July to December 2013.
The sun was blazing at the beginning of July as The Ska Orchestra made it's way to the home of Two Tone, Coventry, for a one day festival also featuring Neville Staples' Specials. I commented to our taxi driver how beautiful everything looked on our journey from the station and he replied, unmoved, "See it in normal weather, mate . . . miserable." Such resolve to moan when the world is smiling is an interesting aspect of the human condition which - on the first anniversary of my liver transplant on the 11th July - is a condition I refuse to wallow in. Melody and I spent the transplant anniversary in Brighton treating friends who are very precious to me (Jody Yebga and Mike Pelanconi) to lunch at La Choza in the Laines. A couple of days later Wilko Johnson was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about his cancer and hilariously hit the nail on the head. I will have to paraphrase: "So how old's the world? Thirteen billion years? Well, until July 12th 1947 I didn't exist. I was dead. So it's not as if I haven't had plenty of practice. You just get a brief glimpse and then you're gone . . ." With this in mind and a 'no time to waste attitude', I booked a one-off rehearsal at The Premises to try out some new material with very promising results. Two more festivals rounded off the month of July; Brockwell Park - with a superb Osibisa - and The Secret Garden Party - superb Karola chicken and the best Popadoms Seamus (my fellow keyboard player in the Ska Orchestra) and I had ever had in our entire life! Our new drummer, Mez Clough, has really slotted in well too.
On August 6th I went to the Cowshed recording studio in North London to do a session for Scott McMahon - a singer/songwriter who seems to have an inexhaustible fund of great songs. I ended up adding piano, accordion, fender rhodes and organ to four of the five tracks his band were recording. A name to watch for in 2014. The following day I was finally granted permission to do a photo shoot in Highgate cemetery and Melody got some great shots with gravestones just in case I was interviewed about transplantation in the course of promoting 'Midnight in Havana', now due for release in the Autumn. I took the opportunity of visiting the grave of Pat Kavanagh (as Julien Barnes had suggested when I ran into him in June) - a beautiful wooden monument. By chance it is situated alongside that of Jeremy Beadle who I remember examining my diary in 1996 when the Nutty Boys were appearing on 'Richard Littlejohn - Live and Uncut' at LWT' (with a cataclysmically drunk Keith Floyd). Both Floyd and Beadle said something along the lines of "And when you die I would like a copy of this" and here I was remembering them.
Two days later I was trying to find the Dom Valley Bowl in Sheffield. When I disembarked from the tram I seemed to be trapped in a fenced off park. I could hear the distant sound of The Lamberettas but every time I got close I was met with a fence. I finally found the 'arena' with a scattering of people and a huge stage. One of the bands had got stuck in transit so The Cockney Rejects said they would go on and their high energy punk made for a strange afternoon's entertainment on a balmy hot day in broad daylight. They also managed to blow up the bass amp which made this a gig to forget for the Ska Orchestra - we couldn't hear a thing. Much better was a trip to Brussels on the 16th and 17th August, the old quarter of Brussels very beautiful and our lodgings at the Hotel Radisson luxurious. After a fabulous gig in the square to an enthusiastic crowd from which clouds of marijuana engulfed the stage we were taken for a meal. Our backing vocalist, Darren said he felt stoned ". . . and I don't even smoke!" He drinks though and this lethal mixture caused a slight incoherence in the Kwint Restaurant when he laid his head on his hands, seemed to sleep for four seconds and then briefly revived to say: "Oh and eleven fucking beers". Unfortunately the rain came and - with leather soled shoes - I came a cropper as we tried to return to the hotel; an absurdly heavy fall which - fortunately - did me no damage. Lee had arranged a van but strangely (not so strangely if you know Lee) no driver. Lee himself had to drive back and I had the luxury of two seats on the Eurostar as a result. We rounded off the month of August with Craig Charles's Fantasy Weekender in Bristol which Lee had characteristically neglected to inform most of the band of. With deps on bass as well as drums we pulled it off splendidly though I had a nightmare beforehand that I had been booked to perform (on solo piano), The Sound Of Music with no prior chance to rehearse at a packed Palladium. Thanks Lee!
