Reflections from five weeks on the road in Denmark, England, Scotland, and Ireland
Of course we're both answering my question as I'm asking it. From space, Denmark and England look pretty similar, little green places surrounded by water. But when you get up close to them, they're very different, and they're also changing all the time, particularly in terms of what the humans in those places are up to. And when what you're getting is a snapshot of life as it is now, and as it has changed within the space of 6 or 8 months since the last visit, I find there are always interesting observations to be made, despite the fact that I'm generally visiting the same small group of countries, but also because of that fact.
With this tour, I made the unusual move (for me) of writing a sort of travelogue about the tour before it happened. I wrote a post called Anatomy of a Concert Tour about five weeks ago, just before leaving for the tour, about why I ended up touring in these countries in the first place, and about some of the folks who were organizing different gigs in different places, and how I met them. So this could be part 2 in a two-part series on the subject of this spring 2023 tour of (parts of) northwestern Europe, the part about what really happened after the plans were laid.
First of all, for those intrigued by the title who may be wondering, I won't keep you in suspense: none of my gigs were canceled, and there were some that materialized in the time since I wrote the tour prequel post. But this was not due to lack of effort on the part of cancellation campaigners, evidently from a variety of political stripes, and beyond efforts at canceling my gigs, the tour took place in a general atmosphere that could sometimes be characterized by the behavior of the morally outraged cancellation campaigner, and the fear and confusion that tends to result from being targeted by such efforts, if you're a gig organizer or a fellow performer on the bill with, say, me. As Kamala and I traveled, we were continually encountering other artists, organizers, and of course former members of the British Labor Party, who were facing the same sorts of attacks.
One of the many interesting things about traveling to different countries is having the chance to contrast them with each other. Similarities are easy to find everywhere, but so are differences. One contrast between all of these five weeks in Europe compared to the much briefer tour on the west coast of the US we did together in February is in the US we encountered five different incidents of road rage directed at us, for no apparent reason, whereas in Europe this sort of thing never happened. There was traffic, there were occasionally aggressive drivers, especially in big cities like London, but no one yelling at us from behind their steering wheels, not once.
The tour began in Denmark. In the broader context of my reality and the world at large, fires were burning out of control across Canada and causing New York and Boston to have some of the world's worst air quality. The war was raging in Ukraine, my friend Medea Benjamin had just published a book about it, and was getting violently attacked at book talks by self-described anarchists in Minneapolis. And millions of French people were in the streets, protesting Macron's latest effort at raising the retirement age there. Everywhere we went, every day, at some point someone would mention the protests in France and smile wistfully, saying something about how they wished people would pour into the streets in such numbers in their country.
Coming from the extremely stressed streets of Portland, with the ranks of the unhoused living and dying on the sidewalks in every direction, and people driven mad by such circumstances visibly flipping out in one form or another every couple of blocks, landing in Denmark is a lot like passing through the Pearly Gates. Suddenly, everyone appears to be calm and relaxed, even happy, in a quiet sort of way. The lack of stress in the air is palpable, the feeling that you're in a safe place causes my shoulders to unhunch for the duration.
Usually you can even observe in Copenhagen and elsewhere in Denmark that this air of general contentment extends to the children and babies. In the airport this was immediately evident. Rather than the scenes you'll so often witness in the US, England, or Ireland, of stern parents scolding their children for daring to complain that they're tired of sitting in their stroller, in Denmark you're far more likely to see a parent or grandparent dancing with a happy toddler in the boarding area.
On this trip to Denmark I observed a number of cases of young children really freaking out, having what some would identify as a tantrum, or what more sympathetic people might identify as a child that is severely emotionally disregulated and in need of a lot of support and empathy. In places like Denmark, stress levels for small children don't often reach the tantrum stage, as they so often do in parts of the world where good parenting is less commonplace. But on this trip I observed a bunch of incidents that would have been less familiar in past times. I wondered how many of the kids were actually Ukrainian refugees and how many were Danish, but I never stopped to ask the parties involved, and in all but one case I couldn't tell where the little blond children or their blond parents were from.
