Neck’s third appearance at StrummerCamp – my second there with the band – is an event that, predictably, will provoke in me a mixture of emotions and a range of physical sensations. I love playing with Neck. Our performances almost always send shivers down my spine and make me feel very glad indeed to be alive. But every single other part of being with Neck feels like a screenplay scripted by the writers of This is Spinal Tap. This gig is no different. We arrive at the festival site in good time for our set. Although twice I hear mention of “the radio set” and vaguely recall having discussed this in rehearsals or on the way up in the van, I choose not to think about what the implications of this might be, and focus instead on keeping dry.

The festival site looks exactly as it did when we played here four years previously at the inaugural StrummerCamp – it is just Manchester rugby club, with nothing visibly advertising the festival or any of the bands playing at it. A familiar feeling. We are directed quite meticulously by damp security staff holding half-drunk beers to an awkward and unlikely-looking parking spot by the backstage loading area of a large marquee. We squeeze the van in, and are asked to move it almost immediately, which we do. We wait a few minutes, some of us leave the van, and Leeson (designated driver for most journeys to gigs) parks up again in the same spot. He then disappears, looking, I think, for food or beer or a stage manager. James (fiddle) sits in the back hunched over a pasta meal he prepared earlier. Brendan (bass) goes looking for friends in other bands. Hugh (banjo) searches for pre-sell-by-date Cokes or beers in the band’s emergency in-van DIY rider, and Sara (tin whistle) takes care of some day-job emails on her phone.

Despite it being June, it’s cold and wet – my hands’ least favourite weather conditions for drumming! I know I’ll need to spend some time warming up, or else will struggle and possibly fail to play a 40-minute set of break-neck Irish psycho-ceilidh Neck songs without getting cramp. The only available facilities for warming up are also chilly – some space by a table back-stage in the marquee, with wind gusting through the permanently-open wall while bands are loading and unloading gear. I try to warm up for a few minutes with a practice pad and some rudiments, and can feel that although I’m getting looser this is pretty much going nowhere – my fingers are freezing and stiff. I pop to the enticing clubhouse across the field (drumsticks and practice pad suspiciously concealed beneath waterproof coat – I can’t believe most of the band forgot to bring one), only to find it crawling (almost literally) with heavily drunk middle-aged punks propping up the bar and one another, and trying to play pool. Not a chance of finding a quiet corner.

I get back to the van, and the radio thing, it turns out, is real – we have apparently agreed to play a live acoustic set for a local radio station. In the van. All six of us. Or five, since Brendan can’t be found, but anyway there’s little point to him playing unamplified electric bass inaudibly in a freezing van for half an hour on live radio when he can, instead, be sourcing narcotics. We climb in, with me nearest the door (awesome). The radio presenter/recorder/producer stands outside, pointing a video (!) recorder in our general direction. Since we are parked directly adjacent to the backstage area, we can hear with loud and crystal clarity the strains of the band playing the set before us. I feel my warm-up slipping away, but then my right hand, responds well to my attempts to flay the bodhràn and loosens up. We kick out some surprisingly emotional and soulful renditions of classic Neck material. I also sing, which surprises me; but once I’ve done falsetto harmonies on the first chorus of “May the Road Rise with You” there’s really no turning back. My left hand I can feel seizing up, but it has an easier job than my right hand for the main gig. Hm.

No sooner have we finished the acoustic session than we rush to get our gear set up on stage, do a line-check, and begin the main set in front of a nearly-full house. It goes okay. The crowd loves us! I drop a total of five sticks, despite making a point of keeping as hydrated as the two small bottles of water provided will allow. My cold-hands’ nemesis is uber-fast penultimate (pre-encore) song “Everybody’s Welcome to the Hooley”, which features an interminable and merciless (but great fun!) 6/8 rhythm on the floor tom (already suspiciously under-miked and probably acoustic to the audience – it is in no one’s monitors despite being central to our sound). I make the jump to light speed for the jig at the end, and we power through unscathed to crowd-pleaser “McAlpine’s Fusiliers” and an epic ROCK finish. Lesson afterwards says we played a great gig. I don’t see it, but hey, why argue? I often don’t connect with an audience like I want to on bigger stages. I also have the feeling that I played “Sally Gardens” the fastest I’ve played it in a few years – that feels nice (the idea is to play that reel as fast as humanly possible, and then speed up).

