The south-west? We shall exit ‘er in Exeter..

Well, now the dust has settled and I’ve grabbed a few hours of kip in my own bed it brings us to the Exeter leg of the tour.  Having surfaced and written yesterday’s blog I got the call from Dan on loading times from the venue, so I checked out and staggered that way to find John and Scott had pretty much got everything out of The Hub and we just had to wait for the bus (or ‘the buzz’ if you’re John) to load up.  It’s worth considering at this point how much stuff it takes to make a Ferocious Dog gig.  Just some of it is pictured below.

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It’s fairly obvious really – there’s six of ’em, Ellis plays about eight million instruments, there’s a drum kit – there’s amps, there’s merchandise, there’s the stage backdrop and assorted maintenance kit, there’s a few spare guitars for quick changes in case of string snappage.  Then of course there’s up to ten people in the bus too along with their travelling gear (in our case we only had six of us for most of our journeying).  It’s a logistical challenge for sure – and Waggy and Ken are masters of the game of 3D Tetris involved in getting everything in the back section of the dog bus.

When you see a band playing to a group of people going crazy, people eulogising about them on Facebook (not least me) and clamouring to get photos or just talk after gigs it’s easy to forget after that it’s the same people – admittedly with some help from venue staff or folk they might have on tour with them – who will be packing everything up and getting it either in the bus or ready to collect in the morning.  It makes Ken’s mingling with the crowd after gigs all the more charming – and it’s not an act either, he turns heads and starts conversations wherever he goes!

So anyway… the bus arrived back at the Hub with Ken and Waggy and we got everything loaded up.  Both looking surprisingly spritely considering they’d been up to the wee small hours with Mick from Mad Dog Mcrea. Two minutes after shutting the van doors Dan and Leanne pulled up – with that immaculate sense of timing bordering on the suspicious.  That just left the not inconsiderable task of raising Ellis from his encampment in the hotel.  I shan’t go into details, but we did eventually manage to get the bearded one on board and hit the road to Exeter.

As we arrived in Exeter food was very high on our agenda so after finding the venue, dumping the bus and pleasantries it was on the hunt for some sustenance.  On the outskirts we’d excitedly stopped at a chippy only to find it literally turning round its closed sign on our approach – what kind of chip shop shuts at 2pm?  Insanity I tells ya!  We got back to the bus to find Ellis had availed himself of a sandwich and some biscuits from a nearby convenience store – but we powered on for something hot in the centre of town.

Since we’d not had breakfast that was the aim – we asked at a few places but eventually stumbled upon Brody’s Breakfast Bistro – which is genius in its simplicity.  You pay a set price then basically go and scoff yourself silly in an all-you-can-eat buffet style with all manner of breakfast goodness on offer, so Ken, John, Scott, Waggy and I tucked in chuckling at Ellis who was content to mooch around the venue having had his sandwich on the way in to town.  Ellis would have loved Brody’s.

IMG_9557Once we’d done it was time to get back to The Phoenix and set up – on previous days this had been my cue to check in to my hotel and loaf for a while as the band were setting up and sound checking.  Since there was no hotel it was a chance to witness just how much hanging around bands do on tour.  The green room wasn’t bad but it wasn’t exactly comfy or glamorous, the rider they requested was fairly modest but provided necessary refreshments.  After two days of excess tea proved more popular than beer and cider initially!

The Phoenix is a lovely building with multiple arty and performance functions, the gig venue itself was great – a decent sized stage, expansive dance floor area – I must admit I didn’t really do much exploring of the rest or even the bar area, but did catch glimpses of art galleries, and signs to functions for production of all manner of art as well as performance – it looks like a brilliant place in general.

The band got themselves set up and sound checked – it was sounding good to me, there were discussions over subtle technicalities and minor issues that frankly I probably wouldn’t notice but shows that they’re always looking to improve   When you think about it, the current line up have had very limited time together in to practice so are still clicking into to each others’ idiosyncrasies and tendencies.

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As the afternoon wore on the support acts, Emily Howard and the Leylines, arrived.  Emily spent a good time with us chatting and confessed to feeling a bit nervous about the gig.  She needn’t have been, as you’ll find later.  There were a few other visitors backstage too – great to actually meet Pip and family in person, and then the surprise arrival of Karen, Dean, Sarah and Wez.  For Ken this gave him the chance to travel home by car rather than sharing bus driving with Waggy, with Wez manfully taking up the bulk of the drive north.

