Saturday 20 August 2016

ALI AZIMI & THE NEED - Tabestoon Festival, Calgary - 13 August 2016

This past Saturday marked my first gig with Ali Azimi & The Need.  The band had been invited back to headline the second Tabestoon Festival in Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta, after their successful appearance there in 2014.  It would be the band’s first gig in over a year, and my first gig with them.  No pressure, then!

First, a bit of background: Ali is a lovely Iranian fellow who, having recorded and released the album ‘88’ with Radio Tehran, found wider fame in the Iranian music world after recording the album “Mr. Mean” with a band which included two of my Carpathia colleagues.  The band’s song ‘Pishdaramad’ has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube, and played another 2 million times on RadioJevan (a Persian music streaming service).  

Keyboard player “Naughty” Josh Trotter had to depart the touring band during the recording of the Need’s second album to start a new life away from London. My former bandmates invited me to audition to replace him, and I jumped at the chance to play with them again.  I auditioned successfully in February 2015, and lay in wait while the band spent the next year or so finishing the new record.  Which brings us to The Now.

I spent a couple of months swotting up on the tunes, and after half-a-dozen rehearsals everything was gig-ready.  I found myself playing keyboards through most of the set, picking up the bass or guitar every now and then, and singing backing vocals in Farsi (next time you see me, ask to see my phonetic lyric cheat-sheets - they’re quite a laugh!).

Friday 12 August (Home - Calgary)

On the morning of 12th August 2016, I found myself at Gatwick Airport far too early.  After a slightly panicked telephone call the night before from Ali “OMAAAA!” Azimi, I had hastily repacked my bag to leave space for the 100 or so CDs he had promised to bring along for the festival’s march desk. I was waiting for him land-side of security.  And I waited.  Then I waited some more... Ali was running on what one of his countrymen later referred to as ‘Persian Standard Time’; he arrived, unruffled, at 12pm - less than an hour before the ‘plane was supposed to take off!  I had been panicking slightly, as Gatwick Airport during the summer holidays can mean a pretty epic queue for security, but we sailed easily up to the X-ray machines.  

The universe obviously prefers to have me in a constant state of brown-trouser when travelling; my bag came out of the scanner and, to my horror, was immediately diverted to the Naughty Pile.  Apparently, they had detected a trace of explosives! The conversation could have gone something like this:  

Security Officer: “Did anybody give you anything to put in your carry-on bag, sir?”
Feckless Musician: “Why, yes; this lovely Iranian fellow standing next to me gave me two large cardboard boxes to travel with!”  
Security Officer: “Would you come with me sir? We’d like to check your bung-hole for dynamite.”

Thankfully, it was a false alarm, and we went through the departure lounge to the ‘plane, arriving just as the last call was being sounded.  I’ve never suffered this particular ignominy, though Ali says its standard practice for him!

The flight was a fairly uneventful 9 hours.  I can never sleep on planes, for some reason, and this can cause a bit of a problem for me with long-haul flights.  We emerged bleary-eyed into the early afternoon Calgary sunshine and piled into a car which took us downtown.  The cab driver (a nice Nicaraguan chap whose name escapes me as I write this) told us all about the place.  Tales of the weather and the changing seasons caught my interest; he said that they basically get 2 weeks of spring, 2 months of summer, 2 weeks of fall, and 9 months of winter.  "And Winter gave Spring and Summer a miss and went straight on into Autumn…

We checked into the Hyatt Regency at about 5:30pm where two of the band had already arrived, got drunk, and gone to bed.  Thankfully one of them was around to keep me company while Ali caught up with his local friends.  I chucked my stuff in room 823 and had a quick shower.  I’d arranged to meet Tom “San Quentin poodle” Sullivan by the pool, but it was full of kids, so we headed straight for the nearest bar for a beer and a burger at the nearby Bank & Baron Pub to celebrate my safe arrival.  I had promised myself that I wasn’t going to drink, at least not until later in the evening, so as not to disturb the much-needed sleep I wanted to get that evening.  Apparently, the two earlier arrivals had told themselves that; and then simply proceeded to throw 3 pints down their necks in the space of 20 minutes.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!  I enjoyed some delicious honey-ed lager or the other, and generally hung out with Sully for a bit which is always a pleasure.  He'd apparently been panicking for the whole journey because his eTA (travel authorisation) hadn't come through, but thankfully we all managed to get through border control without any drama. 

