Many people might think that musicians have it pretty easy. There are two major stereotypes which society has, both missing the reality by a country mile either side. The first is of the deadbeat musician, sleeping half the day, collecting their JSA every fortnight to fund their alcohol, cigarette and drug addictions that keep them too incapacitated to work. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the ‘professional’ musician, who travels the country for a few months of the year with an entourage of support, lorries full of equipment, managers, sound engineers and groupies so that they can justify spending the remainder of the time on holiday, or working on their latest self-indulgent polished-turd record which is sure to receive the same commercial success of its predecessors; there is no accounting for taste these days!
In April I joined Normanton Street, a Brighton-based hip-hop/soul outfit, whilst they explored new territories on their short Welsh tour, stopping off first at Liverpool on the way. I wanted to see what it was actually like to be on tour with a real band of working musicians, find out the realities of touring on a budget and find out a little more about the band too.
I arrived at Liverpool Lime Street and headed to my favourite Liverpool tea shop, Leaf of Bold Street, not too far away from the station, where I met a smartly dressed Nicholson (vocals/guitar/bass), who was travelling light on his coach down from Bradford whilst Phoebe (vocals) was heading down from Manchester a couple of hours later.
We enjoyed our drinks downstairs and after enquiring about live music at Leaf, we went upstairs to find a quiet corner for Nicholson to practice a couple of the songs for the gig that night – Ned (guitar/vocals) was unable to make the gig due to work so Nicholson had to learn some new parts last minute before the show. This would be the first show that just Phoebe and Nicholson had played together but after a little run through he seemed comfortable with the set.
As we went for food before the gig, it became clear straight away that when you are in a working band on tour, you have to budget sensibly. Luxuries are often unaffordable so you eat where you can, accept an offer of a drink if it comes your way and travel by the cheapest means possible. Without these self-imposed limitations touring would simply be impossible.
After Phoebe arrived, we found our way to the venue easily and were greeted by the friendly promoter Thom Morecroft. Parr Street Studio II is a beautiful building, with dim lighting in the classy way, not the seedy way. After initial nerves from Phoebe and Nicholson subsided – Phoebe said “I used to get up and play music on my own but I’ve no idea how I did it now. It just feels strange without a band behind me.” – we sat down to enjoy the other acts, a host of local talent of which Liverpool is not in short supply.
As Normanton Street played their set, the sound was very different from what I was used to hearing from the band. The raw stripped back, live-lounge style performance really allowed both of their vocals to shine, with Phoebe’s ornamentation shimmering on top and Nicholson’s rapping punching through the middle easily. The pair joked around on stage, seemingly slightly shocked as to what was going on but their performance still shone brightly.
The next day Ned was the first to arrive in Bangor, managing to find an out of the way little café called Blue Sky, known by the residents for its locally sourced food and intimate live music nights. He was pleased to hear that the management pick the music acts that they put on. He told me that the city reminded him of the EU. “It could be anywhere. Like Prague or Amsterdam or something. It just feels European”. I asked if this was the sort of place that he’d like to make music: “I need the city to write music. But I’d come somewhere like this to chill out and take a break. “
A few hours later, we met Phoebe and Nicholson at The Belle Vue , a pub with a homely vibe, well-stocked bookshelves, a vast selection of board games, and an impressive beer garden that would be great for a summer gig. In this friendly setting the band played two different 45 minute sets, with myself playing a set in between to give them a break. After the gig the band enjoyed chatting to the small but enamoured audience and the bar staff, who invited the band back to play another time.
As we got back to our accommodation for the night, airbeds and sofas on in a friend’s lounge, everyone unwound in their own way; Ned chilling on the sofa, Nicholson playing chess on his laptop and Phoebe reading a book by Patti Smith. No parties. No drugs. Just relaxing before another long day of travelling and gigging. Not what you might expect from a band on tour!
When I arrived at Cardiff Central just after 7pm, the band was sound-checking, much to the joy of a host of middle-aged women who seemed to be on a hen night, but without the stupid outfits. Perhaps that is just the vibe that most large intoxicated single-sex groups give off. The band even managed to sell a handful of CDs at the soundcheck, which was surely a good omen for the night.
When Normanton Street began to play the audience was pumped and receptive from the start, an atmosphere unlike the previous gigs. Considering the band had no real fan-base in Cardiff, it goes to show what a great job Blue Honey Promotions did, with the venue actually reaching capacity at one point. I was manning the merchandise table during the performance and sold quite a few CDs, whilst answering questions about the band from the curious crowd. Their performance was electric with the added oomph of the drums back in their set and they seemed altogether more at home in the busy environment. The atmosphere during their old track ‘Mud Riddim’ was explosive, feeling like some kind of 90’s rave night, with the audience wanting more and more from the band, even after the encore.
With one more gig the next night in Newport, the band was returning home the day after to a busy schedule including Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the Alternative Escape in Brighton and a host of other gigs across the south. Normanton Street has a fantastic work ethic, constantly changing up set lists, writing and performing new material and regularly hosting nights through their label QM Records, all the while balancing work, play and study into their daily lives. They have established themselves a big fish in the pretty big pond that is the Brighton/London music scene, but given time and their continued dedication and outreach, I am sure that they can swim through the tides all across the country and make some serious waves in the process.
By Tom Sayer
Image by Keira Cullinane