Armed with the instrument, we headed towards Ungdomshuset. It was Kamala's first visit to the legendary Youth House, and the evening lived up to punk rock social center expectations, with lots young folks with piercings and tattoos smoking cigarettes and throwing ice cubes at each other with alarming force, possibly a new stage in the evolution of moshing in Scandinavia, I don't know. It was a fine crowd at Ungdomshuset, but some folks were missing, and having heard about the Ungdomshuset folks once again being contacted by my trolls, I wondered why. Likely just not a whole lot of publicity for the gig.
Folks came from as far away as southern Germany to the gig at Ungdomshuset, including one of the members of a great band from a small town near Munich. It's somehow not unusual for folks to travel long distances to catch a gig, but always very touching when it happens, even if it might have just been a decent excuse for a road trip.
We traveled across the country to play in the section of Aarhus that is home to the wooden boat community, a wonderful bunch of folks, some of whom look exactly like you'd imagine the captain of a ship to look. In Aarhus and at the remaining shows in Copenhagen and Roskilde, crowds packed in and sang along boisterously. Especially in Aarhus, where a significant percentage of the audience were a group of fine upstanding punks who got there just before showtime, several of whom were very drunk upon arrival, and intent on drinking more.
The reason why I extended what was originally going to be a month-long tour of Britain and Ireland and included another visit to Denmark in the plan was that I had been invited to play at the Ild i Gilden festival in Roskilde, which is billed in English as an acoustic music festival. That's all we really knew about the festival before we got there. Upon arrival, what we found was a festival very oriented towards traditional Scandinavian folk music, with more highly skilled fiddle players in one place than I had seen in a long time.
Soon after we got there I also discovered that I knew some of the folks who lived on the festival grounds, and that the festival grounds are right next to the land that the far, far larger Roskilde Festival takes place on every year.
The land and the music was all fabulous, but I wondered how our very contemporary set of politically-oriented music was going to go over among this crowd of folks who clearly were into very traditional forms of folk music. I needn't have worried. We had a good crowd at our little stage, which included a bunch of people who already knew my music and in some cases had organized shows for me in the past, but didn't know I was going to be at the festival until they got there and saw my name in the program. (The gig at Ild i Gilden was filmed by three cameras very professionally, but the folks who did that have been busy filming acts at the Roskilde festival since then, so we haven't seen any of their footage yet.)
After the festival we had one more gig in Copenhagen, in front of the anarchist book store that is for now still located on Halmtorvet, in a busy, central section of the city, next to Copenhagen's St Pauli bar. A small but quality crowd of radicals of all ages were there for this outdoor gig, on an evening cold enough that my Australian singing partner had to wrap herself in every layer of clothing that she brought with her (which did not include a winter jacket, which she would have been wearing if she had brought one). The folks at the book store had also been contacted by my trolls (the ones who identify as anarchists), as has become the tradition every time I play there in recent years.
Going from Copenhagen to London is a real exercise in contrast. As we flew from one city to the other, picked up our very expensive rental car at Heathrow, and started the very slow drive into the city, to our lodging in Kentish Town, the difference was stark and immediate. Copenhagen smells good, while London smells like toxic things that are burning. In Copenhagen traffic moves smoothly and everything is orderly. In London, the drivers are mostly very aggressive, and if they're not they get beeped at mercilessly by the drivers behind them. For their part, the pedestrians are mostly suicidal, leaping into traffic with their children at any given opportunity.
During those first couple days in London I took a walk with my friend Jane, who knows all the cool walks in London. If you know the town like she does, it's full of green spaces and narrow streets with very little traffic. If you don't know the city like she does, it's very easy to end up mostly walking on big, stinky streets. This time Jane took me to the Highgate Cemetery, where, among other people, Karl Marx is buried. It's easily one of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen.