By the time we got back, our star guitarist Rich “floppy milking” Perks had surfaced, and we headed over to the festival site to check out the evening’s entertainment.  En route we met up with Pecks’ friend Rob, a Canadian who had graced English shores for a number of years (living, as it turned out, not too far from where I live now!) before recently deciding to return to the land the Maple leaf.  The Tabestoon festival was in full swing; the stage had been built over one corner of the water feature that is the centre of the Olympic Plaza - a public space built to host the medal ceremonies for the 1988 Winter Olympics which were held here.  The boys were getting recognised by folks who remembered them from previous shows across the pond, and I was enjoying the music quite a bit; apparently to the surprise of the bartenders, who seemed amused to see a pasty white Englishman bobbing his head and humming along to the tunes.

The crowd were appreciative, enthusiastic, and surprisingly rhythmic (“Try getting an English crowd to clap 7/8 in time!” marvelled Rich).  I had a few conversations with people about the band, about Ali’s lyrics, and what it all means to them.  My limited understanding is that, in Iran, recorded music has to be censored or approved by the state, and the state must give permission for many (if not all) live performances to take place.  Hearing Persian music recorded, released, and freely performed means a lot to the audience, and the subjects Ali touches on in the songs must have quite a resonance with his compatriots.  

I hit the brick wall of fatigue at around 10pm, and was getting bitten to f*ck by mosquitoes as big as my face, so after sorting out what time I would need to be ready for soundcheck I made my excuses to all present and buggered off to bed.  My room-mate and the band’s tub-thumper Tom “Old Traditional” Atherton arrived, pissed (!), a short while later. “I had a bottle of wine, a sleep, and then half a bottle of whiskey!” he pronounced proudly.  The lucky git had flown BA while the rest of us had budget airline feed and need to contend with.  He headed out to keep the buzz going while I tried (and generally failed) to get some kip.  

Saturday 13 August - Calgary, Tabestoon Festival

After stealing no more than an hour or two from the sandman, I gave up.  The two Toms and I headed up for breakfast, and then got ready for our 10am soundcheck.  We took the opportunity to run a couple of songs to an enthusiastic reception from those present, and made sure everything was comfortable on stage before heading back to the hotel.  Athers and me decided we were hungry again so headed out to the nearby shopping centre for some tasty Reuben sandwiches.  I also took the opportunity to check out Tim Hortons coffee, which had been recommended to me by several well-travelled friends - t’was quite delicious, and dead cheap (well, to this Englishman anyway).  

Atherton was sleepy, so we headed back to the hotel and I ran through the set on keys through my headphones until sleep threatened to take me too.  I dozed for a couple of hours, ironed my stage gear and wrestled with the hotel room coffeemaker (“Decaf? F*** off!!!”).  We arranged to meet in the lobby for 7:15 to head to the stage.   We were due on at 8pm, but when we arrived the previous act hadn’t even started yet.  Persian Standard Time…  

I went off in search of more coffee to fight the jet-lag which threatened to dull the gig, but returned empty handed.   It was soon our turn to set up, so we got on with it while a short dance piece diverted the audience’s attention, and then it was time to hit the stage.  Pecks had managed to sneak some tinnies onstage for us, which was apparently verboten (although, as he pointed out, there wasn’t much they could do about it when we were up there!).  The MC introduced us, hit the intro tape, and we got on with it. 

I don’t know where to start with the gig - it was quite something.  After a slightly shaky start, we found our groove about half-way through the third song and didn’t really put a foot wrong afterwards.  The only notable foul-up occurred in the encore; it was one of the three songs in the set that required a backing track for sound effects, etc. and which compounded the problem and made it even more difficult to recover (the Macbook doesn’t care that you’ve dropped a b***ock - it simply carries on regardless!).  My fellow band-mates were on fire, and I didn’t do too badly myself.  The love and warmth from the audience was palpable - they sang every word, they loudly cheered every instrumental solo-spot, and they even laughed at a few of Ali’s jokes (at least I think they were jokes - my Farsi isn’t that good yet!).  

