CANADA 2013. Days 25-26: Princess Street Promenade and a show

Saturday morning we woke to the bright hot Kingston sun. The sun filtered through the windows and warmed us in our beds. We got up and washed and got out.

Earlier in the week when we’d returned to Kingston we’d looked around for gigs everywhere and anywhere. Most places said no. It was too short notice and we were a bunch of crazy foreigners with guitars and not much else. One place said yes.

Last year (2012) we’d met the owner of the Sir John A’s Public House. Sir John’s is named after Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, and occupies his old law offices where he practised even during his premiership. We’d met up again with Paul, the owner, at the start of our 2013 tour, for lunch up at Fort Henry. We mailed him on a wing and a prayer and to our surprise he was willing to host us for the night. We arranged the gig for Sunday night and looked forward to it as we always look forward to playing.

Jonas and I had also dropped by the ‘Downtown Kingston!’ offices. We went by mostly to thank them for everything, for two buskers’ festivals two years in a row, but also with our noses out and our palms open and our ears to the ground. Talking to Alex, the woman who had greeted us on our first tentative steps on Kingston soil way back in 2012, and spent some good time with us at this year’s festival too, we grabbed an opportunity.

Saturday was the day of the ‘Princess Street Promenade’. The first weekend of August is a bank holiday in most of Canada, observed as Simcoe Day in Ontario and under different names in different provinces. To honour the holiday, Downtown Kingston closed off one of the main streets in the city, Princess Street, to traffic, and filled it with stalls and attractions. Alex let us know and invited us to busk there.

Saturday morning we walked down Princess Street and grabbed a spot. The sun beat down and left the paving hot and unforgiving. We grabbed a spot between stalls and far enough away from other buskers and started playing.

By this point we’d played with Ryan and Robert enough to jam out a few songs together. We decided we’d do that and then split off and play separately for the rest of the day. In the end that didn’t happen. I forget which song we opened with. It may have been Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band’s ‘Guaranteed Wintertime Blues’, a fantastic song Ryan had introduced us to the year previously.

As we played, people on the street gradually stopped and watched. People stopping and watching grabbed more people and encouraged more people to stop and watch. Suddenly we had a full crowd. We played on and the crowd stayed and watched. We talked to them and performed and put on a show and they seemed to genuinely love it and connect by their clapping and their support. We connected, the two bodies there, us the ragged on the road musicians on the street corner playing our hearts and souls out and them the unforgiving block.

It ended as all things do and we wrapped up after around 45 minutes. We were surprised when the crowd, rather than walk away and leave us to it, came up and thanked us and bought our music and complimented us.

These moments are what busking is built on. The joy of busking comes from its unadulterated unmediated nature. There is you and the people and no-one can force a connection that isn’t there. At its worst, busking is demoralising and hard to hold on to. At is best, transcendent. In those moments where we played and connected and where we were applauded and thanked we all were together and we remembered why we take the chances and pay the cost to do what we do.

That was enough. We took a break – we’d earned it – and did another set before the rain put us off and we wrapped up for the day. Ryan and Robert felt tired and ill and headed back. Dan, Jonas, Oli and I sought out the nearest pub and got a pint of Keith’s each.

The next day we woke up late and relaxed. Saturday night we’d met up with Stu Conway and Chris and Laura Varley and arranged a quarry trip. The quarry is a very special place to all of us, Dan and I in particular. Last year we spent long days and evenings down there climbing and swimming and smoking and laughing.

We piled into Girtty and Ryan drove us east of Kingston over the bridge and up the Highway 15 to the quarry. We arrived and climbed down and met Stu and Chris and a couple others there and had a good time. It felt like a proper day off in the sense that we needed one and had earned one.

We stayed a few hours before returning to the house to prepare for the gig. We got changed and tuned up and I wrote a setlist and before any time at all we were heading out to play. Paul generously gave us a meal before playing and we ate well. The Varleys arrived to see us and Oli and I spent some time talking to a couple Irishmen from Galway before Ryan and Robert took the stage. We joined Ryan for a couple of songs towards the end of his performance before our own set.

We got up there and played and were loved and felt loved and for a moment successful and free. Completely acoustic, no sound systems or speakers to hide behind, we took ourselves from the streets to the stage and played as hard as we could. Paul immediately rehired us for a second set less than a half-hour after our first. By the end of the night we were spent but buzzing on the high you only get from performance. We can’t thank Paul and the Sir John’s and everyone else who came to see us enough for that night.  

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CANADA 2013. Days 20-24: Return to Kingston (Part One)

The drive out of Montreal on Monday was Hell. I’ve already written about the fun that can be had driving in Montreal. It took us about an hour to even get on to the roads out of the city. Once we were there, back on the M.C. Esher Hot Wheels tracks, we made one wrong turn and found ourselves heading back into the city the same damn way we’d just tried to come out. Eventually we found ourselves being spat out over the bridge and away from the island, like Montreal had just decided to let us leave. Like it had had its fun and was bored by now, probably looking for the next group of unprepared foreigners to mess with. We’d got in the van to go by mid-afternoon. By the time we were over the bridge and out of the city, the sun was well on its way down.

Once we were out of the city, though, it wasn’t long before we felt like we were way out. Ryan had decided that driving on major highways was a bit heavy for him, so we’d planned a route of backroads. So far ‘the road’ had been long and straight. Lazily winding country roads cutting through the reservation with the sun dappling through the trees on either side and bathing everything gold – that felt a world away from the sheer unforgiving concrete expanse of the roads out of Montreal.

Taking the backroads felt like seeing a lot more of Canada in a much more real way. We drove through small town after small town, past trees and rivers, over bridges and through tunnels. For a fair while it was wonderful. The one problem was that the drive took forever. We’ve learnt on this tour that, for whatever reason, you can add a good few hours onto the journey time Google Maps estimated when you’re travelling in an old VW bus. We finally stopped for food at about midnight, and by that time we were all feeling pretty fried and crazy. You can see that much on the tour diary video from that night. Rather than get fed and watered, have a smoke and get back in the van, we hung about for a fair while, having pretend gun and knife fights, playing hide-and-seek, etc. Though it probably wasn’t the smartest, I feel like our way was more fun.

When we got to his house, God bless him Rowsell was up waiting for us and ready to greet us. We went inside and found he’d also put together a little welcome pack of booze. We had a couple drinks but all crashed fast, Rowsell getting a cab back to his girlfriend’s place. We can’t thank him enough for letting us stay at such short notice – he pretty much left the house in our care, even cutting us a key. We had one last smoke and hit the beds hard and slept.

The next day we headed downtown to buy our busking licences. We’d decided to bite the bullet and pay the cost rather than risk busking without a licence. Unfortunately, it came to far more than we’d anticipated: Jan from the buskers’ festival knew a way to get a licence for each act at $50 per act, but the man from city hall that could have sorted this was out of town, so we paid $30 each for an individual licence. It was a pain, but we all knew it’d be worth it in the end. Jonas and I went around enquiring for shows – we tried a couple places but had no luck, as we were only in town for a week, and most places wouldn’t book at such short notice. We also dropped in to the Downtown Kingston office to visit Jan and a few of the other girls from the buskers’ festival. It was brilliant to see Alex, Simona and all the others again, if a little surreal seeing them in such a different context. Alex also arranged to let us busk at the Princess Street Promenade on Saturday. Once again, we found ourselves baffled by the kind and warm reception we receive here.

Although we were waiting to have our licences returned to us, we decided to start busking that afternoon by the fountain in Market Square outside city hall. We explained to the licensing officer that talked to us that we had applied for our licences and were just waiting for them to come through, and he was fine with it. After about an hour of slow busking in Market square, we decided to move down to another spot about a block away, outside the Tourist Information Office by the old train station in Confederation Park. Within a couple songs, we’d drawn a decent sized crowd and were making good money. It felt like a real ‘welcome back to Kingston’, having all those people sitting and watching and listening and enjoying what we did.

After we busked, Rowsell came back and invited us to spend the night with him on Wolfe Island. Andrew Varley was back in town, and it was decided we’d have a right proper booze up OIOI LADS ON TOUR SHAGALUF over on the island. We grabbed a poutine from Bubba’s, and Jonas and I left our instruments with Ryan, Robert and Oli to take back to the house whilst we bought booze. Dan went off with Kat, who’d showed up earlier in the day. Jonas, Rowsell and I picked up 24 ‘tall boys’ (just regular beer cans in the UK, which does drinking much better than Canada) of Molson’s Canadian and a bottle of white rum. We’d arranged to get the 7 o’clock ferry to the island, but by 7 there was no sign of the others. Just as the last few cars were loading on, Ryan and Robert came round the corner. Jonas and I boarded the ferry with those two, who said Dan and Oli were a little further behind. We decided not to wait for the 8 o’clock ferry, as by that time the sun would have been going down by the time we got to the island and we wouldn’t have been able to go on the water. Rowsell jet skied behind the ferry, jumping the waves made by the ferry’s passage and looping round either side. I remember thinking just how damn cool he looked doing that, and feeling a little jealous that he was able to do this as a regular thing. We got to the island, grabbed some food for the barbecue and got a lift with Roswell’s dad back to his grandparents’ place, where his parents and sister Lauren were also living as their house on the island got built up. I saw the appeal of living there. It’s a tiny community, with only a couple stores and very few streets. There aren’t even any police on the island unless they’re called out. It feels right out in the country, but at the same time is just a 30 minute ferry ride away from downtown Kingston, with ferries every hour ‘til the early morning. I swear, the ferry service between Wolfe Island and Kingston is more regular, more reliable and goes later than any bus services back home, though that may be more a damning indictment of privatised UK buses than anything else.

Once we were at Rowsell’s place, we wasted no time getting changed and getting out on the water. We took the jet ski out and tied an inflatable to the back of it by a length of rope. Three sat in the inflatable and one on the back of the jet ski whilst Rowsell drove. I’d heard stories of tubing with Rowsell before – Jonas told me a couple times of how Rowsell would pull tight corners and erratic turns, throwing anyone in the tube off it and into the water. I hadn’t imagined it’d be so damn fun. When we sat off, I was on the back of the jet ski and Jonas, Ryan and Robert were in the tube. Right before he pulled off, Rowsell leaned over to me. ‘What’s funny is they don’t know they’re on that thing backwards …’ He hit the gas and the rope went taut and I got to see the boys whipped round and fall on top of each other. After a couple falls, I switched on to the tube. The first time I came off was pretty easy – I hit the water and came up and got back on. The second time was insane. I was thrown into the air and landed on my neck and shoulder and skimmed the water like a stone before falling in head first. I think I blacked out a little, as I remember waking up disorientated in the water with my underwear halfway down my legs. Jonas summed up the thrill of tubing later on. ‘It’s that you can be thrown from something at that speed, like 55 miles per hour or something, and be totally fine afterwards. If you came off something like that and landed anywhere but water, you’d probably die.’ Reading this I’m aware it sounds stupid. The truth is it is stupid – it’s stupid dumb dangerous fun, combining fast speeds a lot of horsepower and physical pain. And I don’t think there’re a lot of men alive that don’t enjoy that.

We went back to the house laughing and shaken and dried off. Oli and Dan turned up about an hour later, having got the next ferry. I was sad that they’d missed tubing, but I guess it was them miss it or all of us. Sometimes things just don’t go right. I don’t think they minded too much though, as the rest of the night wound up being one of the best of the tour, maybe of my life. It’s hard to explain exactly why it felt so good, but it did. Colin, Andrew and C-Money turned up and joined us, and we spent the night singing and drinking around the fire before getting the midnight ferry back to Kingston. That ferry ride was incredible. We were pretty much the only people on it, and as there were only a couple cars we had pretty much the whole bottom deck to play with. We took turns longboarding up and down the deck and stood at the front playing music together and singing raucously, ruffled by the wind and the spray that came up off the lake. That night on Wolfe Island will stay with me forever as a time when we all just forgot it all and had a great time with people we loved.

