We've all had one of those nights, be it a party or, in this case, a gig, where the whole affair is punctuated by a series of bizarre incidents, when you can't predict what else is going to happen but know that something definitely will, with alcohol usually the culprit. I had such a quintessential one of these last Saturday that I had to relate it in a blog post for posterity.
It all began with the suggestion from my 60s music-loving mate Pete that we go and see 'Cosmic Charlies' at Fiddler's Elbow in Camden, the band being "Europe's premier Grateful Dead tribute" est. 1988, and the venue a dive pub near Chalk Farm Station, in its own words "a classic, no-nonsense, retro live music venue".
What made this an attractive proposition is that Pete is a proper 'Deadhead', having seen the real deal a couple times in the 60s & 70s, and he rated the Charlies - had even bumped into fellow Deadheads at their shows who were at the same concerts fifty years ago. So for me, having listened to a lot of Grateful Dead over the years and knowing that it was more about the 'live experience' with them, this would be the closest I could get to it, surely.
After roping in mutual muso mate Gordon, 10 years older than me and 20 younger than Pete, and equally beguiled by the Dead's legacy, we assembled in nearby retro bar Joe's for pre-beers, where Pete primed us by waxing nostalgic on the quasi-religious communal experience of the Dead's often 7-hour sets, plus how he once climbed up the scaffolding tower at one of the big outdoor shows while off his face before remembering that he hated heights and couldn't work out how to get down. Tonight would have a lot to live up to.
The gig venue was exactly how I'd envisioned it: rough and ready, walls emblazoned with vintage music posters and vinyl, battered Chesterfield sofa in the corner. After handing over the £10 door charge we were branded with a large brown stamp which made our hands look like they'd been badly scalded. When I asked at the bar what wine they had - "red or white mate" was the brusque reply, but it was Pete & Gord on the vino while I was pleased to find they sold the much more fitting Iron Maiden Trooper beer by the bottle.
We had fortuitously arrived just as the Charlies (*named after a song from the Dead's 1969 album Aoxomoxoa) were taking to the stage, and all were ready to go except lead guitarist and band leader Brian Kenneally, who was on his knees aggressively fiddling with his assemblage of effects pedals. This went on for some time, during which I couldn't help notice that the other, much younger guitarist had his pedals neatly arranged in a square box, all good to go, while Brian's were strewn around the floor, which surely had contributed to this late flurry of faffing. The tone of Brian's turbulent evening had been set.
What I did have a slight issue with was the positioning of the keyboardist centre stage with a lyric/music sheet stand which he stared raptly at throughout, which not only looked uncool but obscured the view of the drummer. I was beginning to sense also that they wouldn’t be playing my favourite Dead tune – one of my all-time favourites of any artist – called Touch of Grey. Released in 1987, it was the band's only hit single: a paean to getting old, lyrics penned by their guitarist Robert Hunter (a descendant of Scottish poet Robert Burns), and one of my earliest music memories, from the late-80s MTV era when they actually played music videos (the band were memorably portrayed by skeletons in theirs). However I learnt decades later that most diehard Deadheads never took kindly to younger whippersnapper fans like myself who had bandwagonned on the back of Touch of Grey’s crossover success (we are known as 'Touchheads' to them).
To be fair, I can kind of empathise with their antipathy towards us Johnny-come-latelys, and so can only apologise for clambering aboard not long before frontman Jerry Garcia ungratefully snuffed in 1995. But for tonight in Camden 25 years later, I would've given anything to behold in my boozy haze the song being performed by this well-drilled tribute outfit. When the intermission arrived and they came out to mingle I grabbed my chance.
The bearded bassist looked the friendliest so I nabbed him as soon as he alighted from the stage. Annoyingly I had instant competition from one of the groupies so had to content with a three-way confab about the show so far before I slipped in the enquiry do they ever play Touch of Grey? Groupie chick upon hearing this widens her eyes, covers her mouth and steps back saying “I can’t believe you just asked that!”. This was obvs a heinous crime even in the tribute-act community. Thankfully the bassist responded a bit more gracefully, shooting a frown at drama queen before explaining that yes, they have played it before, but the main reason they wouldn’t tonight is that their new guitarist hadn’t yet learnt the chords.