It was a fairly loaded gig for me; my first gig with the band, and my introduction to an audience that had grown to love the band as it was before I joined.  The roar that went up both during and after my piano solo in ‘Ah Az Eshgh’ (‘Oh Love’) made me feel like I’d arrived, and there was something quite moving about it.  We were joined onstage by friends of the band, Toronto’s finest Rhythm & Vibes for the last two songs, helping us lead the crowd to the thunderous end of ‘Farda Soraghe Man Bia’ (‘Find Me Tomorrow’).  Thanks to Sara, Nima, and Siavash - who, quite frankly, IS the party - and thank YOU, Calgary!

We headed back to the hotel to dump our gear off, change clothes, and head for the after-party at the Royal Canadian Legion down the street.  Beer and dancing ensued, and I remember chewing poor Canadian Rob’s ear about UK politics (sorry Rob!).  I must have enjoyed myself; I remember being back in my hotel room at 4 A.M. demanding bourbon from room service!  Sadly, they could not oblige.  Atherton reported in the morning that I’d been quite civil about it - I was worried that I’d thrown a diva fit!

Sunday 14 August (Calgary - Home)

Athers wasn’t quite ready for breakfast when I was, so I sauntered upstairs on me tod for a bagel and too much coffee before heading back to the room to read for a while.  We packed and checked out without too much fuss, and I left my baggage with the hotel while Canadian Rob took us out to see a bit of Calgary.  We stopped for lunch at the Barley Mill where I finally managed to get on the bourbon.  

Poor Sully was fading fast and Atherton wasn’t far behind, so we dropped them at Rob’s apartment and headed out for a walk.  We passed Princes Island, which Rob told me was a man-made island which used to be part of the logging industry, and walked on along the Bow River.  I remember having a conversation about memory (there’s a phrase!) and how we seem to be losing it in the modern age - why bother remembering anything when you’ve got access to all the world’s knowledge in a little box you keep in your pocket?  I wonder what we’re going to evolve in the place of memory - maybe nothing, maybe something useful.  

We diverted off the river and back to the Bank & Baron for one last drink before I had to leave for the airport.  I said my goodbyes, and sat in the lobby waiting to meet Ali at 4pm.  We clambered into the car and headed back to Calgary International.  Despite the epic-looking security queue, we were still in the departure lounge in plenty of time, which made Ali a bit anxious - I think he hates being early as much as I hate being late!  He did meet some friends in the departure lounge and ended up being the last one on the ‘plane, so I guess he managed to be a bit late after all. 

The flight crew were a damn sight more cheerful than the miserable bunch who had flown us out to Calgary 2 days ago - "You've all already done up your seat belt, and we’ve already checked that you’ve all done it - now, as part of our safety briefing, we're gonna show you how you did it!”  I almost felt sorry for anyone on board who didn’t speak English and had to put up with the humourless pre-recorded announcements in French.   Again, the flight was uneventful and, true to form, I still couldn't get to sleep.  Perhaps I should tell the doctor I’m scared of flying and score some diazepam - that and a cheeky Chianti might send me off to the mile-high land of nod…

On the way home I made a brief pit-stop at Clackett Lane services where absolutely everyone was an complete and total unmitigated arsehole.  Everyone.  Staff, customers, even the people just hanging around in the car park.  Probably even me.  A shower of bastards.   Having spent the last few days in Canada where everyone was really nice and friendly, this was a bit of a shock to the system, and nearly enough to make me feel like turning around and heading back to Calgary.  Perhaps I shouldn’t use a tired old service station on the M25 as my barometer for humanity, but it made me less than relieved to be home.  I love England, but sometimes I really hate my fellow countrymen.  

Way to end the gig diary on a downer, Harrison!  

All in all, I had a great time.  The band and the audience welcomed me with open arms, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.  Roll on the rest of the World Tour! 

Chris “just one to declare” Harrison

Pishdaramad video by Arash Ashtiani
Photos courtesy of the Diaspora Arts Connection, and the author.