The Golden Hour
The Golden Hour is an event that takes place monthly at the Forest Café, combining literature readings, bad jokes, music, funny jokes, dancing and visual rubbish in a cabaret setting. Readers have ranged from relatively unknown, untested writers to those with international followings, and musicians have gone on to claim critical and commercial success.
In winter 2010, a number of Golden Hour performers embarked on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with the help of the Scottish Arts Council and several other charitable bodies. Four readers, four musicians, one van - this is one reader's account of the experience.
It's gigs like these that are almost too good - tonight's a relaxed affair, with the musicians and writers of the Golden Hour tour performing to curious minds from around the Inverness area. Poet Ryan Van Winkle emcees glass-in-hand, but there's never any call - as there often is - to shush the crowd, match wits with heckles or wait out the sound of espresso steam. Like he often encounters at the Forest Café.
Like yesterday, where we were halfway through the proper Golden Hour night - held on the penultimate Wednesday of each month (sometimes, I think Van Winkle started that tradition purely for the excuse to use the word 'penultimate'). These usually end up raucous affairs, especially for something considered a 'literary event': Wine is spilt, chairs and tabletops become dancefloors for the right sounds, and the following morning causes shift supervisors and colleagues to raise eyebrows.
That night, Hailey Beavis and I sat assembling CDs for the tour upstairs, away from the throng, as Jane Flett manned the merch table and Ericka Duffy split time between the two. But all this work called for a little evening’s respite, and when the doors closed on the café, we moved on to other watering holes till closing and beyond, rolling the dice on our early, 8am start.
So maybe it's the gods who saw and pitied us, blessing us our first day despite our foolishness. Or maybe we just got lucky. Either way, our woozy van ride through the twists and turns north that birth the Scottish Highlands lead us to Drumnadrochit, where we've been booked for maybe our strangest gig of the 50-plus we've orchestrated - a showcase of music, fiction and poetry to a group of newly christened teenagers in a school auditorium. It's the first time we've tried to appeal to such a youthful audience, and only the second time we've started in afternoon.
However, despite the pre-show stress of eschewing the drinking references, cursing or glorification of nebulous degeneracy, the crew plays to its strengths, making it through unscathed. We all do remember how tough that was in high school the first time around, don't we?
Jed Milroy - whose bouncy bluegrass often gets boots scootin' at sessions at the Dalriada in Portobello - along with Hailey, seem to connect well with the 100 or so faces of the crowd, establishing somewhat of a rapport with the youths. Van Winkle also set up the show with a thumbs up/down style of judgement, where the kids would decide what would fly for the remainder of the dates. And, maybe to the delight of mostly ourselves, we sponsored our own little brand of teenage rebellion when the bell rang, but the crowd stuck around into their next classes to catch a few songs from firebrand Billy. The show concluded then, and left us with only a few hours to truck on up to Moniack Mohr, the site of a writer's colony sponsored by the Arvon Foundation.
They have supported us before - after a somewhat disastrous gig in Inverness just one year ago - and offer clean beds and other implements to facilitate creative endeavours. And this time, we'd be performing right on their grounds, making the stumble from stage to bed all the more easier.
As I've mentioned previously - and perhaps given the setting and nature of the venue - it was the most attentive audience I think I have ever seen. Well, if you're trekking to a rustic and remote mansion in Inverness-shire, you're probably going to be a bit more dedicated than window-shoppings of larger urban sprawls. So we go a little heavier on the writing end, with extended oratories from Van Winkle, Ericka Duffy and Jane Flett, who recently netted a new writers grant from the Scottish Book Trust. Also featured are poet John Glenday, who becomes a greatly gabbed-about post-gig, and Moniack resident Chiew-Siah Tei, who presents a slice of a fictive interpretation of Chinese history.
There's plenty drank and discussed, but the crowd thins comparatively early (our DJs and late-night rabble-rousing wouldn't quite fit the scene), and despite another 3am bed-down time, we only eclipse our planned 7am departure by five minutes. Not bad considering.
So it's with a sense of calm this was written - granted the view from the Ullapool-Stornoway ferry doesn't grant much else but - and we can only hope our successes continue as the troupe makes tracks forward.
There's a number of things to take away as Stornoway fades and Ullapool rises on the horizon. Its relative remoteness makes it an interesting place right off the bat, and this fact seems to lend a certain quality of reservedness to its people.
This attentiveness and respect comes in handy when you hold a quiet event, such as a literary reading - with a singular voice attempting to cut through a crowd, the less commotion, the better. However, The Golden Hour, and its tour, is not exactly your average reading. The idea is to scrap, in some ways, the idea of needing to hold one's breath whilst attending. Respect who's on the stage, of course, but usually readers can overcome any chatter, and bands and songwriters will win the battle of volume every time.
