Dispatches from the Monochrome Set’s USA tour, March 2019

Dispatches from the Monochrome Set's USA tour, March 2019

Earlier this month, I was with The Monochrome Set on a whistle-stop tour of the US, taking in no less than nine gigs and three radio sessions on both the East and West Coast.

Travelling with us was the Master o’ the Merchandise, David Mackay, who compiled this wonderful tour diary, with accompanying YouTube music clips:

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 1

Off with those mischievous minstrels, The Monochrome Set on their tour of the US today. On this campaign I will be acting as Bid’s batman – ironing his copy of the Financial Times each morning and delivering it to him on a tray with his boiled egg and soldiers, warming his toilet seat and polishing the family silver.

I will also be put to good use by the rest of the band as groom of the stool, barber surgeon, knocker-upper, gong farmer, water carrier and occasionally selling trinkets to the locals.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit, purely to keep my sanity. As we arrive in New York later today, I’ve chosen Bodega’s fun debut single ‘How Did This Happen’. One of my favourite songs from last year, not in any way original but has New York’s DNA all over it. 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 2

Flight went well into NY, then it all went a bit wrong with nearly a 4 hour wait queuing to get through customs and a sniffer dog leading it’s handler to my bag. Turned out it was just the banana I had in there but a passport was confiscated before an apple and banana were duly handed into the appropriate desk, rock’n’roll, eh?

[See pictures of a snow covered Central park here]

We emerged into the cold but very bright NY afternoon and met up with Gerry, our lovely driver for the East side of the trip with our spacious van.

We hit the rush hour as we drove into Manhattan and as the sun began to set, the midtown skyscrapers flickering in the half-light produced a magical sight. Barnsy and me heading down to Brooklyn to catch the Frida Kahlo exhibition which was not dissimilar to the one in London last year but with a few extra bits and the Brooklyn Museum was nice on the eyes.

The snow is falling outside on a cold NY morning and we head to Boston in a few hours for the first gig of the tour. My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit.

As its Boston today it’s got to be The Modern Lovers, whose proto-punk debut album is an absolute classic for me, songs that celebrate the quotidian with music as economical as possible, what more do you want? 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 3

What a great start to the tour! Boston you’re my home!

Venue was a wonderful old Italian ballroom, everyone involved was extremely nice and helpful, The Set done good, the crowd went wild and the merch stall was busier than the DFS sale.

Bid has brought a collection of his most falling apart pants on tour with him, with the plan of binning them at the end of each day. Andy has suggested he throw them into the crowd during each gig, literally leaving his mark wherever he plays, a sort of reverse Tom Jones if you like.

I didn’t witness a mad scramble followed by a horrified scream from the assembled masses, so I’m guessing it never happened last night but future punters beware.

We left Boston in a pretty substantial snowstorm with the radio on and ‘Roadrunner’ blasting out, arriving in Jersey City in beautiful sunshine 5 and a half hours later.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. As its New Jersey today, I’ve chosen this from the iconic Lauryn Hill’s Misadventures album where she laid down her mark as the soul voice of her generation. Love the idea for this video too, with its split screen between a 1967 and 1998 block party 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 4

WFMU, we love you!! Fantastic night hosted by the wonderful folk at the iconic radio station.

Monty Hall is a class venue and a cold, cold, night with slush and snow everywhere, didn’t stop the crowds turning out for our very own popular beat combo, who duly warmed the cockles of their hearts with their fine songs and cheeky chappy personas.

Mike is pushing hard to change the walk-on track from the usual ‘Naked Jungle’ to ‘The Lambeth Walk’ with the band coming on stage actually doing the Lambeth Walk. This would only enhance the special relationship, I’m sure.

Today we head off to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, famously where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the home of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, immortalized by Sylvester Stallone’s triumphant run up the steps in the film ‘Rocky’.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Today It’s David Bowie’s homage to the Philly sound ‘Young Americans’ 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 5

We took the relatively short drive from New Jersey to Philadelphia, arriving for a radio session at WXPNs beautiful, palatial studios.

The band are getting well into their stride by now and knocked out four tracks with relative ease – ‘The Jet Set Junta’, ‘Oh Yes, I’ll Be In Your Dreams Tonight’, ‘The Ruling Class’ and ‘Mrs Robot’, all sounding fantastic, tight and with a fair bit of swagger about them. Dates of when the tracks will be broadcast will follow on the band’s social media sites, for anyone who is interested.