Standing near Marx's grave we saw a new little group of people from a different part of the world respectfully approaching it to pay a visit to Karl, before moving on. Jane was the only one while we were there who brought flowers, one for Karl, and the rest for a friend nearby, which she placed on the grave in traditional Persian fashion. She also cleared old, dead flowers from Marx's gravesite, and generally neatened it up, nicely displaying the flowers that still had life in them, as well as the flyer for the Marxism Festival that someone had placed there, which had not yet been rained on and was still in good shape. Jane is a committed anarchist, and I found the idea that Marx's grave is kept looking nice by, among others, an anarchist volunteer, touching.
Our first gig in London was at the Islington Folk Club, where I've been playing most years for around two decades. It was in a precarious state for some time, but now it seems to have found a new, stable venue, a very nice room in a big chain pub which seems to be happy to have them there every Thursday evening. Ours was the first show at the new location that sold out, with a capacity crowd of 75. It's always one of the easiest shows to sell out, because at least half the crowd consists of club members who play music before each of the sets of the featured act, in traditional British folk club style.
We were then off to the south coast, to Eastbourne, where the annual Engels in Eastbourne conference was happening. We were intent on catching some of the lectures, at least the keynote. We left London sometime in the morning. I thought if we made good time we'd be there by early afternoon. This was not to be, however. We basically had all the usual factors working against us. It was a Friday, and people are often fleeing the city in every direction on a Friday. The train drivers were on strike that day, as they often have been throughout our time in England, so anyone who was getting out of the city was likely doing it in a private car, like we were. We got to Eastbourne just in time to get some dinner before we had to go set up for the gig.
This would turn out to be one of a couple of events where organizers had a conference throughout the day with a concert scheduled in to begin very soon after the last conference talk, but with no room squeezed in there for people to have dinner in between. What tends to happen, I've found, after a long day's conferencing, is people don't feel like going to a concert in the evening, they're too tired, even if there's time for dinner in between the end of the conference and the beginning of the concert. But if there's no dinner plan worked in, most people will go have dinner and skip the concert. The few conference-goers who attended our concert, including the keynote speaker who had just finished her speech that we missed, were a high-quality bunch, to be sure.
One of them was my friend Leah, who we were staying with, who was one of the many Jewish supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to be purged from the ranks of the British Labor Party, in the course of the efforts by groups with misleading names like "Labor Against Antisemitism," intent on ridding the the Labor Party of anyone opposed to Israeli apartheid, and reclaiming the Labor Party from the Corbynistas, putting it back into the hands of the Blairite apologists for empire and apartheid.
After spending a couple hours exploring the lanes of Brighton we were at Coombes Farm, participating in Attila the Stockbroker's Glastonwick festival. True to form for a festival, it was dusty on the farm, and because more cars than usual were coming in and out of the place, and it was windy, the dust was blowing all over the place.
We got there just in time to hear Attila's set with his band, Barnstormer, doing songs from their 1649 album. Brilliant medieval punk rock, especially if you listen to the album, where you can hear the words. We also caught the young Isaac Hughes-Dennis do a brilliant set. He's only twenty now, and was somewhere in his teens when we met. He's already written some of the classics of our times, such as "Cough On A Tory." A rare songwriter of political material who can keep an audience laughing throughout his set. A radical who is funny enough to keep the liberals entertained, even while they're wincing. He grew up in the beautiful town of Hebden Bridge, which I've always loved, but didn't realize how much of it was squatted by travelers of all sorts, until talking with Isaac.
On a free night in London we went with Jane to catch a set of the brilliant Archie Shuttler, formerly of the Commie Faggots, who is featuring a new body of work with a new band, which includes another friend and long-time colleague of Jane's in organizing all kinds of good things in the area, including musical events. Jane took me on a walk along the Thames nearby, where I learned about the family background of the folks who used to run the sugar processing plant that is now the Tate Museum.
I saw many old friends and many new faces in Birmingham next, where we did a show that was a fundraiser for Palestine Action. Many of the folks there were also some of the finest sledgehammer-wielding actionists, as they call themselves, you'll find anywhere. The big news at that time was after three years of acquittals or hung juries, the crown had won a couple of cases, and a couple of folks were doing prison time.