Wednesday and Thursday sort of passed us all by. We picked up our licences and did a little busking Wednesday. Thursday we got up late to a Hell of a lot of rain and wound up stuck in the house for most of the day. Oli and I jammed some Josh Ritter in the kitchen and we all cooked a little and hung out. We’d been invited over to the Varleys that evening, and luckily the weather cleared up in time for us to walk downtown to get the bus there. We had a lovely meal and a great time out on the deck, spending some time with what is I guess our family. We’d find ourselves spending more time with them in the next couple weeks, and we couldn’t be more thankful to have them in our lives.

We didn’t get into town ‘til late on Friday either. I was worried that, much as we’d been having fun, we’d lost another day of busking at a time when we all really needed to make money. Luckily, on the bus, we got talking to a girl from Kingston Classic Rock radio station. We’d done an interview with them during the Buskers’, and she’d recognised us and we’d got talking. She let us know that there was a free show in Market Square by two well-known acts that night, The Glorious Sons and 54-40, and invited us to come down and busk. That sounded perfect for us – it gave us time to head back to the house and chill out for a bit, and also meant that the streets would be busy enough for a night busk to be worthwhile. The show was due to start at 8pm, so we got down there at 6 and set up. We did okay, but I think people weren’t really sure what to make of it. We did another brief interview with the radio and decided to link up with Ryan and Robert and grab another spot. We went to the corner of King and Brock and set up all six of us together. I don’t know what we were expecting – maybe a modest success and a couple nice comments. Instead, we drew a big enough crowd that there were people standing in the road to see us. Most watched our entire show, staying for almost an hour. The money was great and a lot of that crowd liked our page, bought our CD, etc., but what really struck me was how those people chose to stay and watch six unknowns busking on a street corner rather than grab a good spot to watch the two established acts setting up in the square. That brought a lot of confidence to all of us.

We stayed for all of Glorious Suns’ set and a bit of 54-40’s. They were both good bands playing good shows, but then rain started coming down and we grabbed a beer and went to bed. They were both good bands playing good shows. After a couple days’ stagnation, it was a great way to get our spirits back up. It was one of the best busks we’d ever done, and we went home proud and much better off financially than we had been. Little did we know that it had set us up for an even better weekend.  

CANADA 2013. Days 17-20: Montreal (Part Two)

Montreal lived in our minds as a party city. One that sucks you up and churns you about and spits you out on the streets bleary-eyed and smoking and the world spinning around you as you lay down in the park. During the time we were at Bobby’s house, it hadn’t been that. Although we had fun, it had come close to the grind of day-to-day work. After the weekend at Kat’s, though, we definitely got that feeling. It was just us musicians, Kat and her younger sister Sabina in the apartment, and we spent every night up on the roof drinking until the early hours of the morning. Once again we were above it all.

As soon as we got to Kat’s on Friday we stocked up on booze. Ryan and I stayed back at the house with Sabina whilst the others went shopping. Wound up playing some music on the rooftop waiting for them to come back and soaking in the sunset. The night carried on like that, with us ploughing through God knows how many beers and passing the guitar and singing and talking and splitting into groups and getting all together and laughing. Around midnight, things went kind of quiet. I wound up sitting in the hammock working something out on the guitar talking to Oli. Booze was running low and we were just sitting around really. Just as I started wondering where everyone had gone, I heard them coming up the stairs. It had turned midnight, so it was technically my Birthday. The guys had brought a bottle of Glenfiddich single malt whisky, which they presented to me after they’d sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and I’d blown out the lighter we were using as a candle. That was a really fantastic moment. I can’t remember the last Birthday I spent at home, and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone these past few years. Birthdays are a great time to think about how things have changed in a year, where you are, where you want to be. Although, as I said at the time, there are a lot of people I love back home that I would have liked there, I don’t think I could have been with better people than those or in a better place than that rooftop in Montreal.

Saturday daytime sort of passed us all by. We had our gig at the youth hostel that night and realised we had about three hours to grab equipment. We went to the Starbucks down the road from Kat’s apartment to make use of their free Wifi and find someone to rent equipment from. Soon enough, we had a name, and started the walk across town to get what we needed. It was a hot day and I was in no mood to be stumbling through the heat, but for some reason I decided to go along. It must have taken about an hour to get up there, and Dan and I were just about ready to pass out. Oli, Jonas and Kat went on to the music store and we decided to hang around the farmers’ market with Sabina. Sabina showed us where to get free fruit and water. We kept going with that and chasing the shade around the market to stay out of the heat until the others came back from the music store.

It was another long hard walk back to Kat’s place and after that we were just about worn down. We hung about the apartment and did nothing for a while, just dazed out waiting. We took a shower and got dressed up for our show and loaded into the van. Even though we allowed ourselves good time to get there, we fell victim to the intricacies of Montreal driving once again and wound up late. For whatever reason, the youth hostel we were playing at was on a street that went from being one-way the way we didn’t need to go to one-way the other way by the time we were on the other side of the youth hostel. We had to duck around more one way streets and around and around different blocks crawling up and down in thick traffic trying to find our way in to the damn place. Eventually we made it and grabbed a parking spot.  

By the time we’d set up and soundchecked, we were about an hour behind schedule. Even though we hate running late, this actually seemed to benefit us, as the place was a little busier. Ryan and Robert opened and did an awesome set that really drew some attention. I remember one woman sitting near me kept turning to her friend over and over saying ‘They’re so good! They’re so good!’ The crowd only got bigger and better by the time we went on, and we rocked it for a solid couple of hours. We even scored some free drinks the bar staff liked the music so much. It’s a fantastic feeling to be so appreciated so far from home. Good as it is to build relationships with fans and see our friends at our shows, it feels pretty encouraging to know we can walk into a youth hostel in Montreal, a city where few if any people know our name, and win over a crowd of people we’ve never seen before.

We hung around a little after the gig before going back to Kat’s. We were all ready to party on the drive down there, but by the time we got in we just sort of crashed. There was no booze, I guess. I felt drained anyway though. For some reason, despite the awesome night we’d had and the great show we’d put on, I just felt empty. I got back to Kat’s and Dan and I sat on the roof smoking with barely a word spoke between us for what must have been a good hour. I remember at one point we both sang a few words from ‘In A Mountain Down Below’, one of Ryan’s songs. ‘… loneliest loneliest man …’

We spent Sunday doing a whole lot of nothing again. We stocked up on booze. Matt came over from Bobby’s house. We drank and drank some more. We were out on the roof and then the rain came down and then we couldn’t be out on the roof anymore so we weren’t out on the roof anymore. Then, somehow, all of crammed into the little apartment, no Wifi and little distraction from each other, everything became a lot of fun. First, Rob and I decided to cook. We made a dish we’ve since Christened ‘Hobo Gourmet’. Hobo Gourmet is a classic cheap, dirty, unhealthy-but-filling one-pan meal. First we sliced potatoes and fried them up. Then we chucked some diced bacon in the same pan and let the whole thing bubble up and over. We put some whisky in and a tonne of maple syrup and kept it sizzling away. Then we fried up a few slices of bread and served it up. It was the perfect meal for that time and that feeling.

After that, we spent some time teaching Sabina and Kat to play guitar. They both got the hang of things very quick. Sabina especially was incredible – she instinctively understood how to fret strings, how to put notes together to make a chord, what sounded right and what sounded wrong. Oli said she was pitch perfect. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for teaching, and it was great to see them come along as quick as they did. It was also great to be able to all jam together. It felt like playing music just for the sake of playing for the first time in a while. The week before had felt too much like work. Hell, even before that there’d been times where it felt a little more about the money than it maybe should’ve. I’m not saying money isn’t at all important. It is. It’s nice to be able to eat. It’s nicer to be able to eat and drink and smoke and enjoy yourself. It’s just that, as with anything I guess, once you start making money from music, there’s a danger that it loses its pure joy and becomes just a means to an end. It’s good to play with different people in different ways in different circumstances. It helps to keep music feeling fresh and new and exciting, when otherwise it could get stale.

Monday we got up and cleaned the house and packed up. We loaded up the van and said goodbye to Kat and Sabina, not knowing if and when we’d see them again, but satisfied. It felt like just the right time to leave Montreal, and I think we all felt comfortable leaving. We’d busked enough to say we hadn’t been lazy, and the show on Saturday night had gone down well enough that we felt pretty confident as live acts. We grabbed some food, then used up some more of the Wifi in Starbucks before heading out of town and hitting the road to Kingston.  

CANADA 2013. Days 13-17: Montreal (Part One)

We decided to take Monday to get ready to leave and load up the van and move on to Montreal, still not knowing where we were going to stay when we got there. We’d sent out a couchsurfing request without much hope. Who would take six musicians at such late notice? As it turns out, one person would. Sitting around Mathieu’s living room on Monday morning, we got a reply. A guy called Bobby Jeffrey had offered us his house for the week. ‘I don’t know who’s crazier … you for asking for place for 6 … or me, for even thinking about replying ,,, but here goes … if you guys have sleeping bags, then I have floor space.’ That took a load off all our minds right there and then. Tensions had been running high with no knowledge of where we were going, and deciding on Montreal had only helped a little when we still had no idea where we’d be laying our heads. I had visions of us spending a night stumbling in and out of 24 hour McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s on Rue St. Catherine, mixing with the drug addicts and beggars and other assorted crazies Montreal seems to attract. Bobby’s reply relieved and energised us. We packed up, wrote our note thanking Vince, Mathieu and Tiana, and got ready to hit the road. Just as we were leaving, however, they came back. I worry they were a little disappointed to see that we hadn’t moved on yet. The goodbye was sad, as goodbyes always are. Although we’ve only known them for a few weeks spread across two years, Oli, Ryan and Robert even less, we all feel very close to Vince, Mathieu and Tiana. I’m sure we’ll be able to see them again, but it was still hard saying a relatively final goodbye to people we loved only a couple weeks into our tour.

Leaving the city itself felt odd as well. I have a lot of love for Ottawa for a lot of reasons. It seems to move right for me, and feels like home in a similar way to Kingston. I think we were all also tinged with a fair bit of regret, feeling that we may have wasted it. On the upside, if and when we return, we know the do’s and don’t’s. We know we need gigs and we know how to get them. Ottawa feels very much like a city with unfinished business for us.

The drive there was, once again, easy enough. Girtty and Ryan pulled together and got us there in one piece and in good time. The only real bit of trouble came once we were already actually in Montreal, looking to get to Bobby’s house on Rue Dorion. In our time in Montreal this year, we would notice something we hadn’t before: the planning and layout of the city makes absolutely no damn sense. The roads in and out are designed like a particularly convoluted Hot Wheels track, with turnings not signposted until the last minute, presumably in some misguided (or possibly outright malicious) attempt to keep drivers on their toes. Or maybe just to make sure that no-one gets in, and those who do get in don’t get out. On our way out a week later, we almost wondered if the city had been taken hostage in some Dark Knight Rises-style plot. Even if the bridges had been blown, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed. We’d all probably have just kept looping around on ourselves on those raised-up concrete roads until we ran out of gas or died at the wheel.

Despite the attempts of the Montreal city authorities and planners to thwart us, we still made it to Bobby’s house for Monday evening. We settled in and started to make a plan to kill time in the city ahead of our gig on Saturday. We needed to busk and needed to make money from it, but Jonas, Dan and I’s experiences last year had us worried on that front. The entire city is licensed, and patrols are relatively active and vigilant all up and down the best spots. We got stopped three times on Rue St. Catherine last year before the police cadets threatened to report us and possibly take our instruments. Luckily, however, we had discovered through a blog that certain spots within the metro stations are completely unlicensed. The system for these spots is relatively fair, works well enough, and seems almost entirely busker-run. Signs showing a harp denote busking spots, and pieces of paper are tucked behind these signs with time slots. Buskers sign up and grab different time slots in different spots, on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. The otherwise innocuous symbol, nigh-on unnoticeable if you’re not looking out for it, and the fact that we’d only heard about this system because we stumbled across the right blog, made us feel like members of some sort of secret society, pitching up under the city as trains roared in and out and past, setting up to play and giving them hell.