So, the crowd gathered in Stornoway at a café in their library were very reverent. Almost disarmingly so. But after the performances, many offered their praise, congratulations and, in some cases, hugs.
Following our performance in the early evening, a concert was taking place at the (at lantair) art centre, in a series celebrating its 25th anniversary. The band playing was Southern Tenant Folk Union and we had a special connection with the group, as our very own Jed Milroy performs with them. The show was great, but the crowd was relatively quiet, especially given it was a concert, and there were a few hundred people there – a large portion of the town, one would think. It was quiet, at least, until a group of odd-looking strangers "up from Scotland" sitting stage left started stomping to the beat and singing along. The enthusiasm spread easily.
After this, the crowd spilled out, albeit considerably thinned, into the art centre bar. And we stayed out late, late enough to close it out. It was round about closing when the eternally lovely and beaming Jed, was approached by a manager after raising his voice at the bar. I watched, and the manager just said 'people don't talk like that around here' in response to a few cursing descriptors. I couldn't hold back laughter, because, well, I swear a lot, and Jed doesn’t really. The bar manager turned out to be incredibly lovely and hospitable, as he cut the drinking-up time close by serving me one last pint, and gave us the royal treatment the next day for lunch.
And just a little more about the gig as well: I think one of the best moments from the tour happened in Stornoway, as, after finding a prop chicken in the library, Toby Mottershead of Black Diamond Express brought it up on stage. With the previously discussed intention of making reference to 'getting the cock out', he proceeded to ask the Stornoway crowd - remember, the quiet, respectful ones? - what it was, perhaps with the thought if they said it first, the joke would fly. When asked, two of three members responded immediately. "A Stornoway chicken."
Toby went on to make cock jokes anyway.
Ideally, I would have someone else write the entry for Ullapool but unfortunately I never got around to asking Dave if that was OK. Why? Let's just say that taking the Wild Turkey 101 I bought at duty free on a recent trip along on tour wasn't exactly the smartest move. Along with a head that feels like someone poured battery acid in it, the inability to consume anything but cigarettes and water, and stories of how much a jackass I was (ripped off shirt, fell out of a bunk bed, etc), there are some stretches of the night which remain a bit hazy.
But I'll tell you what I know:
Upon arrival, we were set up in a hostel of sorts by the venue, The Ceilidh Place (hence the bunk beds). Billy Liar quickly enlisted the help of Toby Mottershead on jamming out a song by the Tennessee country-punk band Lucero. As soon as I caught wind of this, I said I wanted in, as the song was one of my favourites, Last Night in Town.
We practised it for an hour or so, getting into some of that Turkey by and by. Then, along with getting some food and beers, we ended up being a little bit late for the show, with Scottish Book Trust new writer award winner Jane Flett and writer, photographer and official Golden Hour documentarian Ericka Duffy setting up the merchandise.
Both these talented women received praise later on, I found, as one of the attendees credited the entourage's presence of 'strong women performers', including also the angel-voiced Hailey Beavis, whose song writing continues to mature and progress every time I catch her set.
The crowd for Ullapool was the smallest of our dates, but we didn't find it discouraging. While playing a rock song, with Toby playing out some plugged-in riffage, might not have been wholly appropriate - screw it. It was fun (for me) and hopefully the boys and the spectators too.
Another high point in the night was the readings of guest Jon Miller. The man's poetry was immediate in its impact and, speaking to him later, he's a true gent as well. He was the only non-touring person at Ullapool to accept our invitation to stay after the gig, and gave us a few more poems before calling it a night.
This experience with Jon - especially the format of some mates sitting around and each playing a song or reading a poem - inspired something new the next morning, as I laid in the corner, feeling close to death: We took a little gamble and each read or played some bits that we normally wouldn't share with people or otherwise weren't sure of. It was a bit of a trust-builder, and I think we were all a little better for it, and we rode that wave out to our next destination, Findhorn.
Findhorn is like some fantasy fairy tale land for hippies and hideaways, full of pleasant people and beautiful views. It is no wonder, then, that it provided one of the best gigs of the tour.
We came into town or, rather, the 'eco-village' we would be performing in the cafe for, in the late afternoon. The venue was not yet open, so we headed out to the huddled little village of Findhorn proper.
The town lies on a peninsula in Morayshire, and affords some of the most fantastic views I've seen in my four years of living in Scotland. There was a steady wind, but with the sun setting over the half-drained bay, I could easily imagine standing there for hours, just watching.
But of course there was a show to do, and after a delicious meal of smoked salmon, broccoli soup, mussel chowder, etc, we were ready to do it.
