Saturday, 28 January 2017

ALI AZIMI & THE NEED - US and Canada tour 2016, part 1: Washington DC, Dallas, and San Diego (and a bit of LA).

The first European leg was over (leg… over… hurrr hurrr).  As a band, we were reasonably well-oiled and ready to work more.  It was time to cross the Atlantic for my first-ever tour of the United States, and my second-ever trip to Canada. To say I was excited would be a bit of an under-statement.  Worries about visa approvals and passports not being returned on time ate up most of the fortnight or so prior to the trip, but once our travel documents were safely back in our hands, all systems were go.  

I wrote a bit here about far too much happening for me to have captured it all, and how boring most of it would seem to anyone who wasn’t there.  Then I decided that I didn’t care if it was boring or not!  It’s probably overly wordy, and I’m sure I missed a load of fun stuff by being boring or, more importantly, simply Not There while fun things were happening.  I wrote what I saw and thought and felt.  I hope you enjoy it.  I bloody well did.


Thursday 27 October 2016 (Home – Falls Church, VA)



Whatever Pecks is doing to Atherton, he seems to be enjoying it...


I had booked an early DadTaxi™, but due to a slight problem with the exhaust, that option was unavailable.  The MumTaxi™ arrived instead, and I was on my way.  Ali “noice one, mayte!” Azimi ‘phoned me whilst we were both en route, trying to find out whether he’d beat me to the airport - as if!*

I had a quick coffee with my driver (thanks Mum!) before heading off to the check-in area to wait for the rest of the band.  Ali appeared, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the band, and we started queuing for our first flight.  We were flying out to Reykjavík, where we would change for Baltimore, Maryland.  In all my experience of flying, the folks at airline check-in desks are generally friendly, polite, and know what they’re doing.  On this occasion, we had arrived at Gatwick in plenty of time, but the queue was long and going nowhere fast.  We later found out why; upon reaching the front, we were faced with the most incompetent and combative airline check-in staff I can imagine.  Despite brandishing our visas (which had cost a small fortune in both money and time to acquire), our nemeses were adamant that we needed to furnish them with paper copies of our valid ESTAs.  I had two problems with this: one, the “E” stands for electronic, and; two, the ESTA is related to a visa waiver program – we had visas! 

All this idiocy left us with precious little time to get through security and, of course, some of our bags were then searched by Gatwick security (not that I blame them, of course; it all makes me feel rather safer, but I could have done without it at that point!).  Although the flight was ultimately an hour late in taking off, which caused us to fret slightly about successfully boarding our connecting flight, my stress level dipped a little while in the air.  I got chatting to the lovely lady sat next to me, a teacher whose family (seated in the row in front) had treated her to a weekend away in Reykjavík to celebrate her birthday.  I hope she had a lovely time.  


Sully: "Oooh, matron!"


Throughout the flight we were told not to worry about connections – “Don’t worry, everything is delayed out of Reykjavík!”.  This turned out to be utter bollocks.  We landed, and were subsequently stranded on the plane until they could locate some steps to allow us to get off the bloody thing.  Then we had to get a bus to the gate.  As we were legging it through the airport, my heart sank to notice the departures screen stating that the gate for our flight to Baltimore was already closed.  It’s all over!” I thought.  I am, however, prone to catastrophising.  We were cheerfully waved through the gate by some handsome blonde types, and as we were on the jetway we saw our gear getting loaded into the underbelly of the big ‘plane.  Our connecting flight left bang on time, although we were clearly the last on-board.   Phew!

The second flight was very pretty; I love being up above the clouds, especially in the perpetual afternoon sun.  On this flight, I was seated between an American lady (who quietly read her e-reader for the whole flight, but kindly lent me her pen), and Isabel; a Dominican lady who had lived in Germany for 20 years.  She spoke bugger-all English, and needed some help in filling out her US customs form.  I did my best in my own terrible Spanish, and we just about got through the form.  I managed to ascertain that she was visiting her daughter in Virginia.  She tried to explain what her daughter did for a living (something to do with medical insurance was the best I could understand), but she spent most of the descent showing me photographs; she must be a very proud madre.

All the gear had made it across the pond with us, although my keyboard case and Rich “where's Carol with my need?" Perks’ guitar case had apparently been left out on the tarmac in the rain for a while; Pecks was dismayed to find that his on-board tuner was only working intermittently.  Thankfully, once it dried out it was fine.  Although we were all carrying boxes of CDs, I was the only one stopped by customs.  Joy of joys.  Once through that, we were out onto the street and piled into waiting cars.  The lovely Alexander drove myself and Tom “sexed myself to leglessness” Sullivan to the Best Western in Falls Church, where we checked into room 242.  Once everyone was present and correct, Ali went out for dinner with friends (including our surprise guest for the first gig), and the rest of us went to a nearby diner for some grub and some need before groggily heading to bed.  It had been a long day, though that didn’t stop Sully and me making some very silly videos.