We soon settled into a basic routine. Two of us would get up early in the morning, around 7am, drag ourselves out of bed and sign up both acts for two slots each. We took Berri-UQAM station, knowing it to be a relatively busy hub. The walk down there was about 20 minutes, so we’d arrive back at Bobby’s about 8am and either stay up and go on through, get showered and ready, or just let out heads hit the pillows again, dependent on when our slot was. The money was far from fantastic, and at times the routine felt like a grind, but after Ottawa it felt good to be back into the swing of things, busking day-in-day-out. That week in Montreal was about as close as this seems to get to real work: you get up, do what you need to do according to a strict time schedule, and take home just about enough to see you through.

On Wednesday night we decided to do an open mic. Our 7:30-9:30pm busking slot was going slow so we jumped on the train at about 8-8:30pm and headed across town. After a short walk we arrived at the Shaika Café, a tiny little coffeehouse with not very much around it. We signed up to play and settled in to watch. One performer in particular stood out. I didn’t get his name, but his show really hit hard, looping track after track of vocals to produce immense, atmospheric waves of sound, ebbing and flowing and building and crashing and roaring and subsiding. He was a big guy with a lot of physical presence. He started his loops low, crouched over with the mic. in his hand. He rose up as the tracks piled, one on top of the other, until by the end he was lumbering to the flow of the sound, mic. loose in his swinging arms, brought up to roar and bellow and whisper. I remember he seemed very light on his feet, very composed for such a figure. He swayed to the rhythm and pulsated like his whole body was conducting the music, pouring it out through every pore.

The one downside I could think of with his performance was that we had to follow it. I suggested we open on Girl In The War, as a sort of segue between the more orchestral serenity of the previous performance and the stomping energy of ours. As there wasn’t much equipment, we decided to play acoustic. That was the right decision for a venue like that. It was small and quiet and it didn’t take a lot to fill the room. And we had more than enough to do that. I remember being nervous before we went on. Nerves are no bad thing before a performance – sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. On that night, I worried we were totally the wrong sound for the place. After Girl In The War, though, all those doubts were blown away. We stopped and there was a brief pause, maybe half a second, then the room swelled full with applause. After the grind of busking in the metro, I’ve got to admit it felt nice to be adored for a night. We drove it home with Oh Dear Lord and City Lights (514), and then got called to do one more song. We played To The Road Or Wherever, with me plugging in to make the lead guitar heard.

The most amazing thing about that open mic. night, though, was two people in the audience. As soon as we came in and signed up, we saw them watching us, these two girls at the table. Soon enough we started talking to them. It turned out that they’d stumbled across Oh Dear Lord – the first video of it we ever did, in the tunnel under the train tracks in Westgate in Canterbury – and been fans of ours ever since. They lived in Montreal, and when they saw we were in the city playing the open mic. night, they decided to come and see us. We were absolutely taken aback. Two people that had never even seen us found us through sheer coincidence and liked our music – liked it enough to come and see us play at the first chance they got. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we have a fair following out here in Canada – that these trips aren’t just holidays, but hopefully the foundations to build something more. Even though it was just two people at a small open mic. night in Montreal, that really brought our moods right up.

That week held a few of such coincidences. Busking one day at the metro, Derek Derek from the Buskers’ Festival walked past. We bumped into Jimmy Carr on Rue St. Catherine on the first night, and Jonas saw Michael Cera around the Mont Royal area. It’s fun to namedrop.

Probably the weirdest coincidence, and definitely a more personal one, occurred on Thursday, when we met Bobby’s new couchsurfer Matt. Bobby had said he had another Brit coming, but we had no reason to believe it was anyone we knew. England may be small, but we don’t all know each other. Amazingly, though, within a couple minutes of talking to him, we realised that we did in fact know Matt. He studied at University of Kent in Canterbury, and worked at the Three Tuns there – a pub we frequent regularly if we want cheap booze or a game of pool. We got over the initial shock of seeing Matt in such an alien setting, and he was great to hang around with. He later went on to Ottawa and stayed with Vince. It’s amazing just how small the world can be.

After busking on Thursday, we met up with Katharina, who we knew from the Buskers’ Festival. Katharina is the wife of Andy Giroux, from the Lol Brothers, who won People’s Choice this year. It was great to spend some time with her and baby Theodore, and to have the time to just sit and talk. Oli especially got on very well with the two of them, him being very good with children. We went to a place Bobby recommended called Poutineville for lunch. The place sold itself as sort of gourmet poutine, and it was some of the best I’ve ever had. You select your toppings from a menu, and when the plates come they’re wide as your all hell and deep and filled to the brim. Oli and I decided to order larges, spending about $15 each. We took them home to Bobby’s and they lasted us for lunch on Friday too. Our bellies full of good, bad food (bad for the health and great for the heart and soul), we were ready to leave Bobby’s on Friday. We’d arranged to spend the weekend with Kat, a girl we’d met on the finale of the Buskers’ Festival. Piling into the van, it felt nice to be leaving the place we were staying without actually leaving the city. 

CANADA 2013. Days 8-12: Ottawa

When we arrived in Ottawa, for whatever reason, we decided to take the day off. It wasn’t my decision, and I wouldn’t have made it, but if I’m honest it was probably the right one. 45 degree heat wouldn’t have done us any good. The downside was that we didn’t plan to do anything else, and wound up with a whole 24 hours’ worth of nothing. That we were spending too long ‘sitting in Ottawa with our thumbs up our asses’ became a common complaint later on, but I never felt more lazy or useless than that first day. On the upside, there was booze, so in the absence of anything else I just dedicated the day to drinking. I think I left the house at one point to get food. Outside of that it was just drink after drink with no real end goal and nothing to break the cycle.

Luckily (for my sanity and my liver), we broke our reverie the next day with some good busking. We’d got out of the house relatively early with the intention of getting a Byward Market licence. The Byward Market is the main spot for busking in Ottawa – just about the only spot you can actually draw a proper crowd. The system seemed pretty good, and the licence wasn’t too expensive. I can’t remember exactly how much, but it was definitely doable. We talked to the guy at the desk and he was polite and helpful. We got as far as handing the money over when he asked ‘You guys don’t have any percussion do ya?’ We did, and that was it. The Market has a flat ‘no percussion’ rule. Whatsoever. At any time. We suggested we could dampen the box, and I even tried to convince him that it was a stringed instrument, on account of the strings inside that give it the snare sound. He wasn’t having any of it, and so we didn’t get the licence. Simply doing it without Dan was never an option. He is the one element, if any single thing can be pointed to, that really makes us a band. He provides the raw rhythmic punch that drives us along.

Even without the Byward, though, we did well. We went to our old spot down on the corner of Queen street and Bank street. That’s in I guess the business district, so a lunchtime slot there got us good money and a decently attentive crowd. We did well that day, and, when we managed to get out there again, we did well every other time too. The trouble with Ottawa was that it never really felt like we were busking that much. In fairness, we generally had legitimate reasons for missing out. Friday, for example, despite getting up late and still drunk, we pushed ourselves out there and set up. It was fiercely hot and the air was so thick and heavy with moisture it felt like cloying sludge as we waded through it. We made it through a couple songs before heading to Tim Horton’s for a quick break to get out of the heat. Then the storm came down. We saw the wind and the rain getting up, and suddenly it felt like we had to get back to Mathieu’s house very quickly. We helped some of the restaurant workers on Sparks Street pack their outdoor furniture up and get it inside, the wind whipping up and the rain going from falling to pounding to pouring. By the time we were walking down Sussex Drive the sky was black dark. We got back to Mathieu’s absolutely soaked through. At some point, we must have made the decision to strip to our underwear and run out into the street and shout at cars, because that’s what we ended up doing. With a storm whipping up. Opposite the Royal Mint. That was probably worth having my phone waterlogged and broken for the next couple days. We later found out that there had been a tornado warning in Ottawa that day. Dan and I were having a smoke on the balcony in our towels with our clothes in the dryer when the wind died down and the air went dry and a black cloud hung flat over Gatineau. Then the moment passed, the storm carried on but never really broke, and everything was fine except we were soaked.

The reason we woke up drunk on Friday was because we’d gone along to an open mic. night at Fatboys Southern Smokehouse, on Murray Street, the night before. Our first impressions of the place weren’t great. It looked, basically, like a diner restaurant with a stage tacked on. Fortunately, it also served booze, and we were received really well. Vince and Mathieu arrived to watch, along with a few other people they knew (Brad and Melissa and someone whose name I’ve forgotten, but who was also cool and who I think filmed the gig and took photos), and the booze kept flowing. Eric and Eric (I’m almost certain I’ve spelt one of those names wrong), who ran the night, got up and did a fantastic set of covers, then allowed both us and Sasquatch & the Jackalope to go on again. We came offstage after a raucous drunken performance of Wagon Wheel, all of us singing our hearts out and going for it on our respectful instruments. We drove it right home and the crowd loved it. It was the best that song has ever sounded. Music continued in the form of an intense fiddle duel between Robert and one woman there, and even more raucous and drunken singing, this time of the ‘Green Dragon’ song from The Lord Of The Rings. Finally, we enjoyed the traditional ritual of a drunken pilgrimage with Vince to Castle Shawarma, on Rideau and Dalhousie.

We met some really good people at Fatboys, and got along with all of them. I remember us having a lot of fun in an ice war with some girls we’d met. (One of them had dropped some ice down another’s top, and things escalated from there until buckets were being emptied and everyone was covered in freezing cold water.) One person we met and talked to was Ashley, a waitress at Fatboys. Ashley was kind enough to arrange to put us on, and the next night we had a full gig there. We were paid in drinks (which really just cuts out the middle man, as honestly that’s where a lot of our money goes), and told ‘the stage was ours’ from 8pm-3am. That was another good night, and progressed in much the same way, though without the shawarma. Vince’s magical shawarma powers are kind of a one-time thing, good for one use each time we’re in Ottawa. That night ended with another of our favourite Ottawa pastimes: smoking and drinking on Mathieu’s balcony whilst putting the world to rights. We had a really great, long talk with Brad about music and life in general that night. We also got to see Mathieu zig-zagging down the road on a bike with no brakes quietly mumbling ‘eeeeeee’ to himself.

We got up late again on Saturday, but went into town nonetheless. We barely busked and made almost no money. As good a spot as Queen and Bank is during the week, it’s godawful dead on the weekends. Ottawa in general seems quieter on weekends. There’s no-one about anywhere other than the Byward Market. We caught the light show at parliament that night, and before that Oli, Dan and I watched Let Me In – a really good, heartbreaking little vampire film.

On Sunday we got up early and really really tried to busk, but again had no luck at all. We even went to CBC (national Canadian broadcasting) and enquired about going on the radio. We thought we’d be in with a chance after we’d made it onto the front page of CBC Ottawa when someone had seen us busking and taken some photos. We had no luck again. That was the major downside to Ottawa this year. No matter how much we did and how well we were received, it felt like we never really hit our stride with the busking. The fact that we seemed to spend too long sitting around doing nothing made the open mic. and the gig feel like they counted for nothing. I started to worry at times if we were lazy or just shit. This, coupled with uncertainty as to where we were headed next, made us all pretty stressed.

By Sunday night, however, it had been pretty much settled. We’d sent out a couchsurfing request to Montreal, and were going to get there one way or another. That settled, we had some time to relax. I met Ella in town and we caught some of the buskers in the Market. One show called ‘the Engagement Ring show’ was especially good. The tricks didn’t seem especially elaborate or overworked, but the setup and the theme were perfect. The show had a real warm, communal feeling between performers and crowd.

After that, Ella and I went and caught a show by a few bands at a venue called the Rainbow Theatre. It struck me as the perfect sort of place that we could have played if only we’d known about it earlier. The acts there were good too. I missed the start of the first singer, but caught the second and the headlining band. I forget the second singer’s name, but I remember really enjoying his performance. I don’t remember the songs standing out as much as the overall act. He was so good at talking to the audience and interacting and spinning stories that the actual music was kind of overshadowed. It seemed an interesting way to play as a solo artist – like a way of doing a lot with very little material. The headliners, Justice R.F., were far more conventional, but no less brilliant. They were a slightly strange setup: a guitarist-lead vocalist and two female backing vocalist, at least one of whom was an opera singer. The lead singer and the overall tone of the music reminded me a lot of Ryan Adams. In no way jolly or party music. Music for rain and for loneliness and for regret, but absolutely not depressing or unpleasant because it communicates something so true and so universal that you can’t resent it. That was a good end to Ottawa, and by Monday morning we all felt ready to move on.