By the time we headed to PhilaMOCA, the venue for the night, the weather had gone all biblical on our asses, with freezing sleet, snow, probably frogs too, all falling from the heavens and making even walking on the pavement something to be feared.

Despite all of this, the good people of Philly turned out for another special night and gave the band a fantastic reception. I’ve met some incredibly friendly people along the way already, and the merch is doing a fantastic trade, so much so that the tour t shirt stocks are already depleted and we’ve had to arrange for a friend of a friend in Michigan, to knock out an emergency order to be shipped to San Francisco.

Post-gig, I was straight into the warm van ready for my hotel bed, while the silhouettes of Mike and John could be seen disappearing into stormageddon on the hunt for the best bar in town, nothing deters these blokes, they are real troopers! Now on to New York and the prestigious Bowery Ballroom 🙂

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Today we head back to New York so I can’t miss an opportunity to play The Velvets, probably my favourite band of all time, they saw the beauty in bleakness and surely one of the most influential bands ever 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 6

Mike the drummer aka Nelson Paradiddle, has taken control of the van music and eases us out of Philly with a laid-back reggae feel, and into NY with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, timing right on the button, as always.

We arrive in NY early and take a stroll around the Bowery, finding a funky place to eat with a cool south side vibe and great food. I crash for a few hours at the hotel, which supposedly has the best knish bakery in town right next door, so Barnsy stocks up for tomorrow before heading on to her favourite place in the whole world ‘La Sirena’ – a Mexican folk art shop which is heavy on the Frida Kahlo. She spent so big, she can’t bear to look at the receipt herself, let alone share it with me. 🙂

Tonight’s venue is the beautiful Bowery Ballroom, magnificent in its 1920s splendour and considered by many to be the best music venue in NY. The sound is excellent at soundcheck and I set up downstairs in their incredible merch area.

It gets pretty hectic on the stall and I get some much appreciated help from long-time fan Akiko and the bunnies, until the band hit the stage and the masses head upstairs, leaving me on my own to see how far I can get paper planes up the stairs. Occasionally the doors open briefly and I get the concert at full volume and by set end I could tell the joint was really jumpin’.

As the venue turns out I’m once more swamped by locals eager for any trinkets and baubles bearing the band name, and yet again it turns out not only a triumphant night for the band but the merch stall too. I clear up and meet the band upstairs who are buzzing about the whole night. We turn in around 1.30am, setting alarms at 5am for the taxi ride to the airport, where it’s onto Seattle and the West side of the tour, unfortunately just when Mike and Bid had honed their Luigi and Frankie routine to perfection.

It’s farewell to the incredibly kind-hearted Gerry, who has driven us around everywhere and to whom nothing has seemed too much trouble and the wonderful band from Michigan who have supported on the last 3 nights, ‘The Jetbeats’, great bunch of rock’n’rollers with a killer sound and big-hearts 🙂

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Today It’s Seattle so let’s go with Nirvana and ‘Sliver’, mainly because I like the video 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 7

Taking a 6am taxi to JFK after a late night, was like the sword of Damocles hanging over everyone after the triumph of the Bowery gig. As it turned out, there was much beauty to be found in the drive to the airport, as the sun rose over the skyline, the city that famously never sleeps was at least a lot quieter with streams of empty yellow school buses pouring in towards their pick-up points and the bright morning light gleaming off of skyscrapers and the river.

It’s a five and a half hour flight ahead of us but everything runs smoothly at the airport and by the time we approach Seattle, we are treated to the incredible view from the aircraft window of the parade of mountains and the spectacular Mt. Rainier is a striking backdrop to the city itself. We are met by our driver for the West side trip, big-hearted Steve, who has already worked tirelessly promoting the band on social media and who has volunteered to go way beyond the call of duty with some of the drives we are undertaking.

Tonight’s gig is at Barboza, downstairs of the famous Neumos venue on Capitol Hill, a former grunge heaven when it opened in the 90s, and nestling in what seems to be a hip part of town. Maybe it’s the tiredness but personally I’m not expected too much from tonight’s gig as I’m waiting for the doors to open.