*He did actually beat me to the airport once, but we won’t talk about that. 


Friday 28 October (Richard J. Ernst Community Cultural Center, Washington DC)



The Lincoln Memorial


This tour was taking in towns and states I had never set foot in, so I was determined to take every opportunity to see sights.  Poor Pecks wasn’t feeling well (not a great start to the tour for poor Perksy, but he got over it quick enough), and he’d already done the sights in this town, so it was just three of us piling into a taxi to go and check out the monuments that loom large over DC.  Our driver was an Iranian fellow, who knew of tonight’s guest artist.  We checked out the Lincoln Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, both of which were hugely impressive. 

***BLEEDING HEART ALERT***

It was the MLK memorial that sticks firmly in my recollection of the trip; I found that one quite profoundly moving.  An enormous boulder with the middle section set away from it (Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”) with various quotations inscribed on the walls of the surrounding granite.  One in particular got to me; "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."   He wrote that from prison, aged 34.  Wise, young, passionate… and murdered for it.  I’d like to think that from that bullet, fired in hate, we learned something as a species.  The fact that the memorial exists perhaps is testament to that.  Although I don’t think we’ve learned all that much.  Perhaps we ought to listen to our visionaries a little bit more than we do. 

We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” – (J.B. Priestley, ‘An Inspector Calls’)





Ahem.

***NORMAL SERVICE RESUMES***
  


A pre-post-truth world. With goons. 


After the memorials, we headed down to the museums via the Washington Monument.  It was a bit windy!  En route to take some silly photos in the Smithsonian, Tom "Ray Winstone, Lollipop Man" Atherton’s long, shaggy hair and beard was adored by a passing veteran - "That's a good start, young man!"  The Air and Space Museum was particularly impressive, and I would have loved to have spent more time there, but we wanted to get to see Capitol Hill, and had places to be.  We headed back to Falls Church in plenty of time to have some lunch before getting ready to leave for the gig.

We’d arranged to meet downstairs in the hotel.  I was determined to get a drink, so headed down to the bar a bit early.  The lovely Thuy was behind the bar, and we chatted for a bit about her and how she ended up in the States (memory does not allow, sadly!).  I asked for a double bourbon; what appeared was basically a pint of Wild Turkey with some ice in it!  Whoops.  Americans have a different approach to measures, it would seem!  Not that I was complaining…  As it turned out, sound-check was significantly delayed.  Typical.  I managed to resist the temptation to simply carry on drinking, and we eventually left for the venue, hitting the afternoon rush-hour traffic.  Sound-check over-ran quite spectacularly, leading me to apologise profusely to the support act (who were really rather good about it all!).



Are you loitering if you're taking photographs?


As I started to get ready to go on-stage, I realised I’d left all my stage clothes back at the hotel.  Skills!  A fine start to the tour.  Never mind.  The gig was good.  A few first-night jitters, but we were well received.  Our special guest was Faramarz Aslani, a genteel chap whose song ‘Ageh Ye Rooz’, I would later learn, is pretty much the first thing any Iranian who picks up the guitar learns to play.  We had rehearsed the song to play with him, but at the last minute I had ended up playing bass instead of keys on it – a bit of a surprise, but it went fine and ended up being the highlight of the show for me.



I managed to upset security just after the show by daring to get dressed in our dressing room while they were in there (“Sir, pull your pants up.  PULL YOUR PANTS UP!”) Whoops.  Then it was off to TGI Fridays for burger and some fantastic red wine need.  


Saturday 29 October (Washington DC – Palace Arts Center, Dallas, TX)



Custom party?


On gathering in the morning, we learned that the first casualties of the tour had been Ali’s ‘man-bag’ and Sully’s laptop cable.  There’s nearly always something that gets left behind at gigs.   We were rather late in to the airport, and ended up having to get slightly fast-tracked through security (who, again, checked my bag – there must be something about a short, fat Englishman with a hold-all that sets the alarms off!).  I had been stressing out again about the late-ness and being personally held-up by security when I knew I had to be on-board in about ten minutes was not doing my mental state any favours.  By the time I got on the plane, there was no room left in the over-head bins for my bag, which had to go in the hold.  Bless them though, the on-board staff noted my state of distress and immediately diagnosed that I was in need of need.  They handed me 3 50cl bottles of premium red wine.  I was in a state of some refreshment upon touching down in Dallas!  Gawd bless Virgin America.


“The only thing I’ve got from this is a semi-on!” - Dr. Pecks


Sound-check at the Palace Arts Center was extraordinarily painless, and after hunting around town for some decent grub (and failing), we were whisked back to the hotel.  We couldn’t not giggle at the massive Gaylord hotel we passed on the way (you sort of regress a bit when you’re on tour – and you stay regressed for quite some time after you come back!).  It’s true what they say; everything is bigger in Texas.  Our hotel room was about the size of my flat in London. 