Canada 2013. Day 6-7: On the Road Again

The final after-party of the Kingston Buskers’ Festival was much quieter this year. Where last year was a wild explosion, this year fizzled out in a damp squib. Not that it was a bad night – it was great as always to hang with all the other buskers and drink. It just felt quieter. Less eventful. I think the problem was probably that, for whatever reasons, a lot of people had to go home early, meaning that we didn’t take the party down to the PUC docks for a late night drunken swim. Instead, after we left the Tir Nan Og (an ‘Irish’ bar in Kingston; pretty good despite its misspelled Gaelic name), we split up and went our separate ways (chimpler days). Jonas, Oli and Robert went off somewhere and Dan and Ryan walked our new friend Kat home. I decided to follow the crowd and go to a nightclub called The Spot. The club was godawful, but it was so horrifically bad that it was actually a fair bit of fun. Hanging out with all the buskers and staff was good, and Dan Carroll (Ryan’s dad and singer of the Yorktown Yahoos) and I made the most of the cheap drinks. All the staff left relatively soon though and Dan and Georg and I walked back to Leggett. We got there and found the boys weren’t in their rooms, lost Georg somewhere, and headed down to the PUC to see them. Dan went back to Leggett and we saw him again later on. We hung with the buskers around the Hall some more and played a game of giant tennis with Aidan’s five-foot tennis rackets. (I’m just going to leave that sentence to stand.) Jonas, Robert, Ryan, Aidan and I headed down to the PUC one last time about 5am to watch the sunrise.

We staggered out of bed about 11am. We’d arranged to meet the Varleys / Morrises (Wayne, Nancy, Emily, Colin, Chris, baby Abby) for lunch in Kingston at 12pm. We eventually made it there by about 1pm. We felt awful being so late just because we’d stayed up late. We apologised profusely but there was nothing else we could do. The Varleys seemed to understand and we enjoyed a great meal with them before heading our separate ways (ooh-ooh-ah-ah).

We took the long hot walk back to Leggett and loaded our bags into Girtty the bus. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation we set out onto the road and away from the relative safety and security of Kingston. It had been decided at some point, I’m not sure when, that we would take two days to get to Ottawa, spending a night camping at the little town of Lyndhurst beforehand. The journey was short, but just long enough to appreciate the sensation of travelling in an old bus with friends and fellow musicians. The tires didn’t burn and the engine didn’t scream, but Girtty carried us through to Lyndhurst admirably.

We’d spent a little time in Lyndhurst last year, shooting in and out to visit the summer camp Jonas had worked at way back in 2010. The plan then was similar: spend the night in Lyndhurst before moving on up to Ottawa. Instead, Jonas got ill and we had to turn tail back to Kingston. The couple that helped us out that night, giving us food and drink, the use of a telephone and Wi-Fi connection, and eventually even driving us to Kingston, worked at The Post, a small food place by the side of the road in Lyndhurst. We went back in there hoping to see them. They weren’t in. It was under new management and they’d moved away somewhere. It would have been nice to have caught up with them after they helped us at such a dire moment last year.

We moved on up to the campsite and found a pitch and set up. Bob, who ran the campsite, gave us a discount after seeing we were musicians, and invited us to stay as long as we wished. We unloaded the instruments and some other things from the van and proceeded to kill a few hours, only half-wondering why we’d been in such a hurry to get up and leave Kingston.

Dan, Oli, Ryan, Jonas and I went to the lake for a swim. We had a smoke on the raft and looked out over the clear water, the trees on the opposite shore reflecting perfectly. We were down there for that golden part of the day where the sun makes its mind up about setting but decides there’s no rush and languidly drifts down and around to the West bathing everything in gold and giving everything that old-movie soft-focus sort of feel. Anything you do at that time of day feels immediately nostalgic.

We cooked up some pasta, disposed of our waste so as not to attract wildlife (specifically bears, because fuck those things) and headed to bed. I had no problem sleeping in the van, but I was one of the lucky ones. I shared the ‘ground-floor’ bed with Robert, with Jonas and Ryan ‘upstairs’. Dan curled up and made a nest for himself in the body of the van, and Oli wound up stretched across the front seats. Poor Oli and Dan must have had an awful night’s sleep. Getting eaten alive by bugs can’t have helped. In the morning we packed up and headed to Ottawa.

Our journey took us via Brockville, where we stopped at a Tim Horton’s. We had made loose plans to rendezvous with David Anthony Scott, a fan from Columbus, OH studying PhD in Tuscaloosa, AL. To our surprise, he had actually made the whole journey up just to see us. It was crazy, meeting someone who we’d only known as a Facebook page liking our posts. Most importantly, he greeted us with booze and Tim’s cards.

We drove up to Ottawa in convoy, with David following Girtty in his car ‘Catfish II’. Girtty did us proud once again, making the journey with no troubles whatsoever. We were speeding down the highway when a car honked wildly at us. We turned around to see Dream State Circus speeding by. Ella (the girl working as nanny looking after Sophie and Jacob’s daughter, Teyha) later commented on Ryan driving ‘like an old woman’. She was probably joking, but she’s so damn deadpan it’s hard to tell. (Ella, if you read this, you know it’s true. Talking to you is terrifying because I’m never sure whether to laugh it off or go back and cry somewhere.) You’ve got to be careful with Girtty – you can’t push her too hard, just treat her nice and she’ll get you there. We treated her nice, and she got us there. Pulling into Mathieu’s drive felt like coming home for the second time this tour. 

Days 1-5: Kingston Buskers’ Rendezvous

The Kingston buskers’ festival was a strange experience this year. One marked primarily by disappointment. For one reason or another, the musical acts weren’t given proper pitches or scheduled shows, and Ontario Street was so crowded with other performers that we couldn’t find the space to play so that we could even be heard, let alone draw a crowd and start to make some money. This coloured the whole festival for us, combining with the heat and the humidity to make us all a little stressed during the days.

That said, everything else about the festival was brilliant as before. We stayed in Leggett Hall, in essentially the same accommodation as last year, and were well supplied with food coupons and free drinks at festival socials. This good treatment makes us feel especially awkward about complaining. The fact that we were being given so much without giving enough back made us feel almost like freeloaders.

The best thing about the festival was, again, the people. The people we knew from last year (eg. the Yorktown Yahoos, Ryan, Uncle Paul, Hilary, Emily, Dream State Circus) felt like old friends. The people we didn’t know (a lot of the performers, eg. Georg, Aidan, Mr. Fish, the LOL Brothers, the Street Circus) became our friends quick too. Free alcohol and late-night socials have that effect. The first night, after the opening ‘Fools’ Overture’, was one of my favourites of the entire festival. We opened the show with an hour long set as the room filled up with people – Kingston locals, festival sponsors, even the mayor. After we played and the event got into full swing, the buffet had been totally devastated. We did what any thinking men would do and went straight to the booze. There was enough there that Dan suggested we ‘drink enough here that we don’t have to drink for another four nights.’ That went over my head for a moment: ‘But then we’d just be drunk all the ti- OHHHH I see where you’re going!’ Though we didn’t quite manage to have enough to sustain us for four days, we struggled on pretty heroically. Us and the Yahoos stayed ‘til the bitter end, catching the last lift back to Leggett with Uncle Paul. When we got there, we decided to keep the party going. Arlo (the son of Allen Beland, the washboard player for the Yahoos, and our little brother for the duration of the festival) got us to play some football, so we staggered through that for a bit before the instruments came out. Then we all jammed together singing old folk songs. We did ‘The Wild Rover’, ‘Eyes on the Prize’, ‘Crawdad Song’ and others. ‘Pay Me My Money Down’ became our unofficial theme song for the festival, with us joining the Yahoos onstage to play it at every opportunity. We let the crowd know they could take that one literally.

Despite spending months reassuring ourselves that this year we’d take it a little easier, get some early nights, drink less, smoke less, eat healthier, etc., I don’t think we were in bed before about 2am a single night of the festival. Jonas and Oli managed to get one early night. Dan and I didn’t. The Ale House was IDing everyone on the door, and they weren’t budging (even for Arlo, who is 13 and clearly didn’t intend to drink), so Dan, Robert (the Jackalope) and I decided ‘screw it’. We went with Chris Rowsell to get some cheap wine and drink on the PUC docks. A couple hours and 4 litres later, we were back at Leggett, watching Robert clean up the red wine his stomach had decided it didn’t want anymore and thrown right back up.

By Saturday we had a plan. Us, the Yahoos and Georg (the three musical acts at the festival) had decided to take matters into our own hands. We got some amplification equipment and a tent, and set up in Confederation Park, facing the bleachers. We took half-hour sets each and alternated on the pitch, with those of us who weren’t playing passing round buckets labelled ‘tips’ and ‘workin’ funds’. Though we don’t like to ‘pass before the hat’, we felt we had to as we simply couldn’t hold the crowds with the big, amplified scheduled acts performing just a few metres away. All our first sets went well – we made the best money we made all festival there. The best times were when we waited for another act to finish and caught the crowds milling about waiting for the next performance. But even that died out as the other acts tightened up their turnovers. Soon enough, we had no time between shows to grab a crowd. Though it was frustrating, we thought it best to leave it. We didn’t want to feel like we were in competition with any other performers, and we didn’t want them to feel we were stepping on their toes. Dan and Kim (Street Circus) spoke to us about it at one point, and we thought it best to lay off and give the other performers some space.

We spent a lot of time watching other shows. That, along with talking to the other performers, was a real learning experience. I especially felt that, compared to last year, we were ready to move up to a bigger level, with big crowds, big money and big participation. The other acts were all already well into that level. They were professionals, doing this for a living. Talking to them, we realised just how well you can do if you put on a good enough show and work hard enough and listen to the crowds enough. Far from the stereotypical view of buskers as, at best, scraping by, these guys were living it. One day I hope we can live off our performance in the same way. I guess the festival was more a learning experien­­ce than anything else. And, despite the frustration, we still had the best time. Performing is the greatest rush in the world. Making a living off it is the best job in the world. Anything beats sitting around at university or at home just waiting for something to happen. Busking showed us that we can make it ourselves: we don’t need to wait for someone to give us gigs or for some promoter or manager to come along and direct us. We are forever grateful to the Kingston Buskers’ Festival for celebrating what we do and for showing us that, with the right ­effort, we can really make something happen and make for ourselves the lives we all want.  

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Canada 2013. Day 0: ‘Hard Travellin”

Day 0: ‘Hard Travellin’’

 

Travelling to Canada this year was probably one of the worst journeys of my life. It was definitely one of the longest. Just about everything that could go wrong decided to at some point or another. But we made it here and we weathered those storms. I’m not sure if it was plain dumb luck, or if we’re actually good enough at scrambling and making do at this point that we can be said to make our own luck.

I got up early, but not ridiculously so. About 7am to say goodbye to my sister before school and to my mum before work, and also to have enough time to finish packing. The goodbyes were awkward as goodbyes ever are. It’s a cliché to point out that ‘goodbye’ is among the hardest things to say properly, so I won’t dwell on it. But I will say it. Goodbyes are hard.

After having a shower, I obviously decided to work on getting covers for the new EP printed out rather than finishing packing. Though I’ve never been brilliantly organised, and packing has always been a lot of trouble for me, getting resolved in a last minute rush to throw as much as possible in and apply enough pressure to crush it into the suitcase, this year I was especially bad. When going through my excuses for leaving packing ‘til Monday (the day before we left), some of them didn’t really ring true. Although I was legitimately busy Tuesday-Friday night, being in the studio and playing gigs, I definitely could have made time. ‘Well, Monday I was drinking all day and then had to drink some more during the night. Saturday I had to drink all day, and Sunday it was my Dad’s Birthday party, so I had to drink all day.’ There was a pause before my friend Bobby replied. ‘You’re a moron.’ In the end, my parents helped out a lot. In all honesty, they’ve helped more than I could ever communicate with a lot of things in my life, and I’d be lost without them.