This time, the Blue Angel Cafe was open for business, and we all got to work. It's interesting how things work on a tour where everyone performs; everyone has an equal footing. Somedays you'll set up a merch table, sometimes you'll help with the sound arrangements. Or lights. Or sit at the door. In this case, I helped carry firewood to a pit, so the night could end in a fireside chat and music session.
And this eco-village is unlike anything I'd encountered in my life. Still not sure of its exact requirements for inclusion, all I know is that it felt, generally, quite inclusive. Many families brought several children out, which was nice, but once again brought out the self-censors on us. Jane Flett once again felt denied her chance to read a story about sex with an octopus from Bedtime Stories, and Billy Liar missed out the f word in his new song "Money", where he recounts a time forty quid meant 'fuck all' to him. Perhaps we are nice, nice boys (and girls) after all.
Findhorn was also a special night on tour for another reason, as it provided an opportunity for Hailey Beavis and Jed Milroy to perform with their completed triumvirate of a band with the arrival of upright bassist Jen. Capstoning a by and large well received performance by all comers, the trio launched into a set of folk and bluegrass, turning the dense atmosphere of the cafe into a dense, warm and dancing one. All was well and good, until the final half, when twenty or thirty more people joined the folk gathered inside, or huddled around the outside doors and glass, properly ramming the place.
The band ended the gig with a participatory jam for the attendees, with each taking one of three sections of a round; then a rendition of Lyle Lovett’s If I Had A Pony, featuring all members of our entourage on backing vocals (thanks, guys).
The night ended around that fire, as was expected, with Jed, Toby and Jen playing to a still retained crowd of thirty or forty people, and as many bottles and cans of beer, wine and whiskey. That being said, it was a very chill affair, and a perfect close to a great night of the tour.
The morning of our drive to the Granite City, I couldn’t sleep. Restless and fitful, I woke up and wrote. Recapturing the essence of this experience I found quite difficult, and I hope to have conveyed it effectively, though I would have no gauge to measure it. Either way, it was a bittersweet experience, realizing this night would represent our final performance of the journey, and that soon I would be referring to it, as well, in hindsight, where triumphs and tragedies would both be glaringly apparent. I left writing for a while, and instead talked to our host, Jamie, over a cup of coffee, as the rest of the crew woke in time.
The Aberdeen gig would, again, differentiate itself greatly from our other stops. We had performed at the Blue Lamp the previous year, also as a final show, so it felt familiar, even though we’d only been there once before. During the afternoon, our merry band splintered across the city, each pairing striking out on its own.
Jed and Ryan, always our keepers – the ones who put in 1000 per cent to make sure things come off without a hitch – stayed at the venue to set up sound and speak with staff. Toby and Hailey worked on each others’ songs, hoping for an eventual collaboration. Ericka and Jane disappeared for lunch at a high street pub, and Billy and I went shopping for sunglasses, though the grey overcast made them unnecessary.
We arrived at the venue, slightly late, greeted by a crowd already assembled, already attentive, waiting for what we had to offer.
A recurring theme throughout the night was the sense of liberty we felt regarding the content of our readings and performances, which I feel was shared at least between myself and Jane. After scoring out large passages of my texts for each preceding gig, as well as each and every curse word, I read, at long last, an unedited excerpt from by chapbook, “Old & New.” Miss Flett finally had an opportunity to delve into seedier territory as well, reading a powerful piece about a woman trapped in a bizarre, and seemingly inescapable sexual relationship.
Also benefiting from the change in format was Billy Liar, who made full use of the amped up sound system. Blazing through his set, I was impressed by his rendition of “It Starts Here”, a song I must have heard over a hundred times before. However, whether it was the tuned-up volume or the emotions over ending our short sojourn, there seemed to be an additional vigour there, though when I complimented him on it he responded in the vein of “What are you talking about?”
This provided, as well, the first collaboration between Toby – who also guested with Billy and Hailey – and Ryan, where he laid down some smoky, Southwestern rock-style whittling under a poem about finding a murder victim in the depths of a river.
As an emcee and solo reader, Ryan excelled in Aberdeen, as he must have had an extra boost of energy – or glass of wine – pulling down the wool curtains over his own creative process. “This one’s called Falling No. 71,” he said at one point. “Now, no, I didn’t write 70 other poems about falling – but if I did, imagine how rubbish those other ones would be.”
Jed closed down the show, and though we all knew it was coming, the end felt sudden: Tomorrow, we would all wake up in separate places, for many our own beds, and not feel the pressure or joy of the night’s upcoming gig. It’s a blessing and a curse, both touring and home, but – if you’ll excuse a bit of sappiness – friendships were made, sights were seen, good times were had… and, if there’s a little sadness on the drive home, there’s always next time.