sound engineer, and then Richard Glover breezed in. We did a little interview, I played a tune, we did a little more interview, and then he was off. Short and sweet – but good. He does a great interview. There is an art to that, you know. Nothing is worse than being interviewed by someone who sucks at it. Except, of course, for not being interviewed at all. Baiba and Geoff were double parked and waiting for me outside, so I never got to meet Sister Helen Prejean, but I got to be on the same radio show as her, and that is good enough for me!
Day 6 & 7: No gigs, no radio. I spent the days with Baiba and Geoff, and in the process, we went from acquaintances to friends. This alone made it worth the trip here. I also got in a couple of rehearsals with Jan Preston. Jan is a wonderful boogie and blues pianist, singer and songwriter. A Kiwi expat living in Australia, where she has done very well on the blues festival circuit. Baiba is her agent and manager and close friend. Last year when I was here, Jan and I played together during her set at Blues On Broadbeach, and we knew that someday we would have to do some shows together. And on this tour, we would be doing three.
Day 8: First really big show of the tour. Riverside Theatre. “Four Hands Boogie” show featuring Bob Malone & Jan Preston. Baiba had put a lot of sweat and effort and love and promotional dollars into this show. This morning she is tense…and who could blame her? The radio I did on the ABC helped ticket sales quite a bit, as did the live radio shows Jan did the week before I arrived in the country. Still, we were talking about a 700-seat theatre – that is a lot of seats to fill. Jan and I drive out to Parramatta, the suburb of Sydney where the Theatre is. On the way over we have that kind of conversation that only two piano players of a certain bent can have. Jan is a fascinating person and I could listen to her talk endlessly. Well read, always possessed of an interesting turn of phrase, and at that stage of her life where she’ll say pretty much exactly what she feels, unvarnished, with no punches pulled. She’s also an excellent musician, of course – and that is most important of all. We arrive backstage, and walk in. I walk out to center stage, and cut loose with my favorite movie quote for a situation such as this: “this place is a fucking barn, we’ll never fill it.” That’s from the Blues Brothers, you kids. Two shiny black grands are set up on the stage, miked and tuned, lids off. It’s looking good. Soundguy is great, soundcheck is easy. Now we nervously wait. I pace a hole in the floor in my dressing room. When showtime comes, the house looks great, Better than we could have expected. Not a sellout, but close enough. The show is so much fun it’s over before we know it. We each do back to back solo sets and then about 20 minutes together of boogie, blues, ragtime, and a little Bach. We close with “20 Fingers & 88 Keys,” a song by Ann Rabson that Ann and I have done together a couple of times. Jan is a big Ann Rabson fan, so it was cool to bring the tune over and do it with her, too. After the show, we go out to the lobby, where CD sales are extremely brisk, and Baiba is beaming. She pulled off the hard part. Jan and I just showed up and played. A great night!
Day 9, 10 & 11: I have moved into the Parramatta Crowne Plaza, where I will reside for the next three days. I will be playing for three more nights at the Riverside Theatre, but this gig will not be nearly as glamorous or exciting. There is a comedy festival going on at the multiple venues in the theatre complex, and they have set up a stage with a piano on it in the outdoor courtyard of the theatre. I play between shows for the people while they are waiting to go in. As gigs go, it was definitely one of them. But I was working for some very nice people, and it was short. Couple of twenty-minute sets with dinner in-between, and before I knew it, I was back at the Crowne Plaza, watching pay-per-view movies on the flat-screen. Mostly I was lonely. No one to talk to, really, and there is nothing more depressing than eating alone on the road. I kill one afternoon by taking the boat ride down the Parramatta River to Sydney Harbor. I spent a happy day bopping around Sydney Botanical Gardens, checking out the birds and the people and the exotic plant life. Such a wonderful park! Also took the tour of Government House, where a very cheeky guide gave us the history lesson and a few laughs. After the final gig, I ended up hanging out with the theatre staff and the people who put the festival together and finally got to know the folks I had been working with for most of the week. And that was good. I look forward to seeing them next year!