Recording the new EP eventually turned out to be a lot of fun. The original plan was to do the majority in Jonas’s school studio, with one track done in one day at Anchor Baby. The experience of Anchor Baby on Wednesday, working in a proper studio and, in Dan Lucas, a proper producer, scuppered that plan. We realised exactly how much a producer brought to our sound, and how arrogant we’d been to expect to be able to get the best out of our songs on record ourselves. We booked another day with Dan at Anchor Baby, and the finished EP is something I’m really really proud of. We all are. It doesn’t sound sterilised or ‘professional’. It sounds like us at our absolute best. When we lock in and drive a song home, nothing can stop us.

It was this pride that led me to, the morning I left for Canada, spend a good couple of hours at a printer resizing and arranging images for a cover. I got it done though, and when the boys came round (10am, or thereabouts) it was worth every minute to listen to it. It also meant we had a copy to listen to in the car on the way to the airport, so when Dad arrived ready to leave at 11am, we foisted it upon him and set off.

The first major disaster occurred only a few miles down the road away from home. We were bombing down the motorway with To The Road Or Wherever on in the car (I forget which track), when we heard a crunching, ripping sound. ‘What the fuck was that?’ We checked behind us and made sure that nothing had fallen off. I pulled the sunroof back and we saw what had happened. The roofbox containing our instruments had completely broken – the plastic container had ripped and was now hanging on by a thread. We were lucky not to lose our instruments on that motorway. We dealt with it quick though. We pulled over by the side of the road, unloaded the roofbox and dismantled it. ‘What are we doing with this?’ Dan asked, holding the battered and useless hunk of plastic. ‘Throw it.’ Dad replied. We chucked the roofbox in the hedges by the side of the road, piled our instruments on top of us, and drove. The whole thing was over in about 3 minutes.

The rest of the journey to the airport went pretty much without a hitch. We narrowly avoided getting held up for God knows how long by a serious smash up between several other vehicles – as it had clearly only happened a few hundred metres ahead of us, we got through the choke quick. I think it was Oli pointed out that, maybe if the roofbox hadn’t come off, we’d have been a lot closer to the action than we were. Seeing a wreck on the highway like that always gives you a ‘what if?’ moment – what if we’d been driving a little less carefully, a little further up the road?

Saying goodbye to Dad at the airport was strange. Last year, I’d stayed at Jonas’s the night before we left, as his father Justin was driving us to the airport. That meant I’d got a proper goodbye to my parents the morning before and had a grace period of about a day to settle in to the idea of going away. This year was different. We got to Heathrow, unloaded the car, Dad took a couple pictures, we shared a hug and that was it.

When we got inside the airport, we discovered that Air Canada (or possibly all airlines, or possibly we just got very lucky with Sun Wing last year. I’m not sure) had changed their policy on hold luggage. Rather than only charging extra if you went above the maximum allowed weight limit per passenger, they charged us for each extra item. There was no choice and no way to blag it: Oli, Jonas and I had to pay £45 extra each to get our guitars on the plane. This spurred us into a panic as none of us had English cash, and they wouldn’t take Canadian. We changed some dollars, handed over what little English we had, and Oli paid some on his card. I’m still trying to work out who owes who what from that little experience. Again, though, we did what we could and our instruments made it on to the plane. After a little trouble going through customs (they held my bag up for some reason – checked it then gave it back), so did we. Although we were all seated apart, separated by a fair few rows each (the exceedingly helpful woman at check-in had neglected to mention seats or allow us to choose them), it was a very decent flight. It had the best selection of films I’ve ever seen on a plane, and the on-demand system worked brilliantly. The food was alright (alright as airline food gets), and the free booze was plentiful. I think all of us decided to get our money’s worth (you pay nearly £900 each, you expect damn good treatment), pressing the stewardess call button and requesting beers. We probably pushed the limit when Oli, Dan and I went up to the back of the plane (‘the bar’) to request more beer. They closed the curtain after that.

We landed fine in Montreal. We were a little early in fact, and it looked like it’d be no trouble to get our connecting flight to Toronto. We got our passports ready and went to pass through customs. What happened next terrified all of us, as it totally put the entire tour – our entire summer – in jeopardy. I’ve never had any trouble going through customs before. Anywhere. Even last year, with declarations that we were staying for 50 or so days and no money to our names, we breezed through at Toronto. The assumption was always that, to make things easier, we would answer the ‘And what is the purpose of your trip?’ question with ‘Visiting friends and family.’ We thought mentioning that we were playing around in a band might be some trouble. We weren’t even sure of the legality of it without a visa. At Montreal this year though, they knew something was up. I was questioned fairly vigorously, but managed to hold my own. Oli, thinking it’d be no issue at all, mentioned that we intended to play some music. Customs jumped on it. They caught up with Dan and I and informed us that we’d lie. We were sent through to secondary for some interviewing. We went up to the guy at the customs desk and tried to backpedal, tried to keep our story up. There was no chance. He asked the name of the band and Jonas and I blurted out ‘The Four Roads’ without thinking. We practically had to choke on the usually following ‘Like us on Facebook!’. After a brief Google search, he found us on the list for the Kingston Buskers’ Festival. He took our passports and boarding passes and kept us in secondary for a while. We were pacing, sitting, staring. Dan got out a collection of Keats poems and started reading. Then they started calling us up one by one, with Oli first. I recognised this tactic from my experiences with the police: if something seems a bit off with a group’s story, separate them and play on the inconsistencies. I assume they called Oli first because he was the one that had been honest at the customs gate initially. After waiting around, the customs officer called all of us over. He asked to see our tickets out of Canada, keeping with Jonas and I’s theory that the biggest worry was that we intended to stay in Canada indefinitely. We knew the game was up and decided to come clean. Jonas took ‘full responsibility’ for our lies – as a Canadian citizen, he at least wasn’t in danger. I appreciated the gesture, but I couldn’t let him do that. ‘No, we’re the ones who lied, so we take responsibility for what we said.’ We just kept saying we were sorry over and over. I don’t know what we thought we’d achieve. The officer waited for us to finish and looked up at us. ‘As you lied to a Canadian customs official, I have every right to refuse you entry into Canada.’ My knees almost went weak at that one sentence. He reiterated, adding that lying to a customs official was a serious offence. We thought we were done. But then we got lucky. I don’t know how or why, but we got lucky. Maybe it was the frantic prayers we said as we waited to be called up. As I remember, the customs officer never actually said he was going to let us in. He just handed us our passports and tickets. Worst thing was, he also let us know that there was no visa trouble with playing festivals. We could have got through in five minutes by telling the truth.

After that we ran through to departures for our connecting flight. We arrived and we’d missed it. The people at the desk were incredibly helpful though. They sorted us out on the next flight to Toronto at no extra charge. We went outside the airport and had a smoke of relief. We couldn’t believe we’d made it to Canadian soil. We couldn’t believe we were allowed to stay.

The short-haul flight to Toronto was really nice after that. I’d never flown in a plane with propellers rather than jets before, and the small size made it very cosy. I got a free whisky (blended scotch, but better than nothing) and settled down to read my book (Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, in case anyone’s wondering).

Landing in Toronto felt good, and we got a great view of the skyline. We took a ferry crossing of about 90 seconds across to the city, got a free shuttle bus up the road, and then a cab to the bus station on Bay and Dundas. By the time we got there it must have been about 4am our time. Jonas and Oli went to Tim’s and Dan and I spent a while in the bus station talking and doing that laughing about nothing that is always about something when you’re with a friend. Then we got on the bus and tried to get to sleep. I let Josh Ritter sing me away with The Animal Years.

At about 3:30am after a short cab ride we finally arrived at Leggett Hall. After 24 hours, it felt like we’d earned it. After nearly a year, it felt like coming home. 

Chapter 2 – “Hugo, Taihg and Brother Ben” *Note: this is a draft there may be spelling mistakes and errors.

5 Months before any of this happened. Before the four roads even existed, something happened that changed my life forever. Dan and I met in September 2011 when I begrudgingly had to move schools to re-do my first year of A levels. By that point Alex and I had been pals for a few years. The first time I went busking I was 12 around Christmas time. My Dad wanted “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zepplin and I didn’t quite have the funds. So I took to the streets with my mum’s old classical guitar and wailed out some classics like Hallelujah, Time of Your Life, Wonderwall and even a few Christmas Carrols. An old man mistook me for a 17 year old girl and tried to kiss me. That kinda put me off for a few years. I busked a few times here and there in the years that followed but never anything serious. In early December 2010, Alex and I took to the streets with our guitars, a bag full of flyers for a gig and brimming with confidence. There we were, shivering in the cold after a few hard hours busking, leaning against the black steel fence that protects the war memorial in the Buttermarket. (The Buttermarket is an old square in Canterbury outside the Cathedral gate.) It wasn’t going very well. We were cold, scraping by the skin of our teeth, singing “Waiting on a Sunny Day” in an attempt to warm us up when Hugo came bopping round the corner beatboxing to the rhythm of our guitars. Hugo and Beatboxing. I don’t think I have a single memory of that boy that doesn’t involve beatboxing.

He brought the warmth Alex and I needed into the Buttermarket that day. Within minutes he transformed the cold walls and cobbles into an amphitheatre brimming with life, laughter and smiles. His presence spurred Alex and I on, powering through despite our frozen fingertips. (And I’m not kidding. Try and play guitar when it’s around freezing. Its pretty painful) That boy was always full of surprises and hidden talents. He never failed to amaze me with his beatboxing, breakdancing and weird seagull impression, not to mention his word-perfect rendition of Tina Turner – Proud Mary. His charisma drew in a croud of maybe 30 of 40 people, an assortment of cathedral – going tourists and confused locals. Out of nowhere a homeless man called Kevin made his way to the front of the crowd, hobbling on a walking stick. He stood there on the side-lines for a few seconds watching Hugo do a beatbox off with an incredibly drunk Russian fellow, before throwing down his walking stick and doing a backflip. Yep, he did a backflip. At first I thought he had fallen over until he leapt to his feet engaging Hugo in some kind of intricate dance off. It was probably the most unexpected and surreal moment of my life. A quiet busk had evolved into a street party/dance in a matter of minutes thanks to one guy.

As dusk crept over the cities streets, slowly plunging the Buttermarket into darkness the crowd dispersed, wondering down the cobbled pavements leaving Hugo, Alex and I alone. There was no cloud cover that night and it was bitterly cold. We had an unusual amount of snow that year and although the counsel had done a pretty decent job of clearing the town centre, there was still plenty of crisp and settled snow up on the terrace outside the Morellis Café. The three of us made our way down butchery lane, past Casey’s and up the stairs onto the rooftop garden. We sat there laughing and smoking in the cold evening air. “D’you want any of the money we made”? I asked Hugo, rummaging around in my guitar case for coins. “Nah mate, don’t worry about it” He replied. “Oh come on mate, you helped make all of it” I insisted. “fine, just gimme enough for some fags.” He replied bashfully. We fished out 3 or 4 quid and slid it across the plastic table to him. While this was going on some students had joined us in the deserted rooftop terrace, sitting at another table sharing a crate of beer. When Hugo saw this he leapt up, strutted over to them and said simply “scuze me, can I have a beer”? So taken aback by his confidence and possibly his towering physique they handed one over to him, no questions asked. Beaming, he swaggered back over to our table, bit the bottle cap off, took a swig and passed it round. We “threesed” it between us and got up to leave. At the bottom of the stairs we parted ways and he was off, the beatboxing champ.