As it turns out, I really couldn’t of been more wrong, immediately I have genuinely excited people coming up to me thrilled that they at last have a chance to see the band, and the venue soon fills up with a real buzz about the place.

From the moment the show kicks off with ‘The Monochrome Set’ the crowd are cheering and going wild which continues all the way through until the band finally leave the stage for good after four encores, including ‘Fat Fun’ and a fantastic version of ‘Jacobs Ladder’ with John showcasing his vocal dexterity by doing all of the high and low backing vocals. Everyone agrees that it’s been a very special night, thank you Seattle!

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Today we head to Portland, so I’ve gone for The Dandy Warhols and ‘Bohemian Like You’ supposedly about the Portland scene 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 8

After flying in to the bright sunshine and relative warmth of Seattle yesterday, waking to find a cold and foggy morning was a bit of a surprise and as we head off in the van to Portland, the rain comes down before turning to snow. Apparently, Portland has the same unfounded myth about it as Manchester, that it always rains. Whether there is also an equivalent unfounded myth that everyone of a certain age was at the Sex Pistols Lesser Free Trade Hall gig too, I don’t know.

We briefly drop our gear off at the motel for the night, a glorious old traditional place where you expect to open your door to find it exactly the same as it was in 1942. Actually, the rooms have been recently refurbished and are very comfortable while still retaining that retro feel. Across the street there is a coffee joint advertising bikini girl baristas! Maybe Portland has bikini girl barristers too, so that bikini-clad girls at least have room for career improvement, who knows.

The band are due to do a radio session for X-RAY.fm radio which is also being filmed for broadcast on a YouTube channel, ‘Sessions From The Box’ and is to be recorded at a studio named ‘Destination Universe’ – confusing enough for me and I was there.

Destination Universe promises little from the front, being at the back of someone’s house but inside it’s the most amazing space, the owner is obviously a huge sci-fi fan and it’s literally wall to wall with books and memorabilia.

The people there are very warm and welcoming and the band record four songs before Bid does an interview for Sessions From The Box, which despite his tiredness turns out to be really interesting and probably not what the interviewer was expecting or usually gets. None of this was going out live and details of broadcast dates will be posted on the bands social media for anyone that is interested.

Onto the venue for tonight, The Doug Fir Lounge, a fantastic large space with a spacious stage, done out inside to look like a cabin with huge oversized logs. The support band are The Prids, perennial Portland favourites who are truly impressive and wonderfully friendly people, well worth checking out if you’re not familiar with them. There is a good-sized crowd by the time the boys hit the stage and its another fun night with the band giving it their all to a very responsive audience.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Tomorrow is actually a well needed day off in Redding before we head to San Francisco for Friday’s gig. Here’s a bit of ‘Jacobs Ladder’ for you to be going on with, let’s all sing … 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 9

It’s our day off and everyone gathers to leave Portland refreshed and lively, ready to head off on the long drive to Redding in Northern California, our stopover for the night on our way to Fridays gig in San Francisco.

Along the way we pull into Roseburg looking for food. Barnsy finds us ‘Bluebird Pizza’, a wonderful little place where the owners seem ecstatic to have exotic clientele from way out of town eating at their joint. Great food and an amazing welcome, they take our pic and have us on their Facebook page immediately, Steve quips that we better leave before the Town Mayor turns up.

The journey continues and as we begin to hit a bit of altitude, the scenery and weather change quite dramatically, seemingly rotating from rain to snow to bright sunshine several times in the hour, with areas of deep snow amongst mountain ranges and beautiful redwood forests. Steve shouts to me at the back that after my banana incident coming into the country, I better dispose of any fruit I have as they check at the California border. Initially thinking he is joking, he assures us it’s true and they could pull us over for a full search. In hindsight, slightly over the top panic hits the van as everyone rapidly consumes all the pieces of fruit we own, an errant small orange had rolled under the seat earlier and I’m crawling around on the floor trying to retrieve it, being thrown around as the van takes corners. The irony that most rock’n’roll bands would be doing this with drugs as they approach a border stop, isn’t wasted on us. As it happens, we get a cursory ‘any fresh fruit onboard’ and ‘have a nice day’ at the border booth and drive on feeling slightly ridiculous.