Day 12: My final day in Sydney. Geoff gives me a tour of the scenery around Sydney and south towards Wollongong. All beautiful. Along the way, we stopped at a café and I had my first lamington – what Geoff referred to as an “iconic Ozzie cake.” Said I had to try it. And of course, I did: when in Rome….As we had our final dinner together, I realized what I had not up until that point, because I had been so focused on the work – I was really going to miss these people. I still had another two weeks to go in Oz, but I would not be seeing Baiba and Geoff again til the next trip out. End of the evening, after a few glasses of wine, I got to see some photos and articles from the old days. Turns out Baiba was a well known Australian fashion designer Geoff had a single out on Warner Brothers Records in the early 70s. Who knew! My life suddenly seemed so pedestrian.
Day 13: Jan and I fly from Sydney up to Mackay, up in the tropical North, where we will be doing our Four Hand Boogie show at the Mackay Entertainment Centre. Another venue we fear will be too large for us to fill, but we’d dodged the first bullet, no reason we couldn’t duck the second. Mackay Airport was perhaps the best I’ve ever been in, mostly because the baggage carousel was decorated like a tropical reef, with coral, shells, plastic sea turtles and rubber octopuses. I was as delighted as any six-year-old would have been. We checked into the hotel, had some dinner at a Chinese joint down the street, and then repaired to our respective rooms to crash. I was exhausted. I fell asleep to the gentle, somehow calming sound of the people lawn bowling at the Mackay Bowls just next door and outside my window.
Day 14: Jan and I do a quick radio interview over at the Mackay ABC, and then I took a cab to the Mackay Botanical Gardens – I do a lot of dorky stuff like this on the road since I quit drinking. I can’t help it, the birds and the trees and flowers keep me calm. And I need a lot of calming. Believe me. They had a delightful restaurant overlooking the gardens, which surrounded a lagoon – lots of shorebirds! I had an excellent lunch, and then took a nice long stroll around the grounds. It was a fine afternoon. Now appropriately mellowed out, I headed for sound check. The venue was beautiful, this time there was a grand and an upright instead of two grands, but otherwise, all was as usual. The place filled right up, and we had a great show. On a day like this, it’s hard to believe I actually get paid to do this.
Day 15: Jan has flown home, and I am on a bus headed for Airlie Beach to play at a place called Banjo’s. this is about two hours north of Mackay. It is very hot, humid and tropical here. This is the Australia’s Florida…the beach is the thing. I arrive at the venue, which is classic open-air beach bar. The owner and her best-friend-since-childhood/head bartender recognize me right away. They immediately shower me with hospitality, and do their best to get me on “Airlie Beach Time” which is, of course, island time. I know it well. I did once live in New Orleans, where they have this sort of thing down to an artform. I settled in, forcibly slowed my pulse, shrugged off the weight of my ambitions, and let the day take me where it would. Mon soon come. We sat at a picnic table under a large coconut palm for quite a while – there was much talking, smoking and drinking. I did not drink, because I have been sober for six years, but I did have a nice slow cigar. The sound people showed up, and joined us for some more smoking, drinking and talking. No one was in any hurry to get the PA set up. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen at all, actually, But I did not care. I was on Airlie Beach Time. Today, I wished feverishly that I was still a drinking man. Nothing would have gone as well with this day as a cold Negra Modelo beer and a shot of Patron tequila. After a good long time, the sound guys got up, and we all moved into the club…so they could move the TV that was over the bar from the club back up the street to the club owner’s house. It’s a long story. A while later we got back from the house. Set up the PA, and then waited for the guy with the piano to show up. Which he eventually did. All in all, the gig was more of a fun hang with my new beach buddies than a gig. The owner is a musician herself, and she knows how we like it! As far as my set, I was instructed to “start whenever you want, and end when you feel like it…and leave plenty of time to eat!” Awesome. For a moment, I considered moving here. I did a set for the appreciative crowd. The place was like an optical illusion – it looked like it was going to be a lame beach bar kind of thing, with lots of requests for “Margaritaville” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” but as soon as you started playing, it would turn into a really cool gig. During the break, the owner and her friends invited me to their table, where the biggest platter of seafood I have ever seen was laid out. We dug in. Clams and lobster and oysters and scallops and crab legs. Damn! This just did not qualify as work. And the whole time I was eating, they were all telling me how great I was. Maybe I had died in a bus wreck and this was heaven. After the second set. There was more drinking and smoking and talking back at the club owner’s house. At some point, I left them to it and fell asleep in the guest bedroom.
