The band is scheduled to play O’Donghues in Shepherd’s Bush – a regular Saturday night haunt for Neck and guaranteed a good crowd. When we played there for the quarter finals of the 2002 football World Cup (Ireland against Spain) I had never before experienced anything like that atmosphere. The band had just released a version of Irish rebel classic “The Fields of Athenry” as a single, and Leeson had penned a stunningly beautiful, powerful ballad as a B-side, based on the Irish Blessing “May the Road Rise with You”. We played and played these two epic songs, with the pub packed to double the legal capacity with partying Irish, and the band’s electricity coming from an adjacent building to avoid the cut-off from the decibel meter when we played far too loud (i.e. all day!). Ireland lost against Spain, so the crowd partied harder and harder into the night.

On the day before our first scheduled gig at O’Donghues in a while (the last one was cancelled right after we set up on stage because Queen’s Park Rangers just beat Cardiff in a football match at home so the Police closed and surrounded the most of the borough), we get a phone call from Austria, asking us to headline a festival in Graz, European City of Culture instead. So the pub gig is cancelled (with the promoter too pissed off ever to hire us again) and the band heads to Heathrow the following morning. In very typical Neck style, we arrive at check-in with four guitars, half a drum kit, bagpipes, violins and a half-cut trad section all ready to board the flight at the back of a long queue, five minutes before check-in closes. Leeson (in inimitable fashion) blags us and all our gear on to the plane.

Arriving at our hotel in Graz (this feels like the Big Time – they’re giving us a HOTEL! Only in mainland Europe are musicians treated with such humanity), Leeson reminds me of the “whoever pulls first gets the room” rule, and emphasises how I once epically transgressed on tour in Waterford by trying to sleep in our shared room while he was entertaining a lady guest. I take the floor instead of half of the double bed – this will save me both from having to top-and-tail with Leesons and from any sense of disappointment should I end up on the floor somewhere anyway due to Our Leader merrily getting his end away ‘for the good of the band’.

The gig is on a big outdoor stage, with a backdrop of a photographed cow so big that when seated at the drums I hide only part of its nose. The gig is pretty great despite the dominating bovine presence. The crowd goes wild, and then so does Shuggy the bassist. In the midst of a stage invasion that results in the shattering of Marion’s fiddle (fortunately it is way cheaper than I imagined, and she carries a spare, in case, presumably of over-excited Tyrolean revelers), I leave the stage to change my shirt and to seek in vain for any remaining beer from our rider. Meanwhile Shuggy disperses my drumsticks to the crowd. A generous and drunken gesture, this leaves me with no sticks. To his credit, a lagered and confused Shuggy then staggers helpfully into the crowd and recovers four of the sticks that he has tossed to baying fans. My continuing lack of fame means that a) no one really gives a shit about my sticks anyway, and b) since I can see no way of buying replacements ahead of our gig the following afternoon in Crawley, we’ll still be able to meet our contractual obligation to perform.

 

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Neck head back from Graz as quickly as we can. We are somewhat hampered by the alcoholism of our pipes player, Stephen, who insisted on sitting on a park bench near the concert venue for most of the night drinking cans of lager and aggressively serenading anyone in the vicinity with his repertoire of 1000s of Irish and Scottish folk tunes. Following traditional Neck form, we make it on to our morning flight by the skin of our teeth. From London Heathrow we drive around the M25 and south to Crawley, where we are playing another festival that afternoon. Arriving in surprisingly good time, we are able to (in Stephen’s case) drink ourselves into cantankerous near-oblivion and (in my case) wander the market stalls, buy a sterling silver ring to replace one I’d lost on tour, grab a half-decent burger, and enjoy a couple of other bands before we play. The festival has a nice, relaxed vibe to it – families enjoying a day out – and solid acoustic, folk and roots music. The event is stage-managed well, too, which makes the band’s day smoother than some. Before long this gig will exemplify precisely how playing with Neck is so irresistible and infuriating – why, like an abusive lover, I need to leave the band immediately yet thrill every time at the feeling of playing in it.

Our set begins well, with the classic opener “Loud and Proud and Bold” – it’s a short, sweet punch-in-the-face, giving me a chance to showcase the full range of my dynamic playing in under three minutes. We’re well-polished this summer, so I’m used to the effortless fun of punk-trad Irish music that we romp through night after party night. However, on this gig everything falls peculiarly well into place, and I experience a moment of exceptional alignment during our fastest song, “Always Upsetting Somebody”. The song requires that I play the ‘train rhythm’, made famous by rockabilly drummers, for two-and-a-half minutes at the maximum possible speed. Often in this song I grow tired, feeling the lactic acid build up too soon in my forearms and shoulders, but today I play it faster and smoother and with less effort than ever before. I soar. It’s an incredible feeling! I see myself playing from about three feet above the drums. The song finishes and I cannot account for my singularly sublime performance. Apparently everyone else is happy too. Then all of a sudden there’s a problem with an amp, and we have to stall the set. Leeson’s reaction might on another day have been discombobulated, but today he responds by singing a capella while the band waits off-stage. The song is breathtaking, and in the wings none of us moves, spellbound by a moment of stillness and total beauty. When I tell Leeson afterwards that I thought his song was incredible, he tells me he wrote for his two sons, and that he sings it to them over their graves every year. I choke back tears.

As dusk draws in, the van is eventually loaded and the band ready to head home. As we’re walking to the van for the last time, annoyed that Leeson didn’t help us pack it (again) and wondering where the hell he is, he appears from a path somewhere, girl in tow, scuttles in to the van with her, locks it from inside and pulls the curtains. Stunned, the rest of the band waits for a moment, sitting at a discrete distance while the van begins to tock gently from side to side, accompanied by small cries of pleasure from Leeson’s shag. I cannot believe this is happening. The festival lights and stalls close around us and the evening grows dark. We get colder, soberer, and more and more pissed off. Ninety minutes pass, and they’re still in there. I am livid, tired, hungry, and in need of my jacket. The five of us voyeurs feel royally shat on. After two hours the girl leaves the van and Leeson cheerily says we can all get in. I am too slow to call shotgun, and the back seats are warm from the fornications. Fucking great. Leeson gets to drive us home, laid and smug. Fuck this. Two fucking hours!! How the fuck does he get away with it?! I say nothing.

 

 

 

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