Over the days, weeks months and years that followed, Alex and I began busking more and more. Every Saturday we’d take to the streets rain or shine. During school holidays we’d be out almost everyday. The two of us became acquainted with all the other regular buskers and became very much a part of the community. One of those who we got to know was Daniel Lloyd – known to us a Taihg. Taihg was the King of the Corner. The corner of The Highstreet and St Margaret’s street was his. There he’d sit/stand there leaning against the bank, busking his heart to whoever wanted to listen. He was the soundtrack to this city. When I was about 15 before I started busking regularly, I approached him on the corner and asked him if he could buy me some smokes. `’Buy rolling tobacco mate, you get so much more for your money”. Despite my complete incapability to roll cigarettes at that time, I agreed. It was the best smoking related advice I have ever received.

Taihg seemed to be more than just a busker. He was a part of Canterbury, as familiar to me as the very cobbles and brickwork that make the city. He was young, talented and so friendly – the most approachable guy you could ever meet. Canterbury always felt like it was missing something when he embarked on his spontaneous adventures. But he’d always come back. Hearing his voice echo down the streets of Canterbury always gave me a real sense of home. He was an inspiration for so many. Its not easy to articulate exactly how much he influenced me and many others, not through any form of leadership but just from doing what he did: live. He was Canterbury in many ways, a city personified through one incredible human being.

The busking scene in Canterbury is truly unique; we all know each other, are and are all friends. Bands have formed from it, including my own and I like to think that in some way we keep the Canterbury Scene alive. It is one of the few cities in the country where it is completely unlicensed for buskers. We are free to take to the streets, to play, perform and to do our thing pretty much anytime, and pretty much anywhere. Even the local police officers give the occasional nod, smile or stick up for us in the faces of complaining locals. ( Love you PC Sally). We are all so thankful for this law, or rather the lack of law. Busking has made me the person I am today, enabled me to do some life-changing things and created some of the strongest bonds of fellowship I have encountered. I wonder if I would have ever of bothered if I had to acquire a license. Many people look down on the art, and yes, it is an art. I believe it to be one of the purest forms of art. Some even see it as begging. They could not be more wrong,

“When I am busking I am sending out messages to whatever and whoever wants to listen. Reaction and interaction is the reward. The money is a bonus to it all”. – “Taihg” Daniel Lloyd.

I don’t think it is possible to sum it up better than the way Taihg did. For me it started out as just a way to make money but very quickly became a whole lot more. No two busks are ever the same. Every experience is different, unique. I never get bored of, never tire of it. Don’t get me wrong there have been bad, long and difficult busks but there is always something that lures me back out to the streets. Maybe it’s the buzz, the rush I get when I strum the first few chords and see peoples heads turn to look at where the noise is coming from. Maybe it’s seeing people stop and smile, or seeing small children dance along to the music.  It’s my therapy. I crave the reaction and interaction, the words from kind strangers, the genuine interest people in my passion. I don’t crave the money, I just appreciate it. Getting a twenty pound drop is rare, but it’s amazing when it happens. But having someone come up to you and say “you guys made my day and you made me smile when I was feeling down”. That is far more amazing than any amount of money. You can never put a price on that.

We do work damn hard to deserve the money we are given. I have busked till my fingers bleed, until I can barely speak and barely stand. The harder we busk, the more soul, energy and passion we pump into it, the more people give. Not just in money but in things that money simply can’t buy.

Alex wrote about having an instrument on you when you travel and how it can act like a kind of passport. I could not agree more. If you want to get to know a new city, busk there. Or even just sit in one spot for an extended period of time (if you have the patients.) It’s incredible just how much you see. Within about an hour or so you should get a pretty decent feel of the place. We often find that our instruments act like symbols, differentiating us from tourists. It has happened many times. In London, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto… There have been times when I feel safer with an instrument with me. In one particularly rough borough of London, in tricky situations we were able to say “sorry we’re buskers” and whomever it may be talking to us would seem to understand. While in Montreal Dan, Alex and I found ourselves out of our depth, wondering down Rue Saint-Denis late one evening looking for a place to busk. Along the road were various groups of young travellers – hobos if you will. They sat outside pubs, in closed shop fronts or stood in large packs – train hoppers who ride the great freight trains of North America looking for adventure, freedom, work, sex, drugs and rock n roll.  The old stereotypical North American Hobo is a dying breed; gone are the days of the post civil war hobo, the generations of thousands of men who took to the railroad, hopping from freight to freight and state to state in search of work. However, there are still a select few who keep the legacy alive. Many are from middle class families – disenchanted youths hungry for a life on the road away from the humdrum of Canadian suburbia. Others are outcasts, some are addicts, and some are homeless.

As we walked down St Denis I kept an eye open for an old friend of mine amongst the packs of travellers. I knew him as Ben ****** a wild, bohemian young man, shrouded with mystery. He was my Dean Moriarty, the man who introduced me the road, hitchhiking and untold adventure at the grand age of just 16. I met him in June 2010 – the first time I travelled to Canada on my own. Ben and I both worked at a summer camp in the eastern Ontario boonies. I was intimidated by him upon our first meeting. He sat on his bunk in the cabin with his bible, baldhead and patchy jeans. I introduced myself and he shook my hand. “where you from?” I replied; “England”. “Long way from home eh?”. From that point on I was known to him as England. “Hey England,” he would call at any given opportunity, “lemme tell ya somthin’ about Canada boy”. That line became a running joke between him and me. What I loved about Ben were his stories of recklessness, adventure and debauchery. He would reveal things about his past none that of us expected. I could listen to him for hours. “The last time I saw a storm like this I was standing on a highway in Manitoba…It was intense.” Or “Newfies are the best people around man. An old woman picked me up when I was hitchhiking in the night, she drove me 100 miles, bought me a motel room for the night and gave me 20 bucks for breakfast.” He told me of his great trans-Canada adventures. His parents split up when he was a kid, his father joining the military in Kingston, his mother stayed in Victoria BC where Ben grew up. He got into drugs pretty hard as a teenager and like so many before him, took to the railroad; train hopping 4000 miles from Victoria to St Johns Newfoundland. He later found himself in Kingston with his dad. (who is an amazing man and was very good to me the few times I met him). He got himself in all kinds of the trouble with the law, and spent chunks of his late teens in the various jails and penitentiaries of Kingston. He was surprisingly open about this but told us very little about his experiences on the inside. There is still so much I don’t know about him. As it happened it was his older brother who arrested him and took his mug shots before his last jail sentence. A devout catholic, Ben cleaned up his act and got himself the summer job at the same camp as me.

He was still on bail when we met and was forever hiding his ID under the soul of his shoe when we hit the road together on our precious 24 hours off a week. “If the cops pull us over for any reason, I’m called Jason *****” he used to say. I loved it. Brother ben. He was not a violent criminal, he was not a bad person. He was an inspiration. All the guys at the camp went to ben for advice, to talk to when moral got low, or to dig the pointless hole we began to emerge behind the cabin. It was brother ben who comforted me, tears streaming down my face, when I was informed that a friend from back home had been killed in a bike crash. He sat with me as I smoked my lungs into oblivion behind my cabin, quietly reciting a soft prayer for Tom and his family, putting his arm around me. Brother Ben was a good man.

The last time I saw him he came into my cabin and woke me in the middle of the night. “I gotta go, England. I gotta leave now”. I sat up, confused. “They might be calling the cops. If they find out we’ve all been drinking I will go back to jail. I don’t give a fuck if they have to chase me through the forest, I’m not going back with them.” We were all in trouble. Our hair got let a little too far down at the end of the summer, almost every staff member broke the contract and somehow the head honchos found out, and they were pissed. So pissed they drove the hour from Kingston to Camp at 4am to fire a select few. I probably should have been one of them. Somehow I wasn’t. Ben was. It was later discovered that we were all drinking and that there were drugs on camp property. Oh, this was a Christian camp by the way so that didn’t bode to well. Word came down the line that the police might turn up and ben quickened his pace. The last time I saw him was at 4am on the 23rd of August 2010. He packed up his bags into Stu’s car along with two others, hugged me and burst out laughing. “Now, lemme tell ya somethin’ about Canada boy!” with that, he climbed into the overburdened car and the four of them disappeared off into the torrential dawn downpour.  

Updates of Ben and his whereabouts have, since then, been few and far between. No one really seems to know where he is. Sometimes he turns up in Kingston for a few days and leaves again without warning. Every so often I’ll see a new picture of him on the road somewhere on his , archaic Facebook that will make me smile. It’s comforting to know that Brother Ben is still out there, be it on the railroad or as a leather tramp doing what he loves most. I am certain our paths will cross ways again one day.

As it happened, not one of the groups of travellers in Montreal seemed to have the bald, gangly, flat cap wearing, wagon-wheel seeing, Belmont smoker with the deep voice that I was looking for. As we neared the bottom of St Denis we were greeted by some young panhandlers, squeegeeing unsuspecting motorists at the traffic lights. “Salut, good evening” he called “money good? Money bad? beaucoup d’argent? la mauvaise monnaie?” speaking one line in English, then in French, sometimes combining the two into the most confusing strands of dialect. From the moment he us with out instruments he had us sussed. I had watched him and his buddies from up the road, panhandling, squeegeeing, attempting to prize a few bucks from the fingers of unsuspecting locals. He was young, homeless and possibly a train hopper never the less, he began to tell us excitedly and in great detail where the good moneymaking spots where at that time of night. “well right you’ve got the entrance to the metro” he pointed at the berry entrance on the other side of the road “But there are usually a bunch of kids who busk there and they make a lot of money, they’re called the kid ninjas or something.” I found amazing that this guy who had endured real homelessness and hardship was so prepared to share the secrets of his city with us. It is a great feeling to know that pretty much wherever I am I can count on my voice, guitar and the kindness of strangers to keep me ticking along.

Taihg, reminded me of Ben in many ways. He had a home, a loving family a daughter whom he loved more than anyone. And there was his music. He breathed for it music, the essence of the streets and the freedom of busking for a living. In late January 2011 Dan and I were walking up the highstreet. It was a Friday night, Friday the 28th to be exact. I felt ever so slightly under the weather but brushed it off, deciding to enjoy the weekend never the less. We ambled through the streets of the cold city that night until we came to the high street and the familiar sound of Taigh’s voice. “Jonas!” I immediately looked around, ignoring the poor girl asking me for directions to see Taihg, Hugo and Pat (another busker) together outside an empty shop front. Dan and I walked over to join the three man street party. Hugo was his cheery self in his big old blue puffer jacket and his dirty trainers. Taihg and Pat seemed a little worse for wear – pat was struggling to stand, slumped against the wall. Taihg smiled at me, taking off his guitar and leaning it against the shop door. I thought about giving him so grief about the disgusting Bornean tobacco he sold us on new years eve a few weeks earlier. “You boys looking for any tobacco?” “Always” I replied. “Best shag of you’re life guys, 4 quid”. He reached into his pocket and brought out a crinkly brown square pouch. Written across the front in bold capital letters was one word “SHAG”. As it happens, it wasn’t the best “shag” of my life – it was disgusting. I decided not to say anything about it and went to pick up his guitar the same way he had done to me in the exact same spot a few weeks prior. “Play something Jonas” called Hugo. “D’you mind mate?” I asked looking for Taihg’s approval. “sure mate, I’m too fucked anyway”. I laughed, picked up his guitar and began strumming. Hugo promptly began beatboxing along and the street was reintroduced to a cacophony of sound.

The song came and went without much fuss. “You coming to the Blind Dog?” I asked Hugo. “Yeah mate, I’ll be there in ten”. “okay see you there” I called already walking up the highstreet.

That was the last time I ever saw Hugo. It was also the last time I saw Taihg. As it happens Dan and I were probably the last people to see them that evening. I first heard on Saturday night, 24 hours after I’d last seen them. Hugo was missing. No one had had seen him since Friday night, he didn’t turn up to the Blind Dog and he didn’t arrive home on the last bus, his parents raised the alarm. Posters were made, search parties sent out and a Facebook page was created with thousands of invites sent out, asking if anyone knew of his whereabouts. Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of it all, being one of the last people to see him. I explained as best I could what I remembered of that night to whoever asked. I assumed that he had just got belligerently drunk and passed out under a bush somewhere blissfully unaware of the chaos that was unfolding around him. “he’ll turn up; its Hugo”. Those seemed to be the words on everyone’s lips that weekend, even by Sunday evening.