It’s getting late in the afternoon and we hit some seriously amazing scenery, we turn one corner onto a steeply declining mountain road and a stunning vista pans out in front of us, mountains marbled with snow beneath skies with a tinge of a beautiful pink hue, quite breathtaking and an image that stays with you.

We drive through towns whose store names and eateries pay homage to their mining past and you appreciate how lucky you are to be seeing parts of America off of the radar if you’re a tourist.

By the time we are nearing journey end, a ferocious rainstorm hits and there is a point we find ourselves careering at speed down a steep, winding mountain road with visibility almost gone and Steve trying to squeeze past a huge truck on a treacherous bend, while Mike is playing The Smiths via his phone. I gaze over at my wife, thinking this may be it, as the words ‘And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine’ rings around the van.

Thanks to Steve’s amazing driving, we make it and eventually arrive at the wonderful Thunderbird Lodge for the night, another fantastically retro looking motel and once more with great rooms. Andy rushes to the Mexican restaurant next door just as they are closing and persuades them to stay open for us. Great food piled on the plate is a satisfying end to a tiring day. Everyone, except for Mike and John decide they will turn in, the lads heading off for their obligatory sampling of the local bars. Steve warns them that’s it’s redneck territory and English people looking like them, may not be welcome, ‘It’s ok, I’m Welsh and he’s Irish’ states Mike, seemingly assured that problem is solved as they head off into the night.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Today we hit San Francisco, somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit and it’s the perfect excuse for a track by the fabulous Sly and the Family Stone 🙂

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 10

We start our drive from Redding refreshed and in high spirits, first stop is to be a live interview at KXSF Radio in San Francisco mid-afternoon, before hotel check-in and soundcheck at the Rickshaw Stop, tonights venue.

Our first view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to San Francisco, is quite breathtaking, a marvel of modern engineering set in the stunning backdrop of the bay, leaves me vowing to visit this beautifully dynamic metropolis again one day, properly.

Despite traffic hold-ups, Steve gets us to the radio station dead on time, where we are met by 3 very friendly ageing hippie-types. The station is very different to others along the way but certainly equally relevant. It’s a relatively small room crammed with records and cds, old gig posters and stickers for other radio stations festoon the walls, a quite gloriously shambolic affair no doubt run by people completely driven by their love of music.

Bid and Andy take to the mikes for the interview with Bid in a playful mood, stating that when the band tour Europe now they do so by train, as some of them have now reached 60 and they qualify for naked waitress-service when ordering food. This slightly throws the interviewers, not quite getting the humour. They announce a phone-in to win 2 tickets for tonight’s gig and Andy turns to me gesticulating that I phone in.

When Bid mentions the brain aneurysm he suffered several years ago, it’s meets with much laughter from the interviewer who at this point is really struggling with what the British class as humour and what is a life-threatening episode.

We are running quite late by this point which is compounded further by it taking an hour to check-in at the hotel, leaving us very late for sound check and the band only having time for a ‘Scouse shower’ as Manc John puts it.

There are two more interviewers waiting for Bid to see post soundcheck, who he duly despatches once he has charmed them with his patter. I’ve really gotten to appreciate this man’s professionalism on this tour, handling vocals and all guitar parts on stage, always the one having to do the promotional work and despite the obvious tiredness and physical strain of being on the road, never once complaining about it.

The Rickshaw Stop is a great venue and ticket sales have been quite impressive. Ready to take the stage, the band seem a little at odds with all of the unexpected hold ups today but despite this, and occasionally struggling with poor sound, their set is met with great enthusiasm from the large, loud crowd and it’s another fantastic 4 encore night.

It’s gone 1.30am by the time we head back to the hotel. Steve and I have an early start for our long drive to San Diego, while everyone else will be taking a flight (pampered pooches 😉).

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. As tomorrow is San Diego, this Tom Waits classic is a must for my musical choice.

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 11

I turn in at 3.30am and set my alarm for 5.30am in readiness for the epic van journey Steve and I (the Staff) are undertaking to San Diego, complete with band luggage and instruments, while we leave the remainder of the entourage (the jet set) tucked up in bed at last night’s motel (El Rancho) where they will be leaving at 1pm for a San Diego bound flight (private jet, I wouldn’t be surprised!). 😉

The van journey, not surprisingly on this trip, holds some stunning views from the window – as we pass agricultural land, yellow, orange and red splashes of grasshopper fill the windscreen like some sort of macabre pollock-esque artwork, then onto mountain ranges, grandiose canyons, through the urban sprawl of downtown LA and the stunning coastal views as we approach San Diego.