The following week my bicycle saddle was stolen. I found a replacement on Gumtree which occasioned a day tip to Cambridge to pick it up. There I revisited Downing College who had interviewed me in 1976 for a place at the university and pondered how different my life would have been had I accepted. Very different I would think (I might be a politician or a comedian now - perish the thought!) In my wanderings I found The Eagle, the pub where the discovery of the structure of DNA was announced in the early 1950's, and took the opportunity of sketching a bloke fiddling with his mobile at a table on that very spot.
September began with a gig at Tobacco Dock in East London: 'Meatopia - a Festival of Meat and Music'. Wow - what a concept. Here I met Robyn Mill, over from Australia, who I hadn't seen since my trip there in 1996. Great to see her again - one of the gang I mixed with when I played with Dave Graney as a Coral Snake in the late eighties - and I reflected that - though we all grow older, the essence of the people we love remains essentially the same.
Started rehearsing in St. Leonards with Simon Charterton on drums. This was incredibly fruitful. In two hours we had five new pieces - Simon triumphantly declared "We're the Chas & Dave of Rave!" (he wasn't being entirely serious). But there seems to be a strange warping of the time/space continuum in St. Leonards. On arrival I had a text from James Mackie - an old friend from Lancaster - in which he had included a photo of a painting he said reminded him of Bernard (another old friend from Lancaster) and Bernard now lives in - wait for it - St. Leonards!. Not only that I was approached by a gentleman in the cafe after rehearsing and I suddenly recognised him as Russell Baker who was a school friend - and whom I hadn't seen in fifteen years - from Lancaster! Now living in St. Leonards where he is opening an Art Gallery!! All the way home on the train I was marvelling at this pile up of co-incidences.
In September I started soliciting celebrity friends to contribute a painting on the theme of 'UpBeat' which is the Mental Health charity I am involved with (as a Member of the Board.) The idea is to hold an auction of these art works next year in conjunction with Eazl and raise money to enable us to continue running our workshops in song writing, guitar playing, recording etc. Graham Coxon, Charlie Higson, Paul Whitehouse, Robyn Hitchcock, Suggs and Jordan from the 'Rizzle Kicks' all agreed to contribute which was brilliant. Other 'celebs' who have agreed to contribute include Bernie Taupin, Grace Slick and Chris Martin. The actual auction will probably take place in early 2014.
At the end of September I attended a celebration of the anniversary of the Radio Times at the BFI in which - amongst many other gems of bygone television - an episode of 'Z Cars' from the early Sixties was shown. The irrepressible Brian Blessed was a special guest and was mighty entertaining: ". . . and of course I couldn't help him because I was holding the fucking (sic) scenery up, but let me tell you . . . eleven million people! Live television! John Hurt being sick with nerves in a bucket for hours beforehand . . ." The other guests couldn't get a word in which was alright by me and he seemed blissfully unaware of his emphatic expletives. Good on you Brian - tell it like it was!
The Ska Orchestra had a series of gigs lined up for October but there were a couple of last minute cancellations (Cardiff, Norwich and Ipswich). My feeling was that the promoters were charging too much - I think twenty plus pounds is a bit steep for such a new band. However big thank you's to all who came to Brighton (Concorde 2), Leeds (Brudenell Social Club), and St Albans who gave us an extraordinary reception. And at Leeds I spontaneously attempted to emulate George Benson by singing along to my piano solo and - to my surprise - pulled it off and this seems to have become yet another feature in this most entertaining of bands.On Hallowe'en we played The Jazz Cafe in Camden with guests, Dawn Penn and Bitty McClean and this was filmed to enable live segments to be included in the video for our next single, 'Bangarang' which will feature Dawn as co-vocalist. The following day we played in Bath and I decided to get the Coach there early in order to spend the day in this most beautiful of towns before the evening gig at The Komedia - another stonking gig.