Gladdened that this had been pre-discussed by the band, at odds with groupie's reaction, as of course they’d be playing not only to hardcore Deadheads but to some cheeky Touchheads too, I was still disappointed that new boy couldn't at least play along, them being a homage to the most famous improvisational jam band in history.
I grabbed the keyboardist for a second opinion, asking the same question as if I hadn’t already just done so, and heard likewise - he’d love to play the song but the newbie hadn't yet nailed it. What’s newbie’s name out of interest? I asked. Awkward pause, then: “I’m really sorry but I can’t actually remember?”, with a look of cringe that he’d been defeated by this line of questioning. He then 'spotted' someone and hastened away.
Bemused by this exchange I go to find Pete & Gord, but can't see them anywhere. While rolling a cig in the smoking yard I hear raised voices on the street but think nothing of it. Moments later I get a text from Pete saying "outside!" so duly hasten outside to find a small crowd of punters on the pavement, including one of the Deadheads I'd earlier seen swaying blissfully to the band, but now in a state of angry agitation. Pete grabs me and fills me in: matey here had got into an aggressive altercation inside with none other than Brian the band leader, over Brexit, with the pair having to be pulled apart, Brian bellowing "the EU are fascists!", before the fan was ejected by the bouncers.
It's not clear how it began, or why exactly matey had copped it (I guess they couldn't throw out the band leader during the intermission). He had calmed down now though, and seemed happy enough that he'd had his £10 refunded. He invited us back to his flat in Finchley to "listen to some proper Dead and smoke some homegrown", but we politely declined. Of far greater interest now was how the Charlies' second set would unfold, after Brian's little political fracas. As Pete mused to me while we retook our positions, what the hell was the revivalist of a hippy institution doing screaming UKIP slogans outside his own gig venue?
And then the crowning moment of weirdness occurred: Brian just suddenly stopped playing mid-song and stormed offstage, past us lot and through a door into the back of the pub, while the flummoxed-looking band played on. And he was gone for ages, no one quite sure what was occurring - had he spotted another 'Remoaner' in the crowd? Or had he suffered a moment of crisis which I'm sure many tribute act members must experience while playing the same old covers to another heckling dive-pub rabble.
And I say 'heckling' because by this stage I'd reached sloshed-and-wanting-answers mode, exclaiming my displeasure at this development when the band had finished the track and still no sign of Brian - I'd paid my ten pounds by Jerry Garcia's beard. "Where's Brian!?" "Release Brian!" "I demand a pro-rata refund!". Pete was now telling me to pipe down, while Gordon implored me not to encourage him back because the band sounded better without him? That was beside the point to me - if James Hetfield just randomly bailed mid-gig you would rightly feel a bit short-changed.
The rest of the performance went to pot after that to my ears, with bum notes, a drop in tempo, and Brian looking even more like he just wanted to get home to his Daily Mail. The night had also got to that messy, desultory stage where we'd wander off separately then lose each other; at one point I found Gordon in the rear bar area but we were then accosted by a yammering twenty-something in late-stage stimulant frenzy, who followed us into the smoking yard doing maniacal "Get to the chopper!" Arnie impressions, then Pete unwittingly opened the door and was immediately set upon.
It was swiftly decided to call time on this psychedelic extravaganza, instigator Pete the first out, Gordon and I following shortly afterwards but boarding the wrong tube going in the wrong direction, only realising four stops later. Amazing what nights like these can do to intelligent men's brains. I woke the next morning on his living room floor with a killer headache and ashtray mouth so rank that I this week took the plunge and bought my first vaper, report to follow.
So just to conclude, should anyone from Cosmic Charlies happen to read this: if you play Touch of Grey at your next London gig, all will be forgiven. I'd be happy to sing and/or play guitar if your mysterious new lad still hasn't nailed the chords. And if Brian wants to discuss the merits of leaving the EU again during the intermission, tell him not to be such a knobhead. At least wait til afterwards.
*POSTSCRIPT: By sad coincidence, Robert Hunter - writer of Touch of Grey - died three months after this blog post.
Also, a former member of the band has got in touch below, in the comments section. Apparently this gig turned out to be the Cosmic Charlies' last! I can't say I'm particularly surprised.