The days that followed were a blur. I awoke on Monday morning with a nice chest infection – no doubt a result of the weekend’s spoils. By this time, I was starting to worry – we all were. 

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Book Draft

Prologue – getting the band together

 

Meeting Jonas and laying the seeds:

I was fifteen when I first met Jonas Lewis-Anthony. He was a friend of a friend at that time, and I wasn’t initially impressed. We’d needed a singer for our band The PainKillers, and Manny D, the lead guitarist (real name Ben Bartlett, but we always called him Manny) suggested Jonas. He sung good, but turned up to practice rarely.

As we played more, though, and got to know each other, he turned up more and more often. Summer of 2010, he went off to Canada for the summer – his parents had arranged for him to work at a summer camp in Ontario. I remember he wasn’t overly happy – believe it or not, he was more concerned he’d miss the local music festival. He came back a few months later buzzing. Soon after that, we started to talk about hitting the road. We first busked in December 2010, ostensibly to promote a gig by The PainKillers. The gig came and went without much fuss. We only had a couple more as a band, though we didn’t break up officially until early 2012. From then on, it was about busking. We busked more and more over the summer. Jonas went to Canada again and came back even more buzzing. Then we busked more and more through the autumn and more and more into the winter.

 

‘Against the world’: winter 2011-2012:

The winter was hard. Biting, freeze your fingers off cold and black sheets of rain wet and hard. Jonas had the blues bad post-Canada, and I just wanted something. Every weekend, more when we could, we hit the streets to busk. There were days when we spent more money than we made – replacing broken strings, buying cigarettes and drinks. People were harsh and unforgiving – so much for Christmas cheer. I remember my excuse for a guitar case – a leather bag with a broken zip held together with paperclips and no straps so I had to walk with it under my arm. I looked a joke.  We kept it up though. It got to the point where we enjoyed just sitting in the doorways we sheltered in, watching people rush up and down the high street into and out of the rain with their umbrellas pulled down hard so they couldn’t even see anything other than their feet splashing wading through the water getting to where they needed to go.

In the nights we’d spend what money we had on beer and whiskey, night-busk for a bit, then stumble back to Jonas’s house and sleep. In the mornings, I’d get up early and read or do a Sudoku or do whatever, or else be entertained by Jonas’s sleep-talk and movements. One morning, he managed to knock a bottle of booze off the windowsill behind him and catch it in his sleep. I’m still not sure if he believes what I saw.

One particular night sticks in the memory. We’d been doing our usual, and were headed back to Jonas’s about one, maybe two am. We stopped on the Beverly, the green near Jonas’s house. We stopped on a bench and had a smoke. We sat there in silence in the night. We could hear the trains roaring by and the rain hitting the ground and far away a car alarm blared. We finished our smokes. I’d like to say that, at this point, without a word said, we turned to each other and said simply ‘Against the world, boy.’ But I feel that would be a lie. Truth is, I don’t remember where that phrase came from, but it became our mantra – our motto and our life, with or without the addition of a good old swear. ‘Against the fucking world.’

 

Dan and Stefan join:

In January, tragedy hit. I won’t go too far into it – I’m sure Jonas has it covered. Suffice to say, two local buskers, Taihg and Hugo, died. Taihg was 25 and Hugo 17. Taihg was a giant in Canterbury – the ‘king of the corner’. He was a presence – always there and close enough to a part of the architecture, maybe even more than that. Hugo wasn’t as well known as a busker, because he wasn’t one, really. He was more a man about town, known to everyone and loved. He joined me and Jonas on our first busk, beatboxing and breakdancing. I’d love to tell that story, but Jonas has it covered. They were two friends of ours.

The deaths came as a shock to the system for all of Canterbury. The mood changed, and there was just this feeling throughout the city like something was missing. People came together. The buskers occupied Taihg’s corner and it became a memorial. Buskers and friends of his kept a constant vigil. Something similar happened with the Buttermarket outside the cathedral, which became a memorial to Hugo. That was the first place I’d ever met him.

On the Saturday after their deaths, a memorial service of sorts had been arranged at the Buttermarket. Jonas and I turned up. So did thousands of others. Watching videos and looking at photos, it’s still hard to believe just how many people turned out to pay their respects. And there we were right in the centre of it all.

Through this and other events, we forged closer relationships with all the other buskers. Really, looking back on it, I guess you could say we all got a little closer to the town itself. It was the strangest thing, and I don’t feel particularly equipped to write about it.

Out of this, we first started playing and hanging around with Stefan. We knew Stef a little as just another busker; a friend of mine, to remain unknown (because she would absolutely kill me if she read this), referred to him as ‘cute ukulele boy’. We’d met Dan way back in the autumn, when Jonas had newly started at St. Edmund’s school. Dan was a funny one at first, and a little hard to explain. He loved being around us and we loved having him there – he felt like another person to be against the world with. From the first Saturday I met him, when he’d been in town waiting for someone and wound up spending the day and night with us, he soon came to every one of our busks and just … well he was just there. These days, we’d say he was just there ‘being Dan’.

 Jonas and I got a couple gigs around February time, almost entirely out of the goodness of the hearts of a fellow band of fellow buskers, Coco and the Butterfields. Weird as it seems to say now, we owe them pretty much every opportunity we got as a band in those early days. Stefan first played with us at a pub called the Seven Stars, where we supported Coco. Around that same time, we’d decided that Dan should start playing an instrument. He went out and bought a Cajon – a percussion instrument with strings stretched across the front to make a snare sound, henceforth to be referred to as simply a ‘box’.

We’d busked as a four piece for maybe a week before we were due our first gig. Jonas and I had been booked to support Coco again, this time at La Trappiste café. We’d decided to play as a full band, and so, less than an hour before the gig, we found ourselves sat around Jonas’s kitchen table desperately trying to think up names. After running through an incredible amount of awful, awful names, we finally settled on The Four Roads. We like to tell people various stories about how we came to this (a personal favourite is that it’s the answer to Bob Dylan’s question, ‘how many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?’; Mister Dylan has not commented on what he thinks of this possible answer), but really it was because there were four of us, because we wanted to hit the road, and because it just sounded right.

 

The road to Canada:

Despite Dan’s protests (he was so nervous he wanted us to play as a three without him; in fairness, he’d had little to no experience ever playing a musical instrument prior to the past week), we played the gig and went down well. We were a band.

When I say ‘we wanted to hit the road’, that could not have been more true. Jonas and I had been talking about it for years – years, band or no band. We both wanted what only the road can give you – that real sort of freedom. Sitting here, five, coming up to six months after Canada, I can tell you I still want it. If you have that hunger, it’s hard to explain, but goddamn do you know it’s there. In our pipedreams and fantasies, the road always, always, headed West – to the United States and to Canada. I could rattle on for hours about why this might have been – why we were and are so fascinated. But I won’t. Because, really, I’m not entirely sure. The fact was, we were – we were fascinated with the road and that wide open country. That great North American continent.

Time went by and we did band stuff. Us brothers. In March, we decided to take our first great step towards the road and applied to the International Buskers’ Rendezvous in Kingston, Ontario. Unbelievably, we got in. From then on, we knew what we had to aim for – Hell or high water, we were going to Canada in the summer.

It wasn’t easy. We busked our asses off. Jonas worked two jobs in addition to being a full-time A-Level student and busking. We’d spend days in the local Christchurch University library, Googling ticket prices, planning itineraries and people to stay with. Despite all this last-minute planning, we really didn’t have a clue.

We hit our lowest point around the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. With the country caught up in celebration and all of it centred around London, we decided to head up to the South Bank to try and make our money. We booked a youth hostel, intending to stay up for the entire weekend. This wasn’t entirely naïve, as we’d busked very successfully on the South Bank once before, way back in April. This time, however, problems started as soon as we hit the Bank. We set up camp as usual, but were informed that the area, usually entirely unlicensed for buskers, would be closed to our kind for the Queen’s celebrations. Apparently buskers were not included in the vision of Great Britain that was to be presented to the world. We panicked. Sitting in McDonald’s, we decided to stick it out – to stay up in London for the weekend and to tough it out. First, we needed the money for the youth hostel. We kicked into high gear and went to work, employing a technique of ‘flash-busking’. As the area we covered as licensed, we knew we didn’t have a lot of time before being moved on. This in mind, we’d set up at a good spot, busk two or three songs, make our money, then pack up and move on. If anyone reading this ever finds themselves stuck in a city or an area unfriendly to buskers, I’d advise using this tactic – with a little luck on your side, the enforcers of the licensing laws will be none the wiser. You’ll make your money like you should be able to and the people will get to enjoy your show like they should be able to.

We did this for a long way down the river, going from the London Eye past the gallery, Charing Cross station, London Bridge, and Tower Bridge. Along the way, we met the kind souls of the Hampshire Royalists – a group of pensioners who had decided to camp out on the banks of the Thames just for the Jubilee. Absolutely mad, and absolutely lovely. After this, we’d made enough to get us to the youth hostel. We walked until we couldn’t walk any more, then jumped in a cab down to near enough where we need to be, then walked some more. We wandered the streets for close to an hour. The area was grim – ghetto, or thereabouts. Strangely, I feel like our instruments got us through there – like passports that identify you as not a tourist but a traveller and a musician on the road they got us through. We spent the night at the youth hostel in Deptford (meeting Saeed – a was crazy local who told us we had “unity” and “spirit” which was nice) and then hit the Bank to busk again the next morning. We made our way to one of tunnels we busked in the day before and the money started rolling in. At one point there was a crowd of 40 or maybe 50 people who spurred us on, cheering, dropping money and laughing. Things were looking up. But not for long. Throughout the day we encountered more and more trouble with the various river patrol guards. Everywhere we set up we were moved on and threatened. We decided to call it a day after encountering too much trouble with the licensers – we were told if we were found busking along that part of the river again our instruments would be confiscated. After saying goodbye to our grannies for the weekend, the Hampshire Royalists (they gave us jammie dodgers to send us on our way), we got on a train back to Canterbury.

We were absolutely crushed. We’d run home with our tails between our legs. We’d failed up in London and it looked like we wouldn’t even make it to Canada to fail there. We sat in Stef’s house drinking. We spoke a lot but barely said anything – just the same conversation repeated and repeated and repeated over and over. We weren’t going to Canada. We didn’t have a hope in Hell. But we weren’t going to give up either.

We spent one of the least pleasant nights of our life at a mutual friend’s house. The next day, we went to a church and sat in the church and listened to the sermon and prayed and hoped and did whatever we felt we should and whatever we felt we could, and even though none of us are particularly religious we prayed and bowed our heads and received a blessing and we prayed some more.  We decided that if we didn’t get to Canada, we’d have to lay low all summer. I can’t tell if we were joking.

A few weeks later, we mailed our ‘record label’ asking for help. They couldn’t deliver the money, but came up with the idea of setting up a donations site to raise some money. We made offers: a free download EP for those who donated £5. A free, signed CD for those who donated £10. For the £20 donors, we would record a cover of their choice. (Note: no-one has actually asked us to fulfil those offers yet – we’d be more than happy to make true on our promises if anyone would get in contact.) I’d joked that Jonas would do a ‘special favour’ to anyone that donated £500.

Our brilliant fans began donating, and, slowly but steadily, we got closer to our goal. We also, sold possessions, busked and worked and ourselves into the ground in these last few weeks before we were due to leave. Then, we woke up one morning and someone seemed to have donated £500. Jonas owed someone a special favour. We woke Stefan up and called Jonas and spent a while trying to figure out whether this had actually happened. It had. Aunt Cindy, a fantastic woman who helped us out more than a little more once we were in Canada, had given us £500. She gave us our trip to Canada. We really can’t thank her enough. That was the first time we were stumped by the hospitality and generosity of Canadians, and the first time we honestly couldn’t think of any possible way to pay someone back. It wouldn’t be the last. 

