Updated: Jun 11
Image by Martyn Payne
On the flight out to Boston, I watched the film about McDonalds, which portrayed two decent brothers (the McDonalds) setting up a restaurant, which a corrupt salesman saw the potential of and conned them out of ownership before going global.
We arrived into Boston at around 10pm on 21st September Boston-time; the weather was pretty bad for our two-night duration so I was getting a pretty antiquated image of Boston in the gloom although I now learn of its rich history as the birth-place of the American Revolution and have been inspired by the true spirit of America, fought for by the "Loyal Nine" under the Liberty Tree, lead by Samuel Adams.
During my research of the revolution, I discovered an article online by journalist, Ronald Kessler, revealing that "black from soot, the building [on which the plque to represent the Liberty Tree is placed] housed a delicatessen, a billiard parlor, a liquor store, and a hamburger place. The plaque was overshadowed by a billboard adjacent to it depicting a chubby young boy eating a hamburger."
Find the full article here.
Our trip to America was initially enabled by my good friend and colleague, Patrick Moss being accepted to present a paper at the World Canal Confence in Syracuse, NY after being egged-on by me!
Patrick's a town and tansport-planner at Moss Naylor Young with a speciality in waterway regeneration, and his paper was on the topic of "Floating Communities and Flourishing Heritage", envisioning the regeneration of disused canals to create affordable housing, amongst a myriad of the other benefits.
After a grey and rainy entrance into Boston, it was a real pleasure ot discover that Syracuse was unusually hot at nearly 30 degrees celsius, so after a few hours drive up the highway in our air-conditioned upgraded car, with time to listen to some music along the way, we got settled into our Motel and then headed off to attend the open day at the World Canal Conference.
Whilst waiting fot the minibus to take us to the Onondaga Lake visitor centre, we met a really friendly folk-duo called Bells and Motley who invited us to their home for dinner and along the way, guided us to the Camillus Canal Park for a complimentary trip along the Erie Canal followed by a singer/songwriter session in the barn!
Other than a canal museum, Syracuse didnt seem to have much to offer tourists so whilst Patrick attended the conference I tried to find the culture in Syracuse on a Monday morning, and discovered one busker outside a cafe, known by the name of Wes McDuffie (the USA seems to be founded on the Irish and Italians) so we got chatting, jamming and swapped CDs.
No musical connections here but we deduced it was worth the extra 400 miles to get to see one of the seven wonders of the world - and it was!
The sheer exhiliration of the water falling from such a height is a miracle to behold, and luckily it was sunny enough to cause a rainbow AND we got an electric pink sunset - result.
Bethel and Woodstock
Ok so I guess you’re wondering what the Beautiful Soul Tour is, right? Well me too! My theory is that if I surrender my life to “the soul” and wait for the signs, then a great plan will unfold and because life is what we make it, then it does – usually.
And so I had been waiting for the ideas and inspiration to come along but we were travelling at such a fast speed on this trip (because of the underestimated distances and time-constraits) that it was difficult to get into the the fullness of the present moment and let the magic roll…
… but then we discovered the bustling town of Woodstock! It’s really like Glastonbury and was where the festival was supposed to be held but the authorities had the sense to see what was going to happen and said no, so they moved it to the Bethel, about 50 miles away!
We actually headed to the “Bethel Center for the Arts” first, which, as well as having a fantastic auditorium also hosts a museum dedicated to the memory of the festival, and even though I imagine the hippies would not be impressed by the commercialisation, it was very interesting (and the “Back to the Garden” hummus and veg sandwich from the fairly soulless café wasn’t too bad a deal at $7 especially when they lovingly chucked in a packet of crisps!)
So we got to stand on the field where they held the festival and explore the centre where I found myself able to read a lot more than I do in most museums before getting bored; they also showed a half-hour film about the festival which had some very interesting things to say but what most stuck out for me, as an artist, was the passion of the performances at Woodstock, and yes I know they were on acid but I guess it was the protest against the Vietnam war and “society” generally at that time, that was really fuelling them.
One of the comments on the film was that the great legends were making the statement “this is what we’re doing with our lives - what are you going to do?!”
Where lies our passion? What is it we do?
Another comment which rung out for me, as an artist, was that we have to have absolute conviction when striking each note so that, as Jimi Hendrix said, we get people feeling and thinking.
So, anyway, after a tip-off from Bells and Motley, we decided to head on to a place called Saugerties just down the road from Woodstock for the “Garlic Festival”, which was a festival not too dissimilar to ours in the UK, celebrating the harvest of the garlic bulb with some really great live music (including Bells and Motley), food and stalls.
We didn’t get time to explore the town of Saugerties afterwards because I had an idea to go back to Woodstock and sing “Woodstock” so we headed over and then found the “Not so Open Mic” at The Lodge which has been “Keeping Woodstock groovy since 1945!”.
Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
We then headed on to the open mic at the legendary Caffe Lena in the beautifully clean Saratoga Springs which has been offering “good folk since 1960” where we all got two songs each and I played terribly!
Caffe Lena has a modest stage with basic equipment, a room full of tables and a menu offering simple snacks like hummus and bread or home-baked chocolate cookies with milk, no alcohol.
One of the acts that night was a lady called Naomi who shared her terribly sad story of how her daughter had recently died in a car crash so she was singing the 50+ songs that her daughter had written, for her; we were all choked.
After the show, we had a chance to mingle briefly and I connected really well with a few people who actually wanted my CDs despite my performance, which was encouraging!
And then we said our goodbyes and headed back to Albany, where we were staying, with “America” playing loudly on the car stereo…
A Whistle-Stop Tour of New York
OK so NY was more of a research project as I’d missed an opportunity to play on WBAI Radio due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so booked us on to the “Gospel Walk” in Harlem to catch an authentic African-American Christian service at “The Church of the Master” whilst we were in NY.
Their history of being released from slavery rings really true for me about the power of their faith, and they know how to make worship really groovy!
So we took the sunrise “Seastreak” ferry into Manhatten from Atlantic Heights, New Jersey at 7am and besides being a little windy it was a fabulous way to “commute” into the big smoke. The trip took about 40mins and was really enjoyable in the beautiful early morning sun, as it’s still reaching highs of 25-30 degrees here.
We then navigated our way to Harlem for the 10.30am walk and were guided ‘round the sunny streets by a presumably African-American dude called George who gave us a brief tour and history of the local neighbourhood before leading us to the church for a service.
The visiting preacher from New Jersey started his sermon by singing a solo acapella hymn about being grateful for all the Lord gives to him, which was really touching as he had real soul and an impressive aura!
His sermon then went on to challenge the insincerity and untrustworthiness of a lot of Christians before giving a Great Speech about replacing fear-based decisions with faith-based decisions, and got so passionate about it he ended up singing His Truth really intensely to finish off, which although difficult for us to join in with, wasn’t unpleasant and I went away feeling convinced that “the Lord was going to make things go my way” – hallelujah!
We then went on to seek out Greenwich Village and stopped along the way to eat the sandwiches that the church had kindly given us; and mine happened to be classic American peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so all of a sudden I found myself eating PB&J sandwiches in Central Park! And then stumbled across a jazz band by the lake...
Next up was Washington Square Park; the centre of Greenwich Village, which was filled with people relaxing in the sun, reading, hanging out in hammocks and playing chess etc to the backdrop of a another busking jazz band; and then beyond that, there was a really virile water fountain and some kind of Arc de Triumph, which I managed to line up with the sun and caught a rainbow!
We then stopped for some coffee before wondering what to do next and actually came to the conclusion that we should get the sunset ferry back to New Jersey, which was another fabulous idea because not only did we get the sun going down behind the Statue of Liberty...
... we also got the full moon coming up!
And even though I was kicking myself at missing the opportunity to play on WBAI Radio (I need a manager!), I contacted DJ Al Angeloro (my producer's Godfather, no less) and donated 10 CDs to the station in return for promotion, which I'm very pleased to report was a success with all 10 being auctioned off in 1.5hours!!! This really made my work feel valued and the station got funded in return! What a brilliant model for other independent stations and artists to consider!
And what's more - my favourite author, Isla Dewar, then liked one of my tweets to WBAI, which enabled us to get into a bit of banter and she accepted some CDs from me too!
Asbury Park and The JBJ Soul Kitchen
We then wondered how to spend the last day of our trip either exploring Asbury Park (by the sea), which unbeknown to me was the backdrop for the Bruce Springsteen autobiography I was reading, or take the Statue of Liberty boat trip.
I then serendipitously discovered an open mic night at the superdeluxe refurbished Asbury Park hotel that night too so we decided to stay in Asbury Park as it was undergoing very interesting regeneration with a really authentic artsy edge, including a striking rock ‘n roll photography exhibition by a guy called Danny Clinch,
So we spent the very hot day walking along the Victorian promenade, found a shady cafe and relaxed with iced drinks, postcard-writing and lunch until it was time to head back at 3ish.
We then relaxed at the Air B&B for a while before heading over to the JBJ Soul Kitchen in Redbank NJ for some dinner when lo and behold, John Bon Jovi himself turns up(!!!), graciously agreeing to a photo and exchanging a few words.
And then we headed on to Asbury Park for the open mic and an entertaining evening of good music, people and CD sales!
And so that was it (in a nutshell); just a 250mile road-trip back to Boston before taking the flight back to London and back to Frome.
On the flight back, I watched the film about Whitney Houston, which portrayed her decline from gospel diva into drug addict and death, and it took my thoughts back to Harlem and the gospel churches, and my mission to keep hope alive and keep dreaming...