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Oliver Wakeman Photo

Oliver's Strawbs Canadian Tour 2009

As is traditional following a tour or album release I am going to write a little bit about my recent trip to Canada for the Strawbs concerts.

I was delighted to be asked to do this tour as I have been an admirer of the Strawbs music for quite some ('From the Witchwood' is still one of my favourite albums). Dave Cousins had approached me to perform with them before the 'In The Present' - 'Yes' tour was finalised and I was always positive about being able to do the tour providing it didn't clash with the 'In the Present' one.

As the time approached and the final dates were organised it turned out that the In the Present tour was due to finish on the 3rd March in California and the Strawbs one would start on the 5th in Moncton, Nova Scotia, Canada. With a lot of juggling and arranging of flights it looked as if I would be able to get to the start of the tour on time!

As we had now worked out that I would be able to be in Canada for the start of the tour we knew that rehearsals were going to be difficult to achieve because of everyone's schedule. In the end, the best we could organise were a few acoustic run throughs of the songs for me to familiarise myself with the way they were structured.

Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and I therefore met up on a few occasions to play through a few of the songs on a piano and acoustic guitar at a little pub in Bourton on the Water near to where I live. They went very well but I knew that it wasn't the same as playing with Rod the drummer, a proper keyboard rig, correct keyboard sounds and full amplification. That would have to wait until we met up with Rod and we weren't quite sure when that would be...

Oliver and the Strawbs

As planned I went off on the 2nd leg of the 'In the Present' tour with the guys from Yes. Unfortunately due to Chris having to have an emergency operation on his leg this tour was cancelled after we had only performed the show in Mexico City.

I arrived back in the UK much earlier than expected and, in between organising other bits and pieces, started to play through some of the Strawbs pieces. I had lots of ideas about how to approach the songs but I was also quite aware that the songs are loved by thousands of fans and I didn't want to stray too far from the album versions in case it caused a problem.

Also I didn't want to turn up for the first show and everyone look at me as if to say 'what the hell are you playing....?'.

I felt it was therefore best to phone Dave Cousins and ask him what the rules were for the songs. His answer was basically, 'Strawbs and the songs are very organic, people bring their own personalities to the pieces and that is what keeps them fresh'.

Oliver on Stage

So I now felt particularly comfortable and decided to approach the songs in that way. Although I did feel that there were many occasions where it wouldn't be right to amend things and sticking to the original arrangements was the only option. It was great fun to do as I was able to have the best of both worlds, playing great songs but being able add some of my own personality into them as well.

So the 3rd of March arrived and I was now able to travel with the rest of the band from the UK as opposed to the cross country trek across the States which was my original plan.

I arrived at Chas' house at about 7 in the morning and after a coffee met up with Neil (the tour manager) and Paul (front of house sound) and started to load gear into the taxis on our way to Heathrow.

The flight was on schedule and we departed on time, arriving in Halifax about 7 hours later and, because of the time zones crossed, about 2 hours later than when we left. After a bit of time getting through immigration and security, we prepared for the drive to Moncton which should take about 2 1/2 hours. The first thing we noticed was just how cold it had become. I remember that it was about -14 C with a another percentage as a wind chill factor. Colder than the UK anyway!

We arrived in Moncton and had a day to ourselves before the show. We decided to make the most of the time and tried to organise a quick run through as we were all together. The best we could do was using the meeting room in the hotel. Luckily, in this meeting room was a lovely grand piano......which I wasn't allowed to use in case it disturbed any of the conferences going on in the building. So we were still having to rehearse acoustically with two keyboards.

At this point I should point out that we were hiring some equipment for the various shows. One of the things we were hiring were keyboard stands but for this impromptu rehearsal we didn't have them.

I remember in my early days of being a young musician, I was not able to afford proper stands and so for rehearsals I used to use ironing boards. Luckily, our hotel rooms were all equiped with ironing boards and so we snuck them out of the rooms and put them to good use.....

It then turned out that the power transformer we used to allow one of the keyboards to use Canadian electricty (which is a different voltage to the UK) had decided to break, completely. So no power for the keyboard and just one acoustic guitar, an unamplified bass and Rod. Ah, a drum kit at least you might think. But no - Rod used an upturned bin and tapped his way through.

So we were working out how we were going to rehearse and we decided to just get on with it. The other guys would play through quietly and Rod and I would get used to the arrangements, making notes together.

Oliver on stage

As we were about to start an elderly gentleman walked in and said 'Afternoon gents. Rehearsing eh...? Don't worry I won't disturb you.' Fair enough we thought and carried on playing through quietly. In the background, the elderly gentleman walked over to the Grand piano, opened the lid and proceeded to play about 15 minutes of Jazz......!

We all sat there in slight disbelief and trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. After a while he went away and we carried on thinking to ourselves, 'he's going to get us thrown out as we've been asked not to play it...'.