Day 16: I am up at 5:30 am to catch the bus back to Mackay, and the plane to Brisbane, where my wife waits for me. She is still on a Qantas flight from L.A. when I wake up, but she will be there I when I get there. On the bus, in a half-awake stupor, I write a song based on something the club owner said to me. As of now, two months later, that song has already been recorded, and awaits a few overdubs and a mix. We wrote a song together, and she doesn’t even know yet! Karen (that’s my wife) and our good Oz friends Gerry and Carmen Blain greet me at the airport wearing blinking bunny ears…this is clearly Gerry’s doing – he’s just that way. Gerry is the radio guy that I met last year when I was here at Broadbeach. He of the “hundred-dollar phone call” – you can read all about it in the blog about the 2006 Australia trip. Hey, I just noticed that my spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “blog” – what’s up with that? Sorry for the digression. Anyway, the four of us bonded as close as could be, and we were going to be together for most of the rest of this trip. We headed for their house, about an hour and a half north of Brisbane. They live in a spectacular location overlooking ethereal misty mountains and lakes and a primeval sub-tropical forest. It’s like they have their own private nature reserve in the back yard. And lots of wildlife is always stopping by. We hit the pool and have a spectacular barbecue. So much meat at one time I have never seen! Tomorrow Karen and I would head for Heron Island for four days, before resuming the tour in Brisbane.
Day 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22: We bid Gerry and Carmen a temporary goodbye at the train station and take the train up to Gladstone, where the boats to Heron Island depart from. The next morning, we are on a vomitous three-hour boat ride out to Heron. The sea is so rough, everyone on the boat is tossing cookies. To the right of me, to the left of me. Jesus. Finally, Karen let loose and shouted at her shoes. I was terribly nauseous (this after taking two Dramamine), but determined not to hurl. God, I hate to puke. I held on like grim old death, and managed to make the trip with my cookies intact. As soon as we got off that boat, we ran to the checkout desk and immediately ponied up the massive amount of scratch required for the helicopter ride back. We got the last two seats. It was worth every penny.
Other than that, Heron was exactly the same as it was the year before, and that is why we like it. Except, this time we were going as certified divers, and were able to dive the Great Barrier Reef twice. And the baby sea turtles were hatching and making their way to the sea. And yes, it was just as wonderful as you think it is.
Day 23: We took that fabled helicopter right to Gladstone Airport, flew from there to Brisbane, and were taken by Gerry and Carmen directly to Brisbane Jazz Club, where I would be playing that night. After soundcheck, I strolled out back, where there was a deck overlooking the lovely Brisbane river and skyline. Karen said: “look honey, there are baby sharks in the river!” I looked down, and as far as I could tell from my view of the inky depths, there did indeed appear to be sharks in the Brisbane River. I began to expound, using tidbits of aquatic knowledge I had learned on the Discovery Channel. “They must be bull sharks, only bull sharks can swim in brackish water up into rivers!” About that time, the lead singer of the band that was on after me that night ambled by and said: “I think those are catfish, mate. Sharks don’t have whiskers.” Karen, Gerry and Carmen then erupted in laughter. I’d been had. Possibly worse than last year when Karen had been had by a tale of the mythical Australian “drop bears.” Shit. I can’t believe I fell for that. Other than the regrettable bull shark incident, the gig was great. Sold a lot of CDs and made a lot of new fans. Someone even filmed me playing there on their cell phone and posted it on YouTube. Ah, technology. Can’t ever have an off night these days, you never know who’s filming you with their cell phone. After the gig, we headed to Pineapple Hotel, where we ate very large steaks and caught a set by astounding Australian blues guitarist Mojo Webb, who I would be playing with the next night.