Backstage at the Palace



The world is his gym.



Pecks tries to shift Dallas *slightly* to the left. 



 Hooray!


The gig was absolutely fantastic.  It was, to all intents and purposes, a Halloween show; Sully had splashed out on face paint for us all, and we had worked up a quick cover of Ghostbusters to work into the set for a bit of seasonal fun, which went down really well.  We all had loads of fun on stage, and were suitably fired up for the Halloween disco after-party next door.  The audience were really warm and friendly, and lots of photos and signing went on.  A lovely time had by all.  Afterwards we got driven off to Whataburger, where I consumed the most disgusting food I think I’ve ever had in my life.  Even worse than my first attempt at making tiramisu.  Eugh.  Eugh.  EUGH!
  

Sunday 30 October (Dallas, TX – Music Box, San Diego, CA)


Politics. 


We had an 8:30 lobby call for our early-ish flight to San Diego. “8:30 sharp!  The word ‘sharp’ appended to a time became something of a joke over the course of the tour.  Much as the given time of arrival in Douglas Adams’ concept of ‘Bistro-mathics’, the time at which we had all agreed to meet in the lobby in the morning was the one moment of time at which it was impossible that any member of the band would actually turn up.  A bit like the trains; sometimes early, usually late, never bloody on time!

The weather was beautiful in Dallas as we drove to the airport.  Our driver quipped that, just like in Game Of Thrones, “They keep telling us winter is coming, but it never f***ing arrives!” Airport security were very cheerful, which made a welcome change.  For the first time so far on the tour, we weren’t running late, and got some to sit about in the departure lounge enjoying the photos from the previous night’s gig – some lovely shots from that one.  Pecks bought himself a copy of a fitness magazine, appropriately featuring former California governer Schwarzenegger on the cover – “I’m totally trying out the Arnie workout when I get home,” said he.  The flight was pretty dull; we sat on the ‘plane for over an hour before it took off, and the coffee was brown dishwater.  It was a far cry from Virgin America; I was definitely looking forward to flying with them again.


We are not a full strength funk band. 


We were met at the airport and taken straight for a delicious lunch at Petreni’s in Little Italy, just up the road from the venue.  Afterwards we went for sound-check, which was reasonably painless once again.  The venue was a great looking little club with big floor space, and balconies above on two levels, and we had video projection behind us for the first time on the tour.  Ali took the time to talk to the video guys about what to put behind us for each song while we finished up the finer points of the onstage sound, and then we all headed off to the hotel.  We were in a motel style place just by the bay, which was quite a sight.  Palm trees, water, the ocean not far… bliss.  Atherton and I checked into 206 and got our heads down for a bit, as we were well knackered by this point. I could barely drift off in the time we had before getting back to the venue. 



The view from the office. 


The support band were pulling out some tasty prog-metal chops, to which Atherton and I nodded our approval as we passed the stage on our way to the dressing room to get ready.  The promoter, Kia, had laid on loads of booze and food for us which was very welcome.  We were really well looked after more or less everywhere we went on this tour, which makes such a change from gigging in the UK; most of the time, bars and venues look on musicians as being as irritating as a tropical skin disease, rather than an attraction keeping people in their bars drinking their beer.  As a result, I enjoy (and am very grateful for) being treated nicely whenever it happens. 

The gig was amazing.  The best of the tour, bar none (for me, anyway).  Personally, in the first half I couldn’t put a foot wrong, and the crowd were right into it straight away.  I remember turning round and looking at the video screen during ‘Donya Joye Gozare’ and seeing the music video for the track playing, with the moodily-lit black and white people starting to rise from the ground at just the right moment.  Magic.   The rest of the boys were definitely feeling the good vibes as well; the second half was extremely well-oiled (thanks to the bottles and bottles of Stella which had been provided!). Ali and I had been starting the second set with a piano and vocal song, into which I had been adding the opening refrain of ‘Pishdaramad’, the hit single.  Most crowds went beserk when they heard this, which was kind of the point; I had to do it twice before this crowd got it!  But still, they were utterly wonderful.   Pecks and I had one of those magic moments during the last song of the main set, on which I was playing guitar – the reggae breakdown turned into a guitar solo trade-off, without any prior planning or rehearsal!  We both just went with it, as did the rest of the band.  Lots of fun, and something we’ll definitely do again.  The video of Pecks chucking out some glow-stick sunglasses off his face into the crowd just before launching into the final triumphant guitar solo was a particular highlight.



Love.  Guitar love. 



