Burning cows, beef gyros and Buddy Holly: The Answer on tour

“I’m sorry Caitlin, we gotta’ catch a flight home in the morning so, no, we won’t be able to hang around to see you guys burn down the giant wooden cow you’ve erected smack bang in the middle of the festival!”

Sometimes you have to keep on moving on, and this is one such occasion. Even if a particularly attractive barmaid is wearing hot pants, cow ears (a weird slant on the traditional playboy bunny image) and suggesting I hang around and “party some more” at the Burning Cow festival in Door County Wisconsin. We’ve reached the end of another epic six-week tour of the U.S. of A., and we’re ready for home: rainy days, thick Norn’ Irish accents, badly-timed marches through rush hour Belfast… the whole lot.

In some ways the last six weeks have felt more like six days. We were so busy, and it all kept rolling along at breakneck speed, yet it feels like six months have passed when I cast my mind back to the days leading up to the tour and the steady stream of complications and challenges we encountered before setting foot on American soil.

You see, we almost weren’t allowed into the Land Of The Free in the first place. There was some kind of global shutdown on U.S. Visa applications, which meant a lot of bands and artists had to cancel planned tours and various overseas endeavours through no fault of their own. But rather than sit idly by and lick our wounds, we opted for option two: re-route our flights at huge cost to ourselves, check our bags through at Dublin airport, get as far as the pre-clearance immigration, and beg for mercy.

“You’re not Whitesnake, Goddammit!” was the rather confrontational declaration that greeted us as we prepared to pander and puppy dog our way into the most powerful country in the world. Apparently the head honcho’s secretary had gotten her wires crossed and informed him that Whitesnake were in the waiting room, looking for waivers so they could go and tour the states. This little mix-up actually worked in our favour, and after a lengthy conversation about the state of hard rock on both sides of the Atlantic we got our passports stamped and were sent very merrily on our way by an exceptionally rock’n’roll-loving immigration office. We’re in, and there’s no stopping us!

Thus began a wide-reaching journey that began in Dallas Texas, worked its way around the Lone Star State before swinging aggressively Northwards through Colorado, zig-zagged around the Midwest like a deranged hyena, dipped southwards to the urban jungles of Washington DC and the Big old Apple itself, before finally coming to rest here in the form of our first American Festival headline slot, in a sleepy corner of rural Wisconsin. And we did it all in a humble RV with the suspension of a second-hand Irish ambulance.

Fuelled by excitement and sheer relief that we’ve finally made it back to the States for the first time in six years, the highlights came in thick and fast. The San Antonio show with Whitesnake was off the chart. I gave more high fives after the show than Stone Cold Steve Austin the night he won Royal Rumble at the same venue in ‘97.

We just loved being in Texas. After any show I generally like to kick back with a few beers and whatever else is going, but after the San Antonio show I made an exception and put the beers on ice so I could get my photo taken at the Alamo. The actual Alamo! I couldn’t believe it was walking distance from the venue. Back home we count ourselves lucky if there’s a late-night bar still serving out-of-date beer by the time we come offstage, but in San Antonio I got to live out every Western movie fan’s dream and visit one of the most famous landmarks in America’s relatively short history. To celebrate, I went and found those beers I was talking about and drank every last one of them, along with half a bottle of tequila and a couple of whisky shots for good measure!

Our journey through the Midwest served up plenty of memorable moments. We had a great evening slot at Summerfest in Milwaukee (that name will forever remind me of the Alice Cooper scene in Wayne’s World). Staged as the “biggest festival in America”, I decided to take a walk around and see if there was any credence to this grand claim. The setting alone was a sight to behold: sandwiched between the city freeway and Lake Michigan, it was like Glastonbury, but without the mud, and a few thousand tons of concrete thrown into the mix. I discovered a few great bands that day, which is always a bonus, including Jay Roddy Rolsten and The Business (the name alone demands respect), Milwaukee Soul, and a twelve year old country star of the future called Emi Sunshine who has already written a few better songs than many artists three times her age. Our own show was off the chart, played out in front of a packed and enthusiastic amphitheatre as the sun went down over the lake behind us. The tour was in full swing and we were loving it.

I’m going to jump forward a couple of weeks (and states for that matter), to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The town was like somewhere out of a feelgood Steve Martin movie, and the venue itself wouldn’t have been out of place on an episode of Happy Days. It was old school indeed… a dancehall that opened in the fifties when rock‘n’roll was just beginning to grow its balls. “The Surf” has somehow managed to hold onto that classic character without being reduced to a dusty old reflection of itself like so many of the older venues back in the UK. And, to top it all off, there seemed to be an awful lot of Buddy Holly memorabilia on the walls, including a pay phone with a plaque above it that read, “this pay phone was used by Buddy Holly to call his wife, Marie Elena in New York and by Ritchie Valens to call his manager, Bob Keene in Los Angeles on the evening of Feb. 2. 1959.” Initially I thought this was a very specific piece of information about a pretty random Iowa pay phone. Then, like one of the many quarters Buddy must have fed into that very same machine on a bitterly cold February evening back in 1959, it all clicked in my mind. This was the last gig Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper J.P. Richardson would ever play. Because that night, at 1am, just five miles from the venue, en route to Fargo, their small plane came down in a snow-covered field and all on board lost their lives. Feb. 3. 1959 was “the day the music died.”

