Last week I went on a run and passed three other houses where I’d lived within a few miles of my current home – and a fourth was only a few hundred yards away. Geographically at least, I’ve not made a lot of progress since the 1970s.
So, every now and then it’s great to get the chance to spread my wings and taste a different culture, even if, as was my experience last weekend, it was only for 36 hours. In that jam-packed day-and-a half I joined my sister Ruth and brother-in-law Brookln’s band Rue Royale on a road trip to Amsterdam.
Ruth and Brookln have been touring Europe as a duo for years, initially based in the front bedroom of our current home in Burntwood, but this opportunity was something special. A week or so before they’d got the nod at short notice to open up for Volcano Choir at the prestigious Paradiso hall in Amsterdam. Volcano Choir are a US band fronted by Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver and Kanye-collaborating fame) whose second album Repave is bound to sit atop many critics’ best of 2013 list.
Once I’d sorted out the babysitting logistics (my wife Lisa was away at the same time helping run a youth weekend so her parents came to the rescue), I was thrilled to accept Brookln and Ruth’s invitation, along with my brother Jon, to join them for the ride.
The pretext was that we were to help with driving, lugging gear and selling merchandise. But, playing to a sell-out 1,500 crowd, this was arguably the biggest gig of Rue Royale’s lives and Jon and I were getting a wonderful opportunity to soak this up at close quarters.
However, it didn’t feel that glamorous getting up at 4.30 on the day of the show to hit the road. Ruth and Brookln had only got in at 2 that morning from playing a gig in Manchester and, after two-and-a half hours sleep, understandably snoozed the first couple of hours in the back of their people carrier while we headed down the motorway, awaiting sunrise.
After negotiating the Eurotunnel we drove through France, Belgium and arrived in Amsterdam at around 3pm. I’d never been to the Dutch capital before and was surprised at how spacious, refined and clean it was – and how many cyclists were whizzing past the wing mirrors.
I went with Ruth to find somewhere to park (50 quid for one day – strewth!) as two hefty ‘night-liner’ tour buses were blocking the spaces outside the Paradiso. Unloading complete, we watched a bit of Volcano Choir’s sound-check from the top balcony of the hall, a converted church which sounded and looked great, light years from your average sticky-floored UK concert venues.
While Ruth and Brookln sound-checked upstairs, Jon and myself, by now slightly delirious from tiredness, heard a knock at Rue Royale’s dressing room door. It was Justin Vernon wanting to say “hi”. After explaining we were just there “for the ride” and not actually in the band (something I eventually gave up doing as the evening went on), we had a brief chat. What a thoroughly decent bloke.
This conversation only fueled our waves of schoolboy excitement which we continued to surf well into the evening. I’d brought some mince pies along for the journey, and added these to the fruit, wine and whiskey rider that greeted us when we arrived. We persuaded the show’s promoter Bas to try one, but didn’t get to pass one off to any of the Volcano Choir, who popped in and out of the dressing room to wish ‘us’ well before the show.
By now, things were getting a bit bizarre – but in a good way. Manhattan gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello – who I’d last seen with Brookln play at the Metro in Chicago in 2006 – were also backstage, ahead of their Paradiso gig the next day. Their Mohican-haired drummer popped into our dressing room a couple of times for a whiskey re-fill and I kept bumping into their frontman Eugene Hutz, who’s handlebar moustache put my lame Movember effort to shame.
There was no time for dinner as Rue Royale’s performance approached and Jon and I were given a whistle-stop lesson in staffing the merch stand by Ruth. Thank goodness Dutch people speak such good English.
We sneaked off from our positions to the balcony to watch Ruth and Brookln play. Wow. Even though I’m biaised, they were spine-tinglingly amazing. Their short set was the best I’ve ever seen them perform, and the crowd loved it as well. It was truly exhilarating.
Their last song was the cue for me to head back to sell merch while Jon helped Brookln get their gear off-stage. Several of the Volcano Choir had also watched from the balcony and heaped praise on Rue Royale as they walked back to the dressing room.
After listening to Vernon warming up his vocals in the corridor a few yards away, we all went to watch the headliners play their set, which was magical. The crowd were rapturous and the groups’ enthusiastic response about as unpretentious as you can get. What sealed the deal was guitarist Chris Rosenau pausing between songs to rave about Ruth and Brookln’s appearance and urge people to buy their records. This felt like one of those rare moments of vindication for Rue Royale after years of putting in the hard yards across Europe.
Jon and myself, kept awake on a cocktail of red wine and adrenalin, returned to the merch stand to shift CDs, t-shirts and vinyl (“which one has the greatest hits on?” inquired one fresh-faced punter) while Ruth and Brookln chatted backstage with Volcano Choir and others. After shutting up shop and lugging merch downstairs, we left them to it and headed into Amsterdam for some food. The night’s surreal feeling continued as we downed a midnight Burger King surrounded by dozens of young teenagers and watched as a man, worse for wear, repeatedly walked up and down the stairs, again and again. Outside, the stream of cyclists continued.
We eventually packed up to leave the Paradiso just after 1am and headed to our hotel, an hour away, driven by Ruth. A brief stop-off saw a chip shop owner engage us in broken English about the pitfalls of Margaret Thatcher after Brookln accidentally gave him a ten pound note. We’d been up at 4.30am and hit the sack at 2am. Rock and roll.
Replenished by a hearty breakfast, we headed for Calais at 10am and got home at 6pm, still buzzing from the night before.
What an awesome day and a half. And what a privilege to go along for the ride.
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