IMG_9558Soon enough the doors were open and Emily was limbering up to play. It must be quite a prospect to get up on stage on your own with nowt but your voice and a guitar to entertain a crowd who have come to see someone who sounds quite different to you, however she put in a great performance – the highlight being getting the room to sing the chorus of ‘Nigel Farage is a ball bag, ball bag’ – it was fun, but more than that her songs were well written and passionately delivered – I enjoyed ‘Skip this Track’ most aside from abusing UKIP’s leader I think.  I wish I’d remembered to pick up a CD from her – I will see if I can get one online though.

Next up were the Leylines – an energetic folk band who got the crowd dancing.  Given their relative locality to Exeter they’d brought a fair few fans in their own right to the venue and certainly had them whirling and dancing to their infectious sound, a really enjoyable performance – it was initially confusing to see Ellis up on stage with them ’til we realised it was Addie who’d been summoned to stage for the band to plug Bostin’ Days, which features the Leylines and a wondrous array of other talented artists covering Levellers songs for charity.

Again, I didn’t get a chance to pick up a CD but I will get one online as I thought they were an excellent engaging act and I’d like to hear some more from them.  I’m assuming they will be playing at Bostin’ Days live so I’ll get to catch up with them again in October!

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And then came Ferocious Dog – having spent most of the afternoon skulking backstage feeling a bit broken I was starting to feel a bit more energetic, particularly since in Dean and Wez we had two moshpit generals in attendance rather than me, a mere cheerleader (ha ha!).  I had intended to get a video of the band getting on stage since I’d been lurking in the wings for the support acts, but the lighting was so dark it wouldn’t have come out so gave it up as a bad idea and went round the barrier into the moshpit.

As the band fired into Gallows Justice it felt a bit like Bridport in that just Dean, Wez, Mick and I seemed to be dancing quite so vigorously.  Eventually the terrified looks of some of the locals were replaced by curiosity and the inevitable gravity pull of the mosh drew more and more people in – shirts coming off raised more eyebrows but once people realise it’s all for fun and actually quite well contained and managed they’d relax and either join on the peripheries, wade in or just watch.

Part of the slow-burn mosh pit build might also be down to the unfamiliarity of the songs in the set list at the start – even before getting some album sneak previews these songs were becoming really familiar to me, for lots of people in that room it would’ve been the first time they’d heard them.  Certainly by the time we’d moved on to the anthem that is The Glass there was a sizeable mosh pit and plenty of the crowd singing along.  It was great to bump into Emily letting off steam a few times in t’pit who looked like she was thoroughly enjoying herself!

A snapped banjo string (in the literal sense – I’ve heard it as slang for something much worse, which as far as I’m aware wasn’t what happened to Ellis!) meant for some improvising with an acoustic guitar for Ellis and Dan fiddled the tune for Lee’s Tune.  It worked really well and the crowd stayed with it, and whilst you miss out on a certain amount of Ellis wizardry you still get to see him do Too Late later – so all is not lost.

With Dean and Wez in the house the first surfboard of this South-West trip was definitely on – some hasty instructions were bellowed, I was hoisted, Dean climbed up and it worked pretty well.  I discovered post-gig from band chatter it was a slightly elongated version of the song (by accident rather than design, I gather) – I think it surprises them when they discover that even folk who hear them play a lot don’t really notice these intricacies.  We’d talked to the security staff between support acts so they knew what we were up to and didn’t interfere.

As the night wore on the aches, bruises and just tiredness really kicked in but I stuck it out ’til the end and I’m glad I did.  The band received a well deserved rapturous reception from the crowd, people were really buzzing – it felt like they’d experienced something special, I still feel like that after a Ferocious Dog gig like that, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen them.  Hopefully a few more folk have been bitten by the dog bug that seriously.