So here’s why I love middle America so much… it’s because it doesn’t feel like I’m walking around the set of a blockbuster movie all the the time. It’s more like a really well-made indie flick on a tight budget. When I’m in New York I’m waiting for Bruce Willis to come tearing around the corner in a tank. When I’m in LA I’m half expecting Al Pacino and Bob De Niro to be sitting next me in an all night coffee house talking about how they’re gonna’ kill each other. When I’m in St. Louis, Omaha, Woback — towns like the ones we’ve been in recently — it feels more like a scene from Stand By Me, Juno, even My Cousin Vinnie. And I know there’s gonna’ be people reading this analogy and dismissing the whole notion as a Paddy shit-spouting session, but that’s just the way I see it. OK?

Just the other day I woke up outside Killer Vintage Guitars on an “ordinary” street in a St. Louis suburb. Mick did what he does particularly well and blew another bass amp last night so we needed it fixed. Luckily, our guitar tech and good buddy Takumi knew a guy and this guy ran the aforementioned store, which not only sells “killer” guitars but also fixes them and the amps needed to play them. So, being a singer and with no worldly knowledge in such things I left those guys to it and walked across the street to a sandwich joint called Vinnies. “I’ll have a coffee,” I declared, to be greeted with amusement and a retort along the lines of “What? Are you serious? We don’t do coffee, we do sandwiches”. So rather than rock the boat I decided to order a sandwich… an Italian beef gyro. After our initial misunderstanding, George — “the boss” — warmed to me, and enquired as to my origins and intentions. On hearing that I was in a band and from Belfast, it quickly emerged that George wasn’t only a musician but had played in Belfast with his band Top Of The Hill back in 1991… supporting Extreme, no less. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

By this time all the guys had followed the smell of melted cheese and fresh bread, and arrived just in time to hear George tell me about his experience with the now defunct Royal Ulster Constabulary the night after the gig. Bear in mind here that in 1991 not that many bands had the ambition to play in our little corner of the world, due to the volatile environment we were living in. Poor George was sleeping in his bunk on the tour bus, perhaps having sweet dreams about a couple of pretty Irish girls he’d met that night, when he was rudely awoken by a team of heavily armed, heavily camouflaged army personnel pointing machine guns in the band’s disbelieving faces.

“What the hell’s going on?!?,” George screamed. Well, it seemed that was all he needed to say, because as soon as the chief interrogator heard George’s distinctly American accent he called the search off and left the guys in the band to mull over why, in the name of God’s green earth, they had defied international advice and agreed to play a gig in what was considered to be one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet. In fairness to George, he didn’t let that little episode spoil his trip one bit. “I fuckin’ love Northern Ireland man… I’m gonna’ go back there someday.” I might go back someday too, George. Fuckin’ A!

There’s no doubt about it; this US tour has been one of the most colourful and fruitful tours we’ve ever embarked upon. The shows we played with Whitesnake were off the chart, and I’m not just saying that to satisfy my ego. We killed them every night… leaving the stage to standing ovations and selling out of merchandise before Whitesnake even took to the stage.

The band themselves couldn’t have been more groovy if they all took to drinking magic mushroom tea and listening to Grateful Dead records around a campfire. Every night Tommy Aldridge and Michael Devin (the Whitesnake engine room) would plant themselves smack bang in the middle of every theatre we played so they could watch us soundcheck, before dealing out equal measures of encouragement and heckling from an otherwise empty venue. And then there’s David Coverdale… I could probably write a short book at this point. But for the sake of time and print restraints I will briefly summarise: that guy is a major dude!

But now it’s time to go home and get ready for the next chapter in The Answer’s never-ending quest to bring real music to the people. To all our gig-going, record-buying friends in America I extend our gratitude for making the last six weeks so life affirming and, well, fun. There’s a new fire burning inside us and we’re gonna’ do everything in our power to ensure we get back to your shores as soon as possible in order to follow up on a tour that saw us cover twelve thousand road miles in five time zones, and play a shed-load of rock‘n’roll shows. But for now, we wave goodbye to burning cows, Buddy Holly, St. Louis sandwich shops and the land of the Star Spangled Banner.

I’m going to my home town to clear my mind, re-charge my battery and — of course — go in search of a decent pint of Guinness. It’s been way too long!

The Answer play London’s Borderline venue tomorrow, and at the Wacken Festival in Germany on Thursday.