Possibly the worst thing about StrummerCamp – when taking into account the wet, the cold, the inevitable 4 AM arrival back in London, and the fact that I have to assume we won’t be getting paid because last time we played here the promoter had given us as remuneration precisely four marijuana joints (between six of us) – is the food. It is absolutely dreadful. I always lower my culinary sights a little when heading north of London; perhaps this is wrong of me, but then it is also learned. StrummerCamp is an exceptional case, though. On offer, not unreasonably for a music festival held on a budget at a rugby ground, are “burgers” and “cheeseburgers”. What these turn out to be, however, is utterly crap. The “burgers” consist of two slices of soggy, cheap, thin white bread caked in warm margarine (why?!!) and a mostly-fat, wafer-thin “meat” patty indelicately squashed between them. One can, should one wish to pour salt onto the wound, add either red or brown sauce – at no extra cost. I go hungry. Which, in part, leads to an encounter with a very nice young man in a petrol station in Cheadle Hulme (after our noble leader has first had me drive us to within feet of the exit, has disappeared for over an hour on what we are later to learn was an abortive mission to source and negotiate food tokens that we then discover to our mutual disbelief would, anyway, only have been valid at the Festival’s god-awful burger outlets, and that even these are now closed).

We need diesel, and I need to eat, so we stop at the first place that’s open. It is a Tesco filling station and, while open, is also closed, inasmuch as one has to shout at a window and shove things awkwardly under the pane of glass into a drawer to a frightened child cowering the other side of it in order to effect a transaction. I try my luck, and ask the adolescent if I can please come in and look at the sandwiches. Oddly, he smiles, agrees, walks to the door and lets me in. I am surprised, but try not to show it. The sandwich selection is certainly far from appealing, but one or two of them look palatable (I’ll be eating in the dark anyway), and some are even on wholemeal bread. Unable to see a machine, but tired and anticipating weary hours of unlit motorway, I asked if there’s any coffee, and the young man cheerily steps out from behind the counter, crosses the shop floor, proudly holds up a jar of Nescafé Gold Blend instant coffee granules, and asks if this is okay? He is too nice to be being sarcastic, so I assume he is mildly insane. I smile – what else can one do?! – and explain (in a voice that I feel is empathic, but which probably comes out as massively condescending) that actually I am actually sort of looking for some coffee to drink now, as my home in London is a good ol’ drive yet, and I could really use the caffeine. I can’t help wondering how it is that a guy working in a filling station at midnight on a main road can so completely have misunderstood my request for liquid refreshment. He then asks if I’d like him to make me a brew. The other band members are all either asleep, high, or (in Leeson’s case) refuelling the van, so I agree. He pops to an adjacent room, switches on the kettle, and comes back to the shop. I am becoming all the time more confused and delighted by the naïveté of this young man, and I ask if there are any tissues. Apparently not realising that I wish perhaps to purchase some, he pops next door and returns with a handful of tissues from the kitchenette, on which I promptly blow my noise by way of articulating my gratitude. The kettle boils and he makes me cup a coffee in a nice big mug.

It has apparently taken all this time, we soon learn, for Leeson to realise that the pump with which he has (not) been refuelling the van has been off. This works out very well, affording me just enough time to down the hot coffee, return the mug, and pay the chap for the ham sandwich and the small bag of Diamond Jubilee Special Edition M&Ms; the rest, apparently, is all part of the service. This surreal episode remains with me all the way down the M6 and the M1, as I try to guess what might have been happening in the teenager’s head. I end up deciding that he’s just a very nice guy indeed – I really hope he has a girlfriend and that she’s nice to him. Sarcastic, cynical, petrified, snobby and insecure workaholics like me are a dime a dozen. This guy is a national treasure. You should visit Cheadle Hulme.





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