Steve and I talk endlessly about music, cultural differences and just generally put the world to rights and I appreciate as much as the beauty and great music I’ve witnessed on this trip, I’ve also met some incredibly nice people, Steve being one of the best guys you’d wish to meet anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile back at El Rancho, things aren’t going well for the jet set – an important piece of equipment had been left at last nights venue and after desperately trying to raise someone who can let them in to retrieve it, one of the band is despatched in a taxi to pick it up, just making it back in time for the shuttle bus to the airport. No doubt feeling like they could now relax, they arrive to find the flight is delayed by 2 and a half hours, meaning they will be lucky to arrive at the venue before opening time, missing their soundcheck.

When we do rock up at The Soda Bar, tonights venue, it reminds me of the King Georg in Cologne, a large bar area in the middle with space around the outside. I don’t get the impression the crowd are really a Monochrome Set audience apart from the small number of uber fans that have already made themselves known to me, one of them travelling 300 miles for the gig. The band go on and despite the smallest audience of the tour, there is a nice atmosphere with someone even shouting for ‘Milk and Honey’ which impressed Andy no end. There had to be one that wasn’t a classic, so that’s ok. We leave about 1.30am with me struggling to keep my eyes open and the phenomenal Steve still at the wheel. Tomorrow we hit LA and the Echoplex which everyone is telling me is a fantastic venue in a great part of town.

My idea is to play a song each day relating to the city we visit. Tomorrow is the last date of the tour in fantastic LA, so it has to be The Doors with ‘The End’.

Dispatches from the Monochrome Zone. Day 12

Last day of the tour and with the clocks going forward and an early start needed to get to a radio session in LA for KXLU, there are a few bleary eyes in the van.

We arrive at the recording studio for the session, again located in a residential area and not promising too much from the outside but inside it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of equipment, old analogue tape machines nestling amongst the very latest digital stuff. The band knock out the obligatory four songs without breaking sweat and we leave for our hotel.

We check-in and I go for a stroll around on my own, first stop a great record store ‘Stay Sick’ right by the hotel. I’m mightily impressed with the whole Echo Park area, full of retro clothes shops, great eateries and fantastic street art.

[See photos of Echo Park here]

The band are playing tonight at the Echoplex, a large, impressive venue with several stages, very helpful staff and you get the feeling it’s going to be a special night with the band relaxed and determined. The crowd turn out to be everything you could wish for, with many long-time fans having their first opportunity to see them play. They are treated to a wonderful performance from a band tour-end tight and enjoying every minute of the last date.

Yet again the set ends with four encores, the last song of the night and the tour is ‘Jacobs Ladder’, Mike hitting it off with the ‘Ballroom Blitz’ drumbeat and John taking to the mic and duly paying homage with ‘Are you ready Mike?’, ‘Andy?’, ‘Let’s go’. Afterwards, the band spend ages mixing with fans, doing signings, pics and chatting until the venue eventually clears everyone out.

It’s about 1am and we all head for a bar, Steve manages to blag us our own VIP room by saying we are an English rock band who have just finished their tour, and everyone relaxes, savouring what’s been the perfect end to an amazing tour.

Next day before dropping us at the airport Steve offers to take us to the Griffith Observatory with its amazing panoramic views over LA, famously in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. It transpires that John also has a huge interest in astronomy and being a Captain Beefheart fan, with the cover of ‘Clear Spot’ being shot there, it makes it even more of a trip worth taking for him.

Tour over and it’s been an incredible experience with barely a hitch. Knowing how much work she put into arrange it, planning it meticulously and then acting as tour manager while we were over here, a huge amount of praise should go to the force of nature that is Jane Barnes, whom I’m very proud to call my wife.

I’m doing this last dispatch waiting for our flight home, so today’s song is dedicated to our cat, Che, who will no doubt have this running through her tiny little brain as she hears the key in the door Tuesday evening, or maybe not.

Photo of the Author

Meet your faithful scribe, Dave Mackay.

More info

More Monochrome Set info and tour dates on the Facebook page and official site.

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