Apologies for the sabbatical length gap between my last post and this one. I know there are a few people who read my blog on a regular basis (well I know 4. You are each equally appreciated, especially you, Mum) who have been wondering when this post was scheduled.
I’ve been on tour with a bigwig, such a bigwig that saying his name elicits sarcastic “ooh, look at you!” jibes from fellow musicians. When tweeting from the tour, it was necessary to add a self conscious *clang* after every mention, such is George Michael’s awesome fame. See, just trying to stealthily slip him in there mid sentence didn’t feel right.
I haven’t done a full on “tour” for ages. I forgot that even when you’re working in the UK, real life is suspended until the tour in question is finished. Your entire body clock, social circle and sense of reality depends on the gig and its location. I packed, wore and purchased solely black garments for a month. Letters were unopened, e mails were unanswered, friends’ texts were unreturned as GM became the centre of my little life, and I wasn’t even on the whole tour. Some of the band have done 67 shows all around Europe. I did a poxy 15 or something, which basically makes me a part timer.
It was my first arena tour, and when it finished, it was surprisingly sad to say goodbye to all involved. A kind of familial warmth exists between people travelling and performing together everyday. A routine of sorts does develop, for instance, identical daily banter with the crew, 14 camomile teas from catering before the show and a carb rich meal afterwards. Between the end of the SYMPHONICA tour (always capitalised, on the merch and now in my head) numbers and the encores, me and GM’s drummer, Mark McLean used to fist-bump, for no reason at all. The final fist bump of the last show was filled with unexpected pathos.
THINGS OF NOTE ON TOUR
In winding corridors backstage of the arenas, past the orchestra dressing room, catering and GM’s quarters, roams a little man with a big personality. Occasionally sporting a hi-vis jacket bearing his name and photo-pass, he skips about, greeting crew members, musos and George’s management with a nuzzle and a knowing look. In the hour or so between dinner and the show, he lies despondent, head on his hairy hands, waiting for the “this is your ten minute call” announcement from the stage manager and for everyone to step into action. Diego is of course, the GM tour dog, belonging to George’s tour manager. This is him:
Diego is like Eddie in Frasier….he steals every scene he’s in. He was the most popular member of the touring company by miles.
2. THE TEAM
On stage with GM were fifty musicians. Backstage were probably about 20 technical crew members, maybe more. To be honest they were often hidden in the dark assembling really complicated rigs, wearing black (shorts, with fleeces and timberland-esque boots) so it was difficult to tell. Those guys are the real heroes of any big tour, as they have to get up in the middle of the night to load into each place, deal with the on-stage demands of 50 fusspot musicians and one global superstar and if anything technical goes wrong, it’s all their fault. The production was really complicated for SYMPHONICA, bearing in my mind we all had monitor mixes and individual mics, not to mention the VTs playing throughout the gig, the lighting, the front of house sound, the backing tracks….we didn’t know the half of it, really. George also had his own band, in the traditional sense - two guitars, two drummers, (one kit player, one percussionist,) upright bass, piano and four backing vocalists also on stage. All those guys did the whole tour, some of them have been with George since Wham and all of them were incredible musicians. Four of the band are from New Yoik and big time jazzers, so often whilst waiting in the soundchecks there would be a what I believe is called a “jam” in such circles between them and the brassers who were also ridiculously talented with formidable CVs. During the rehearsals, our American musical director, Henry Hey (real name. I always imagine an exclamation mark after it) said of the final track, “That jazz flute solo needs to sound more like…..I don’t know, the flutes on ‘Kung Fu Fighting’. You know that sound?” And the saxophonist/flautist Jeff said, “Yes I do. I was the one who recorded it.” Then we all had to do a Wayne’s World style “we are not worthy!” bowing ceremony. You know you’re playing with the big boys when one of them played on Kung Fu Fighting.
The guys that booked us, fed us, paid us, dealt with all the logistics of travel and hotels, train tickets, getting fifty people on stage on time and a mountain of stuff we don’t even know about out, were Paul Spong and Thomas Christian. In addition to being the orchestral manager/fixer, Paul also played the trumpet in all 67 shows. By the end of the tour, I think it’s safe to say they were absolutely knackered. They were troupers, and we showed our appreciation of their work materially with an orchestral whip-round for engraved watches and the like. Their job was deeply stressful. They had to appease an often rebellious fifty piece orchestra, a technical crew and George’s people, at any one time, but they managed to do it without being horrible to anyone or developing a Xanax abuse problem.