With the money from the donations and a little extra help from Dan’s mum Lucy, who had offered to pay us a little for some gardening, we booked the tickets. A week before we were due to arrive in Kingston for the buskers’ festival, we booked our tickets. We were going to Canada.

–        Alex Ryan

Chapter 1: Toronto

We played a gig at the cherry tree – a send off gig before we embarked on our journey. If you’re a fellow musician, I’m sure you know the drill: the venue informs you they want you on at 8 and to play for ‘x’ hours. As you can probably imagine, this wasn’t the time frame we ended up playing. We arrived there and ended up clearing out tables, chairs, setting up the PA and running round town trying to beg/borrow/steal working jack leads from other pubs – something we all had to do again in Canada. At long last, we began playing to a half-empty/half-full pub. We opened with Atlantic City as usual at the noise from our instruments spilled out into the dingy bar. In truth, that’s pretty much all I could remember about the gig, my mind was elsewhere, calculating the number of things I had to get done before the morning. It finished and people started seeping out into the dark alleyway off the high-street into that familiar haze of cigarette smoke, drizzle and English night air. All of a sudden Alex and I found ourselves alone with the landlord moving tables, chairs, wires and other bits and bobs into their rightful home.

Speaking of home, I was late. 5 months on I still feel guilty about this. In retrospect I should have known from previous experience that any pub gig never finishes on time. Alex and I slipped through my front door, stinking of fried chicken, smoke and free drinks nearly two hours after I told my parents that we’d be home. I kicked off my shoes and walked into my living room to find our bags half packed, exactly where we left them. We packed up the rest of our belongings into our backpacks. I liked to say we had our lives on our backs. Our guitars and backpacks were all we had. We crept out the back door, let Stef in who had been elsewhere, went for a crafty smoke and hit the hay.

Tensions were high the next morning. The three of us had somehow managed to wake my parents in the night and they weren’t best pleased. Being late home the previous night didn’t help either. I found myself engaged in an argument with my parents minutes before I was due to leave. “Fuck it” my dad said, “you’re on your own” as he tried unsuccessfully to set up an emergency money transfer to me. “If you’d been back on time last night we would have had this sorted!” I felt terrible. I felt stupid. As much as I tried to explain that it really wasn’t my fault and that the gig over ran, it was the venue… In reality, there was no denying it. I had fucked up. My wonderful mother chocked back tears as she told me that she had backed us a cake to share together the evening before. I looked into the kitchen and saw it there patiently waiting under a tea – towel on the kitchen table. When I saw this I struggled to hold back tears too. I know how much love my mum puts into gestures like that. For some reason that perfectly iced cake, uneaten there on the kitchen table still riddles me with guilt and remorse. It was only in that moment that I realised how much this would have meant to my mum and dad for me to have been back on time the night before, so we could have all sat and eaten together, as a family for the last time in two months. As it happened, that cake which was so lovingly prepared was never eaten and never enjoyed in the way it should have been. If you ever read this mum, I appreciate that gesture more than I could ever say and I am so, so deeply sorry. I am sorry too Dad. For what its worth, I’d rather have spent that evening with you than at that dingy, dark pub.

I couldn’t leave without making amends. We did the best we could to ignore the previous ten minutes. Mum walked with us to the car, and stood there leaning against the handrail by the green over grown bush on my drive. We loaded up the car and I walked back to her. I hugged her tightly, apologised again, told her I love her that I’d be careful and with that, we were off. We pulled out of the driveway, with my dad and I in the front and Stef and Alex sitting solemnly in the back.

My departure with my father was brief. The engine of the car didn’t even get turned off. The car stopped at the departures entrance at north terminal, we unloaded our things from the boot and onto our backs. I hugged him tightly, apologised again and then he was off. The three of us wondered over to the smoking shelter by the escalator and sat on our guitar cases, waiting for Dan to arrive and getting our “all important fixes” before a long flight.

We started Hitchhiking way before we landed in Canada, before we boarded the plane in fact. I wondered up and the down the aisles at our gate asking “Kingston Ontario? Anyone driving to Kingston tonight? Does anyone fancy giving four strapping young English chaps a ride east? We’re in a band, anyone?” No luck. Feeling ever so slightly fazed by the daunting prospect of having no means of getting to where we needed to be, I dug around in my bag until I found them. Two brown envelopes, one from my younger sister, and the other from my parents. I open the first one addressed to all four of us. On the front were two black and white pictures of the four of us with a maple leaf in the middle. Just underneath the maple leaf was written, “The Four Roads Canada 2012”. I opened the card and read it aloud to the boys.

 

To Jonas, Dan, Stef and Alex,

Good luck in Canada! Really proud of you & the four roads (chodes). It is so cool to see how much you have done. It’s weird to think that I was there when you chose the name. (I WAS MAKING YOU DINNER haha) & now you are going to Canada! I hope that you enjoy your gigs (& don’t get into too much trouble!) Here are four quarters for you each, but don’t spend them all at once! I hope that they come in useful haha. Anyway I will miss you lots. Have lots of fun  & I hope that you will get lots of opportunities from the trip J (Cringe)

Lots of Love,

Rosa xxx

 

I found the second envelope from my parents. 60 bucks fell into my lap to my surprise. I tore open the brown envelope and opened the card. To my surprise 3 crisp $20 bills fell into my lap to which I was greatly thankful. The money from that envelope came and went, but the words inside, most of which I will not share with you will stay with me forever. Reading my parents handwriting and positive messages seemed to melt away the tensions from our argument that morning and took away the feeling of leaving with unfinished and unsettled business. At the end of the letter in my mums handwriting was written one short and perfect verse.

 

“May the road rise up to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

 

 

Toronto Pearson was, as usual, heaving. People were everywhere fighting to be the first through immigration, to baggage reclaim and out. It had been about 11 hours since sitting outside Gatwick and we all desperately needed to get some “fresh air”. As soon as I saw the line at immigration I became impatient and stressed as we shuffled our way to the back of the line. It was like waiting in line at a theme park, the queue swelled as families, businessmen and women and other miscellaneous folks crammed in. It doubled back on itself like a never-ending maze that took you tantalizingly close to freedom before plunging you back until the booths were barely visible above the heads of our fellow travellers. The vast number of people was probably a blessing in disguise for us. Immigration being so tight these days, there was a chance we could have been given grief for coming into the country as travelling musicians without work visas etc.

“Let me do the talking” I hissed to the boys as we stepped up to the read line. “Can I see your passports and immigration forms please gentlemen?” we handed over out documents tentatively. “What’s the purpose of your visit?”

“we’re here for the summer” I explained, “staying with family and friends”

“where is that exactly?”

“some in Kingston, that’s where we’re headed today and we’re gonna see some family in Ottawa”.

“Any tobacco on you?”

“Yeah we bought some on the plane” Dan replied.

“And you’re here for just 48 days?”

“That’s right”

“Well, enjoy your time in Canada.” He said with a smile followed by four stamps in our passports.

We walked past him calmly until we were out of sight of the various customs officials before breaking out into some kind of mixture of a run and a celebratory dance. We ran to find out backpacks and guitars miraculously in one piece. The cheapest transatlantic airline going had not let us down!

There are two things that always surprise me at Toronto Pearson. The first is the awkward stage you are forced onto through the huge sliding doors at arrivals. Hundreds of blinking faces staring up at you or past you. I got the sudden urge to yell “Thank you Toronto you’ve been a wonderful audience” but decided against it. The other thing is the heat. You really do not expect it. The summer of 2012 in the UK had been pretty dire. The wettest year in 12 years to be exact. By that time we were all pretty used to rain, drizzle and mild temperatures. I ran for the door, to fresh air was greeted with a smack in the face by a wall of humidity and heat on the other side. “Jonas, slow down” yelled Alex, these words came my way a lot over the days that followed not to mention the days before.

Once we were all outside we did what the four roads do best: no, it wasn’t busk, although we are pretty good at that. We set up camp and light up a smoke. God, it was good. We still had no idea how were going to get to Kingston for 9 (if we made it in time we could play at the opening party to the buskerfest). I stubbed out my smoke on the boiling tarmac and darted back into the terminal. I knew exactly where I was going, turning right, I ran the 200 meters or so to Tim Hortons, weaving in and out of passengers dragging suitcases behind them.  While waiting in the line at Tim’s I started chatting to a guy on the same flight as us. He was short, Asian and in his early 30s. I was in an unbelievably good mood – he must of thought I was crazy as I explained our plans to him in great detail. “wait to you get to Montreal man,” he said with a grin “the girls in Montreal are the most beautiful in Canada”. I laughed and ordered 5 medium icecaps from the woman working behind the till. “You don’t have to do that man” he exclaimed”. I insisted and passed one over to him. “listen, anything you need when you’re in Toronto, just gimme a call. Lemme know if you have a show too”! he wrote his number down on a piece of napkin and I crammed it in my back pocket. “Thanks, thanks so much. I will”. That was the last time I saw him, I think he was called Harry, but I don’t remember. The annoying thing was, I had every intention to call him but somehow lost his number somewhere between Tim Hortons and the place I left the boys. 14 bucks down and ten minutes later I returned with a tray of cold icecaps. Their Tim Hortons virginity was taken from them and I saw their pupils widen like junkies as they sipped one of the many tastes of Canada. They were hooked.

We must have been sat outside the airport for about half an hour before we decided to make a move. As it turned out, no one on this side of the Atlantic was willing to give four boys a ride to Kingston either. None of us could believe that we were there, sitting on Canadian soil. I thought back to the night we came back from London with crushed dreams. We sat in Stef’s  living room almost in total silence with the wind and the rain howling outside. Every now and then between the inhales of smoke and gulps of beer one of us would suggest something, ideas which were brushed aside almost as soon as they were thought up. “We could steal a car?” Dan suggested. I smiled at him, “I’m not breaking the law” I replied just in case he was being serious. And yet, just over a month on, we were there. WITHOUT BREAKING ANY LAWS! (Just in case you were wondering, Mum). It had been touch and go until the very end, booking our tickets in a last minute ticket sale less than a week before we were due to leave. *Note to self: NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. LIKE EVER! We eventually hauled up our bags and made our way over to the line of airport cabs. We loaded our stuff into one – an expense we’d rather have avoided. We sped off and away from the airport hitting the Canadian road for the first time with the same hunger and ferocity as a battering ram.

Bob, our lovely new Lebanese taxi driver shot towards downtown, very graciously putting our EP into the CD player. He weaved his way through the 16-lane rush hour traffic of the 401 and took a short cut through the suburbs. The suburbs gradually merged into skyscraper as we raced down the Gardner Express Way past lake Ontario and up onto the elevated road that cuts it’s way through the Toronto skyline. The sun started to set as we pulled into the bay street bus terminal. We paid Bob, and thanked him and clumsily fell through the terminal doors. Tiredness was getting the better of us. We stumbled over to the megabus ticket booth, causing quite a hold up with all our gear. Not surprisingly, the tickets were $34 more expensive to buy in person than they were online an hour earlier. We all forked out our money and handed it over not to mention the extra 13 bucks to get our instruments put in the hold. “One bag in the hold only I’m afraid if you’ve got than one its an extra 13 dollars” said the guy behind the glass. “Let me guess, theses are too big to be taken on-board with us right”? Of course they were. By that time I didn’t really care. I just wanted to get to Kingston. Significantly closer to broke (broke in Stef’s case) we made our way over to the queue to board the bus. “You guys musicians?” asked an attendant loading the hold. “yeah” we replied. “Right on. I’ll put those on for free cos I like that kinda stuff” He said, pointing to our instruments… that we’d just paid an unnecessary 13 bucks for. Alas.

The megabus pulled out of the smoky terminal into the golden evening sunlight. In true Canterbury fashion we occupied the back of the coach on the top level. Shattered, I leant against the window staring out as we inched our way out of the sprawling metropolis that makes up the great city of Toronto. It slowly found its way to an intersection and we trundled down the on-ramp onto the 401. Excitement surged through my veins as we accelerated down the highway, rocketing into the dusk that lay ahead of us, leaving the orange, red and golden sunset to our backs. The road rose up to meet us as we sped off into the night. 

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