How To Track Wild Guitarists, chapter 3: Bananas


Atherton had some family in the crowd – a second cousin on honeymoon, and their friend from Toronto - who joined us for drinks at the Waterfront Bar & Grill afterwards.  I remember the drinking getting quite emotional; we were all so happy with how the gigs had gone so far, this night in particular, and we all really enjoying each other’s company.  I won’t forget that night in San Diego for quite a long time.  Not least because I had to put a very drunken Pecks to bed; bless!  Praise Jeebus for a late check-out…


Monday 31 October (San Diego – Los Angeles, CA)



Pecks still can't understand why the Littlewoods catalogue never called him for a photo-shoot.


Atherton, Pecks and me went off to get some breakfast at a nearby ‘Jack In The Box’.  Pecks later christened it, ‘Jack In The Slag’ after the meal left him in some gastric distress!  Ali went off with his friend Ali (which got confusing when I tried to explain it to someone else later), while the rest of the boys went to pick up the hire car.  It was a easy drive to L.A., though we hit the city in the evening rush hour – it took us longer to get across L.A. than it took to get up the I-5 from San Diego.  The banter on the road was particularly hilarious as we came up with imaginary films along the way.  Ray Winstone plays Johnny Depp, in… ‘Johnny Depp Is Ray Winstone’…”.   The useless GPS navigation thing kept turning itself off, which was a little unsettling.  Thankfully it was a fairly straight shot until we got into L.A. itself, and we got there safely.

We checked into the small apartment that we would call home until it was time to head off to San Francisco on Thursday, and went to Buffalo Wild Wings on Hollywood Boulevard for din dins.  Pecks continued the assault on his insides by asking for his wings ‘extra hot’ – as he confided in me in San Diego, he likes it to hurt!


Cock banana. I tried to think of something witty, but...just... cock banana.  


Tuesday 1 November 2016 (Los Angeles, CA)

I hear the sound of marching feet . . . down Sunset Blvd. to Crescent Heights, and there, at Pandora's Box, we are confronted with . . . a vast quantity of PLASTIC PEOPLE

Pecks hit the Hollywood Gym, then after he got back we wandered off to check out the guitar shops on Sunset Boulevard.  Guitar Center and Sam Ash had all the usual tricks, but the real find was the Mesa Boogie shop.  Pecks has a Mesa Boogie at home, and they are pretty special amps.  We had a good long chat with the guys in there before heading over the street to the Aroma café for a really nice lunch.  



Keepin' it swampy. 


Once back in the apartment, Sully and I got everybody’s washing done before we all piled back in the car to drive to Amp Rehearsal Studios on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood.  We were going to be joined by a couple of guest artists for the L.A. show on Sunday, so rehearsed the tracks with them.  Hamed Nikpay rehearsed ‘Ah Az Eshgh’ with us, adding an extra verse which was rather pleasant and kept us on our toes, and Mamek Khadem came along to run through ‘Zendegi’ and ‘Farde Soraghe Man Bia”.  Mamek and I got to jam back and forth on an extended intro to the latter, which was quite exciting.

After the rehearsal, at my begging, we headed for the Rainbow Bar & Grill – a bit of L.A. rock hallowed ground – where I had yet another pint of bourbon (stop ordering doubles!), a Philly cheesesteak, and paid my respects to Lemmy.  Pecks went a bit Rainham on the bar and came back with a LARGE round of drinks just before closing, which proved unfortunate – they don’t do ‘drinking-up time’ in the States, apparently!



I'm happier than I look. 


Wednesday 2 November (Day off, Los Angeles, CA)



They're happier than they look.


Pecks off to the gym again.  Atherton, Sully and me headed off to IHOP for a sugary breakfast.    Once Pecks was back we decided to head off and do some sight-seeing.  We headed all the way up into the Hollywood Hills to check out the Griffith Observatory, which was incredible.  There was so much to enjoy there, but I was particularly taken with the magic thing there where you could look directly at the surface of the sun (wow!) and a big Periodic Table with an example of nearly every element on display.   Afterwards, Sully drove us through the winding roads of rich-looking houses to try and get us as close to the Hollywood sign as he could. 



Pedo-bear gets everywhere.



Holly woo.  



In the evening we went on a bit of a tour of Hollywood Boulevard’s rock bars, such as they were.  We checked out Loaded and the Burgundy Room, before sitting down for some slightly ropey burritos at the Cabo Cantina (I would have rather gone in Musso and Frank’s next door, as I probably loudly complained at the time, but went with the collective).  We headed back to Loaded after that for a few more and hung out with people in the ‘industry’…   Athers had a bit of a crash, and I’d had my fill of gassy beer, so walked back to the apartment with him via a liquor store, and I stayed up writing notes for this diary, listening to tunes, drinking bourbon and generally chilling out.

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hat's it for now.  Parts 2 and 3 coming soon.


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