There is one gentleman I have to mention individually…..and no, it’s not George Michael. If you saw the SYMPHONICA show, you could not fail to notice the tall yet cherubic harpist, Michal Matejcik. Michal is Slovakian, currently living in Vienna, and is not only a flawless harpist, but a genuine bonafide GM fan. In rehearsals he kept himself to himself, staying quiet, playing beautifully when required, smiling at everybody. So it came as a shock when during the performances, he showed scant regard for orchestral convention by blatantly singing and dancing throughout the entire show. Every night. Sometimes with Jagger-esque finger pointing and yelling in his Eastern European accent. During the encores, which feature George and his band, Michal set the tone by throwing his arms in the air during “Freedom”, which eventually resulted in the entire orchestra doing Mexican waves. At the very end of the show, George sang a beautiful track called “I Remember You”, which featured just him and Michal. It was a tricky bugger for the harp and George pulled the tempos around, stopped to talk to the audience, and on one occasion was interrupted by a tannoy announcement alerting the crowd to the closure of the Piccadilly line. On he played, unfazed, never once making a mistake. He was brilliant. He also made the most of every city we visited. On our third day in London I asked Michal what he’d got up to during the day. “I went to Basildon!” he said excitedly. With respect, I couldn’t help but wonder what lay in Basildon to warrant such enthusiasm. As it turns out, Michal is a massive Depeche Mode fan and has performed their music, on the harp, to other Depeche Mode fans, in big venues all over Europe. On the day in question, he rose early, got on a train to Basildon, the bands’ birthplace, and asked indifferent passers by where he could find Depeche Mode’s high school. He painted a heart-breaking picture, saying to me appalled, “No one knew Depeche Mode! No one could help!” Eventually he sent an email to someone connected to the band who met him and took around their old haunts. He was so excited, it was contagious. Michal ought to be world famous, such is his enthusiasm, talent, and ability to memorise lyrics in a foreign tongue. I miss him already.
[below: Me looking at Michal looking at George]
3. THE AUDIENCES
As a string player, many of the audiences I have played to in my lifetime in churches and town halls have been classical ones. In the UK, particularly provincially, the audiences in question are affectionately known as “the blue rinse brigade.” Aged, repressed, noisily unwrapping Werther’s originals in a the quiet bits and clapping reservedly to show their appreciation. If you’re lucky you might get a “ BRAVO!” or “ENCORE” from a few cavalier audience members, often thanks to the (pre-ordered, naturally) interval glass of house red. If you’re really lucky the audience will leap to its feet and afford you a standing ovation, which is lovely, but rare, what with all the hip replacements. And catheters.
George Michael’s audience was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. For a start they packed out an arena, so they numbered up to 17 000 people a night. Most of the SYMPHONICA 2012 audiences had waited at least 18 months to see George, due to last year’s near fatal bout of pneumonia which led to the cancellation of the UK tour leg. Tickets weren’t cheap, and George was openly amazed that so many people held on to them for so long during a recession.
It’s easy to forget just how mind bogglingly famous George Michael is, when you’re rehearsing with him in a studio. He has been touring, recording and getting into public mischief for thirty years, which is longer than I’ve been alive. (just.) Most session musicians meet prominent figures in the music industry quite often, and after the weird “famous person” thing wears off, after about 5 minutes, it becomes clear that the person you have seen only in magazines and on the television is just a normal person. George Michael is not one of those people. Not that he’s not personable, he is. He just has the kind of stratospheric fame that makes people cry and faint when he strides into the spotlight.
The opening of the SYMPHONICA show was my favourite bit. The orchestra would come on stage, sit behind a red velvety curtain, check our headphones and tune our instruments. Our mics would go live as we began tuning and we’d hear the roar of excitement from thousands of people, which always made me a bit goose-bumpy. After a cue from Henry Hey (!) we’d start playing from behind the curtain, which was manned at the partition by members of the crew, wearing Madonna headsets and looking like bouncers. The roaring increased as they heard George’s voice for the first time, singing the opening lines of “Through”, and then again a few moments later when the light changes and George’s silhouette is projected onto the curtain. Eventually, just when the audience were wondering if George is ever going to come on stage or were they doomed to three hours of looking at his shadow, the curtain opened to reveal George and us, and we would catch our first glimpse of a sold out arena, screaming their lungs out. It made me smile from ear to ear every night. (FYI: top screamy audiences were Cardiff and Liverpool. They spent most of the gig on their feet bellowing. GM was in his element.)
The weird thing about GM fans is they don’t fit a specific demographic. The age group spans from 10 year olds to 65 years olds. There are men and women of every age, class and sexuality bellowing out the lyrics and unashamedly dancing like loons, dressed up to the nines. The cellos were ideally situated on the front row of the orchestra directly behind George, so we could see the expressions on the faces of the people in the audience, and they were honestly transported to another place. Some were crying from start to finish, some of them looked on the verge of cardiac arrest with excitement, some had followed him all over Europe and were wearing MARRY ME GEORGE! T shirts. (If they saw his boyfriend, they would realise what a fool’s errand this was. He is so Adonis-like that people started whispering “Obsession……by Calvin Klein” in his wake as he ambled his way backstage to see George. It was ridiculous.)
The other strange fanomenon was in George. It’s no secret that he has struggled in his personal life with various issues, all of which he is very open about in interviews and also in his lyrics. When addressing the audience he frankly talked about his sexuality, the grief of losing loved ones, his struggle with addiction, his relationship with fame and his recent brush with death. In rehearsals, he is relatively quiet, choosing to sing rather than talk. He tells the odd joke and has some camaraderie with his backing vocalists, one of whom was at school with him, but largely he is focussed on the gig ahead, the lighting, the monitor mixes, getting through the show. Unlike a lot of artists, he has no support act, so he has a marathon of a show to do, vocally speaking. On stage though, in front of thousands of people, he often seemed more comfortable in himself. It sounds trite, but even with the strain of touring and all that that entails, George seemed happiest in the spotlight, singing. He has a fiercely loyal following and you can almost feel the waves of acceptance resonating between him and his fans. They adore him, he adores them, visibly. The SYMPHONICA show was far from a showcase of GM’s greatest hits. There were jazz standards, unexpected covers and a lot of ballad-y type numbers, but the audience went with it, dancing, singing, occasionally throwing bras on stage. You just don’t see that in St John Smith’s Square.