Day 24: Back in Brizzy for a second night in a row, I’m here to play at Harry’s place: Legends. Harry is the self described “cheeky bastard” that I met the year previous at Blues On Broadbeach. He showed up at my first gig there with his video camera and proceeded to document the entire festival week. He has been having concerts in the basement of his house for years, and pretty much everyone in the blues world that passes through, or lives in Australia, has played there. Pretty amazing when you think about it. You just can’t say no to Harry. Last year he told me: “You’ll never become somebody if you don’t play at my place!” Having been on a lifelong quest to be somebody, I perked up. “We do blues concerts and a sausage sizzle. We’ll have you in next year and you’ll be somebody!” It was all delivered in ironic jest, but still, you never know what’s going to finally put you over the edge. We arrived for soundcheck and I got my first look at the place. No WAY we can do a gig in here, I thought. It really was the basement of a guy’s house. And not big either. Harry had sold 80 tickets. I simply could not picture 80 people in this space. “Oh, sometimes we get over a hundred!” he said. There was a PA, a small stage, a bar along the wall, and an open space where it looked like about 20 people could stand. In addition, one entire side of a vintage car was mounted on one wall, and the front end of the same car was attached to the wall stage right. Later on, 80 people did indeed file into the room. And boy was it a great show! It is a very fun group of folks that show up at Harry’s place to see a show. Harry, hearing that my wife’s music has somewhat of a country bent to it, told her: “I want you to sing, but none of that fucking bullshit country music! This is a blues place!” He was just kidding, in that aussie way, but not really. We got her up there and she ripped on a bluesy tune of her own, and a Bob Dylan classic as well – they went apeshit. Following my wife was kinda like trying to follow Jerry Lee Lewis after he set his piano on fire. For the second set, Mojo Webb and his band came out and backed me up on a few tunes, they were awesome. We had no rehearsal, and sometimes that’s the best way. It was a beautiful night.
Day: 25: Back up north to Gerry and Carmen’s private nature reserve. We were playing a little gig near their house called Peregian Originals. A weekly outdoor concert at the beach, put on by Jay Bishoff, a guy the knew Karen and I from way back in the old days when we all played the beach bars in the South Bay. Last time he saw us, we were around 24 years old! He married an Australian girl, settled down in this beachside paradise called the Sunshine Coast, and never looked back. Even acquired that distinctive half oz-half American accent I notice the ex-pats here all have. Karen and I were both doing a set, and it was a fun afternoon. We played on a sunny grassy field just over a sand dune from the beach, on a stage set up just a few feet away from a sign that said: “BEWARE OF SNAKES!” You know you’re in Australia when…
Day 26: The four of us packed up our gear and prepared to say farewell to the Lucky Country, we were on our way to New Zealand!
Day 27: Today we would combine work and tourism like we never had before. Karen, during the tireless research that she always applies to a trip such as this, came across the TranzAlpine Train. A railroad journey from Christchurch, NZ, across the stunning Southern Alps, and back down to the wild west coast of New Zealand, terminating in the small town of Greymouth. About three weeks before we were set to leave, and it was assumed that all the tour dates were in place, I happened to mention in passing to Baiba that we were taking this train ride.
“Did you say Greymouth?!” she said. She seemed unusually excited for news of such a mundane nature.
“Yes.” I said.
“Jan grew up there! I can’t believe it! You must play at the Regent Theatre! They’ve been wanting her to come do a show for years. I’ll get right on it!”
Next thing I knew, we had a gig at the Regent Theatre. I had accidentally gotten Jan Preston to play a show in the town where she was born, after not setting foot in the place since the mid-70s. Luckily, nothing much in New Zealand has changed since the mid-70s (and I mean that in a good way), so there probably wasn’t going to be anything too shocking.