Scott summed it up nicely in his uniquely philosophical manner at about half past two in the morning on the dog bus somewhere on the M5.  “That were a proper crowd, wannit? – I mean, we played two hundred miles away from where people know us and got that many people going mental” – there’s still that tinge of disbelief at quite what their music brings out in their crowds, you might think that’s the attitude of a relative newcomer to the band – but it’s not, they’re all humble boggers, and who would want them any different?

Once the crowd had started to dissipate it gave us the chance to start packing up and get the van loaded – Ken, who must have been absolutely exhausted, spent time signing things, posing for photos and generally being the lovely fellow that he is.  Eventually with all the goodbyes goodbyed we were on the road – we needed to drop Les off at his van with a guitar and an amp for his gig next weekend, then it was off on the road proper with Wez behind the wheel giving Waggy the chance to get some well earned sleep, Ken hopefully doing the same in the car with Dean, Sarah and Wez.

IMG_9554Earlier in the day John and Ellis had invented a new game to play on the dog bus table – it is loosely inspired by coin-based table football you might’ve played at school, but less likely to incur the wrath of Ken in scratching the varnish on the table.  That’s not prissiness – it’s a thing of beauty and should definitely not be damaged as you can see!  Essentially it involved taking a cigarette packet and flicking it from one end of the table to the other – achieving an over-hang gets you a point.

Thus ‘Fag Box Slide‘ or ‘FBS‘ for short was born.  On the way home we evolved this – the table was divided into two courts with the help of a cider box so that Ellis and John could have a game at the same time as Scott and I.  We went for the less authentic variation of the sport called ‘Nurofen Box Slide‘.  There was quite an intricate system of point scoring depending on whether you bounced off the cider-box barrier, and a myriad of propulsion techniques including, but not restricted to ‘the saloon doors’, the ‘Lyndsey Drop’, the ‘Stonehenge’, the ‘Tombstone’ and the ‘Turbo fist’.  Generally the ‘spinning lizard’ seemed to be the most effective.

A set is won by the first to reach ten points, then the match is won like tennis by reaching either six or seven sets depending – with some of the more complex moves this was possible quite quickly but it’s a game of skill, particularly when played on a moving vehicle that could involve unexpected braking, accelerating or cornering.  The aim of discovering the overall champion of the bus was curtailed after a quick comfort stop resulted in general malaise and tiredness.

Whilst plans for global marketing of the game were excitedly discussed it might have been a little far fetched – with weight divisions depending on how many cigarettes were left in the box, sponsorship and some outcomes resulting in you being declared undisputed ruler of the world and master of dragons.  Nonetheless, I’d be surprised if it was the last time FBS is played on the Ferocious Dog bus even if it perhaps won’t quite reach the heights of commerciality we discussed.  For posterity below is a video of the birth of FBS earlier in the day.

Eventually we got to the services on the M5 to drop John off, some last minute re-routing due to a closure on the M42 and sleep was descending in the rear of Cerebus.  A driver change and as I drifted awake again we were very close to home for me.  Scott had already called dibs on my spot as I’d inherited Waggy’s pillow and had had a nice snooze lying down, but upon popping out of the bus for all of a couple of minutes he’d have found Ellis had already nicked it – but there’d have been room for them both to have had a lie down for the last leg.

It was a big relief to get into my own bed after an epic but tiring weekend – my heartfelt thanks to Ken, John, Ellis, Scott, Waggy and Wez in particular as my bus companions – but of course also to Dan, Les, Leanne and everyone else who combined to give me a view of the very familiar from a more unfamiliar angle and make me feel very much part of what was going on.  Once I’ve got my brain fully back in gear I’ll probably write more generally about the experience of this new level of immersion.

It was great fun and a real fly on the wall opportunity that I feel very privileged to have been invited along to, and given that it will result ultimately in me writing about the experience in a public environment I am humbled and touched by the level of trust that has been placed in me.  Apologies this has been such a long ramble – there’s so many little things I’ve not even mentioned too – but for now I’ve certainly written enough!

Back to the weekly grind tomorrow before reverting to being a regular punter at Stamford on Friday before a break of probably two but definitely one date for me as I can’t make it down to Newbury.  I’ll definitely be down to London for the Putney gig though.  In the meantime I just looked at my bank balance – admittedly the accidental hotel room booking in Plymouth the week before hasn’t helped but by ‘eck I’m glad it’s payday this week.

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