Meanwhile 'Midnight in Havana' was released on October 28th and the first major review appeared in The Daily Telegraph written by Ivan Hewitt. What a thrill to be cited as a 'pianist/composer'. A composer! Like Schubert or Mahler! (albeit on a very minor scale). This is a review so good I would have had to tone it down had I written it myself. A great start! Chris Hewlett - who has been handling the press for the album - merely said, "Good old Ivan". I'll say!
Then news came through of the death of Lou Reed who had been in my thoughts this year anyway, he being a fellow recipient of a liver transplant. I recalled he had said a couple of months back that he felt great; a 'miracle of medicine' and I had nodded to myself thinking out loud, "Know how you feel, Lou". Listening to Jarvis Cocker's tribute to him on BBC 6 Radio I was reminded of his fantastic contribution to the world of pop music - not least his musical simplicity ('more than three chords and it's Jazz') and his ambition that his songs should address far more than love, heartbreak and good times. He summed it up beautifully: "I'm writing for the people who didn't have an idyllic start.". Right on . . . and Rest in Peace, Lou.
Then a gig in Poole in support of the Specialised campaign for the Teenage Cancer Trust. They kindly put us up in a huge chalet and we spent the evening before stage time relaxing and watching the History of the Symphony on BBC4 and Mark Bedford combined the two elements of the evening perfectly thus: "Oh - it's Bob Mahler and the Wailers". Very good, Mark!
The final gig of the year for The Ska Orchestra was at Minehead Butlins taking part in Madness's 'House of Fun Weekender' which seems to have become a regular annual event, after which I dashed across to a bar to do an interview for Koast Radio and the Madness Information Service about 'Midnight in Havana' and played one of the piano solo's from the album. 'Enter Ladies Man'. At the same time Lee, Darren and Dawn were confirmed for Jools Holland's Hootenanny' which is great news for the band as a whole.
Meanwhile, 'Midnight' started to get some modest radio play. Paul Jones played 'James Booker's Ghost' as a prelude to a programme dedicated entirely to one of the finest piano players ever - the 'Blues Maharajah', James Booker. Co-incidentally a film of his life was released and I went to the premiere at the Barbican where I encountered half the piano players in London of a like mind. A superb portrait of a superb artist - this is highly recommended! And John Hellings who presents a jazz show for the Midlands area for the BBC played 'Manrique' though he emailed me to say that his problem was that every track "seems to shout me, me, me!" for inclusion and asked me for my suggestion. This was a very nice (and flattering) problem to have.
I set the launch of the album for the afternoon of Sunday the 15th December. We had time for just one rehearsal but the actual gig was fabulous, my only disappointment being that, by the time I had finished signing CD's and chatting to various members of the audience, everybody had left and I had been looking forward to chatting to friends. Oh well - there were plenty of Christmas parties to look forward to. The following day - Monday 16th - the nucleus of the Ska Orchestra did a session for the BBC - The Robert Elms show - and the day after that Melody and I went to Paris for a well earned break. Whilst there we were treated by my old university compadre - Steve Hackett - to a slap up meal at 'La Coupole' in Montparnasse, one of the Art Deco haunts of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso. And what a meal! Paris - one of my favourite places on the planet!
Christmas was relatively quiet though there was a mad dash before the storms set in, to Chris Foreman's place in Brighton for a party there. And that would have been it for 2013 were it not for an event on New Year's Eve that nearly had me spilling tea into my lap: in Robert Elm's round up of the best tracks of 2013 he played 'Midnight in Havana' as his introduction to the whole programme. He also included the last session The Ska Orchestra did earlier in the month in which we played 'Midnight Rider'. So - to my knowledge - I am the only person to appear twice on the list. As 2014 dawned I drank a pot of tea, stared out of the back window and wondered - as we all do at this time of year - what next?