After four whacks on the snooze-button, we were up at the godawful hour of six am, headed for the train station. It was a spectacular ride across – the Southern Alps were just what you would imagine them to be. Tall, craggy snow-capped mountains, with foothills of rolling green fields, dotted with sheep. Well, more than “dotted” really, there are a lot of sheep in New Zealand. During the four-hour ride we partook of the tea and scones (excellent) and the “cheese plate” (lame…unless your idea of a cheese plate is two shrink-wrapped pieces of cheese available at any gas station convenience mart, and a couple of stale crackers). But who cared about the food, the scenery took your breath away. We arrived in Greymouth and headed for the hotel we had booked before we knew there was a gig. This was a little seaside retreat about 30 km north of town called Punakaiki Resort. And what an idyllic, fantasy location it was. A grouping of airy wooden structures just across the highway from the broad expanse of Punakaiki Beach. The whole thing was very Highway-1-Central-California-Coast, except for when you would look up into the hills and see them covered with trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Then you knew for sure that you could not be anywhere in the world except the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. With three hours to go before soundcheck, had some lunch in the lovely and excellent hotel restaurant – where we had a good and proper New Zealand cheese plate, thank you very much – and then commenced to cavort on the beach. On one side were fabulous prehistoric moss covered rock outcroppings, on the other side were the “Pancake Rocks,” a peculiar geological feature of this part of the world…thin stacks of rock piled high like the #2 Lumberjack Breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, hold the syrup. All around us, Black-Backed Gulls scooped mussels and oysters from the surf, flew high into the sky with their prize, and let them plummet to the rocks, breaking the shell so they could feast on the morsel within. A real National Geographic Moment.
We arrived at soundcheck to find a very substandard sound system, and people so kind and helpful that it was impossible to get too bent out of shape about it. In any case, after much tweaking and experimenting, we got it all in acceptable working order. Many more people showed up for the show than had bought advance tickets, which we a relief, we had no idea if this was going to bomb or not. This being Jan’s homecoming concert, I knew it would be more about her than me. This was like doing a show with Bruce Springsteen at the Asbury Park Convention Center. She went out first for a longish set, and there was much love. I was on next, and had no trouble getting a whole lot of love myself. It was a great night. Knowing what a small town it was, Gerry and Carmen and Karen did a little reconnaissance while I was doing the post-gig schmooze, and got a barbecue joint across the street to stay open late for us so we could eat, we were starving!
Day 28: We spent the morning checking out the spectacular Pancake Rocks, visiting with the Weka birds, and hitting the local tourist shops, where you could buy anything you wanted, as long as it had a picture of a kiwi bird on it. Then it was the TranzAlpine Train back over the mountains to Christchurch for the final show of the tour: the New Zealand International Blues & Jazz Festival. We checked into the Millennium Hotel in downtown Christchurch, right on Cathedral Square, where the fest was putting us up for the next three days. Very swank! As always, when finding myself on the road in a hotel room of this quality, I took a moment to sit and give thanks to the road gods for my good fortune, and then reflect on just how far I had managed to come from those days when I slugged it out in the bars all night and stayed at any Motel 6 that would have me. Sometimes it’s hard to see how the work you do pays off while you’re doing it. Until a moment like this one. About two months before this trip, I got an email from Alan Slade, owner of the Octagon Jazz Club, just three blocks from the hotel we were staying at. We had the evening free, and decided to take him up on the invitation. Upon arrival, we came upon a scene we were not prepared for. We were expecting your basic jazz joint, but this place was anything but that. A 19th century cathedral had been converted into a world-class performance space and high-end restaurant, stained glass intact. We stepped into the rarified surroundings, suddenly wondering if we had dressed appropriately for the occasion. I asked the hostess if Mr. Slade was around, and soon the man himself, dapper and brimming with old-world charm, appeared. He led us to a table, where after a short time, he joined us himself. About this time, poor Carmen began to feel ill. The trip we finally beginning to catch up to her. My tour schedule, when inflicted on normal people, often