We were running short on time and Neil and Paul had gone to buy new transformers so we decided to carry on. At which point the gentleman returned for another go, this time with a photographer in tow. Half an hour later, after he had finished, we decided to have another go at rehearsing at which point the door opened again and a hotel official turned up. I immediately thought 'he's going to chuck us out for making noise on the piano', even though it wasn't me playing it. He said, 'Rehearsing eh? Why don't you use the piano?'. Apparently we could have used it all along!!

So I was as happy as could be because, as I'm sure you are aware, an acoustic Grand Piano is much louder than an unplugged Bass guitar, 12 string acoustic guitar and an upturned bin being tapped......! We were finally able to have a run through with all 5 of us together and after charting out all the songs and returning the ironing boards to their rightful homes, we finished for the day.

It really does have to go down as one of the more amusing rehearsals I've been involved with!

The day of the first show arrived and we arrived nice and early for sound check. After we had set up the keyboard rig and the drum kit we were in a position to play through the songs together for the first time as a proper amplified band! It sounded pretty good and all held together quite nicely. The show arrived and I just remember it being tremendous fun. All the guys played really well and it was lovely to have become part of the Strawbs history.

Oliver on stage

We followed this show with one in Montreal where I got to meet up with Benoit David (the singer from the 'In the Present' tour) and we got to hang out for a while which was great especially after the 2nd leg of that tour got cut short. Then we headed to Wakefield which was unbelievably beautiful and so relaxing, especially after the hussle and bustle of Montreal. Both shows went very well and were sold out.

We then moved on to Belleville which I remember was probably the coldest day we had on the tour. -20 C with a another 10 degrees colder with the wind chill factor taken into account. This of course was the day that Rod and I chose to go out taking photographs of the frozen lake! We both got so cold that after a while we had to get back to the hotel to get some warmth back. Photos looked good though!

Oliver on stage

We then headed to Toronto for a sold out two night stint at Hughs Room. It was great being back in Toronto as I got to meet up with my good friend Dimo Safari. Dimo was responsible for the Yes 'In the Present' promotional photographs as well as having worked with Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones amongst others.

Rod and I had a great time hanging out with him and he showed us lots of the great places to see in Toronto. Both shows in Toronto were really enjoyable and thanks to Kim Mitchell of the radio station Q107 for plugging us on his show! Kim turned up for one of the shows with Terry Brown who was the record producer of, amongst others, Rush's 2112, Hemispheres (two of my favourite albums!) and their hit single 'Spirit of Radio'.

Oliver with Terry Brown

We then moved on to Oakville which I will always remember because whilst setting up the keyboards the stand collapsed onto my right hand and boy did it hurt! After a couple of cold compresses, a few hours rest and some painkillers I was okay to go on stage and luckily we all had a great show.

For the last show of the tour we were booked into the Hamilton Place Theatre in Hamilton. I was particularly looking forward to this show as Hamilton was where I spent 2 1/2 weeks last year rehearsing with the guys from Yes and so I was very familiar with the city. We also rehearsed in the theatre a few times with Yes when we were experimenting with stage layouts. I also remembered that there was a lovely Yamaha grand piano hidden behind the stage and I am extremely grateful to the venue for letting me use it for the show.

Oliver with keyboards taken from above

For the last show of the tour we were booked into the Hamilton Place Theatre in Hamilton. I was particularly looking forward to this show as Hamilton was where I spent 2 1/2 weeks last year rehearsing with the guys from Yes and so I was very familiar with the city. We also rehearsed in the theatre a few times with Yes when we were experimenting with stage layouts. I also remembered that there was a lovely Yamaha grand piano hidden behind the stage and I am extremely grateful to the venue for letting me use it for the show.

It was lovely to have a keyboard rig that included a Yamaha Grand! It really did make the difference to songs such as 'Autumn' and 'Tell Me What You See In Me'. It was one of my favourite nights of the tour, although having said that, each show was special in its own way. I must also say how much of a pleasure it was meeting so many of the Strawbs fans who had come to the shows.

So, with all the shows completed, our trip to Canada had come to an end. All there was left to do was prepare to head home. We were due to fly from Toronto at 7 in the evening which would mean we would arrive back in the UK at about 6.30 in the morning.

That was the plan. Well the plan until when we checked in when I was put on standby as the airline had over sold the flight.

The bottom line was that everyone else got on the plane and I was bumped off and told I might be at the airport for up to a week. Sterling work by Neil and Dave Cousins in the complaining department but it didn't do any good. I was going to have to stay. I did manage to get on the midnight flight and I arrived back in London absolutely shattered at about midday on the Saturday. At least I was home!

All in all, even with the delays at the airports, I can honestly say I really enjoyed my trip to Canada and performing with the Strawbs was an absolute pleasure. I am now looking forward to the work for the new album and to the UK tour. Plenty to look forward to and to keep me busy!

Oliver Wakeman
March 2009

For photo credits please see the photo album pages. Strawbs tour reviews courtesy of the Strawbs Website.

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