makes them a bit queasy. She reluctantly decided to head back to the room, and Gerry, excellent husband that he is, accompanied her back. That left just Karen and I, and our host. Alan Slade revealed himself to be a fascinating man. He came from money, and had an endless well of spectacular stories to tell. From his years in South Africa and Sydney, to the tales of trouble and triumph as an owner of Japanese racehorses. He was so classy and smooth that I began to feel a little self-conscious about my Lumpenproletariat roots and manner. I felt that with every word I spoke, my New Jersey was showing, and maybe not in a good way. I found out later that he certainly noticed all this about me – and loved it, as he told Karen while I was away from the table. My rough and basic exterior at first masked an ability to hold my own intellectually, or something like that. I’ve always strove to be as knowledgeable as possible without being effete. Sometimes I even succeed. There was a lesson in that: never be ashamed of who you are, even if you are just a kid from the far rural suburbs of New Jersey. After a while, Gerry came back to join us, and Alan’s lovely daughter Natalie sat down with us as well. She was the chartreuse on stage singing those Great American Songbook standards, and doing a spectacular job of it. This all highlighted by a multimedia performance of “As Time Goes By” complete with footage and sound from “Casablanca” on a screen behind the singer. After a spectacular multi-course meal, I sat in for a couple of songs, and then did a couple of my own. Although I admit it was not that easy to sing well after eating five courses of gourmet feedbag. Karen and I left the place hours after arriving, walking on air. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing traipsing all over the world playing music, often hemorrhaging money and threatening my health and sanity in the process. This is why…nights like this are what make this life worth living.
Day 29: We spent the day taking in the sights in Christchurch, including the truly wonderful Botanical Gardens and the Kiwi House. The Kiwi House would most assuredly be our only shot at seeing this country’s celebrated native flightless bird, and namesake of its people. Everywhere you went in this country, an image of the kiwi was evident; every tourist shop featured every possible item available with a kiwi on it. Yet the real bird was almost impossible to find. More than 90% of them have been wiped out by cats and possums and other species introduced since the Europeans arrived. The Kiwi is unlike any other creature you’ll ever see, much larger than you expect it to be. Shy and nocturnal and strange. Small groups of us were instructed to be very quiet as we were led into the darkened room where the kiwis were. We spied one rooting for insects in the dirt, as it had for millennia…a fascinating sight.
Later on I headed over to the Great Hall of the Christchurch Arts Center for sound-check. What a place! A large hall in the former Canterbury University, built at the height of the Victorian era, it had been converted into an amazing performance space. Full theatrical lighting, a high stage and seating for about 500. The piano was a 9-foot Steinway concert grand, and one of the best I’ve ever played. Jan Preston had played here just a couple of days before, and she told me to be prepared one of the best piano experiences of my life. She was not exaggerating. It was a truly fine instrument.
About twenty minutes before showtime, I could be found in the dressing room backstage, pacing and terrified. This was a big one. The place was packed and none of them had any idea what to expect. Finally I was given the five-minute warning by the stage manager, heard the introduction, and went out there to face the crowd. It was without doubt one of the best shows on my life. What a wonderful audience. I will not soon forget them. It could not have been a better ending for this long and sometimes strange journey. I did a two-hour show, and then spent over an hour meeting and greeting and signing in the lobby. Afterwards, Gerry and Carmen and Karen and I had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant next door, where the waiter warned Karen against a “stiff Ozzy Shiraz” when she was ordering wine. Our appetizer was the deli plate from backstage that I was too nervous to eat before the show. Much to my wife’s embarrassment, I brought it over to the restaurant. What can I say – it was an exceptional deli plate! We did respectable damage to it before the main course arrived.
Day 30 & 31: We spent a day touring the countryside by tour-bus, and took a boat out to sea where we encountered the great Albatross. A breathtaking sight. The next day flew up to Auckland to catch the flight back to America. It was hard to say goodbye to Gerry and Carmen. We have become so close, yet they are so far away.
Eleven hours over the Pacific later, we were home.
© 2007 by Bob Malone